Religious Nationalism Will Undermine the Indian Economy

India’s recent election highlights why religious freedom matters so much for stable democratic societies.

“India has won!” president-elect Narendra Modi tweeted Friday night. But we may soon find the country has made a Faustian bargain with religious nationalism — and all such bargains have the same end result.

Five weeks of voting, 550 million+ votes cast, and the largest democracy in the world has voted overwhelmingly for the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a powerful — and dangerous, according to some — comingling of nationalism and revisionist Hinduism. The distinctiveness of India’s secular constitution, championed by such legendary thinkers as Rajeev Bhargava, will undergo its greatest test yet and will likely not emerge unscathed.

BJP leader Narendra Modi, widely described as the darling of corporate interests, has swept to power mainly on the promise of economic growth and enduring prosperity for India. It’s a promise that can’t be kept, at least not in the long run, if he pursues the policies and practices of religious nationalism — policies that are bad for social cohesion, bad for the rule of law, and bad for business, always and everywhere.

The scale of Modi’s victory depended less on raw religious nationalism than on economic dissatisfaction. But economic growth cannot be achieved apart from the growth of social and civic solidarity.

Ira Trivedi, at Foreign Affairs, tells two troubling tales. The first is of a meeting with Ram Paswan in Varanasi, a Hindu-nationalist and passionate BJP supporter, who runs a shop selling cremation materials. The second is of Paswan’s neighbor, Alam Khan, who runs a barbershop, does not support the BJP, and is one of the 19 percent of Varanasi’s Muslim population. “My religion comes before my friendship,” Alam says. A long horizon of anxiety stretches out for Alam and others in India in the aftermath of this election.

Traditional Hindu nationalists have long taken inspiration from the 1923 publication Hindutva: Who is a Hindu? which spells out a nationalist ethnic, cultural, and political identity that includes all religions “native” to the Indian sub-continent: Jainism, Buddhism, Sikhism, the varying forms of Hinduism. Patently not Christianity. Patently not Islam.

You don’t need a degree in history to know that post-colonial states react (sometimes violently) against the Christian religion as an engine of European oppression, and, for that matter, Islam, which too was at the heart of the long enduring Moghul Empire before the British. The terrible cost in blood and treasure of the separation of India and Pakistan is evidence enough of that.

In order to sustainably flourish, political communities need more than just economic growth. They also need virtues of tolerance, mutual respect, and mutual reliance.

Advocates of religious freedom watch certain regions in India closely — regions where communal riots still rage. In 2013, Hindu-Muslim riots in Muzaffarnagar killed 62 people and left more than 50,000 displaced. In 2008, India’s northeastern state of Orissa was the scene of what some have called the most violent Christian pogrom of the twenty-first century: 500 killed, thousands injured, tens of thousands displaced. Modi himself has come under fire for riots that broke out in 2002 while he was head of government in the state of Gujaret. He is alleged to have done nothing to stop vigilante violence in which nearly 1000 people, mostly Muslims, died. More damningly, some suggest he encouraged the violence.

To be sure, the scale of Modi’s victory depended less on raw religious nationalism than on economic dissatisfaction. But economic growth, stable and long-term growth, cannot be achieved apart from the growth of social and civic solidarity. Need proof? For evidence, look at Brian Grim’s statistical data at The Weekly Number and his Religious Freedom and Business Foundation, and to the special issue on this topic recently published by The Review of Faith & International Affairs. Grim calls it the religious freedom cycle: the essential correlation between freedom of religion or belief and socio-economic well-being, and the stagnation and instability that follows repression of the same.

What India really needs, in other words, can’t just be made by a pro-business growth policy. A rising GDP does not equal public justice.

Such is the paradoxical problem of the secular state. In order to sustainably flourish, political communities need more than just economic growth. They also need virtues of tolerance, mutual respect, and mutual reliance that laws cannot make, and universal values that markets cannot sell. This is exactly why religious freedom is such a powerful and potent democratic force: it is the basic human right, the basic dignity, needed in our era of globalization.

The BJP landslide is a fretful event. Religious nationalism is the most dangerous and destructive force for the Indian Constitution — it is just as much an enemy of religious freedom as state-sponsored atheism. Hindu nationalism risks not only making the non-Hindu second class citizens, but also cutting them out entirely of the political and economic project of the Indian state.

India is not alone, unfortunately. Indeed, a doubling down on identity politics seems to be the zeitgeist of our age. It might look like the Hindu-nationalism of the BJP in India, Orthodox-fueled Russian imperial conservatism, the xenophobic nationalism of Greece’s Golden Dawn, or the resurgence of exclusivist, particularistic, politics in your country of choice.

Hope, as the great Martin Wight once said, is not a political virtue. But it is a religious one. It will take the best of faith to defeat the worst of religious nationalism and build an Indian society whose growth in GDP, as in religious freedom, can be counted on in the long term.

The opinions expressed in this piece belong to the author.

Robert Joustra
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