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Modi’s India: Will the turning point be followed by a point of return?

A range of authors attempts to study Modi’s India in this book of essays. Aide to AB Vajpayee, Sudheendra Kulkarni examines this PM’s discomfiture with secularism. An excerpt.

books Updated: Mar 26, 2016 15:18 IST
Making sense of Modi's India,Narendra Modi,Sudheendra Kulkarni
PM Narendra Modi (third left) and former chief minister of Gujarat Keshubhai Patel (second right, front) at an RSS gathering near Ahmedabad in September 2009.(AFP)

A book of essays by a range of authors attempts to study Modi’s India. Aide to former Prime Minister AB Vajpayee, Sudheendra Kulkarni examines this PM’s discomfiture with secularism. An excerpt.

The sixteenth of May, 2014, was a turning point in Indian democracy. The Bharatiya Janata Party, with Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate, secured a historic victory in the general elections held that month. After thirty long years, a single party succeeded in winning a clear and decisive mandate on its own: 282 seats in a house of 544. In no election since 1984, when the Congress under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi and riding a sympathy wave in the wake of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, had a single party won a majority in the Lok Sabha. Modi’s leadership had helped the BJP attain its highest ever tally, which marked a staggering 100-seat increase from its previous high watermark of 182 seats in 1999.

Read: Narendra Modi finishes victory lap in Delhi, dedicates win to party workers

The result was a turning point in another important respect. The Indian National Congress, India’s oldest political party that had ruled for the longest period (forty-nine years) since the country’s independence in 1947, suffered its worst-ever electoral defeat. For a party that had secured outright majority in seven previous elections, and had led or supported six coalition governments, the tally was a measly forty-four seats.

By any reckoning, it was a stunning performance by the BJP. Previously, the party, led by its stalwarts Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani, used to claim that its biggest achievement was that it had transformed India’s Congress-led unipolar polity into a bipolar one, with the BJP having become the second pole. The claim was justifiable because the BJP, which was founded in 1980, had succeeded in defeating the Congress and forming coalition governments at the Centre after two parliamentary elections, in 1998 and 1999. On both occasions, the governments were led by Vajpayee, the founder as well as the tallest leader of the BJP. For a party that had bitten the dust in the 1984 parliamentary elections, winning only two seats, it was truly an impressive achievement to have become India’s ruling party fifteen years later under the leadership of Vajpayee and Advani.

Read: 2014 will go down in history as the election of Narendra Modi, says Rajdeep Sardesai

However, Modi demonstrated in 2014 that he could lead the BJP to a victory that far surpassed any that the Vajpayee-Advani duo had achieved. Indeed, in his very first innings as the captain of the BJP, he had succeeded in transforming India’s polity into unipolar again. The crucial difference, this time around, was that he had made the BJP the single pole in the country’s political establishment... The 2014 election was different for the BJP in another respect. In all previous elections, the party was seen to have been led by a collective leadership. ...The 2014 election changed all that. It was, and also deliberately projected as, Modi’s solo show. No other leader really mattered in the BJP. Both before and immediately after the election, Advani had been deliberately and systematically marginalized. Since Vajpayee has remained bedridden for many years – he had anyway become inactive after his government failed to win a renewed mandate in 2004 – the BJP suddenly and irreversibly emerged out of the Atal-Advani era. It entered the Modi era on 16 May 2014.


What happens to the BJP under Modi’s leadership is really of secondary importance. Of primary importance are the following questions: What happens to India with Modi at the helm of the government? How enduring is the turning point in Indian politics that his victory has effected? Will there be a point of return? And since history does not quite repeat itself in the literal sense of the term, what will be that ‘point of return’ when the Modi era does come to an end? An objective and dispassionate examination of these questions after twenty months of Modi’s government (at the time of writing this article) shows a mix of positive and negative trends. There are also some troubling signals that the positives could be overshadowed by the negatives if Modi allows himself to be controlled by the Sangh Parivar, the ideology-driven family of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), of which the BJP is a member...

