Ladies and gentlemen, there is an official winner: Gujarati Chief Minister Narendra Modi of the BJP has been elected Prime Minister in the multi-phase Indian elections. In a country of over 1 billion people, 80% of the people were eligible to vote, and a half 1 billion people did indeed vote. This is especially inspiring when we think of countries in which there is a high degree of voter apathy (the United States), no or blocked access to voting (such as for women in Saudi Arabia), or a lack of multiple candidates beyond one self-serving dictator (North Korea). When you factor in the number of different ethnic, linguistic, and religious groups, it is quite extraordinary that India holds democratic elections at all. The best countries are, in my opinion, the ones that make voting mandatory. Isn’t it a responsibility to participate in the system in which one has rights?
The people have spoken: Modi was elected democratically, ousting the decades-long hold of the secular Indian National Congress (or, the Congress Party) that came to dominance with India’s first Prime Minister, Jawaharlal Nehru. Nehru’s descendents Indira, Rajiv, and Rajiv’s Italian-born widow Sonia Gandhi (no relation to Mahatma Gandhi) have all continued the Congress party’s legacy, but this time around, voters opted not to elect the next generation in the form of Rahul Gandhi. For however well meaning Rahul was, he simply came across as under qualified (or unqualified) in the eyes of many. There has been much frustration expressed over his mother’s political role in the Congress Party, given that she is not ethnically an Indian and not highly educated. Instead, India has elected a tea seller (in his teen years; the American analogy would be a hotdog vendor with a cart) who rose to power by developing his home state of Gujarat and rising in the ranks of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party or BJP.
I recently had the good fortune to visit Gujarat, and was quite impressed. While I was only in the very developed, progressive Gandhinagar and Ahmedabad areas, and did not visit villages in the countryside, I found myself marveling at how well the roads were laid, the infrastructure, the cleanliness, the prosperity, and the organization. I have visited 8 or 9 different areas of India, so I have a bit of a basis for comparison. Gujaratis here in the US as well as around the world have a reputation for being highly organized, wealthy, and efficient business people. There is a reason the “Patel Motel” stereotype exists, as many motels and hotels are owned by Gujaratis, although certainly there are many Gujarati professionals and doctors as well.
So what is the problem, then, with a Gujarati-born Prime Minister who developed his own state? Who could very well develop a country of a billion people, some of whom are very wealthy and educated, but a large segment of whom are not and for whom basic sanitation, infrastructure, education, access to health care, etc. are still daily issues? The answer is, his religion. The BJP is conservative and notorious for anti-Muslim sentiment, and during the 2002 riots in Gujarat, Modi was sharply criticized for his lack of attention and assistance to the problem, and even accused of supporting the riots. The problem is that India is always associated with Hinduism, and is approximately 80% Hindu. But 20% of a billion still means 200 million, and that means 200 million people who are not Hindus. Can a religiously-oriented political party still address the needs of those who do not follow their spiritual path? Can they do so without a Hindu hegemony? Modi’s first step ought to be to reach out to non-Hindus, to their political leaders and build bridges for cooperation immediately. This is not only to be a measure of goodwill in a historically tolerant country when it comes to religion; it is also a necessary and preventative step towards avoiding violence caused by either Hindus or Muslims.
The Hindu-Muslim Partition from 1947 is something that is painful to think about even today. As someone of Indian Hindu origin with Indian/Pakistani Muslim friends, it is very evident to see how my similarities there are between the two cultures despite the difference in religion. In India, one can see shops selling various pictures and paintings of religious icons of all faiths—-perhaps the common denominator is often the glitz and tackiness of the representations! The West often wants to draw a bigger divide between Indian Hindus and Muslims than truly exists, and many scholars, journalists, and politicians argue that was the origin of the problem in the first place. To draw an American example, imagine drawing a line down Broadway on the Upper West Side in Manhattan, and pushing Jews to the west of that line, and non-Jews to the east side of that line. This arbitrary line would seem senseless in light of the fact that the people in this area would have always interacted on a daily basis, frequenting one another’s businesses, homes, etc. Sadly, this is something that did often happen in Europe over the centuries, culminating in the horrible genocide of World War II that also exterminated Communists, the Roma, and others.
While I do not think it is appropriate to draw parallels between the Holocaust and the partition, as both are extremely different situations in terms of history, politics, and economics, it is important for countries and societies to acknowledge religious and other minorities that live among them. The Congress Party has tried, sometimes successfully and sometimes not, to bring a secular form of government to India, being aware of the Hindu nature of India but drawing a line between religion and state, so to speak. It was the party of Mahatma Gandhi, the father of India, who was ironically murdered by a Hindu fanatic who felt Gandhiji favored Pakistan and Muslims. A secular government is best for a diverse, multi-ethnic, multi-lingual, multi-religious country like India; we see the beauty of a not-dissimilar system here in the US, but there still arise many problems even with a secular government. India does not have an official religion, though the BJP is very powerful and Hindus are the majority.
Perhaps it is impossible or unrealistic to think that there will never be any hegemony of one culture over the others, even if there is an exact split between the various groups in a society. But India’s strength has always been inclusion, especially when it comes to religion. Many Westerners are surprised and even astounded at the way religions live side-by-side in a relatively peaceful way, where cross-religious interaction is a daily occurrence. This is especially profound, especially when one thinks of, say, Baptists and Lutherans not getting along in a community in the United States. Many of the religious dilemmas and issues that seem to foment controversy in the United States are a non-issue in India. It will be up to Modi and his administration to keep it that way, to keep India as a land of religious tolerance and peace.