What defines Modi-ism? Politically potent racism against Indian Muslims

Prime Minister Narendra Modi
Prime Minister Narendra Modi | Commons

India is a diverse democracy which cannot be squeezed into “isms” easily for too long. And it cuts down leaders who try to fit it in their own “ism”.

As we approach the 69th Republic Day, it may seem that the world’s largest democracy actually nurtures democratic attitudes. But the fact is, our politics continuously defeats India’s people and divides them on the basis of caste and religion. For decades, a Muslim vote bank has existed. Now, the Hindu vote bank is a reality.

It has been clear for some time the Amit Shah and Narendra Modi combine governs the nation, and decides everything. But nearly four years into his rule, is there anything like ‘Modi-ism’?

In history, influential leaders were known by their ‘isms’: Leninism, Stalinism, Thatcherism, Reaganism, Maoism. We know nothing of Sonia-ism, because she mostly operated from behind the scenes.

Somehow, the Indian press has never tried to define a Modi-ism. Articles appear, but they tend to shield Modi. Loudmouth television anchors spew acid, justifiably, against Pakistan, but do not utter a word against Modi for not withdrawing its MFN status or declaring Pakistan a state sponsor of terror. This self-censorship is significant.

But to the discerning eye, the Modi government has revealed its “ism” in over three years of its rule. Before the 2014 elections, I read numerous speeches by Modi to figure if they were divisive, and did not find anything sectarian. The slogan Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas (Together with all, Development for all) was authentic. But Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas is suddenly an orphan, and Achhe Din, like Lord Rama, has been sent to vanwas (exile).

The goal of Modi-ism is this: using Hindutva to unite Hindus against Muslims. The first sign of it came when the Shah-Modi duo decided against fielding any Muslim candidate in the Uttar Pradesh assembly elections of 2017. Then Rajasthan’s cabinet minister Jaswant Yadav told voters during the parliamentary election for Alwar this month: If Hindu, vote for me, if Muslim vote for Congress. Though he later denied his statement, the political purpose was served.

Modi-ism – or the Gujarat model of politics – buried Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas when it appointed Yogi Adityanath as the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, a person known for his murderous message to Muslims: “If they kill one Hindu, we will kill 100”. It is the Gujarat model of politics that prevents Modi from speaking when Muslims are dragged out of trains for being Muslims, or just for transporting cows, and killed. In her column on 31 December 2017, senior journalist Tavleen Singh noted that Modi, who never tires of issuing happy birthday messages on Twitter, has shown disapproval of vigilante violence only when the victims are Dalits, and not when they are Muslims.

Instead of stopping the cow vigilantes, the Modi government sought to encourage them by bringing in the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (Regulation of Livestock Markets) Rules, 2017. It required transporters to get a certificate that “the cattle has not been brought to the market for sale for slaughter.” Facing backlash from meat exporters, and once its goal to consolidate cow vigilantes and Hindu voters on the issue of cows was served, the government withdrew the notification. A similar mindset exists in the case of the Bajrang Dal. Every RSS worker I have spoken to agrees that it is a violent group, but the argument remains: it serves a purpose.

The triple talaq legislation is rooted in the growing hatred of Muslims being seeded by Hindu-interest parties and organisations. It seeks to criminalise Muslims, and is not, by any definition, a piece of reform. By not consulting with stakeholders, Muslim community leaders, women’s rights groups, or legal experts, Modi-ism is promoting a deliberate, but politically potent, form of racism against Indian Muslims. Modi-ism makes the pretence of taking up what appear to be hot-button Muslim issues – Haj subsidy, instant triple talaq and polygamy (next in West Bengal elections) – but they are, in reality, Hindu political issues. These are the subjects around which it is easier to mobilise right wing Hindus.

Modi-ism has subsumed the BJP, which has been reduced to the status of a puppet. But India is a diverse democracy, which cannot be squeezed into “isms” easily for too long. And it cuts down leaders, who try to fit it in their own “ism”.

Tufail Ahmad is Senior Fellow for Islamism and Counter-Radicalization Initiative at the Middle East Media Research Institute, Washington DC. He tweets @tufailelif


  1. I appreciate The Print publishing this article, which is a sign of of our healthy democracy.

    On the article itself, I do take issue with the authors selective portrayal of certain incidents as being aligned with the agenda of the PM. In a country as large as ours, with a substandard law enforcement apparatus, it would be easy to point fingers at whoever was the PM through many incidents of concern in history as well.

    The Q that should concern us is if Modi is using his political capital for a strategic reform of Indian institutions, despite the tactical set backs on the ground from time to time. This is the yardstick I shall judge PM Modi on in the next election.

    I’m not convinced the author has presented any more convincing a case than those that ran a vicious overseas and domestic campaign against Modi when he was CM of Gujarat.

    As for the PMs silence in the face of certain pressure points, there is an old Russian saying, loosely translated, “it is sometimes better to be seen as guilty then impotent”.

