Obama Had Pointed Message for Modi 2.0

(Dr. Shashi Tharoor is a two-time MP from Thiruvananthapuram, the Chairman of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on External Affairs, the former Union Minister of State for External Affairs and Human Resource Development and the former UN Under-Secretary-General. He has written 14 books, including, most recently, Pax Indica: India and the World of the 21st Century.)

It is hard not to read President Obama's speech yesterday as a clear message to Prime Minister Narendra Modi and India's new ruling dispensation, to balance the generous praise he had ladled out to his interlocutor since he arrived in New Delhi.

"India will succeed so long as it is not split along the lines of religious faith," Mr. Obama said at Siri Fort Auditorium. If some saw that as an implicit rebuke to the Hindutva brigades, it was at least a reminder that while Mr Modi's past, which saw him endure a visa ban to the US for a decade, has been forgiven, it has not entirely been forgotten.

Obama was, of course, polite, couching his praise of religious diversity as a mutual strength of both India and the U.S, and speaking of his own challenges as a politician with the middle name of Hussein in a country increasingly hostile to Muslims. Many Obama critics in the U.S. allege that he is a Muslim, not a Christian, the President acknowledged. "As you may know, my faith has at times been questioned-by people who don't know me-or they've said that I adhere to a different religion, as if that were somehow a bad thing," he said.

The President could hardly have been unaware, of course, that India's new Prime Minister has had a long track record of implying that belonging to a different religion than his own is indeed a bad thing - and that he depends for his political success on the support of people who have variously wanted all non-Hindus to convert "back" to the mother faith or be driven out of the country.

Obama's message was pointed: if India did not resolve the problems that were dividing the country, Mr Modi's proclaimed ambitious development plans would be thwarted. It is a message many of us in the Opposition have also been giving Mr Modi. But coming from the US President, whose visit is being hailed by the Government as a diplomatic triumph and whose "bromance" with the Indian PM has seen first names and much friendly banter, it is a pointed reminder of the fundamental contradiction at the heart of Mr Modi's regime.

As I spell out in my new book India Shastra, Mr Modi's speeches and rhetoric appear to recognize, and harness, a vital shift in our national politics from a politics of identity to a politics of performance; yet he has ridden to power at the helm of a party, the BJP, which is ill-suited to the challenge of delinking India's polity from the incendiary issue of religious identity on which it had built its base. So he stays silent while some of his own ministers speak of Ramzadein and Haramzadein, another asks Modi opponents to emigrate to Pakistan, and church burnings and re-conversion campaigns in the name of "ghar vapasi" intimidate minorities across the country. It would have been impossible for Mr Obama - who after all has to be accountable to a domestic constituency of liberals in the US -- to remain silent in the face of such well-documented provocations.

Americans have clearly noticed that Mr Modi's rise to office, which he is wisely selling to his visitor as the Indian equivalent of the American dream, has empowered the khaki-shorts wearing "cultural organization", the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), whose views on every subject - economics, politics, history, culture, morality, gender relations, even matters of appropriate dress or conduct -- are totally illiberal.  A party dependent on people who urge Hindu women to have four children - no, ten!, says another leader - not only shows profound disrespect to Hindu women (who have to endure the labour to fulfil these people's political fantasies) but alienates the Western and Arab investors without whom Mr Modi's agenda cannot be fulfilled.

The tensions between the two tendencies - the economic reformism preached at the top and the cultural nativism that animates the majority beneath - have begun to affect the Government's agenda. What makes it worse is that the political majority needed by the Prime Minister to pursue his economic policies relies entirely on the political campaigns and organizational capacity of the very people whose chauvinism is undermining him.

Mr Modi has built his appeal by putting the focus on what the Indian people manifestly need - more development, better governance, wider socio-economic opportunities. But having won an election by attracting voters to these themes, he has given free rein to the most retrograde elements in Indian society, who are busy dividing the country on Hindu chauvinist lines. Mr Modi cannot be oblivious to this fundamental contradiction, but he can only resolve it by jettisoning the very forces that have helped ensure his electoral victory. He won't, of course, which is why Mr Obama's pointed remarks were a necessary warning.

Of course Indians don't need an American visitor to tell them to uphold the ideal of freedom of religion. Respect for religious diversity is deeply embedded in our culture and reified in our Constitution. As I have long argued, Indian democracy is all about the management of diversity, and if we didn't respect our diversity we could no longer be the India that Mahatma Gandhi fought to free.

But for the first time, India has elected a Prime Minister who was himself named for "severe violations of religious freedom" in reports by the U.S. State Department from 2002 onwards, refused an American visa and banned from entering the United States. Mr Modi wasn't elected PM for condoning violence against minorities, but to fulfil an aspirational development vision he effectively articulated. Mr. Obama's speech was a way of telling him he can't do that without abandoning his old religious intolerance that earned him those American strictures. In other words, that the US supports the goals of Modi 2.0, but warns him he will fail if he reverts to Modi 1.0.

The problem is that the dominant strand in the ruling party cares much more about asserting Hindu chauvinism than it does about the economic reforms and investments that Mr Modi trumpeted - and which won him the support of voters who did not share his "Hindutva" agenda. That agenda, however, is undermining the economic agenda.

Investors are looking with mounting concern at Mr Modi's inability to manage this contradiction in his own support base. Foreigners are particularly concerned. As negative press increased abroad, potential investors have begun to feel skittish.

"What to think about the recent anti-Christian and Muslim tirades and conversion propositions?" one of them, Lorenz Reibling of the German-American firm Taurus Investments, asked me on the verge of committing a major investment to India. "Conversion and ethnic/religious cleansing doesn't ring well here in Germany particularly. The bizarre dream of a 100% Hindu India would be an India with little or no foreign support. That is not what India deserves." He added, in an email: "I doubt the Middle Eastern investors would welcome an anti-Muslim policy either. They could react by turning off the $-spigot. Europeans and Americans certainly would scale back considerably if Christians are exposed to an inquisition in reverse."

The Prime Minister finds himself in an invidious position in relation to his own supporters: he can't live with them and he can't live without them. But Mr Obama's speech adds a presidential voice to what many investors abroad are already saying.

The warning bells have already rung. Let us hope Mr Modi is listening.

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