The Interplay of Secularism and Socialism in Modern Indian Politics (1947-2014)
This paper argues that the victory of the Hindu right in the 2014 national election has less to do with religion than with economic disenchantment of socialist ideals espoused by the framers of the Indian state. Instead, Narendra Modi’s victory in becoming Prime Minister marks an overthrow of entrenched elites and existing order. Since India’s Independence from Britain, elites utilized the principles of secularism and socialism to advance economically debilitating corrupt political agendas. The public sentiments’ departure from these two principles is marked by (1) the rise of the Hindu right; (2) the fall of the Nehru-Gandhi family in politics; (3) the economic reform of ‘License Raj’ policies; and (4) the election of Narendra Modi in 2014. The interplay of secularism and economic socialism throughout independent India proves that the political ascent of the anti-secular Hindu right implies widespread economic frustration rather than a populist wave against religious and social liberties.
On May 17, 2014, Narendra Modi led the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies to the 300 parliamentary seats required to declare a majority electoral victory of India’s highest governing body (Gupta, 2014). Far from an ordinary election, this victory marked the tipping point of a long-brewing political revolution—one whose origins can be traced back to India’s post-colonial independence from the British Raj in 1947.
The socialist and secular principles of the Indian state originated from the framers of the Indian Constitution, which laid the foundation of the democratic state. Though the framers had benevolent intentions, weak economic and political institutions lacked the power to protect the sanctity of their goals. The implementation of a secular agenda has often served vote-mongering, while socialism has bred widespread corruption. Public sentiment toward secularism and socialism, according to voting records, have thus moved in tandem with Indian politics, and the electorate’s expression of economic frustration has propelled anti-secular political movements. In the context of India, an anti-secular agenda includes the promotion of policies that favored the Hindu population in place of the special attention to minorities that ruling parties historically administered. Modi captures both economic and social sentiments as the most market-oriented (anti-socialist) and openly Hindu (anti-secular) Prime Minster to date.
By analyzing the strategies of framers Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, the rule of Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, corruption throughout the Indian government and its effects on government policies, and ultimately the rise of the BJP, this paper will demonstrate the link between economic strife and social upheaval and how the two coalesced into Modi’s 2014 landmark victory after a troubling past in Gujarat. For a country founded so deeply in anti-sectarianism and minority inclusion—despite an overwhelming Hindu majority in population—how did this fall to Hindu nationalist forces? The rise of the Hindu right illustrates a populist backlash against political and economic corruption rather than a religious revival or a reflection of majoritarian interests presiding over pluralism.
Secularism: The Indian Model
Standing in Harmandir Sahib—the Golden Temple, the most sacred prayer ground for Sikhs around the world—one can hear the echoing loudspeaker of a nearby masjid(mosque) announcing Islamic prayers. This occurs five times a day, as the two places of worship coexist in harmony alongside Hindu temples in the city of Amritsar, Punjab. A similar scene of peaceful co-existence holds true throughout the Indian sub-continent from the everyday lives of the people up to the highest political institutions. The nation has sought to actively encourage religious diversity and sanctity of minorities in a majority Hindu state through national government since its formation.
On August 15, 1947, India formally declared independence from its British colonial rulers. The two champions of the independence movement, Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, created the foundational political, economic, and social principles of their new nation. Among their concerns were the battered state of the economy, multiethnic and multi-faith population, widespread inequality, and varying levels of regional economic development.
The nation they inherited housed three hundred million people speaking over one thousand languages, practicing six major religions, with historical ties throughout Asia. The Hindu majority represented 84% per the 1951 Census (Government of India). The India facing Nehru and Gandhi bled with the pain of Partition and dire poverty across all regions. Regardless, the Indian Constitution extended universal suffrage as a birthright for all Indian adults. In terms of personal and political freedoms, the framers instituted a constitutional republic and liberal democracy from their nation’s birth (Center for Civil Society).
To address the social heterogeneity of India, especially in the wake of partition with Pakistan and ensuing religious violence, Nehru strongly advocated for political secularism to preside over India’s overwhelmingly plural population. Gandhi and Nehru’s claims to secular political thought originated back in the independence movement, with Gandhi’s campaigns of mass civil disobedience and solidarity against India’s British captors. These campaigns championed the Indian people’s ability to overcome sectarian divisions in organization for collective action toward a common goal against their imperialists (Kesavan, 62). To rally the nation behind a single identity, the framers of the Indian state often utilized rhetoric emphasizing the crippling de-industrialization and extortionate taxation undercutting agricultural prosperity. Thus, instead of focusing on language, culture, history, and religion, the framers stressed common economic exploitation. The common suffering provided a basis of economic nationalism that transcended social divisions, resulting in a truly secular sense of patriotism (63).
