India’s faith in politicsA trip to the Hindu heartland ahead of India’s general elections next year
As the most populous country in the world, India’s democracy is tangled up in politics, religion, and the economy ahead of next year’s elections.
India’s mainstream media has equated Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) with prosperity, and a majority of the public in north India seems to buy that line.
Indeed, India’s GDP has grown by 6.3% over the past nine years since Modi took office, its annual economic growth rate is the envy of the world. But the Modi government is also accused of strategically promoting crony capitalism, systematically tolerating attacks on minorities, and controlling the mass media.
All this is already beginning to have a profound impact on Nepal’s own polity, with parties espousing Modi-style Hindutva becoming more vocal, their call for restoring the Hindu state sitting uneasily with the demands to also bring back the monarchy.
This trip by a Nepali journalist across the stronghold of the Modi government ahead of the 2024 general election and coinciding with the Kanvar Yatra revealed both faith-driven politics as well as deep misgivings about India straying from its secular path.
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The Himalayan state of Uttarakhand was busy with the annual Bol Bom pilgrimage with hundreds of thousands of pilgrims walking to the source of the Ganga to collect its holy water for their own local Shiva shrines.
Along a stretch of highway, devotees wore t-shirts emblazoned with the symbol Om as they ordered meals at a dhawa eatery. Their motorcycles were festooned in saffron flags with images of Hanuman. Unsurprisingly, they were vocal in their support for the Hindu nationalist BJP, their religious devotion having translated into political preference to strongly identify with Hindutva.
“India should be a Hindu country and protect its religion and culture. After all, there are one too many Christian and Muslim nations in the world,” said one young pilgrim.
At a tea shop in Rishikesh, devotees praised Narendra Modi and Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Yogi Adityanath for their commitment to promoting Hindutva.
“India has become a better place with Modi cracking down on crime and corruption,” affirmed one devotee in saffron attire.
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A group at a table lectured a visiting Nepali about how India needed a strongman with the “correct” ideology that asserted India’s greatness on the world stage. They credited Modi for giving India international recognition and respect it did not have before.
The highways to Rishikesh were ablaze in saffron banners and posters of Modi and Yogi Adityanath on walls of highway bridges and the backs of buses. The roads were packed with convoys of trucks with loudspeakers belting out devotional music to which the pilgrims danced.
In between, there were also songs exhorting people to vote for the BJP in next year’s elections. The BJP has tried to brand itself as the protector of Hinduism, facilitating, amplifying and even radicalising their beliefs.
Bol Bom pilgrims looked visibly uncomfortable when asked about the attacks on Muslims across Northern India. Most dismissed the question entirely, with some suspicious about that line of questioning.
We also tried to gauge the political pulse of the general public away from the religious processions. What did India’s Dalits and Muslims think of Modi and his saffronification of politics?
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Even Indians who do not identify with Hindutva politics are Modi fans because they credit his two terms since 2014 as being the reason for India’s rapid economic growth. A businessman from Gurgaon who runs an export business in India and Nepal praised Modi’s leadership for business expansion, providing better loan schemes for startups, and attracting foreign investment.
Even so, while Cyber City Gurgaon or Noida on the outskirts of New Delhi offer glimpses of prosperity, the rural reality for much of the population is a different story.
“I feel cheated, Modi did not deliver on his promises,” said a bookstore owner in Delhi, explaining that an increase in GDP didn't necessarily translate into higher living standards for many.
Along the pavement near Delhi’s railway station are rows and rows of homeless. Unemployment is still high, and young men injected themselves with drugs in the shadows of underpasses of the capital and ghettos near Jame Masjid.
The world’s largest democracy may have elected this prime minister, but his party has used populism, fear-mongering and censorship to consolidate its support. But no one dares to speak out for fear of retribution.
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“If you point a finger against Modi, they will raid your home,” said the bookstore owner in a hushed tone. He voted for Modi’s BJP in 2014 and 2019, but says he is unlikely to do so in 2024 because he does not want to live in this state of fear.
Media critics like journalist Ravish Kumar face constant harassment and death threats from government supporters. Adani Group buying out NDTV is viewed as a further move against the last remaining democratic voices.
“No media channel is critical of the government,” said another interlocutor. It is an indication of the pervasive paranoia that none of the critics of the BJP wanted their name used. “The media is used for hate speech against minorities, to distract attention from the real problems, and to glorify India’s Hindu past and its future.”
One has to turn to social media to find out the truth about lynchings, bulldozing of Muslim neighbourhoods or attacks on holy sites. The mainstream media either does not mention those attacks, or provides a distorted account.
It is easy to be impressed with India’s impressive investment in infrastructure, the gleaming towers in its cities and the traffic jams on its roads. India might have taken a step forward in economic growth, but its democracy has taken two steps back.
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