By Devesh Rasgotra for Global Risk Insights
Intolerance is not a new phenomenon within India. Neither are religious discrimination, religious extremism or gender bias. However, the issue of intolerance has come to the forefront of the consciousness of India since Narendra Modi’s BJP Party swept to victory in the general election of 2014.
The BJP Party has been associated with Hindu nationalism and this right-wing element of the party is largely responsible for the increased levels of religious intolerance occurring in India.
We have seen Muslims being murdered for storing beef, scholars and public speakers being chastised for their intellectual views, and BJP politicians calling for Hindus to choose between fighting Muslims and fighting poverty.
Modi’s government must confront this intolerance on a moral, social, and economic basis in order to reduce the potential detrimental long-term impact of such rhetoric.
The image of the country
India is in a unique position whereby it is viewed by the West as a vital ally in a volatile region. Its neighbor, Pakistan, is seen as unstable and constantly preoccupied with domestic issues that restrict economic growth. Its other neighbour, China, is continuing its growth although questions still remain about its values and human rights.
India is therefore seen as a country that is growing rapidly on the platform of free market and freedom of speech. It shares the Western values of democracy and diversity. However, the rise of intolerance within the country is clouding that positive image.
India is an attractive destination for economic investment as it has a population that is diverse in its skills. Yet, with Hindu nationalists curtailing the freedom of those who do not share their ideology that rich diversity is reduced and negatively impacts businesses and investment.
India’s image should be that of a rapidly developing country which has embraced the ideology of democracy and freedom. The rising intolerance against religious groups and intellectuals stifles debate and progress, which in turn may create an element of doubt over the true identity of India.
If the image of the country is negatively impacted then there will be subsequent effects on economic growth. We have seen Moody’s Analytics call for Modi to rein in and tone down the rhetoric from Hindu nationalists. This is because the credibility of India’s financial sector would be aversely affected.
The Reserve Bank of India Governor, Raghuram Rajan, also weighed in by arguing that the tradition of debate and spirit of enquiry is what got India on the road to development in the first place.
What is unique about this is that more and more individuals from the economic sector are now voicing their opinion about the intolerance in India. There is an increased understanding that the image of intolerance will only hurt India’s economy, in terms of investment and trade, in the long term.
Modi’s government has also been criticised for failing to deliver economic reforms that would create more social development programs. The issue at hand is that many of the Hindu nationalist groups of the BJP party view Modi’s progression as Prime Minister in terms of how much India is moving towards Hindu nationalism, rather than focusing on overarching issues of poverty and economic growth.
An increasing number of people from the world of literature, media, entertainment, science and finance have come forward to criticise the growing intolerance in India. Many of whom have returned their national awards of recognition in protest.
The difficulty is that the government has not put out a strong statement against intolerance and in particular that of the religious discrimination. In fact, Modi has denounced those who say that intolerance is rising.
Modi was elected prime minister by traditional Hindu supporters who wanted a harder line taken against other groups, but also by the country’s increasingly large youth population who saw him as the individual to lead India into more economic prosperity.
Modi’s government must understand that reputation is important. It is said that he is awaiting results from the recent state elections in Bihar before he moves to isolate the ideologues in his party. One would hope he acts soon as rising intolerance, if it not curtailed, will adversely impact both the political and economic system.