India's elections through the looking glass

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Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Tanmay Misra
Tanmay Misra

Europe-India relations consultant and former attaché to the 13th EU-India Summit

“For some minutes Alice stood without speaking, looking out in all directions over the country—and a most curious country it was.”

–    Through the Looking-Glass, Lewis Carroll

“India’s most important election in decades is looming. Here’s what you need to know”, reads the title of a recent CNN article. The news story’s sections are subtitled “Who can vote?” “Who’s running?” “How is the prime minister elected?” and so on. Yet, curiously, it’s not clear from the article what precisely makes the 2019 Indian general election so consequential.

However, right in the first sentence of the article rests the answer to this question: “Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) [are] facing what looks like an increasingly close contest”.

‘Hindu nationalist.’ What function is the phrase meant to serve? What are readers in Europe and elsewhere meant to think about ‘Hindu nationalism’?

If one follows this phrase across foreign coverage of the Indian election, its trajectory suggests a trend. Observers worldwide have seized on ‘Hindu nationalist’ as a descriptor for the BJP. As Milan Vaishnav, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, states: “The BJP … believes that Hinduism and Indian national identity are more or less synonymous…The BJP makes no bones about its belief that it principally serves the interests of Hindus”.

Many European and American publications go even further, describing what they see as Modi and his party’s repression of various minorities, erosion of democratic institutions, middling economic gains and propensity for authoritarianism.

Communal strife and economic difficulties seem to be the new normal

Despite this renewed interest in Modi, allegations of communalism against him or the BJP are nothing new. Several years ago, when Modi was serving as the Chief Minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, he was informally boycotted by several EU governments and the United States for his alleged role in the 2002 Gujarat riots that left over 1,000 Indians—mostly Muslim— dead. When it became clear that Modi could become Prime Minister, however, the boycott was lifted. 

Following Modi’s victory, then EU Ambassador João Cravinho was asked how he would “rate him as a leader of India.” Mr. Cravinho stated Modi “would not allow any communal tensions in India” and instead pursue meaningful economic growth.  Yet today, on both accounts, the thrust of the foreign coverage paints a different picture: communal strife and economic difficulties seem to be the new normal.

Indeed, elections are opportune times for outside observers to reflect on what may be at stake for them as political developments in the country unfold. A 2019 American intelligence report, for example, contained a revealing paragraph titled ‘Indian Elections and Ethnic Tensions’. Therein high-level US officials expressed concerns about the “possibility of communal violence” if the BJP “stresses Hindu nationalist themes” in the election. The report states that “BJP policies” could lead to “communal clashes” that “could alienate Indian Muslims and allow Islamist terrorist groups in India to expand their influence”. 

In the report, it is remarkable to see continuity between “BJP policies” “communal violence” and that phrase again: “Hindu nationalist.” But if the BJP is simply a Hindu nationalist party, then axiomatically would it not run precisely a Hindu nationalist campaign, one inseparably intertwined with the possibility of communal violence?  Is it just that a lesser degree of Hindu nationalism may be acceptable for European or American partners, albeit regrettable? Is Modi a step too far but Atal Bihari Vajpayee, India’s first and only other Prime Minister from the BJP, against whom charges of communalism were not so stark, permissible?  

If moderation is what is at stake in this election, one must consider Kanchan Chandra’s assessment that: “Vajpayee is often held up as an exemplar of moderate Hindu nationalism, especially in contrast to the current prime minister, Narendra Modi, who espouses a more strident ideology”.  But tellingly, Chandra concludes by explaining that “only the emergence of even more extreme versions of Hindu nationalism allowed Vajpayee’s position to come across as middle-of-the-road”. 

India, as seen through Europe’s looking glass, appears to be in crisis

The value of so-called ideological moderation may therefore do little to assuage the concerns of foreign onlookers ahead of the 2019 election. Moderation in the Hindu nationalist cause itself appears to have the function – unintentional or otherwise – of paving the way for greater ideological strides. Not incidentally, Chandra’s article is titled ‘The Triumph of Hindu Majoritarianism’. The article’s subtitle ‘A Requiem for an Old Idea of India’, evokes the idea of “an imagined secular, pluralist, polity that belonged to all Indians and not to any one group”. 

Given this optimism, is the BJP so thoroughly tainted? Optimistically, the idealistic observer of the Indian election could wonder whether there is a version of Hindu nationalism or the BJP that does not inspire the possibility of communal violence. What kind of steadfast courage might it take to sustain such a view, to render moot all depictions of Hindu nationalism and the BJP, whose portrayal in diverse American and European publications, as well as the Indian opposition, does not hold out for such a possibility? 

For this reason, India, as seen through Europe’s looking glass, appears to be in crisis. Europe would do well to gauge the extent of their investment in Indian pluralism and secularism. Shared values of democracy and human rights, which many claim are the bedrock of the EU-India partnership, are not the only things at stake. An environment conducive for greater economic cooperation under an EU-India trade deal is also in jeopardy. The economic, political and social atmosphere that would be created by a Hindu nationalist administration may not be able to foster and sustain such an intimate international partnership. 

Ultimately, it is not only the domestic electorate but also those abroad who will shape India’s vision for its future. After all, through the looking glass, Europe may see its own reflection in India—that of the attempt to forge an inclusive community among diverse groups, an attempt being thwarted, and whose fate is up for grabs. 

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