  2. This article’s only observation worth commending; “India is a diverse democracy, which cannot be squeezed into “isms” easily for too long.” True that!

    The rest I’m afraid is hyperbole. Stitching together a few facts with projected bias and promoting victimology amongst certain groups does not constitute taking the democratic debate forward in a meaningful way.

    On the subjects of polygamy and triple talaq, which Mr Ahmad describes as “Hindu political issues” I would kindly suggest he study the directive principals of state policy as contained in Part IV (Article 36-51) of the Constitution of India.

  3. The template of this article follows an all to familiar script!

    Yet, whilst others remain trapped in their straight jacket political outlook, our Prime Minister continues to prove age or past ideology are no barrier to breaking out the mould. That his evolution has erked the RSS and leftist bastions alike, suggest he’s doing something right!

    PS- Has The CM of UP actually engaged in communally charged conduct since taking the helm of the office? The attempt to give color where there is no recent evidence of it, is perhaps why so many refuse to move out of their boxes. We keep looking for the familiar ‘bad guys’ and miss countless opportunities to build bridges to the future. Please, let’s move on to better ideas for India.

  4. I respectfully disagree with all points of this article. I take strong exception to the accusation our Government is racist – The so called leader of the free world- right there in Washington DC- deserves that title. I wonder if the author would dare suggest abolishing religious laws in favor of laws made by a democratic parliament, is racist, in the USA?

  5. To the contrary, there could be no greater act of Constitutional Propriety than to implement the DPSP as India’s founding fathers eventually hoped would be done.

    Attacks of this nature only embolden the old guard to protect outdated social structures, where the word of imans hold weight over that of judges, where women’s rights are subjected to a religious test rather than the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. I support the BJP’s bill against Triple Talaq. I condemn those whose think we should continue to live by Muslim personal law in this century.

  6. It’s strange logic. Prevention of cruelty to animals act was vile and withdrawing it was vicious. Modi criticises vigilante when victims are Dalits ? How exactly did you come to this conclusion

  7. 1. The allegation the Prime Minister is racist simply reveals the authors own highly prejudiced outlook of our polity. Is it not possible to level criticisms without ‘going low’?

    2. The evidence to substantiate his allegation is weak without stretching ones imagination to connect various incidents across this vast nation into one common devious ‘grand plan’ by the PM. The sheer scale of India seems lost on academics when attempting to fit circumstances to meet their already settled political conclusions.

    3. Would this author propose in New York, that Christian Evangelicals, Mormons or even Muslims be allowed to practice their personal laws as per their holy books? Why is it, India must remain a special case in their minds, where a level playing field in our laws is not possible? It’s shocking to see countries in the Middle East reforming their personal laws faster than India can even agree to hold a vote in Parliament. Calls for a Select committee for the Triple Talaq Bill sounds like another attempt to delay bringing India into the modern age.

    4. Our highly rigid polity, constrained by leftist thought for many decades, has left India lacking in a set of principles or even rigorous debate on the political right of the spectrum. Perhaps had previous governments not practiced such baltent “though control”, there would be genuinely diverse streams of political expression in the country today. As a consequence, the current govt is attempting to patch something together whilst in motion. This is not ideal but it still holds out the prospect of change rather than the status quo leftist dominated framework which has controlled India since independence- the results of which are visible for everyone to see around us.

    5. Law and order is a state subject and all states including those ruled by the opposition have failed to enact laws to professionalize the police forces. The resulting lack of genuine capacity within police forces has more to explain for various ‘incidents’ going out of control, than the BJPs unique political outlook.

    6. India is a democracy not a one party state such as China. Reform happens slowly not at breathneck speed- the proverbial elephant- and the PM must work diligently to reform India within the system that elected him. He’s doing a reasonable job. If one doesn’t like his performance, they are free to vote the BJP out of power in 2019. Citizens of India shall decide that is. The rest shall have to contend with voicing their frustrations on the internet.

  8. Nice Article by Tufail…..he needs to answer these as well very seriously and just not hide behind the mask of scholarly writings.

    If India is a secular country & Indian Muslims are as Indian as Hindus, why do they never feel bad about or criticise Mughal atrocities? Why do they oppose renaming of historic monuments and roads named after Mughal invaders? Why do they hate the state of Israel, an Indian ally?

    Indian Muslims often corner Hindus on why do they hate Mughals more than Britishers when both of them were equally brutal invaders. That’s cuz most Britishers are not very proud of their country’s colonial sins whereas Indian Muslims proudly call Mughal terrorists their heroes.

  9. This is the biased negative approach of the writer and there upon the comments made by the other people.
    Mr Tufail has never bothered to write about the plight of the Exiled hapless Kashmiri Pandits by the Pakistan sponsored Kashmiri Muslim terrorists why does he not ponder over the religious based appeasement policy of Political Party for Vote bank, which ruled our country for over six decades. Can he dare to discuss about the disasrous policy of the First PM of India about Kashmir and China which is the root cause of the present turmoil in Kashmir.
    We expect reply from Mr. Tofail.


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