Read: Modi govt’s first anniversary | It has been a year of icy silences

This book is a collection of essays by a range of authors including Sudheendra Kulkarni.


Modi’s performance on the foreign policy front so far has been creditworthy. He has taken personal charge of introducing dynamism into India’s relations with the rest of the world... Today India’s profile has become higher both in the Western world and also in our immediate and extended cultural neighbourhood. India’s relations with China, the emerging great power, have significantly improved even though there is no resolution in sight for the border dispute between the two countries...

Read: PM Modi’s Lahore surprise, the phone call that started it all

The only country with which Modi has so far failed to improve relations is Pakistan. Indeed, inconsistency and confusion, coupled with needless bravado, have marked his government’s approach to Pakistan. Normalization of India-Pakistan relations is a historical necessity for both countries – indeed, for South Asia as a whole. Both New Delhi and Islamabad need to revise their traditional, and failed, approaches to dealing with one another as enemies...

After spending nearly one and a half years in deciding how to engage Pakistan, Modi sprang a pleasant surprise by paying an unexpected visit to Lahore on 25 December 2015. Although the specific purpose of his visit was to greet his counterpart Nawaz Sharif on his birthday, Modi’s gesture signalled a much-needed thaw in India-Pakistan relations. It was widely welcomed on both sides of the border, including Modi’s critics...

Of course, the road ahead for the ‘Comprehensive Bilateral Dialogue’ is by no means smooth. There will be many obstacles and crises along the way. One such crisis erupted when both India and Pakistan were still basking in the warmth of Modi’s visit to Lahore. In the first week of January 2016, Pakistan-based terrorists, reportedly belonging to Jaish-e-Mohammed, attacked the Indian Air Force base in Pathankot in Punjab. Seven security personnel were killed in the attack, which naturally outraged the Indian public. It also temporarily led to the postponement of the scheduled meeting between the foreign secretaries of the two countries.

Read: Reconstructing the Pathankot air base attack

Narendra Modi after a meeting with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat at a temple in Adalaj, about 20 kilometers north of Ahmadabad in September 2009. (AP)

However, such terrorist attacks are only to be expected. Whenever Indian and Pakistani governments have decided to begin serious bilateral talks, anti-India elements in Pakistan have tried to sabotage them in some or the other violent way. Stopping the talks for this reason would amount to victory for those who want India and Pakistan to continue to live as hostile neighbours. Therefore, the test of Modi’s leadership – and also the test of his counterpart in Pakistan – lies in his determination to continue the talks in an uninterrupted, meaningful and result-oriented manner, certain in the knowledge that dialogue is the only way to resolve all the problems between our two countries. There is simply no military solution.

In case Modi has internalized this realization, he will have to take up two attendant tasks. First, he has to courageously reject the advice of both the militaristic establishment in New Delhi as well as the rabid Pakistan-haters in the Sangh Parivar. Without lowering the guard in the uncompromising fight against terrorism, he has to remould the thinking of the Sangh Parivar in favour of an enduring rapprochement with Pakistan on terms that are honourable and acceptable to both sides. Specifically, and this is the second task, both he and the Sangh Parivar have to recognize the truth that any formula for normalization of relations between India and Pakistan has to address the core issue of Jammu & Kashmir. As per the Simla Pact of 1972, both countries have accepted that a ‘final settlement’ of the Jammu & Kashmir issue is yet to be reached, and also that they would settle it through bilateral negotiations. Obviously, this requires, both in India and in Pakistan, broad national consensus and the willingness to accept certain compromises. So far at least, Modi has not articulated his thinking on the resolution of the Kashmir issue, without which normalization of India-Pakistan relations can at best be partial and tentative.

