India Votes, with Consequences for Secularism

May 19, 2014

The election just held in India, the world’s largest secular democracy, should attract more attention than it has. With a voting population of more than 800 million people, the election takes five weeks to complete, broken into nine phases. It has resulted in a new Prime Minister for India: the BJP leader Narendra Modi. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is hard to categorize. It’s often been labelled a “fundamentalist Hindu” party, but it’s better seen as the party of Indian chauvinism. But Indian chauvinism is rarely expressed without a religious flavor.
Twelve years ago, Narendra Modi was in charge of the densely populated Indian province of Gujarat. During that time the province was rocked by widespread and bloody clashes between Hindus and Muslims. The Modi government was criticised for its apparent unconcern about the violence, and was even accused of some complicity in its continuation. He’s running a highly personalized, presidential style campaign.
What made Modi such a strong contender was not so much his dubious merits as the well-attested failings of the current leadership. The ruling Congress Party has been unable to combat the endemic corruption in politics, leaving religiously-tinged parties like the BJP with a more credible promise of change. 162 of the 545 elected politicians are facing some sort of legal challenge to their honesty. Seventy-six of them are facing very serious charges, including kidnapping and murder. When secular parties are so manifestly corrupt, chauvinist parties can start to look good. The long term danger this poses to the secular tradition in India is still unclear.