Conscience of a Hindustani

The elections in India are a spectacle like no other. Not only are they the most expansive exercise in democratic choice known to mankind; they afford people of all stripes (ethnic, linguistic, religious etc.) the chance at an equal say in the election of a Government that presides over nearly 1/5th of humanity.

On May 16th, however, the country that I have long proudly called home, seems poised to elect Narendra Modi, Prime Ministerial candidate of the Hindu-nationalist BJP, to head its Government.

Much of the allure surrounding Mr. Modi centers itself around what he terms the ‘Gujarat Development Model’. In the past decade, the GDP of the western state of Gujarat, where Mr. Modi is Chief Minister, has grown at roughly the same rate as that of China. It has attracted high-profile investments from all the world, and has a business-friendly administration free of the scathing taints of corruption that currently dog India’s central Government. By contrast, the Government in Delhi, made up of a ramshackle coalition of parties led by the incumbent Indian National Congress, has been rocked near-constantly by a string of corruption scandals to the tune of tens of billions of dollars. Its ability to enact economic reforms that open the economy to foreign investments, has been nothing short of pathetic, and GDP growth under its watch has halved from a high of 10.5% in 2010 to a paltry 3.2% in 2012. To add insult to injury, inflation rates in the country have by far and away outpaced growth in incomes, averaging some 10.2% since 2009.

In such circumstances, the election of a man like Mr. Modi seems an obvious choice. I, for one, could not disagree more.

Mr. Modi is hardly the right man for the job. Under his premiership in 2002, Gujarat’s Government did little to nothing, to halt a horrific pogrom that left thousands (mostly Muslims) dead. A great many victims are yet to receive justice for those crimes. Despite this, Mr. Modi was able to hang on to his post and has been re-elected thrice. Though a wily public relations campaign that appears to have enchanted many a voter desperate for better governance, Mr. Modi has catapulted himself to the front of the race, and is almost certainly headed for 7 Race Course Road, the Prime Minister’s residence in Delhi.

The India I love ought not to be led by a man with such worrying credentials. The India I know is one with room for people of all backgrounds. My formative years were spent in the cosmopolitan locales of Bombay and Bangalore, where I grew up alongside Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians, Zoroastrians, Jews, and others. The country envisaged by its modern architects, Pandit Nehru, Mahatma Gandhi, Babasaheb Ambedkar et al, was one that allowed for a surprising degree of tolerance, and wholeheartedly embraced the principal of diversity. To be sure, such lofty ideals have faced their moments of crisis, most notably in 1984 when an anti-Sikh pogrom that left thousands dead, threatened to tear apart the country’s tenuous social fabric after the assassination of former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The same was true in 1991, when Hindu nationalists brazenly razed a centuries-old Mogul-era mosque that had, in their view, been constructed on hallowed ground once inhabited by the Hindu deity Rama, in the town of Ayodhya. Gujarat in 2002 was a further challenge to these ideals.

Can India afford to entrust the responsibilities of state to a man whose history leaves worrying question marks over his ability to win the trust of its minorities? It is one thing to win the support of a community in an election. A Prime Minister, and indeed a Government, may well fare poorly with one set of voters in an election, as Mr. Modi’s BJP is expected to with India’s community of over 130 million Muslims. Winning their trust is another question altogether. The issue of trust boils down to a Government’s ability to convince its people of its intentions to protect. A voter may not support a Government, but, by virtue of citizenship and long historical ties to the land, must certainly feel protected by the Government in question, even if one disagrees on matters of policy and conduct. I certainly harbour no support for the outgoing Congress-led Government but never have I felt my safety and fundamental rights threatened in the manner that India’s minorities have at the hands of Mr. Modi and his party. In 2002, mobs made their way through Muslim-majority neighbourhoods in Ahmedabad, Baroda, and other Gujarati cities. With them followed a sickening chorus of murder, rape, pillage, and plunder. For whatever reason (complicity and/or ignorance), Gujarat’s Government did not act.

To make matters worse, Mr. Modi is not alone in his unsuitability for the Office of Prime Minister. His party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is anything but the right choice for a Government in a country as diverse as mine. The BJP and its ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, have long found themselves mired in a history of intolerance and communalism. Perhaps the most blatant affront to India’s secular credentials may today be found in the BJP’s manifesto for this election, which promises to construct a temple in honour of Rama over the ground of the now-destroyed mosque in Ayodhya. The India I love has always maintained an irreligious identity, never once contemplating the mixing of Church and State. A toxic prospect, in my view, that would strike at the heart of the State’s identity, and would further weaken its legitimacy in claiming to protect communities of every kind.

Though I am proud of India’s ability to accommodate its linguistic, religious and ethnic minorities over the course of its independent history, the country has glaringly fallen short in protecting its beleaguered sexual minorities. The statute criminalising gay sex, a colonial relic still in force, has the full support of Mr. Modi’s party. Its one thing to oppose this awful stance on account of my being a proud Indian with a desire to have all individuals treated equally, regardless of sexual disposition. It is another thing to do so as an active and grateful member of the Sarah Lawrence community. Here, I have come into contact with marvellous people of outstanding character, who just so happen to be homosexual. These are friendships that I cherish deeply. Not for one moment could I fathom the possibility of their being treated differently, adversely, solely on account of what is innate in their nature.

For these reasons, amongst others, I can only hope that a Prime Minister Modi proves me wrong. Let me reiterate my stance. Prove. Me. Wrong. The India you will come to inherit is a delicate one. The support you receive from the country’s masses has much to do with their dissatisfaction with the outgoing Government; less so with the intolerant beliefs that you and your party espouse. If at all India thrives, it is because, not despite, of her diverse and open character. Heaven knows that there is much to be saddened by within the country (not least the manner in which Kashmiris are deprived of natural justice), but where we can take solace, is in our capacity to accommodate every Indian; our embrace of people of all backgrounds. Every Indian – Hindu, Muslim, Brahmin, Dalit, Urban, Tribal etc., is fundamentally equal. When we look to the countries that surround us, we find shocking instances of state-sponsored discrimination against minority communities (think Pakistan and Ahmadiyyas, Burma and Rohingyas, Sri Lanka and Tamils, etc.). We can take some measure of pride in the sure knowledge that we do not tolerate such injustices. Be mindful of this, Mr. Modi – for this is all India has to her name. She is her diversity.

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