At the nation’s founding, the Indian social identity was closely linked with its economic one. Despite great diversity in ethnicity and religion, the people shared a common history of economic exploitation against an outside enemy: the British Raj. Under that front, Nehru and Gandhi united the assorted shades of Indian demographics under their version of secularism—not removal of religion from political affairs, but rather the inclusion of all groups wanting representation and expression including and not limited to the majority religion, Hinduism. The Indian brand of secularism, therefore, did not mean the exclusion of religion but the opposite.
Thus, the Indian National Congress, the political party of Nehru, Gandhi, and all major Prime Ministers until 1977, consciously integrated its largely Hindu ranks with minorities, including Muslims, Christians, Dalits, Parsees, and Sikhs. Congress believed that this diversity legitimized its stake to rule the eclectic nation as a sum of its parts (Kesavan, 63). To avoid a majoritarian governance structure, promotion of pluralism demanded utmost importance in the Nehru government. The steadfast commitment to include various types of Indians within Congress became the guideline of nationalism. India’s foundational social identity as set by Gandhi and Nehru already derived itself from a common economic identity of exploitation. This would ring true decades later again, though from a domestic entity rather than post-colonial one.
To legitimize his pluralist and secular republic, Nehru endorsed his system as “postcolonial modernization,” bringing India out of the antiquated rule of the Raj into modern governance on a global stage (Kesavan, 64). Initially designed to present a united India opposite the British Raj, Gandhi and Nehru wrote Congress’ brand of secularism into the Constitution to solidify their ideals in the future governance of their new nation. Article 44, which became the basis for applying secularism to law, states that “the State shall endeavor to secure for the citizens a uniform civil code throughout the territory of India” (Erckel). This assured religious minorities of their political rights to practice and propagate their faiths, establish educational institutions entitled to state subsidies, and actively participate in public office (Kesavan, 63-64).
Far from prioritizing Hindu customs and way of life, promotion of religious minorities was built into the fabric of India’s political birth itself “subject to public order, morality, and health” (Ganguly, 13). Article 25 of the Constitution reiterates that nothing should ‘‘prevent the State from making any law… providing for social welfare and reform or the throwing open of Hindu religious institutions of a public character to all classes and sections of Hindus’’. In fact, the Indian Constitution’s intervention in and reform of religious practices reflect a commitment to social justice at the expense of Hinduism (Jacobsohn, 153). For example, Article 17 abolishes the institution of caste-based “untouchability”, and Article 46 protects these classes denoted “Scheduled Tribes” from the continuation of social injustice. Jacobsohn argues that the Indian model of positive secularism includes a constitutional commitment to impose social reform on inequitable religious traditions, even when those policies target one community over others. Legal requirements of secularism maintain sanctity as long as policy goals adhere to the promotion of social equality (151-152).
An important distinction must then be made from the Western application of secularism—absolute separation of religion and state forms a cornerstone of Western secularism alongside freedom of religion within private spheres. The law applies equally to all citizens regardless of spiritual practices and beliefs, as all are subject to the same laws (Smith, 2011). The French concept of laïcité, for example, calls for complete absence of religion within public institutions, such as government and public schooling, while rejecting public interference in religion (Hurd, 2008). In Indian government, however, secularism entails equal promotionof all religions rather than separation of religion (e.g. providing financial support to religious schools and permitting religious law to supersede personal law). Thus, the applicability of laws differs based on a citizen’s religion. Government policies both support and regulate religious entities, including Islamic Wakf Boards, Hindu temples, Buddhist monasteries, and Christian institutions. This direct intervention in religious affairs—the “ameliorative model”—starkly contrasts with traditional Western secularism (Jacobsohn).
