by Jon P. Dorschner
In its October 17 edition, the New York Times succinctly described current political developments in India.1 The article asked the pertinent question for American observers regarding Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. “Is he a Twitter-savvy technocrat obsessed with boosting development for all India? Or is he a canny ideologue intent on imposing a strict Hindu code of values on a nation that prides itself on tolerance, diversity and pluralism.”
Since Modi’s ascent to power, sectarian violence has significantly increased. Hindu extremists have targeted Indian Muslims and Christians. They murdered a Muslim, Mohammed Ikhlaq in front of his family, accusing him of killing a cow and eating beef. Religious minorities have not been the only targets. In September, gunmen murdered M.M. Kalburgi a noted rationalist scholar.
In protest against what Salman Rushdie has characterized as a wave of “thuggish violence,” 35 leading Indian authors and poets have returned awards granted them by the National Academy of Letters (the Sahitya Academy). Modi has been silent on this development, but his supporters have labeled the protestors as “frustrated communist cadres,” with a hidden left-wing agenda.
When covering Indian domestic politics for the American Embassy in New Delhi, I met Modi’s ultra Hindu nationalist supporters. I experienced their fanaticism and intolerance. Although they professed to be close to the United States and the then G.W. Bush Administration, they were among the most hostile and anti-American of my many contacts from across the political spectrum. They were duplicitous and their political agenda was counter to basic American values.
During my last trip to India in 2014, I met many members of the Indian Christian community. They were palpably afraid of what Modi’s party (the BJP or Bharatiya Janata Party) had in store for them, and felt the noose tightening around them. The BJP was targeting Christians and stated it wanted to suppress Christianity and reduce Christians to second-class citizens.
Secular and liberal Indians from all religious communities told me that Modi had a clear anti-democratic agenda. They maintained he was determined to establish an iron grip on power, establish a one-party state, and suppress all opposition and dissent.
Modi himself has received lots of positive press within the United States. In September he visited the USA and, as the New York Times points out, “was warmly embraced by Mark Zuckerberg and other Silicon Valley titans, who praised him as the modernizing, progressive, open-minded leader of the world’s largest democracy.” The American press hardly mentions Modi’s intolerance and authoritarianism or discusses his Hindu nationalism.
My last Foreign Service assignment was in Berlin. Not far from my house was the site of the headquarters of Adolf Hitler’s secret police (the Gestapo—Geheim Staats Polizei). They tortured thousands of people to death in the basement of the building. It is now a museum, which documents Hitler’s repressive one-party state and its secret police in excruciating detail. It describes the descent of Germany from a democratic republic to a hellish dictatorship.
There are parallels between 1930’s Germany and present-day India. Hitler promised to get Germany out of the great depression and restore its shattered economy. He promised to give a free hand to German industrialists, many who provided financial and political support to the Nazi Party. Modi is making many on the same promises to the Indian people and the international community.
The BJP was founded as a Hindu nationalist party by right wing Indians who were great admirers of Adolf Hitler. The hard-core followers of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are the BJP’s storm troopers. They dress in their own variant of the Nazi uniform and perform their own variant of the Nazi salute.
Adolf Hitler portrayed the Germans as the pure Aryans, and the master race. He blamed Germany’s problems on the Jews. He unleashed storm troopers on the Jews, and any group that opposed his agenda. Modi’s BJP characterizes Hindus as the “pure Aryans” and scapegoats Muslims and Christians as outsiders and agents of foreign powers. As Modi cements his hold on power, the RSS and other Hindu fanatics have increased their attacks on religious minorities and critics of Modi and the BJP agenda.
Modi denies any personal links with the violence. He called the murder of Mr. Ikhlaq “very sad,” stating that the BJP “never supports such incidents.” He then went on to accuse his critics of exploiting Ikhlaq’s death to spark communal violence. These are the same tactics Hitler used. Hitler and his rise to power are quite familiar to the BJP.
In BJP-ruled Gujarat state, the school curriculum praises Hitler for his economic achievements, without mentioning his tyranny and genocide.
In photos at the Gestapo Museum, Nazi Party members pose beside signs declaring their villages to be “Jewish free zones.” In BJP-ruled Gujarat party operatives have driven Muslims from their homes and declared their villages to be “Muslim free zones.”
When Hitler was on the rise in Germany, the democratic states were in the midst of the Great Depression. They did not want to become embroiled in Germany’s domestic affairs. Many non-Germans were impressed by what they saw as Hitler’s deft management of the German economy and welcomed his rise as an economic opportunity.
Modi is trying to use the same tactics. He is trying to convince the industrialized democracies that he is the face of “economic reform” and that he poses no threat to democracy.
Perhaps the recent spate of violence in India will get the attention of the international community. Perhaps it will now pay greater attention to Indian domestic developments. The world’s perception of Modi and the BJP could change. Other states could come to the realization that Modi is not as benevolent as he is often portrayed. Some countries could decide to distance themselves from Modi’s government, criticize its violent and authoritarian ways, and support Modi’s democratic opponents.
Will Modi take India all the way to the political right? Will he establish a one party state? Will he snuff out democracy and reduce religious minorities to second-class citizens and open the doors to wholesale discrimination?
That depends on the people of India and the actions of democracies around the world. There are growing signs within India that the population is growing wary of Modi.
On February 7 the BJP suffered a stunning defeat in the Delhi elections. It lost 32 seats and its delegation to the legislative assembly was reduced to only 3 seats in the 70 seat assembly. The anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party (Common Man Party) picked up all remaining 67 seats.
Elections in the state of Bihar are taking place in five phases between October 12 and November 5. The results will be announced on November 8. Indians are looking closely at this election as an indicator of Modi’s political fortunes.
The BJP has stated its intention to take over every state government in India and to eradicate the opposition Indian National Congress, the political party that of Mahatma Gandhi and Jawharlal Nehru that won Indian independence and now leads the opposition. The BJP program met a serious obstacle in Delhi. That could have been a fluke, however, resulting from the specific political circumstances of Delhi. Should the BJP go down to defeat in Bihar as well, it could mark the beginning of a trend.
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