The majoritarian myth – Minhaz Merchant

Indian Pluralism

Minhaz MerchantAcross much of the world, majoritarianism now holds sway. In Trump’s America it is reflected in the hostility to immigration. In Britain, it manifests itself in xenophobia, a retreat to Little England. Both Britain and the US unabashedly declare themselves Christian-majority countries. … In India, by contrast, “majoritarian” Modi breaks bread with Muslm clerics and Christian bishops. – Minhaz Merchant

Ever since Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office in May 2014, prophets of doom have made three prophecies: first, that India will be wracked by communal riots; second, that dissent will be stifled; and third, that India’s global reputation as a liberal democracy will be irreparably damaged.

All three predictions have proved false, both empirically and qualitatively. That doesn’t mean Modi escapes blame entirely. The Prime Minister has been a good executor of innovative schemes in sanitation, financial inclusion, digitisation, infrastructure, rural electrification and many other sectors. But a strange dichotomy has pervaded his prime ministership.

Modi has proved a closet Nehruvian by relying on the public sector to drive the economy. Instead of privatising white elephants like MTNL and Air India, the government has poured more good money into them. Worse, instead of modernising the bureaucracy, Modi has doubled down on a corroded IAS hierarchy to run key ministries like finance, defence and civil aviation. Institutions have been stunted by placing favoured ideologues in them rather than individuals of true merit.

However, what Modi-baiters feared most—a sharp rise in communal riots on his watch—has not transpired. Examine the evidence. According to IndiaSpend, a fact-checking site, communal incidents spiked 28 per cent between 2014 and 2017 (an annualised increase of 9 per cent) with 822 “incidents” recorded in 2017 alone. However, this was lower than the decade-high figure of 943 communal incidents recorded in 2008.

Incidents of lynchings over cow slaughter and the free rein given to gaurakshaks, especially in polarised Uttar Pradesh, have led the Opposition to argue that while widespread communal riots have not occurred on Modi’s watch due to fear of majoritarian reprisals, an atmosphere of hostility against Muslims has been deliberately built up by incendiary communal statements by BJP MPs and MLAs.

The actor Naseeruddin Shah reflected this view when he declared:  “There is complete impunity for those who take the law into their own hands. In many areas, we are witnessing that the death of a cow is more significant than that of a police officer.”

Three years ago actor Aamir Khan’s wife Kiran Rao declared her intention to leave India (she hasn’t so far) owing to the growing atmosphere of intolerance. Meanwhile, dozens of websites have sprung up over the past three years tearing into the Modi government on a daily basis. In a vibrant democracy strong criticism of the government, however motivated, is better than fawning sycophancy that several mainstream media outlets have adopted.

Dissent in Modi’s India, contrary to the prophecies of doom, is alive and well though it often degenerates into personal abuse of the prime minister. Much the same happens in mature democracies like Britain and the United States where Prime Minister Theresa May and President Donald Trump face vituperative abuse from public and press. They take it in their stride as should Modi.

And the third prophecy? If the Modi government hasn’t sparked communal riots or stifled dissent, surely it has damaged India’s global reputation? Not quite. China has retreated from its confrontational position with India into a warm embrace.

Beijing recognises that an increasingly hostile Washington will make India the balancing global power in the evolving geopolitics of the future. Sri Lanka and the Maldives are back in India’s camp. With the political influence of post-Brexit Britain likely to decline and both France and Germany immersed in domestic problems, India’s global role is set to expand.

Meanwhile, across much of the world, majoritarianism now holds sway. In Trump’s America it is reflected in the hostility to immigration. In Britain, it manifests itself in xenophobia, a retreat to Little England. Both Britain and the US unabashedly declare themselves Christian-majority countries as former British Prime Minister David Cameron said publicly in 2015 and President Trump says repeatedly at every rally.

In India, by contrast, “majoritarian” Modi breaks bread with Shia clerics and church bishops. Ironically, it is secular Hindus who have succeeded in instilling fear in minorities. They alienate the Hindu majority by appeasing rather than empowering Muslims. On Modi’s watch, the attitude of the average Hindu has hardened against Muslims because he sees a conspiracy between self-declared secular Hindus on the one hand and Muslim-appeasing political parties like the Congress, SP, NCP and RJD on the other.

A strong cabal in media, civil society and Bollywood uses the myth of majoritarianism as a bludgeon. Actor Kangana Ranaut put it bluntly: “I am the most liberal person I know. Self-proclaimed liberals can’t rattle me by trying to seek attention. Their agenda is to go against the government, protest against the national anthem, but how are they standing up for the country? Our situation needs to be rectified by a strong set of ideals. The earlier government played on dividing the majority and minority because the latter sticks together and votes flock in. Governments can’t be partial to either side. Our religions are beautiful but we must subscribe to nationalism to bind us together.”

Muslims themselves are divided. Shias, Bohras and Memons, traditionally mercantile, feel no fear from majoritarianism. It is the nexus between self-appointed secular Hindus, Sunni fundamentalists and political parties fishing in troubled waters that have given rise to the myth of Indian majoritarianism.

»  Minhaz Merchant is the biographer of Rajiv Gandhi and Aditya Birla. He is a media group chairman and editor, and the author of The New Clash of Civilizations.

Modi with Muslims


One Response

  1. Fine analysis.


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