Since he was elected in May 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi of India has been adept at appeasing his Hindu hard-line base while, at the same time, promising economic growth and development to a wider national and international audience. But that balancing act is in danger of teetering, imperiling not only the economic development Mr. Modi has promised but also India’s open, inclusive democracy.
The latest alarming sign of the Hindu right’s growing boldness was the Sept. 28 lynching of a Muslim man by an angry mob. The attack, which occurred in the village of Bisada, just 30 miles from India’s capital city, New Delhi, was instigated by local Hindu men, many linked to the governing Bharatiya Janata Party.
On the strength of a baseless rumor that a cow — considered sacred by Hindus — had been killed in the area and that a local Muslim family was eating beef, a furious mob descended on the family’s home, killing 52-year-old Mohammed Ikhlaq and severely injuring his son. Another son, Sartaj, an active member of India’s Air Force, admirably appealed for calm after the attack.
Although Mr Modi denied that his party had anything to do with the episode, his public aloofness as officials in his government and extremists across the country have aggressively pushed a Hindu nationalist agenda is partly to blame. So are the prime minister’s efforts to make cow slaughter a divisive political issue. During his election campaign Mr. Modi had warned Hindu voters that if the Congress Party gained control, it would expand a “pink revolution” of cow slaughter.
Last week, at a political rally in Bihar, where hotly contested state elections began on Monday, Mr. Modi slammed the opposition politician Lalu Prasad, suggesting he was possessed by a “devil” for “insulting” Yadavs, an important clan in Bihar, by suggesting they eat beef. In contrast, Mr. Modi boasted that “I come from the land of Gujarat,” where “people worship cows.”
Faced with mounting outrage at his silence on the brutal lynching, Mr. Modi finally managed to refer directly to the attack on Wednesday, calling it “sad” and “unwelcome.” In comments to a Bengali-language newspaper, he declared: “The B.J.P. has never supported such incidents.” This message is welcome but it comes late.
Mr. Modi should keep in mind the wise words of India’s president, Pranab Mukherjee, in an eloquent plea for sanity last week. “We cannot allow the core values of our civilization to be wasted,” Mr. Mukherjee warned, adding, “This civilization has celebrated diversity, promoted and advocated tolerance, endurance and plurality.”