Devesh Kapur is the director of the Center for the Advanced Study of India at the University of Pennsylvania. (Project Syndicate)
A couple of weeks ago, Narendra Modi was celebrating his biggest electoral triumph since becoming India’s prime minister in 2014. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) had swept into power in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state and one of its poorest. The scale of the victory left the BJP’s opponents shell-shocked, and seemed to indicate that Modi will be a shoo-in to secure a second term in 2019. Anticipating deeper economic reforms from a strengthened Modi administration, India’s stock market surged.
But there is one group with little reason to celebrate the BJP’s victory: India’s 172 million Muslims.
For decades, most of India’s political parties have practiced forms of “strategic secularism” to secure a so-called Muslim vote bank – an approach that has stoked resentment among the country’s Hindu majority while doing little to improve Muslims’ wellbeing. The BJP has gone another route, focusing on drawing votes from aggrieved Hindus. In Uttar Pradesh, the BJP did not put up a single Muslim candidate, even though about 18% of the state’s population is Muslim.
That did not have to mean that a BJP victory would be bad for Muslims. On the contrary, the party’s success put it in a strong position to reach out to the Muslim community on core development issues. But, judging by the BJP’s actions since the election, this appears unlikely.
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The BJP revealed its thinking within days of the election, when it appointed politician-priest C first elected to parliament in 1998 at the age of 26, as Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. While Adityanath has a strong local power base in the abjectly poor eastern part of the state, which has supported his reelection five times, he has no administrative experience.
More troubling is that Adityanath represents some of the BJP’s most extreme elements. He is a poster child for sectarian strains of Hindu nationalism – a firebrand Muslim-baiter who, along with his followers, has been accused of fomenting communal riots.
Adityanath’s behavior has triggered multiple criminal cases against him, which are languishing in India’s notoriously slow-moving courts. (Now that Adityanath is in control of the state’s police, those cases surely will not move forward.) That behavior has also won him a stamp of approval from the BJP’s ideological parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which apparently strongly backed him for the chief minister’s position.
The appointment of Adityanath thus seems to indicate that the BJP will employ anti-Muslim animus in its effort to consolidate Hindu votes in the 2019 national elections. But that strategy is clearly at odds with Modi’s rhetorical focus on economic development. In fact, one of the likely consequences of Adityanath’s promotion – and the negative signal it sends to India’s largest religious minority – is that economic development will suffer.
India’s Muslims will be hit particularly hard, with further social and political marginalization undermining their economic prospects. Given the size of India’s Muslim population, this is bound to drag down overall economic development.
The consequences will be felt across Uttar Pradesh. If polarization and strife increase, much-needed investment will not materialize, and the state’s already scarce human capital will flee, making it all but impossible to improve economic performance. Because Uttar Pradesh is home to one-sixth of India’s population, this will have far-reaching consequences for the country’s overall economic growth. Likewise, Uttar Pradesh’s dismal social indicators – it has India’s worst infant and under-five mortality rates – will have negative externalities for the country as a whole.
To see what happens when politicians pander to religion, one need only look at neighboring Pakistan. A bigoted chief minister running India’s largest state might well help the ruling party’s short-term electoral prospects, but it could have serious consequences for the country over the longer term.
The risks extend far beyond economics. While India is home to one of the world’s largest Muslim communities, its members have remained absent from anxious global conversations about militant Islam. This may reflect, at least partly, India’s pluralistic society and competitive democracy – a system in which almost all communities have felt included, even if their odds of winning have been low.
But if India’s Muslims feel deliberately shut out, as they might in the wake of Adityanath’s appointment, they may come to believe that they have little to lose. As it is, India’s burgeoning youth population is struggling to find employment opportunities, making them easy targets for troublemakers. With the Islamic State and Pakistan’s wayward security service, the Inter-Services Intelligence, looking to fish in Indian waters, overtly anti-Muslim policies amount to playing with fire.
The Uttar Pradesh elections gave Modi a strong mandate. But instead of taking that as an opportunity to lift up a backward state, he is opting for rank opportunism. While he called for humility from the BJP after the election, the appointment of Adityanath looks much like hubris. Like Icarus, Modi is flying too close to the sun, seemingly unaware of the grave risks.