India needs Modi to rediscover his inner ecumenical soul. To do that, Modi must become the leading proponent of and advocate for a “unifying nationalism,” writes Tom de Boor and Ed Crego for South Asia Monitor
India and the United States of America are the two largest democracies in the world. For more than a century, the USA has been an exemplar and beacon of democracy. In this 21st century, India has been emerging as a beacon as well.
Over the past few years, those two beacons have started to flicker. This diminishment caused Freedom House, the organization that assesses and rates the status of democracy in all the countries of the world, to title its annual report issued this March, Leaderless Struggle for Democracy.
That report signified on the declines in both India and the US. It criticized India in a section with the headline “India’s Turn Toward Hindu Nationalism.” The section devoted to the United States noted its declining influence internationally and the increasingly unfavorable treatment of refugee seekers and the elevation of executive authority domestically.
The killing of a black man, George Floyd, and the subsequent protests in hundreds of locations across the United States, organized primarily by Black Lives Matter, combined with the intensive media coverage have highlighted America’s systemic racism.
There has not been nearly as much attention paid to the conditions of Muslims in India. Nevertheless, their situation has definitely worsened as India has taken a turn away from the secular and pluralistic democracy that it has been since its founding in 1947.
Freedom House cited three reasons for its more negative review of Indian democracy: The annulment of the semi-autonomous status of Jammu and Kashmir, the only Muslim majority states in India. The publication of a new citizens’ register for the state of Assam, which removed almost two million residents—many of whom were Muslim— seemingly leaving them with no country. The Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA), which expedited "persecuted" non-Muslims in nearby countries securing citizenship in India, but excluded Muslims.
The CAA resulted in protests and riots. The most devastating took place in Delhi in February of 2020, where primarily Hindu mobs killed and injured Muslims and destroyed their property. Many Hindus were also harmed during these violent incidents.
Similarities between US and India
Although there is no equivalent Muslim Lives Matter movement in India to match the Black Lives Matter crusade in the United States, there is a similarity in the circumstances being confronted. There is also some similarity between the persons leading each country and contributing to the deterioration of democracy therein.
President Donald Trump is widely recognized as an autocratic individual who frequently espouses racially charged and discriminatory rhetoric. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has also demonstrated autocratic tendencies but is much more circumspect and egalitarian in his public pronouncements.
One of the most famous Modi quotes is “Unity in diversity is India’s strength. There is simplicity in every Indian. There is unity in every corner of India. This is our strength.” On Independence Day, August 15, in 2019, Modi declared “One nation, one constitution – this spirit has become a reality and India is proud of it.”
The facts belie Modi’s assertions. His administration’s policies of exclusion and his failure to condemn acts of violence against Muslims speak louder than his words.
Strong democracies need strong democratic leaders—especially during stressful times such as those being experienced now due to COVID-19, with its catastrophic economic consequences, and this period of religious and racial strife. Those strong leaders build trust by leveling with the public, speaking the truth, and bringing the nation together in a common cause.
Donald Trump has shown over and over again that he is incapable of this type of leadership. During his first term, Narendra Modi showed some capacity in this regard. But during his race for re-election, and since taking office for his second term, Modi the unifier seems to have been replaced by Modi the speechifier.
A beacon for democracy
India needs Modi to rediscover his inner ecumenical soul. To do that, Modi must become the leading proponent of and advocate for a “unifying nationalism.” India was founded as a country empowering its entire and extremely diverse population as voters. There was and has been until lately a common and shared platform for democracy.
In his first speech after winning the election for his second term, Prime Minister Modi proclaimed that “…we have to win sabka vishwas (everyone’s trust).” That trust is slipping into the shadows, and along with it the promise that was Indian democracy.
Modi can change this by renewing India’s commitment to a secular and pluralistic democracy. And, as importantly, by promoting an inclusive society that redresses and eliminates the inequities and suffering of Muslims and other Indian minority groups.
Modi has the opportunity to make India a beacon of democracy that shines a bright light not only for itself but for the whole world. As Freedom House notes, the struggle for democracy is currently leaderless. By taking affirmative actions that align with his rhetoric, Modi can make India a global beacon of hope for democracy.
(Tom de Boor is a new media entrepreneur and Ed Crego is a management consultant in the US. The views expressed are personal. They can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org)