Faced with a barrage of criticism following the spate of attacks on churches in the capital, Prime Minister Narendra Modi finally broke his silence today. "My government will ensure that there is complete freedom of faith... Everyone has the undeniable right to retain or adopt the religion of his or her choice without coercion or undue influence" Modi said in New Delhi today. He was speaking at a function held in Vigyan Bhawan celebrating the elevation of Mar Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Marth Euphrasia Eluvathingal to sainthood.
Some would find Modi's comments as nothing less than a divine home-coming, ghar wapsi if you please.
Obama leads the church-goers' revenge
Less than 13 years ago, Modi, then chief minister of Gujarat, had made a nasty jibe at the then chief election commissioner JM Lyngdoh by saying "James Michael Lyngdoh went to church and met Sonia Gandhi there". Church-goers had a much belated revenge on January 27 this year when US president Barack Obama lectured Modi on the need to preserve religious freedom in India, during his speech at the Siri Fort. As if to drive in his point on the spate of church attacks, Obama spoke about his own religious beliefs when he said "Michelle and I have been strengthened by our Christian faith". Obama's lecture on religious tolerance would have transported Modi 13 years back in time: to when Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee sternly advised him to follow "Rajdharma". Even after returning to the US, Obama made a statement that the religious intolerance in India would have shocked Mahatma Gandhi.
It took the prime minister some time to respond to this criticism. As chief minister of Gujarat, when Modi was faced with criticism and questions that he couldn't silence, he usually played the victim. His usual defence was that these are all attempts at maligning the people of Gujarat. Perhaps Modi might have been tempted to say "Barack Hussein Obama" in the same tone as he said "James Michael Lyngdoh" in 2002. But such rhetoric doesn't work at the international stage, unless you are Vladimir Putin and have the clout to ask the US to mind its own business. So the only way out for the prime minister was to adopt a more moderate approach.
Modi's comments today are significant as this is the first time that he has categorically stressed the need to preserve India's religious pluralism. It was in his last term as the Gujarat chief minister that Modi began moving away from his rabble-rousing "hum paach hamare pachees" approach that had made him a Hindu Hriday Samrat. But despite the shift, he never really took on Hindutva extremists. His strategy was to rebrand himself as a development icon, leaving the Hindu right to their own devices. Never did he speak on the need to maintain communal harmony, as he has done today.
His intent seems right. In today's speech, not only did Modi re-emphasise India's pluralism, he traced an alternate narrative for Indian secularism by citing Swami Vivekananda and Gurudev Rabindranath Tagore. As opposed to the broadly accepted belief of secularism being a Nehruvian contribution, Modi said that "this principle of equal respect and treatment for all faiths has been a part of India's ethos for thousands of years".
Modi is part of the problem
But Modi is stuck in an extremely tricky position. As far as Hindu extremism is concerned, Modi is part of the problem. His ascent as prime minister has emboldened the Hindu right. His success has made them believe that hate pays. Vajpayee became prime minister despite his RSS background. His appeal was the respect he enjoyed from even his political and ideological opponents. But even then Vajpayee couldn't take on the Hindutva brigade beyond a point. Modi's constraints are even more severe. He wouldn't be in the prime minister's chair had it not been for the enthusiastic support he received from the Hindu right wing. The support from this section helped him in 2002, when Vajpayee wanted him removed as chief minister. It helped him overcome his rivals in his battle to become the BJP's prime ministerial candidate. And of course, this section worked overtime during the Lok Sabha elections, to bring the BJP to power. Therefore, one doesn't know how seriously Modi can implement all that he said today.
If Modi sincerely intends to rebrand his image as a more inclusive leader, he would need to do much more than make conciliatory statements. Sooner rather than later, he will have to act against the rabble-rousers in his own party and government. Even then there are limits to how much the BJP can shift its ideological positioning, as there is little it can do about the umbilical cord that ties it to the RSS.