Nehruvian Socialism & the License Raj
Alongside his view on Indian secularism, Nehru’s strong belief in economic socialism guided his vision of India’s planned economy, coined ‘Nehruvian socialism’. Hoping to ameliorate the economic disarray and massive inequality stemming from colonial rule, inclusivity was held paramount in Nehru’s new India—social inclusivity was promoted through Indian secularism and economic inclusivity through socialism. Sixteen years before formal independence, the Indian National Congress already committed to a socialist framework for economic development during the 1931 Karachi session. Two decades later, the Congress reiterated its early commitments to socialistic development goals in the 1955 Avadi Resolution. The second meeting foreshadowed the land reform and industrial regulations that would take place a year later. With these actions, the Congress Party formally adopted an official policy of a “socialist pattern of development”, though avoiding an outright declaration of a fully socialist system (Anant). Only decades later in 1976, during the reign of Nehru’s daughter Indira Gandhi, was the passage of the 42ndAmendment finally written into the Preamble of the Indian Constitution with the addition of the term “socialist” (Government of India).
The socialist pattern of economic governance began with the 1948 Industrial Policy Resolution, which established government monopolies in “armaments, atomic energy, railroads, minerals, iron [and] steel industries, aircraft, manufacturing, shipbuilding and telephone and telegraph equipment,” which were later extended to 12 other industries in 1956 to a total of 29. By 1973, during the term of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, life and general insurance businesses fell under government control in addition to large commercial banks. Government agencies were formed on both the national and regional levels to manage “finance, trading, mineral exploitation, manufacturing, utilities and transportation like Hindustan Insecticides, Ashoka Hotel Corporation, Tyre Corporation of India, Air India, etc.” (Center for Civil Society) These measures culminated in the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act in 1970, which strengthened the government’s licensing system through information access to assets and investments of any firm with assets totaling Rs. 200 million (or roughly $3 million USD). This act was often considered to be among the most detrimental of the socialist framework, undermining the private sector’s economic power and placing restraints on business “considered contrary to public interest” (Centre for Civil Society).
Motivated by optimistic intentions, the license system transformed from a tool of Nehru’s planned economy into the infamous ‘License Raj,’ a play on the previous imperial rulers, ‘British Raj’. The founder of India’s first market-oriented political party, Rajaji, coined the period ‘Quota-Permit-License Raj’ in the late 1950s to describe the devolution of these policies. Regulations from the License Raj required licenses for starting new business, producing new products, and expanding production capabilities. Even downsizing efforts required business owners to await sluggish government approval for workforce reduction. Meanwhile, the over-regulated private sector had to cooperate and compete with nationalized heavy industry and state-owned-enterprises (SOEs) in sectors from steel plants and jute mills to airlines and hotels.
Regarding external trade relationships, the Nehruvian economic model emphasized import substitution, which essentially cut imports through tariffs, quotas, and banned goods. In 1985, nominal tariffs ranged from 107.3% for capital goods to 146.4% for intermediate goods, the highest in the world. In 1960, this meant a 125% import tariff for cars (Centre for Civil Society). Tech and capital inputs also failed to pass the high tariff barriers, crippling the ability of small businesses to leverage foreign technological advancement and obtain cheaper inputs from abroad. Instead of growing businesses, these policies resulted in economic stagnation and government corruption at all levels. Table 1 in the Appendix depicts the abysmal economic growth during between 1960 and 1980 relative to India’s regional peers. India’s 4.6% growth in industrial production could barely compete with the double digits of the Asian Tigers (e.g. South Korea and Taiwan) and even fell flat against Pakistan’s 8% growth (Centre for Civil Society). Upon independence, India’s average annual income of $439 was reasonable compared to its peers: $619 for China, $770 for South Korea, and $936 for Taiwan. A half century later, India’s $1,818 lost miserably to China’s $3,259 and even further against South Korea and Taiwan at $13,317 and $15,720 respectively (Desai, 2003). A dire and significant consequence of the so-called ‘Hindu Rate of Growth,’ poverty remained salient with little alleviation.
Indira Gandhi and the Emergency period (1966 – 1984)
The crumbling of these socialist economic promises would begin to tear down Nehru’s notion of secularism. The government’s failure to lead India toward economic prosperity “eroded its claim to be progressive and modern. The failure of the planned economy discredited as well the secularism to which the economy had been linked” (Kesavan, 65). In the late 1960s, Indira Gandhi emerged as Congress Party leader during a schism within the party. Campaigning with populist, reformist promises to end poverty, her policies largely failed to address these promises (Ganguly, 14). In the tumultuous political climate that followed, institutional weakness was apparent in Gandhi’s undermining of the very institutions her father had put in place, “she saw established institutions—including the independent judiciary and civil service as well as the democratic internal procedures of her party itself—as barriers to her goal of prevailing politically at the head of a securely dominant Congress party…her willingness to thwart the rule of law when votes were at stake…created space for the rapid rise of an anti-secular alternative”(Ganguly, 15).
