Indian election – Democratic Nationalism vs Communalism

Muslim world

The notion that a strident anti-Islam national sentiment can co-exist with India’s geopolitical ambitions is laughable. Strident Hinduism has no future. This should be self-evident. Just look at our geography. For 4,000 km to the west, till Sub-Saharan Africa; to the northwest till Eastern Europe and to the southeast of India through Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia and oil-rich Brunei, Islam is the dominant religion.

If Hindus in India were to live as a dominant majority with scant regard for the rights of the minorities, we would box ourselves in with 4,000 km wide walls of Islamic geopolitical and religious resistance around us, if not an active pushback.

The Han Chinese model of cultural union as nationalism


Sure, we could flee into the arms of China, which actively follows a policy of repression in its Muslim-dominant Xinjiang province, with marginal international disapproval. But it gets away with it because it can compensate for its political transgressions by buying love. We could become a vassal of China and behave similarly under its geopolitical umbrella — like a gigantic Cambodia or Myanmar. But how many Indians would prefer kowtowing to China, rather than bowing to the principle of peaceful co-existence of all religions, as our Constitution ordains.

It is odd that “nationalism” is being equated to “Hinduism”. In the Indian context, “nationalism” should actually mean eschewing communalism in social norms and in politics. Most Indian political parties follow this principle, including a few, which oddly are allies of the ruling BJP in the existing National Democratic Alliance, like the Janata Dal (United) of Nitish Kumar and the Akali Dal of the Badals, as also the Telugu Desam Party and the Biju Janata Dal (BJD), which were part of this alliance till the BJP government backtracked on funding the development of the new state of Andhra Pradesh and set about undermining the BJD in Odisha.

South India – a model of nationalism and economic development


The five southern states are free of religious divisiveness as are West Bengal and Odisha in the east. Strident anti-Islamic sentiment is concentrated in central and northern India — the heart of the erstwhile Mughal Empire —and western India, which was most exposed to loot and plunder. The bitterness of the 1947 Partition embellished this anti-Islamic sentiment, as more than three million Hindu refugees, from what is today’s Islamic Pakistan, spread out in this contiguous region and grew roots.

Rapid growth lifts all boats and decreases the “social and economic value” of traditional identities like religion or caste

But not all is gloom and doom. First, economic development has provided incentives for communal harmony. Consider the evidence. The five states and one Union territory of southern India have Hindu populations in the high 80 per cent range, except Kerala where it is 55 per cent (2011 census) and yet, they remain communally tranquil. With a share of 21 per cent in national population they are 59 per cent richer (2015-16 per capita state income) than communally restive states. Poverty increases religious and caste tensions as traditional identities fight for a share in the stagnant pie of public subsidies and entitlement.

It is not just the South which remains free of communalism. Punjab, Odisha, West Bengal, Sikkim, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya and three Union territories comprising 35 per cent of the national population are 35 per cent richer than the communally sensitive states.  This shows that mere proximity to Islamic countries — Punjab to Pakistan in the west and West Bengal to Bangladesh in the east — does not sufficiently explain why societies become communally charged, unlike in the isolated case of Jammu & Kashmir.

A more granular district-wise analysis can throw additional light on the true drivers of communal tension, beyond the empty rhetoric of a frustrated Hindu population hitting back against appeasement of Muslims by the Congress, which was a default electoral option, in pre-1990 era, for the marginalised, when the Grand Old Party was a national party.

You may choose your friends but you have to live with your family


Second, it is simply inconceivable that India can be a credible regional power, in transition mode to “great power status”, without carrying 20 per cent of its non-Hindu population along together. It is not just Muslims who fear the fall out of strident Hinduism. A considerable segment of even the Hindu population — dalits, tribal communities and the backward castes — do not buy into the “sanskritisation” principle, that all Hindus gain from the caste-based, hierarchical framework of the Varna system.


Explanation 1 and 2 to Article 25 of the Constitution graciously clubs Sikhs, Buddhists and Jains within the generic classification of Hindus. Neither Muslims nor Christians are thus included. But it is unclear, today, whether Buddhists and Sikhs wish to submerge their religious identity with Hindus.  The communal violence between Hindu and Sikh communities in Punjab during the “Khalistan” movement of the early 1980s; the subsequent butchering of Sikhs by politically-motivated, predominantly Hindu mobs in 1984, are all reminders that all minorities are wary of politically charged, dominant community oppression.

India cannot escape its diverse society. Economic development can reduce the incentive for politically motivated mob fury and violence over time. But this trickle-down approach is not a near-term solution. Proactive initiatives are needed to bind all religions into a common civil code through incentives like universal affirmative action and social protection, linked to all faiths buying into the code.

Diversity yes! Global partnerships, contrary to national interest, no!

Customary practices contrary to our constitutional principles must be eschewed. Outlawing the Islamic practice of divorce by “triple talaq” is a progressive initiative of the Narendra Modi government. But it gets a communal twist because it criminalises the delinquent husband rather than merely penalising him for a civil wrong.

We must also amend our electoral laws to make elections, and therefore governments, more representative of broad support (at least 51 per cent of the total number in the voters’ list) rather than the existing first-past-the-post system which incentivises political gaming via stage-managed multiple contests and the splintering of the vote share.

When unleashed aspirations race ahead of development


The BJP seems unsure of the popular appeal of its solid development credentials going into the 2019 elections – reduced levels of grand corruption, deep tax reform, fiscal stability – low inflation, speeding up infrastructure implementation, enhancing India’s digital footprint, putting flesh on a social protection framework. It yearns for a riskless election – a democratic anomaly. The resultant panic is making the party do by rote, everything which has failed in the past. Remember “India Shining” and the adverse public reaction to the hard branding and outreach overkill in 2004? It is back to the future this time around.

Adapted from the author’s opinion piece in The Asian Age, March 13, 2019


One thought on “Indian election – Democratic Nationalism vs Communalism

  1. Could population density, poverty, many competing for the few fruits – could that also be a reason for the differences between south and north in communal divide? And indeed the politicos and political parties fanning the communal fire for electoral gains. And surfeit of political parties in north as compared to the south and therefore the cut throat competition among them to gather votes – niceties and ethics be damned.

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