This is a blog post by one of our contributing authors. Dr. Martin Forward is a British, Methodist Christian lecturer and author on religion and Professor of History at Aurora University. He has taught Islam at the Universities of Leicester, Bristol and Cambridge, and had spent a period of time in India where he was ordained into the Church of South India. He was also a member of the Cambridge University Faculty of Divinity. He has authored a number of books related to both Islam and Christianity.
I was living in India in 1977 when, after a period of ‘emergency rule’, the dominant Congress Party was swept out of power by the popular vote. It was exhilarating to watch an increasingly autocratic and out of touch Gandhi family get their comeuppance from an electorate angered by a distasteful mixture of entitlement, hauteur, corruption and incompetence. Wind forward thirty seven years to 2014, and the parallels are obvious and intriguing.
There may be more parallels to make. The new Janata government of 1977 failed to deliver its promises, and lost power two years later to a resurgent Congress Party. Looking back to 1979, maybe people voted against the factionalism of the Janata Party rather than for the return of the Gandhi dynasty.
One reason for the failings of the Janata government, though only one of many, was its inappropriate use of religion, whereby individuals from the Prime Minister down tried to impose their idiosyncratic views of reality on a country that was too diverse and complex to accept such trivial and monolithic certainties. Will Narendra Modi and his BJP party fall into the same trap, alienating millions of Indians, including some Hindus, by imposing their rather narrow views of Hindu nationalism on a country of many faiths and secular ideologies? Mr. Modi’s controversial involvement in the 2002 riots in the state of Gujarat inclines many members of minority religious and secular groups to distrust and even fear him. Let’s hope that he’s learned from those tense and dark days.
Maybe he has. Mr. Modi made some inspiring and conciliatory gestures at his swearing in ceremony as the new Prime Minister of India. Not only did he promise to govern for all the people of India, whatever their beliefs and convictions, he also made a point of inviting political leaders of South Asia to attend his inauguration. The presence of the Prime Minister of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, Nawaz Sharif, was a first at such an event, and both leaders used the aftermath of the occasion as an opportunity to talk.
There are differences as well as parallels between the elections of 1977 and 2014. The Janata party was an uneasy coalition of divers groups who were, for one reason or another, anti-Congress and especially anti-Indira Gandhi. This time, the BJP seems set fair to produce a more cohesive and unified government. But one can never tell. Parliamentary representatives of Indian political parties can’t so easily be whipped into shape and obedience as can, say, congressional members of the Republican Party in the USA.
Citizens of the USA who believe in the separation of church and state often find the meshing of religion and politics in other countries distasteful and worrying. A few such friends of mine assume that Mr. Modi has cynically manipulated Hindu religious sensibilities to gain power, and wonder whether he hasn’t unleashed a tiger that could eventually gobble him up and spit him out. Maybe these friends haven’t understood how unusual and even eccentric, in the context of the long history of human government, is their assumption that religion and politics don’t mix. European and North American secularism is often anti-religious in a somewhat superficial way, reasonably insistent on its right to dominate the discourse and the political landscape in just as dogmatic a way as religions often unreasonably do.
As it happens, the Indian Constitution has a rather nuanced view of secularism, which (if I may rather over-simplify things for clarity’s sake) permits different religions and ideologies to share in establishing, maintaining and molding the many diversities of Indian society. It will be important for members of the new government, which has appropriated Hindu symbols to establish its identity and popularity, not to abandon their convictions but to transcend them, for the common good. Otherwise, disaster awaits them. For all their overwhelming success in the election, BJP members failed to persuade the electorate of most of South and East India to vote for them. There, regional issues (which often have different shades of Hindu ideology than those painted by the BJP that gained traction in the north and west of India) are as important as the religious ideology of the present government. Already, the government is being tempted away from important economic and other political matters, by individual politicians who want to impose their views about homosexuals and women on the country as a whole, in the name of some religious conviction.
Still, enough of these portentous ruminations. Two out of every three eligible Indians voted in the world’s largest democracy. The people have spoken. We’ll see if the politicians are worthy of their trust.
The views expressed in Niagara Foundation’s blog by contributing authors do not necessarily reflect the views of the Niagara Foundation or our staff.