It isn’t often that President Obama makes a flattering telephone call to a man who has been denied entrance to the United States for nearly a decade. But he did just that on Friday, May 16, when he telephoned Hindu nationalist hardliner Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister elect, to congratulate him on a clear victory in the Indian elections and to invite him to visit the land of the free. In doing so, some claim, Obama has “pressed the reset button.”
How does a man go from being an international persona non grata to a friend of powerful Western leaders? Widely criticized for presiding over the ghastly 2002 religious massacres in Gujarat while serving as the state’s chief minister, Modi was denied a visa by the United Kingdom and other EU countries. Nearly 800 Muslims and over 200 Hindus died in the upheaval, and an opposition politician, Ehsan Jafri, was killed and set on fire in front of his wife. Modi’s own role in fomenting the violence is still under a judicial examination that may now be stymied. A special investigation team, itself accused of being compromised, is often cited by his supporters as having issued Modi a so-called “clean chit.” In actuality, the team reported that there was insufficient evidence of Modi’s direct involvement in events to be able to prosecute. Modi’s rehabilitation and consequent electoral victory—though he only carried 31 percent of actual voters and just over 20 percent of the entire electorate—are undoubtedly the result of what a supportive Indian newsmagazine, whether through a staggering lack of awareness or as sly satire, describes on its cover as a “Triumph of the Will,” echoing, of course, Leni Riefenstahl’s infamous ode to Hitler.
There’s a curious honesty in this allusion, since it invokes a comparison that frequently rankles Modi supporters and the extreme-right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to which he belongs. Modi’s lifelong membership in the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a militaristic organization whose founders openly admired Nazism, is no secret. Nor is Modi’s espousal of that form of Hindu extremism known as “Hindutva,” which insists that India is a nation for Hindus. The term “extremist” riles his supporters, for whom it ought only be attached to “Islamic,” but both Hindutva and many Islamist extremisms have more in common with one another and with ideologies of Western imperialism than they admit. All share a commitment to civilizational superiority and the subordination of minorities, and a willingness to use violence to control people and resources when they fail to gain consent.
Understanding Hindutva’s acceptance of violence is important because Modi’s liberal observers often separate his commitment to neoliberal economic growth, which they support, from his brand of Hindu extremism, which makes them squeamish. Modi’s most successful election strategy was to bill himself as a “man of development” who would boost India’s desperately unequal economy to stratospheric heights with benefits for all. This passionate commitment to free markets is not unrelated to Modi’s authoritarian personality. The next prime minister’s appeal is a composite: unapologetic man of action, with a fabled “56-inch chest,” not held back by either effeminate political correctness or pesky state regulation. Modi, like many elite Indians, idolizes China for pursuing capitalist growth without the obstacles thrown up by democracy.