Read: PM Modi’s package cannot solve the Kashmir issue, says Opposition

On its part, the army and the political establishment in Pakistan also must show courage and determination in fighting the forces of Islamist extremism and terrorism. Correcting their costly mistakes in the past, they must vow never again to use or allow these murderous forces to target India. After all, they ought to know that Pakistan itself has suffered the most on account of encouraging and sheltering extremist and terrorist organizations on its soil...


It is in the area of safeguarding secularism that Modi, his party and his government have a lot of work to do to allay the concerns and misgivings of not only India’s religious minorities but also of secular-minded Hindus who constitute the majority within India’s majority community. Modi would surely be inviting trouble for himself if he chose not to remove these concerns. After all, his failure or unwillingness to do so would seriously threaten the Idea of India that guarantees our national unity and integrity. And no leader, howsoever powerful, can govern India if his core beliefs and policies endanger the Idea of India; if he or she alienates the country’s large population of religious minorities, especially Muslims.

Read: ‘Why is Modi silent?’ Rivals criticise PM over Dadri lynching

What is the idea of India? Why is it so fundamental to our national identity, unity, survival and progress?

India is, and has always been, a multi-faith nation. Freedom of religion, equality of all faiths in the eyes of the nation-state and all its institutions, equal respect for all faiths both in polity and society, and non-discrimination on the basis of creed or caste have been assured by the Indian Constitution. They are also embedded in India’s age-old cultural and civilizational heritage, which celebrates unity in diversity. They together constitute the meaning of secularism in the Indian context. The Partition of India in 1947 and the carving out of Pakistan as a separate ‘Muslim nation’ on the basis of the spurious Two-Nation theory dealt a severe blow to this heritage. In subsequent decades, this Muslim nation further solidified its identity as an Islamic nation. The population of Hindus, Sikhs and Christians in Pakistan shrank drastically. Their rights were severely curtailed. However, as far as the truncated post-1947 India is concerned, the founding fathers of our republic wisely desisted from making India a Hindu version of Pakistan; they created a Constitution that committed India to the principle of secularism.

The idea of India: Why the choice is clear in intolerance debate

Narendra Modi paying homage to RSS founder KB Hedgewar at the Hedgewar Smruti Mandir in Nagpur in February 2009. (PTI)

It is true that the word ‘secularism’ was not explicitly included in the Preamble of the Indian Constitution when it came into force in 1950. Opponents of secularism, most of whom are in the Sangh Parivar, often gripe over the fact that the word was incorporated into the Constitution as a preambular principle only later in 1976, when India was reeling under the Emergency rule (1975-1977) imposed by the then prime minister, Indira Gandhi. Their criticism does not hold water for two reasons. First, even though the word ‘secular’ was not specifically used to describe the Republic of India in 1950, the content and essence of even the original unamended version of the Indian Constitution was incontrovertibly secular. Secondly, no political party, not even the BJP, has demanded, after the lifting of the Emergency, that the Constitution should be amended once again to excise the word ‘secular’ from its Preamble. In fact, the Janata Party government, which came into being in 1977 – both Vajpayee and Advani were prominent ministers in that government − annulled all the anti-democracy amendments to the Constitution that had been passed by Indira Gandhi’s regime during the Emergency. However, it kept the word ’secular’ intact in the Preamble. This means that, both in the post-1950 period as well as in the post-1976 period, there has been a rock-solid national consensus on secularism as a fundamental pillar of the idea of India.

The Sangh’s new clothes: RSS has changed the uniform, not its views

Sadly, this consensus is sought to be broken, altered, or at any rate weakened by the BJP and its government now. Concerns on this score have arisen because of the Sangh Parivar’s extreme discomfort with the secular core of the constitutionally endorsed Idea of India. In open defiance of the spirit and the text of the Indian Constitution, leaders of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), an affiliate of the RSS, have been saying more vociferously than ever before that India should be declared a Hindu Rashtra. This clearly means that, in their understanding of India, non-Hindus – especially, Muslims who constitute the largest minority in the country – have a secondary status which is not on a par with the Hindus’. When pressed to explain their position, RSS ideologues state that the word ‘Hindu’, according to them, connotes culture and not religion, and therefore even Muslims in India should regard themselves as culturally ‘Hindus’.