Gandhi’s initial 11-year term included the nationalization of the banking sector, the passing of the Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, and the declaration of the Emergency rule. The enactment of emergency from 1975 to 1976 extended her power over civil liberties and democratic institutions, “setting off nearly two years of widespread arrests, censorship of the press and severe curtailment of civil liberties to India’s millions of citizens” (Iyengar). Several opposing politicians, including future Prime Ministers Morarji Desai and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, were jailed (Ghosh). Desai would lead a short term during the Janata Party’s fleeting control of Parliament before Gandhi regained control for her second, four-year term. Three weeks into Gandhi’s declaration of emergency rule, TIME Magazine expressed concerns in its July 14, 1975 issue over the profound repercussions “imperious” Prime Minister Gandhi’s rule and “dictatorial powers” would have on “political freedoms”.
The suspension of parliamentary procedures allowed Gandhi to pass the highly controversial 42ndAmendment to the Constitution, which severely diluted the power of the Supreme Court, shifting the balance of power toward parliamentary sovereignty. Parliament gained the ability to surpass judicial review in passage of any amendment, extraordinarily extending its previous mandate. India’s federalist structure also felt severe blows as power of the states were curbed and centralized (Walker). This move was particularly detrimental given India’s history of loosely-connected states with little collective identity aside from their anti-imperialist anger. In fact, local and state elections remained heavily dominated by regional parties that frequently secure majority victories within their regions. The Amendment also added the phrase “sovereign, socialist secular democratic republic” to the Constitution’s Preamble, formalizing the pretense under which Gandhi declared the emergency period in the first place. In the five-year term that followed Gandhi’s tenure, her son, Sanjay Gandhi, continued this legacy in the amendment of the Representation of the People’s Act in 1989. The new regulation mandated all political parties to align their party platforms with the commitment to socialism expressed in the new Preamble (Rajagopalan).
The legislation and abuse of power during the Emergency exemplified the extent to which political elites could utilize protection of socialism and secularism to cement their own political standing and justify the incarceration of political adversaries—the jailing of Janata Party leaders including Desai and Vajpayee is a clear reflection of such. The surmounting political and economic losses gave rise to the Janata Party (directly translated to ‘People’s’ Party), which is a merger of the Jana Sangh and other political groups. During the 1977 elections, the Janata Party, a loose collective of opposition parties under the Jana Sangh umbrella, campaigned with the promise to reverse the Constitutional amendments of the Emergency and restore the Indian government to its original state (Walker). By rejecting the encroachment of the people’s democratic liberties, the Janata Party rose in popularity as the strongest alternative to the Congress, despite its lack of a commitment to strongly secular governance that the Congress championed. The Janata Party, under Desai, kept together an unsteady coalition government during its two-year term before Gandhi’s re-election in 1980. She remained in power until being assassinated in 1984 by her Sikh bodyguard amongst a national spike in religious conflict.
Economic Reforms and Crash (1980-1991)
Through the 1980s, India’s Gross Domestic Product (GDP) growth began to accelerate from an average of 2.9% in the 1970s to almost a double at 5.6% in the 1980s (Center for Civil Society). The Gandhi governments under Indira Gandhi and her successor Rajiv Gandhi oversaw the beginnings of the reforms, coupled with heavy government expenditure financed through overseas borrowing. The reforms gradually opened the Indian economy to foreign trade through import tariff reductions, export incentives, weakened regulatory controls over industrial production, and exchange rate stabilization. For example, the freely-traded Replenishment Licenses awarded exporters with tariff exemptions on imports required for Indian production needs. These exemptions came in excess to the broader Open General License List that relaxed tariffs on items such as sewing machines and chocolates. These measures were crucial initial steps in dismantling the looming License Raj.
