India elected a new party into power last week, and only time will tell whether the hopeful predictions of economic growth or the gloomy portents of religious persecution are more correct.
The election surprised analysts because the BJP party—which was so small it has not even had minority governing power since 2004—took 282 seats and the right to elect a prime minister, Narendra Modi. Modi was elected on his record as a decisive leader who turned around the economy of the Gujarat state as its governor.
The BJP’s victory was remarkable as an example of a violence- and corruption-free political upset in the world’s largest democracy. But Dr. Timothy Shah, whose father hails from Gujarat, finds it worrying.
Modi’s campaign focused primarily on economic issues, but it is ultimately a right-wing Hindu nationalist party. Shah worries that the people’s natural desire for better economic leadership as their country grows could lead to “grave and unintended consequences for democracy and religious liberty.”
“Modi was probably personally complicit in a pogrom that killed 1,000 to 2,000 Muslims in 2002,” Shah said during a Heritage Foundation panel yesterday.
Still, the demands of governing a country, particularly a diverse democracy of 1.2 billion people, has tempered many an idealist. Actually having power will force the BJP to confront the demands of foreign policy with India’s Muslim neighbors and its relations with the United States, said Lisa Curtis of the Heritage Foundation.
“There have been problems, but I simply think we need to give Modi the benefit of the doubt,” Curtis said.
One good indicator of how Modi will treat India’s Muslims is how he approaches Pakistan, India’s longstanding Muslim rival. He has already taken the unprecedented step of inviting the Pakistani prime minister, Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony on Monday. Since explaining overt persecution of India’s Muslims over tea with Sharif would be difficult, this first attempt at good relations with Pakistan could be an encouraging sign for the 12 percent of the Indian population that is Muslim.
Even the status quo, however, is bleak enough to worry religious liberty advocates. A Pew Research Center study said India has the third highest level of social hostility involving religion in the world, meaning government inaction may be enough to seal the fates of religious minorities.
“The thing that I fear the most is Narendra Modi not doing anything,” Shah said.
An “antiquated judicial system,” along with vague “anti-conversion laws” at the local level, makes persecution of minorities without punishment easy, said Sahar Chaudhry of the United States Commission on Religious Freedom. The Commission is concerned for Christians as well, as a Christian is attacked somewhere in India on a daily basis, and the Indian Supreme Court has shown an unwillingness to punish even murderers who cite Hinduism as a motive.
This is concerning, but the strength of the democratic process and the desire for economic change this election has revealed, along with the huge diversity India is known for, remain the best hopes for India’s many religious minorities.