The new face of secularism

In an era where religion has regained relevance, G. Parthasarathy assesses the challenges and opportunities awaiting the victorious Narendra Modi in his second term

Indian elections, like all elections, sometimes produce surprise results. Opinion polls statutorily cannot be made public in India before the election process is completed, and these polls have in the past almost invariably been wrong.

Not this time. People across India were surprised when television stations started coming out with their assessment of poll results, showing the National Democratic Alliance, led by the BJP, emerging as clear winners. Unlike in the past, the pollsters were spot on in predicting voting trends three days before the results were announced. The BJP won in 303 out of 543 seats, surpassing the numbers it gainedfive years earlier.

The BJP has been criticised, both domestically and abroad, for allegedly being communal and violating the secular spirit of the constitution. In India, as elsewhere in the world, ‘secularism’ today is quite different from what it was, and how it was regarded, in the days of the Cold War. The collapse and disintegration of the Soviet Union led to the rejection of communist/atheistic state structures and ideologies across Europe. These developments gave a new impetus to the revival and enhancement of religious influence in politics worldwide. Religion has now become more significantto how nations think and behave, both internally and in the conduct of foreign and security policies, than three decades ago.

Vladimir Putin, then a communist apparatchik, would never have been seen near a Russian Orthodox church. Yet, as Russia’s president today, he pays high respect to the church and clergy, regularly observing Orthodox Christian rituals. The doctrines of Karl Marx, many now maintain, lie in the ‘dustbin of history’, even as the late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington’s prophesies of a ‘Clash of Civilisations’ across religious fault-lines seem to carry more weight. The 9/11 terrorist attacks by al-Qaeda terrorists, comprising largely Saudi Arabians, set the stage for a new world order where discourse on religion, and particularly on Islam, has become increasingly bigoted, especially in the US and Europe. There is little understanding that Islamic countries are largely divided along sectarian Shia-Sunni and civilisational Arab-Persian lines.

In India, as elsewhere in the world, ‘secularism’ today is quite different from what it was

President Trump talks openly of a ‘Muslim ban’ in the US. Across Europe, anti-Muslim sentiments are commonplace. If Marine Le Pen thrives on anti-Muslim rhetoric in France, some European countries favour banning the hijab, while others such as Switzerland have adopted measures that include imposing a national ban on the construction of minarets. European fears about Muslim immigration have been accentuated in countries like Belgium, the Netherlands and France, where Muslim immigrants, influenced by extremist groups such as the ISIS, have resorted to terrorism. Buddhist countries including Sri Lanka and Myanmar are, meanwhile, reacting strongly to what they believe to be ‘Muslim threats’.

Since its independence,India has witnessed periodic incidents of communal violence. But, cutting across party lines, ruling dispensations have acted strongly to restore communal harmony. Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, an agnostic, was strongly opposed to the participation of Deputy Prime Minister Sardar Patel in reopening the holy Somnath Temple, destroyed by the invading armyof Mahmud Ghazni in 1025 AD. President Rajendra Prasad, however, flatly refused to abide by Nehru’s advice and participated in the temple’s opening, averring: ‘I believe in my religion and cannot cut myself away from it.’

The leftist thinking of economist Harold Laski, author George Bernard Shaw and British prime minister Clement Attlee profoundly influenced Nehru. But, after four decades of 3 per cent economic growth, Nehru’s socialist policies were replaced by economic liberalisation. India has, thereafter, becomeone of the fastest growing economies in the world.

The old leftist/communist characterisation of ‘secularism’ in India,amounting to virtual agnosticism, now lacks relevance. Agnosticism is no longer regarded as an electoral asset. Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi understood the importance of religious symbolism, and visited Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh and Sufi shrines. The atheistic communist parties in India have now been virtually wiped out by decapitating electoral defeats in their erstwhile strongholds. Interestingly, the Congress Party president Rahul Gandhi commenced his election campaign in 2019 by offering prayers in the Somnath Temple.It did not, however, pay off as Congress secured just 52 seats.

Contrary to dire predictions by sections of the media in India and abroad, the elections were largely peaceful, with a record turnout of women voters, who for the first time equalledtheir male counterparts in numbers.Interestingly, sections of the ‘liberal’ American and British media were full ofdoom and gloom about the future of Indian democracy, with allegations that India is set to become a majoritarian state. Indian writers, who are known to have reservations about the present ruling dispensation in India, wrote a number of these articles. There was, however, no coverage of the fact that members of minority communities campaigned vigorously and freely cast their votes in large numbers.

With a new Modi-led government in office, one can expect a determined effort to accelerate economic growth rates and promote foreign investment.This will be accompanied by active engagement with the outside world by India.New Delhi will continue its policy of having good relations with all major centres of power:the US, EU, Russia and China, despite concerns about Chinese assertiveness in Asia. New Delhi played an active role in forging a consensus amongst developing countries at the Paris Summit on Climate Change, to bridge the gap between developed and developing countries. Maritime security cooperation across the sealanes of the Indian Ocean has been promoted. New Delhi is also looking forward to stronger bilateral ties withits South Asian neighbours, hopefully in an environment free of terrorism.

As the UK moves to a new post-Brexit era, there is much that requires to be done jointly by New Delhi and London, especially in the areas of promoting trade and investment.


G. Parthasarathy is a career Foreign Service Officer. He served as Ambassador of India to Myanmar, High Commissioner of India to Australia, Pakistan and Cyprus, and Spokesman of the Prime Minister’s Office. He is currently Visiting Professor at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi 

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