Hardline Hindu allies put Modi in tight spot

Hardline Hindu allies put Modi in tight spot

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi has focused on cutting red tape and pushing economic growth over the last six months.

On the social front, though, he has a bigger challenge - reining in the hardline Hindu elements from whose folds he rose.

Among his biggest headaches is a controversial move by some Hindu groups to convert back to Hinduism people who had switched to other faiths decades ago. This "homecoming'' is actively promoted by Hindu militant outfit Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose political front is Mr Modi's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

Muslims account for about 14 per cent of India's 1.2 billion people. Christians and Sikhs together form another 5 per cent. Extremist Hindu groups have all along accused Muslims and Christian missionaries of converting poor Hindus with inducements of cash and a better life.

Tensions have been running high in Agra, the city of the Taj Mahal, after a Hindu outfit forcibly converted some 60 poor Muslim families to the Hindu faith. The police are now on the lookout for the main man behind these forced conversions and have shut down a similar programme that was planned on Christmas Day in populous Uttar Pradesh state.

"It is, on the face of it, an embarrassment for the government. At the end of the day, a leader who is looking at a long stint in power has to be inclusive," said political analyst Sandeep Shastri, Pro Vice-Chancellor of Jain University in Bangalore.

"When you don't have strong condemnation of the Agra incident and many of those involved are connected with frontal organisations associated with the BJP, it gives credence to rumours that the government prefers to turn a blind eye to these issues."

The conversions issue underscores the dilemma facing the development-oriented Mr Modi, who needs the organisational strength of the RSS to turn out the vote in key state elections looming in the heartland provinces of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar.

As much as his personal charisma, the committed cadres of the RSS are believed to have helped him sweep national polls earlier this year, giving the BJP an unequivocal mandate.

On the other hand, Mr Modi is only too well aware that his best efforts at promoting growth can wind to a standstill if there is social unrest in a nation with a long history of communal violence.

"The acid test of the government and leadership is inclusiveness and how much it can put forward and sustain an inclusive agenda," Dr Shastri said, suggesting there may be counter pressures from within Mr Modi's camp.

Analysts say Mr Modi's rise has seen many hardline Hindu groups, subdued during the last decade of Congress rule, become increasingly active.

Within the Cabinet too, Mr Modi has struggled to contain the fallout of abusive comments against non-Hindus by junior telecoms minister Niranjan Jyoti at a rally on Dec 2. Opposition parties blocked parliamentary proceedings for days until Mr Modi said he disapproved of the language.

Soon after, Mr Sachidanand Sakshi, another BJP MP, was forced to apologise for calling Mahatma Gandhi's assassin Nathuram Godse a "patriot". Godse was a member of the RSS, which was banned for years after the assassination in January 1948.

Others believe it is all part of BJP's larger political effort to consolidate its Hindu votes in states that are headed to the polls now and in the next two years.

"It's a dual strategy - allowing the BJP to continue its brand of Hindu politics while showing Modi as a man of development," said Dr Aftab Alam, associate professor of political science at Aligarh Muslim University. "They are trying to consolidate their position with the majority community."

gnirmala@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Dec 18, 2014.
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