By 1991, public sector foreign investment rose significantly. However, this came with consistently high fiscal and current account deficits, with the latter reaching 43.8% of exports. Simultaneously, foreign debt grew from $20.6 billion in 1980 to $64.4 billion at the precipice of the crash (Center for Civil Society). With unsustainable foreign and domestic deficits, the Indian economy failed to withstand several macroeconomic blows. The collapse of the Soviet Union, fall of the Iron Curtain, and economic crises in the former Soviet Bloc were detrimental to India’s current account—exports to Eastern Europe, which totaled to 22.1% of total exports in 1980 were cut almost in half to 10.9% by 1991. Furthermore, India’s main sources of oil exports, Iraq and Kuwait, fell into war in 1990 and required India to pay high premiums for short-term contracts in the spot market. These factors delivered the final blows to the India’s economy, sending the nation to the Balance of Payments Crisis in June of 1991.
While these macroeconomic concerns mounted in a period of global economic weakness, India’s political landscape was extremely hectic with three changes of Prime Minister in the two years leading to the crash. Rising public frustrations ended Rajiv Gandhi’s five-year term and created two variations of the Janata Party, which took the Congress Party’s place. The instability of having three coalition governments in a one-and-a-half-year span only exacerbated the accumulation of economic pressures and weakened investor confidence both in India and abroad. India’s deficits instigated a credit downgrade from rating agencies and accelerated capital outflows. Even worse, high oil prices raised overall good prices and businesses could no longer access short-term funding. Three weeks from declaring default on its deficits, the Indian government secured a $22 billion emergency loan from the International Monetary Fund against 67 tons of gold as collateral (Center for Civil Society).
P.V. Narasimha Rao: Ending the Socialist License Raj (1991 – 1996)
Champion of Indian economic reform and the dismantlement of the License Raj, P.V. Narasimha Rao became Prime Minister in June 1991 with a minority government. Often either overlooked in Indian history or called “The Father of Indian Economic Reforms,” Rao reversed many of his predecessor’s socialist policies and set a precedent that future Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh would carry forward. Though a representative of the Congress Party, Rao significantly departed from the Gandhi dynasty that had governed India since her founding for almost half a century. Hailing from the non-Hindu south of the subcontinent, Rao represented diverse demographics, which are traditionally dominated by northern elites. His removal of many License Raj barriers in the name of socialism illustrated his divergent economic policies.
Rao, who had no previous record of market-friendly policies, worked alongside his Finance Minister Manmohan Singh to enact liberal economic policies and promote privatization (Harikrishnan). Rao and Singh slashed the budget to reduce the fiscal deficit and took stride to reform the banking and capital markets (Center for Civil Society). His banking sector reforms include revised accounting guidelines and procedures for opening new private banks, liberalized interest rates independent from the Royal Bank of India, and reduced liquidity and reserve requirements. The administration also built upon previous industrial policy reforms, repealing Indira Gandhi’s Monopolies and Restrictive Trade Practices Act, and abolishing license requirements for 80% of the firms in the industry. As a result, private sector involvement expanded and the remaining public sector actors were granted greater operational autonomy.
The 1991 reform agenda also included trade and investment-centric policies, including drastic reduction in import duties, abolishment of tariffs and quotas, and establishment of trading houses. To promote the transfer of technology from abroad, foreign investors in high technology and high investment sectors received instantaneous permissions to control, in some cases, 100% equity from the previous 51% cap. In addition, exchange rate policy reforms were implemented to prevent another crisis—the rupee was devalued by 20% to enhance competitiveness of Indian exports to re-establish payment balances. In general, these reforms benefited existing, large-scale players but failed to address the needs of the urban poor, small and medium-sized enterprises, and the agricultural sector. The free market policies tailored to macroeconomic crisis took precedence over social reforms, specifically efforts to increase employment, education, and health. Meanwhile, Indian states with strong infrastructures benefited the most, resulting in the widening of the inequality gap. Still, the 1991 reforms heralded a landmark shift in the Indian government’s economic approach, which were continued by future governments.
From Fringe Hindu right to Election-Sweeping Victory
In the early days of Indian independence, the Bharatiya Jana Sangh—different from the current Bharatiya Janata Party—formed the original, anti-secular opposition party to Congress (Ganguly, 14). The party began as the “nationalistic alternative” to the existing order with ties to the militant Hindu organization Rashtriya Swayam Sevak (RSS) (Gupta). Amidst the massive popularity of Congress and the Jana Sangh’s identity as a political extension of the fringe Hindu right, the party never quite gained mainstream popularity. Opposite Congress’s socialist stance, the Jana Sangh favored open market economic policy. The party adopted an anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan position in both foreign and domestic policies, and had limited success from 1951 until its merger in 1977 with numerous other fringe groups spanning the left, right, and center of Indian politics (Ganguly, 15).