This is nothing but deceptive verbal hair-splitting and conceptual obfuscation. By no stretch of imagination can the word ‘Hindu’ be stripped of its religious connotation in today’s India. Indeed, when the VHP describes itself as an organization of Hindus worldwide, it clearly uses the term ‘Hindu’ in its religious sense. All the religious leaders who congregate on the VHP platform are Hindu religious leaders; it has no place for Muslim or Christian religious leaders.

Obviously, the claim that India is a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ is an assault on India as a secular nation. The claim is deeply offensive to Muslim, Christian and other non-Hindu Indians. Indeed, it also offends the patriotism of a majority of Hindus who are secular by nature.

A quick explanation is in order here even at the risk of a slight digression. It might be asked: If a majority of Hindus are secular, how did the BJP under Modi’s leadership manage to secure a decisive mandate in the 2014 parliamentary election? The answer to this question is that most of the Hindus who voted for the BJP – Muslims hardly ever vote for the BJP in significant numbers – did so not because they were influenced by the Sangh Parivar’s Hindutva ideology. They did so principally because, firstly, they wanted to end the highly unpopular Congress rule which was marred by many corruption scandals; secondly, they were influenced by Modi’s promise of ushering in development and better governance; thirdly, Modi was able to project himself as a ‘strong leader’; fourthly, the Congress party’s new and young leader Rahul Gandhi failed hopelessly to match Modi’s mass appeal; and fifthly, both Hindus and Muslims were disenchanted with the Congress party’s self-serving and inconsistent espousal of secularism. Those who voted for the BJP solely because of its Hindutva ideology were only its core voters, whose number is small and who, by themselves, can never bring their party to power either in central or state elections.

Read: Meet the RSS leader who changed fortunes of a Muslim village

Let us return to the discussion on secularism. In a clear sign that the RSS was tightening its ideological control over the BJP, after the end of the Vajpayee-Advani era, the word ‘secularism’ did not find even a cursory mention in the BJP’s manifesto for the 2014 parliamentary election. This was not an oversight. Modi himself, as the party’s prime ministerial candidate, had shown his disapproval of the word ‘secularism’. In an interview given to Shahid Siddiqui before the polls, while answering a pointed question ‘Will you keep secularism as part of the Constitution or remove it?’ Modi described secularism as an ‘imported’ word.

The answer given by India’s would-be prime minister was as baffling as it was disturbing. Secularism, understood as a non-theocratic state that shows equal respect for all faiths, is by no means an imported concept. If Modi thinks secularism is foreign to India, he should also declare parliamentary democracy to be foreign to India since it too is ‘imported’ from the West!

It is worth emphasizing here that BJP’s own constitution, adopted when the party was founded in 1980 with Vajpayee as its founding president, shows allegiance to ‘secularism’. If Prime Minister Modi believes that it is an ‘imported’ concept, will he now get his party to remove the word from its constitution? Even if he does, he and his supporters should know that ‘secularism’ cannot be removed from the Preamble to India’s Constitution since it forms part of the ‘Basic Structure’ of the Constitution. The Supreme Court has clearly, and wisely, curtailed Parliament’s powers, under Article 368, to amend the Constitution when such amendment seeks to alter its very heart and soul. The basic structure can be changed only by a new Constituent Assembly. Neither the BJP nor any other party can bring a new Constituent Assembly into being.

Nevertheless, the prime minister’s displeasure over ‘secularism’ has helped create an intellectual atmosphere in which many of his supporters have taken to secularism bashing with no fear of being reprimanded. For example, the social media is awash with the abusive term ‘sickular’ to describe the secular constituency.

