Narendra Modi’s victory needs to be understood beyond the two commonly heard positions we have heard these past few months leading up to the election. Critics of Modi saw his rise as the march of Hindu nationalist fascism and the inevitable death of secularism in India. Supporters of Modi saw his rise as a sign of hope for India after years of corruption in high places, general ineptitude, and a sickening sense of venality in civic and public life.
But India’s vote for Narendra Modi needs to be understood beyond these two ideas. Even if Modi ran on a campaign of universal good governance rather than divisive anti-secular rhetoric, and even if his critics now assume that his victory means an end to something noble in India, the truth is that both positions only tiptoe around what his victory means from a modern, civilizational Hindu point of view today.
The mandate that Narendra Modi has won, in other words, is not just for either good governance, or for dismantling secularism, but for embodying a new, emerging idea of what it means to be Hindu, and Indian, in the world today. It is very different from thinking of it as a mandate for Hindu nationalism of the kind we witnessed in the late 1980s and 1990s.
This mandate, simply put, is about Hinduism even more than Hindu nationalism, or secularism. It might sound paradoxical, but by running on a promise of universal good, rather than on divisive identity-rhetoric, Modi has re-established a very Hindu way of looking at the world. This is important to recognize, because the anointed secular position against Modi, though seemingly a good thing—for secularism is a good thing in my view—has very little intellectual, emotional, or moral purchase in large sections of India’s young today. We need to recognize that, and to respect that.
Young people in India today, growing up in a rapidly globalizing cultural environment, aspiring perhaps to study or work in other countries, generally disposed favorably towards the United States and the West, and also, for the most part, accustomed to diverse, multi-religious coexistence in India and therefore not inherently hateful to other communities, find a tremendous contradiction between how they see themselves and how they are represented in the global discourse.
Young Hindus see themselves as part of a great civilizational heritage, and value it not just for its ancient glory, but also because they see its spirituality as being the core of their civilizational ethic of coexistence and respect for all religions. If Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, Buddhists, Jains, and so many different kind of Hindus divided by language, custom, caste and history still share a land and history so deeply, they know it is not simply because of India’s secular constitution, but because of Hinduism’s ancient legacy of respecting all faiths. There is a new sense of wanting to be Indian, and Hindu, in India’s young that is very different from the simplistic Hindu nationalist rhetoric we saw two decades ago.
Unfortunately, even if Hindus have moved on for the most part from the extremism and jingoistic pride of that period, the secular commentary has not. In fact, it has only become worse, if such a thing was possible. It should come as no surprise to anyone therefore that the numerous earnest and passionate appeals to Indian voters to reject Modi that populated the august pages of The Guardian, The New York Times, and The Economist in recent months probably had very little meaning for voters in India. To know why, it is worth recalling what else these publications had to say about Hindus, Hinduism, and India in the last few years, before they took up their outraged positions on behalf of India’s supposedly vanishing secularism.
The Economist once described a holy Hindu deity, the Shiva Lingam at Amarnath, as a “penis-shaped lump of ice.”
The Guardian once lampooned the passing of a revered Hindu guru, who probably did more to uphold India’s secular, multi-religious fabric than any intellectual or activist ever did, and derided his teachings as simplistic “peace, love and vegetarianism.”
The New York Times published a spate of op-ed pieces after the 2008 Pakistani terrorist attacks blaming India and Hindu nationalism. Not to mention its serious advocacy for a Hinduism “expert” who compares ancient Hindus to Nazis in her book, The Hindus, and unilateral exclusion of dissenting opinion.
With this sort of a track record, why would take anyone take them seriously on Narendra Modi either?
The fact is that what might have been a fair, principled position of secularist critique against Hindu extremism has long ago lost all integrity in the eyes of most reasonable Hindus. They may not care for the sort of ultra-nationalism and minority-abusing that some Hindutva leaders did, but they do care about their religion, their nation, and their place in the world.
They do not see secularism being advocated against Modi, but only Hinduphobia.
Had Modi run on a really divisive platform, the situation would have indeed been different. But fact is that he did not.
Perhaps the time has truly come for a better conversation now about India, and the future of religion, and nationalism. We need a better notion of secularism than the profoundly orientalistic Hinduphobia we have seen so far. We also need a better notion of Hindu nationalism to enter the debate than the 19th century ideologies that have dominated its parties for a long time. At least on the latter, Modi has marked a distinct change from the past.
Whether Prime Minister Modi is truly different from the Chief Minister who allegedly allowed a terrible riot to run wild in 2002 is of course a question that leaves many restless. The Indian electorate has clearly spoken in his favor. If there was really an inexcusable level of culpability, then surely votes too would not mean any lessening of it.
But we do have to consider one thing, which people in India probably have and those of us who only read about India through largely Hinduphobic publications have not. For a few days in 2002, the allegation holds, a government failed in its responsibility to protect its citizens, and for this lapse punishments were indeed made. We are however not satisfied with those who paid for these crimes, and somehow sought the head, so to speak, of one man more than any other. Whether it was for what he really did, or whether he only became a symbol for all our fears, is perhaps not ever going to be known for sure.
Nothing can and will erase the pain of those who suffered in Gujarat in 2002, Hindu and Muslim. Nothing can and will erase the pain of all those who suffered at the hands of terrorists and their bombs and bullets in India in the last two decades. But one thing the Indian electorate has done decisively now is to reject those whose politics have rested on the divisive and ugly identity-claims that underlie that sort of violence.
India has rejected both pseudo-secularism, and jingoistic Hindu extremism. It has accepted a plank of good governance for all, which for young Hindus could also mean a repudiation of brazen, racist Hinduphobia, and for others might prove a reassurance eventually that India’s secular constitution will not be threatened, and may even be strengthened by recognizing the civilizational roots on which that country’s many religions rest.
This election was not really about choosing between secularism and religious extremism as it was made out to be. The choice was perhaps seen by people in India more accurately as one between Hinduphobia and an India for everyone.
And India has chosen.
Vamsee Juluri is a Professor of Media Studies and the author, most recently, of Bollywood Nation: India through its Cinema. This article was first published on Huffington Post.