In the 1977 elections that followed Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule, the Congress Party lost to a coalition of parties, which includes the Jana Sangh and ultimately consolidated into the new Janata Party. The backlash to the Emergency catalyzed pent up frustration towards failed socialist economic policies from Nehru and the License Raj and fueled the rise of the anti-secular right. After the Janata Party’s brief two-year rule, Indira Gandhi re-emerged as Prime Minister in 1980, at which point the coalition Janata Party fell apart. In its wake, many of its former leaders re-formed the party as the contemporary Bharatiya Janata Party.
While the BJP maintained popularity in some regional and state governments, the party did not secure a significant number of seats in the Lok Sabha—or lower house of the Indian Parliament—until the 1998 general election. Because the BJP could not secure a majority win at that time, the party assembled a coalition government under Vajpayee called the National Democratic Alliance (NDA). The messily-cobbled grouping of parties had little in common, thus, the NDA nearly fell apart in 1999. However, after another round of elections, the reassembled NDA won 303 seats (marginally above a majority win), including 183 from the BJP, marking the party’s highest seat count in general elections. Vajpayee then served a full five-year term until he suffered a surprising defeat to a Congress-backed coalition in 2004 led by Sonia Gandhi, the late Rajiv Gandhi’s wife.
Modi’s Gujarat Transformation: Prosperity and Violence
Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s legacy over the state of Gujarat varies from criticism for his alleged support of sectarian violence to praise for his economic policies. As the Chief Minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 as, Modi led the state with GDP growth and abundance of jobs that outpaced that of the nation (The Economist). In his first decade, GDP growth averaged around 10% within the state, and Gujarat accounted for about 7.6% of India’s overall GDP despite having only 5% of the population and 6% of the land mass. Even more impressive was that Gujarat produced 22% of the nation’s exports. Though Modi’s administration fell short in addressing poverty, the Gujarat model stressed infrastructure and successfully restructured an electricity generation deficit to a surplus, granting its 18,000 villages with access to power and modern technology.
Gujarat’s rebuilt roads and abundant water supply further incentivized companies like Tata Motors to relocate government-supported manufacturing plants to Gujarat with promises to avoid the messy land disputes they faced in other states. While the World Bank ranked India 142 out of 189 countries in terms of “ease of doing business,” businesses in Gujarat enjoyed expedited processes for licenses, permits, and economic clearances even before Modi took office (The Economist). Modi further promoted bureaucratic accountability and clamped down on corruption by integrating advanced technological platforms, which tracked state finances, government documents, and tax payments, and created a paper trail behind procedures.
Despite his victory, Modi and his controversial past shifted public opinion toward anti-secular Hindu nationalism. Coming from humble beginnings selling tea with his father and brother, Modi rose to political power without any familial connections or powerful backings. As a child, he discovered the RSS and joined the Hindu nationalist organization as a junior cadet (Marino). Modi maintained his affinity with the RSS throughout his career, publicly congratulating the organization on its 91stanniversary in 2016. From his early days as a junior cadet, he rose through the ranks of the BJP—commonly considered to be affiliated with the RSS—to his 2001 victory as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Though he campaigned for Chief Minister as a civil servant for all citizens of the state, he faced a critical test of secular leadership in 2002 that continues to be hotly controversial, criticized, and cited as evidence for his stance on Hindu nationalism and religious conflict.
Four months into Modi’s term, Gujarat erupted into chaotic violence over the construction of the Babri Masjidon the sacred Hindu site of Ayodhaya, an incident that claimed over 1,000 lives (BBC). The Babri Masjidhas routinely sparked Hindu-Muslim violence and is an ongoing conflict that originated under the Mughal Empire: in 1992, a mob of Hindu rioters, fueled by right-wing Hindu groups including the BJP, tore down the mosque and sparked a chain of violence; in February 2002, a train of approximately 60 Hindu passengers returning from a pilgrimage to Ayodhaya was burned in Godhra, Gujarat (New York Times). Violence erupted across the state, with mobs of Hindus rampaging through towns in abhorrent cases of looting, murder, rape, and mutilation of Muslims, causing horrible scenes of “mothers being skewered, children set afire and fathers hacked to pieces” (New York Times). The violence lasted over two months and displaced about 150,000 refugees.