To be fair to Modi, I must add here that in the same pre-election interview with Shahid Siddiqui, he had also spoken these reassuring words: ‘There is only one holy book for the Indian government, and that is the Constitution. I respect everything that the Constitution says.’ He is therefore duty-bound, and also bound by his own solemn assurance, to swear his allegiance to secularism. In practical and policy terms, this obliges him and his government to treat all religions and religious communities equally with no discrimination. His own party’s pre-election promise of ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’ enjoins him to do so.


An important question arises here. As the prime minister of India, Modi has to scrupulously follow the Indian Constitution’s commandment on secularism. His failure to do so will be the undoing of his premiership. Whether he likes it or not, whether his core beliefs permit him or not, he is bound by the Constitution to ensure that his government does nothing that violates secular ideals and principles. Which means that his government cannot follow a majoritarian agenda, even though that is what many in the Sangh Parivar would like it to do. The prime minister’s fairness and rectitude would be especially tested if, God forbid, India witnesses an outbreak of communal violence. The communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 was certainly a blot on his record as the state’s chief minister. Indeed, it was also a blot on Vajpayee’s prime ministership, besides being a major cause for his failure to lead the BJP to win a renewed mandate in the 2004 Lok Sabha election.

Read: From IS to RSS, drawing parallels between Islamism and Hindutva

It is obvious, therefore, that Modi and his government – and also BJP governments in states as well as the BJP organization all over the country − must ensure zero tolerance both for communal violence and terrorist violence. Those guilty of aiding and abetting such violence, irrespective of their religious and political affiliation, must be punished as per the rule of law.

Zero tolerance for communal violence also entails no tolerance for communal and hate propaganda by Hindu, Muslim or other organizations. Naturally, this includes the RSS propaganda that India is – and should be declared as – a ‘Hindu Rashtra’. So far, no BJP leader, not even Modi, has publicly criticized the RSS for this divisive advocacy even though some BJP leaders privately express reservations about the ‘Hindu Rashtra’ concept. However, with the passage of time, Modi and his colleagues in the government and the party will be forced to distance themselves from, and also actively curb, the anti-Muslim and anti-minorities propaganda by the outfits of the Sangh Parivar. They will also have to show at least some concern for the legitimate concerns, needs and demands of the Muslim community, even at the risk of being accused by Hindu communalists of following the ‘Congress policy of appeasing Muslims’. Modi is an astute politician and he knows that alienating a large section of the Indian population would create problems for his premiership – especially for his desire to win a second term in the parliamentary election in 2019.

Read: Narendra Modi turns to Jawaharlal Nehru

All this will inevitably create tension between Modi and the Sangh Parivar. When such tension surfaces, the choices before him would be stark: either he allows himself and his government to be controlled by the Sangh Parivar, or he curbs and subdues the Sangh Parivar in pursuit of its majoritarian agenda. The former choice will spell doom for his government. Of course, there could also be other threats to his government such as failure to fulfil people’s expectations and its own election promises related to development and good governance. If Modi makes the latter choice, he would be doing a big service to India.

Read: How Narendra Modi resembles Indira Gandhi

In my opinion, making the latter choice – acceptance of the secular anchor of the Idea of India – would constitute for Modi and the BJP ‘the point of return’ to the mainstream of national life.

Whether Modi and the BJP actually make this choice or not is difficult to predict but not beyond the pale of possibility. After all, there are many sensible and secular-minded people in the RSS and the BJP who care for India’s future and who would be amenable to revising their own ideological beliefs. Electoral compulsions and the compulsions of retaining power will also force them to change their convictions, policies and conduct.

After all, India’s democracy and our plural cultural-civilizational heritage have the invincible power to ensure that only those who are, or become, faithful to the Idea of India will govern this great nation and shape its destiny. In that power lies the hope for India.

Making Sense of Modi’s India


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First Published: Mar 26, 2016 13:30 IST