In recent weeks, acts of religious intolerance have made regular headlines in India and stirred up controversy and outrage. "Communal" issues, as they are known in the subcontinent, have long been part and parcel of Indian politics, regardless of political party or affiliation. Lamentably, the BJP government's senior leadership has responded to the latest communal episodes in uninspiring and flat-footed fashion. And, more often than not, key leaders have simply responded with silence. Meanwhile, the need to change India's conversation about identity and politics remains as urgent as ever.
Serious discussion continues to be hijacked by a toxic combination of denial, rage, and political expediency. As if to prove this point, Congress Party leader Rahul Gandhi and other opposition parties have surfaced – after weeks of silence – to demand a debate in Parliament on recent communal violence in the state of Uttar Pradesh. This request has been declined and Home Minister Rajnath Singh has come to Modi’s defense. Although the request for debate is likely opportunistic, the absence of meaningful dialogue inside and outside Parliament is troubling. While Prime Minster Modi promises a new era of economic dynamism in India, he seems content to silently sanction the continued political exploitation of religion.
The world will also take note. Modi’s ascent to the premiership has been widely followed beyond India. Secretary Kerry, ahead of his ongoing visit to India, was full of praise for Modi and rightfully upbeat about U.S-India ties. That good cheer and optimism, apart from Kerry’s criticism of India’s veto of a global trade deal, continued to largely define the trip. Privately, though, Washington will also observe how Modi handles communal issues. With his first state visit to the United States scheduled for September, Modi could reassure his American partners that he is committed to dispelling the charges of divisive nationalism that have dogged his career and previously created awkward issues in U.S.-India relations.
Given his controversial handling of Gujarat’s 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots -- which saw over a thousand casualties, the majority of them Muslim -- Modi may seem an unlikely source of leadership. But avoiding the present because of a checkered past exposes him to risks that could derail his broader political goals. Moreover, Modi has the political capital and skill to craft a bold strategy that could serve the nation well.
Thus far, though, Modi’s approach has been devoid of daring. He has remained silent when confronted with communal tensions. A Hindu nationalist Member of Parliament tries to force-feed a Muslim man fasting during Ramadan? Silence. Renewed religious violence in Uttar Pradesh, a state known for its communal conflagrations? Silence from Modi, and a BJP statement that things are “fully under control.” A BJP leader says a Muslim tennis star should not be a brand ambassador for the state of Telangana because her marriage to a Pakistani cricketer makes her a “daughter-in-law of Pakistan?” More silence. The BJP under Modi thus remains linked to its vitriolic Hindu-nationalist past.
It is time for Modi to reject passivity and usher in a new national conversation by embracing a three-pronged strategy.
First, Modi should use his bully pulpit to condemn inflammatory acts and articulate a vision of communal harmony. His silence weakens him politically, invites escalation of conflict, and signals that India lacks a leader who will stand up for all its citizens. Modi claims to champion equal treatment for all and appeasement for none. He should start to walk the talk.
Second, Modi would do well to strengthen the capacity of India’s police and judicial systems to prevent, address, and prosecute identity-based discrimination and violence. If Modi can bolster the rule of law in response to communal strife, he will at least begin to atone for his response to the Gujarat riots. Successes could also boost confidence in an overburdened criminal justice system, paving the way for further rule-of-law reforms.
Finally, Modi should begin to rework the BJP’s own nationalist ideology (Hindutva) in his public appearances. He will have to move gradually, given the BJP’s strong support base in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other Hindu nationalist groups. But a good leader does not sanction the tired bromides of the past; he bridges divides in a collective march toward a better future. Modi, who rose up through the RSS, can become the transformative leader who challenges the status quo.
His silence threatens to duplicate the now outdated approach of the BJP’s previous prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s abstention from discussing communal issues was then seen as a relative plus, a sign that the BJP was moderating. A full decade later, Modi needs to do more. He promised during his victory speech in May to be the sort of Prime Minister who would “take everyone along.” To do that, he must articulate a more inclusive nationalism that re-brands the BJP as a party that celebrates India’s Hindu tradition while recognizing the country’s richly plural identity. This ideological evolution would consolidate the BJP’s recent victory and broaden the base of voters willing to bet on the party in future elections.
Some BJP members might balk, claiming that forthrightly addressing communal issues would weaken the party’s base and prospects in upcoming state elections. While somewhat valid in narrow terms, this view overstates the impact of any political fallout. Opposition criticism in India is inevitable, and Modi has already faced plenty of it on religious issues. He only stands to gain external support from an honest attempt to re-work his strategy.
Modi is also well positioned to manage losing hardliner support within the BJP ruling coalition. He gave the BJP the gift of a dominant electoral victory and is now assisted by his handpicked party president. He faces no BJP or coalition leader with comparable clout. Early in his tenure, Modi enjoys an abundance of political capital to help him change the BJP internal narrative.
Ultimately, Modi should be able to see the potential for bold leadership. He has proven himself adept at reading public moods, mastering message, and seizing opportunities in front of him. He enjoys a robust mandate, public enthusiasm about his potentially game-changing leadership, and a national reputation as a man of Hindutva. In short, Modi has a golden opportunity to rebrand himself as a unifying force that can lead India through difficult conversations. But if he hangs back, Modi is unlikely to leave behind a legacy of great statesmanship.
That legacy will be defined chiefly by his quest to make India the economic powerhouse and global superpower it has long ached to become. When India’s challenges with its economy and foreign policy loom large, talking about cultural inclusiveness may seem more painful chore than political opportunity. But the story of how Modi transformed India will remain incomplete without a chapter on how he reshaped India’s conversation on religion, politics, and nationhood. In the meantime, Modi’s silence jeopardizes both India’s progress and his record as a leader.
Prem M. Trivedi is an adjunct faculty member at Georgetown University. He has worked on governance reform issues in India as a Fulbright Scholar and Indicorps Fellow.