Though the government rejected any and all accusations of involvement, scholars and journalists alike reported heavily on widespread allegations of complicity and, in some cases, encouragement of the mobs. Martha Nussbaum summarized, “there is by now a broad consensus that the Gujarat violence was a form of ethnic cleansing, that in many ways it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the state government and officers of the law”. It has been further revealed t law enforcement and the police failed to address the violence until the situation had brutally escalated, and a senior state official, who was later murdered, disclosed to an investigation committee that Modi initially ordered officials to allow the rioters to continue (New York Times). Yet, judiciary courts have since acquitted the then Chief Minister of any wrongdoing. The final death toll as per the state government was 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus.
Beyond Gujarat’s borders, calls for Modi’s resignation rang from all corners of the subcontinent. Vajapayee, then Prime Minister, chose not to dismiss Modi from his position as Chief Minister. Modi’s own resignation was even rejected at the BJP national meeting in Goa that year. Subsequently, the party called for early elections while promoting a campaign centered around Hindutva, or Hindu-ness (New York Times). Modi’s rhetoric frequently alluded to the Hindu lives lost in the Godhra train fire while failing to include the Muslim lives taken in the ensuing riots. The BJP campaign successfully consolidated Gujarat’s Hindu votes, earning Modi a landslide re-election victory. Meanwhile, foreign political states such as the U.S. and the U.K. imposed a visa ban and diplomatic boycott, respectively, that would remain in place for a decade until Modi’s success in Indian national elections.
During the rest of his tenure as Chief Minister, Modi pivoted between reinventing his image as a business-friendly, anti-corruption leader representative of the aam admi, or alternatively as a strident Hindu nationalist with emotional ties to the common man. The BJP’s campaign platform veered from its previous emphasis on Hindutva, though it retained allusions to Hindu nationalism. Modi’s economic success, despite the sectarian challenges, helped launch his career on the national platform and led to his victory in 2014 as Prime Minister. His campaign platform of relating to the common man inspired hope that his term will ameliorate the conditions of “hundreds of millions of people in forgotten rural populations [who] struggle to survive in the face of a regulatory regime that doesn’t understand their needs or protect their rights” (Bandow). Modi’s election addressed a broader desire to remove entrenched elites from political power and restore economic growth, even at the expense of reversing India’s secular and socialist founding principles.
Persistent Vestiges of Corrupt ‘Socialism’
A Google search for ‘corruption scandals in India’ returns a seemingly never-ending list of incidents, year after year, across industries, and alarmingly replicable at all levels of the bureaucratic hierarchy. Whether it is a $40 billion loss related to telecom licenses, a $2.7 million bribe for defense contracts, allegations of US officials presenting “chests of cash” to Indian MPS, or a budget for the Commonwealth Games that ballooned from $270 million to $4.1 billion, the number of cases keeps climbing (BBC). According to Transparency International, India ranks abysmally at 94 of 176 in its 2012 International Corruption Perceptions Index and 19 of 28 in its Bribe Payers Index. This sentiment is echoed by domestic citizens—in a 2014 poll by The Economist, “96% of Indians said corruption was holding their country back, and 92% thought it has got worse in the past five years”. Raghuram Rajan’s words describe India’s state of corruption succinctly—before becoming the head of the Reserve Bank of India, he warned, “too many people have got too rich based on their proximity to the government” (The Economist). For general citizens, wages in general have increased and been engulfed by an even sharper rise in inflation and cost of living.
Prime Minister Modi’s election in 2014 provided hope for the eradication of the remnants of archaic legislation such as annual boiler checks dating back to the nineteenth century, as well as broader, systematic alterations to India’s economic model. Whereas Modi’s changes to policies may take time to materialize, his government has certainly taken steps toward cutting down the thick forest of tangled legislation weighing down growth. Sonal Varma, chief economist at Nomura, expressed her confidence in Modi’s early actions, “it seems to me they have a grand plan. The changes so far are quite micro in nature, rather than macro, but if you put them all together, there is a method in the madness” (Financial Times, 2014). So far, Modi’s government has eliminated over 1,000 regulatory laws, with some dating back to colonial times, though these are only “small steps below a mountain” (Bandow). He also improved the national e-governance platform and incorporated a biometric identification system into welfare distribution to eliminate “leakage”, mirroring elements in his success in Gujarat. Even more significant changes include his reforms removing certification and minimal capital requirements to propel entrepreneurs and small businesses investment (Bandow). Despite these changes, both domestic and foreign critics have expressed frustration with the slowing momentum of policy changes and lack of large-scale actions.
On November 8, 2016, the Prime Minister released his ‘demonetization’ plan, sparking controversy among economists around the world who disputed the effectiveness of removing two of the largest-denominated currency notes from circulation (Dhume). This campaign resulted in long lines at banks, massive ATM-overhauls, and unintended repercussions on women and the elderly. However, the campaign also illustrated Modi’s unabashed shrewdness in combatting corruption in any way he can, regardless of transitional pains. While corruption still holds back national economic growth and slows businesses, Modi’s economic record in Gujarat inspires confidence in his ability to rehabilitate India.
Britain’s hasty decolonization of India left behind a thorough but weak institutional infrastructure. The framers of the new Indian democracy adopted Western liberal democracy without an institutional framework strong enough to ensure its own integrity. The absence of any safeguarding measures exposed the system to rampant corruption that leeched economic growth and fostered widespread inequality. Social backlash manifested in a surge of political anti-secularism and the rise of the Hindu right, including the Bharatiya Janata Party and its allies, culminating in Narendra Modi’s election as Prime Minister in 2014. Thus, the Hindu revival in mainstream Indian politics was a social backlash against corrupted elites and economic inequality rather than a call for a Hindu majoritarian government.
Some conjecture that the popular acceptance of the Hindu right signals a breakdown of Indian secularism that shakes the core of the nation’s foundation. Sumit Ganguly believes that “the rise of a purely majoritarian democracy amid India’s cultural, religious, and ethnic heterogeneity” spells “the rise of illiberal democracy” though some would argue the opposite (12). Prime Minister Modi’s victory, though with only 8% of the Muslim vote, reflects less of a penchant for Hindutva than a rejection of embedded corruption and entrenched institutional failures (BBC). The BJP represents a cry for change, the same sentiment that sparked the Arab Spring, Barack Obama’s campaign, and many other shocks to political inertia. The BJP platform pivots from India’s longstanding commitments to secularism and socialism, but the party’s success does not translate to a populist desire for illiberal capitalism. President Pranab Mukherjee, Modi’s Congress Party colleague in Parliament, asserted that his nation is “‘substantially free’ from the globally witnessed menace of homegrown terrorism because citizens possess ‘ethnicity in mind and have faith in pluralism’”. He quoted India’s diversity and strong Constitution as champions of its secularism, adding that “secularism is part of the life” for citizens of the subcontinent (Times of India). Despite the President’s optimisms, critics warn, “[The BJP’s] nationalism—of a type familiar in Europe—slips easily into intolerance and bigotry” (Kesavan, 65).
India’s relationship with secularism has been messy, at best. Appeals on sectarian divides have been utilized to consolidate political power and advance economic interests throughout the reigns of various controlling parties, Prime Ministers, and elites. To say there has been a single policy on secularism would be generous—instead, India’s heterogeneity has been a political and economic tool for hose in power. The political landscape contains a more nuanced reality than the binary ‘religious’ and ‘nonreligious’ divides. Each party has both benefited and clashed from ethnic conflicts—from the Congress Party’s problematic relationship with the Sikh community both leading to and after Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh body guard, to the BJP’s early origins as an ardent, fringe Hindu nationalist groups like the RSS.
As the socialist machine unravels, Indian citizens and the rest of the world will be watching and hoping for an economic revitalization parallel to that of its northern neighbor, China. With a population of over one billion people, high literacy rates, industrial growth, abundant resources, and a strong government with ever-increasing political acumen, India has the potential to emerge as a global power. While Modi’s overhaul of the political system has yet to be answered, he represents an India breaking the chains that have confined its growth for decades. The threat of illiberal democracy is still populist pressure and India’s fate will depend on how it balances its social and economic transformation at this crucial turning point in India’s history.
Shivangi is a graduating senior with a degree in Business & Political Economy from NYU Stern. She also has a joint minor in Mathematics & Computer Science. During Shivangi's undergraduate career, she was the Executive Director of the NYU Stern Investment Analysis Group and was a Sales and Trading Summer Analyst at J.P. Morgan.