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Is Modi Ready to Lead?

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The new Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in India bodes well for the country's future economic prospects as well as its role in global affairs. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is seeking to erase his reputation as a communal leader and to demonstrate he will rule the nation in a way that benefits all Indians, not just the Hindu majority. Whether he will live up to his promises remains to be seen, but so far he has struck the right chords. The optimism in India is palpable.

With 282 parliamentary seats, the BJP surprised even its own party members to become the first Indian party in 30 years to win a majority on its own. This means the BJP will not have to rely on coalition partners to remain in power, and instead be in a strong position to implement economic reforms and other measures that could help restore investor confidence and improve the GDP growth rate.

The new Modi-led government is expected to pursue a more robust foreign policy than its Congress party predecessor and to enhance India's influence and prestige on the global stage. The BJP Election Manifesto states that the party "believes a resurgent India must get its rightful place in the comity of nations and international institutions. The vision is to fundamentally reboot and reorient the foreign policy goals...so that it leads to an economically stronger India, and its voice is heard in the international fora."

Fresh leadership in New Delhi provides an opportunity for the U.S. and India to reinvigorate ties and move forward with cooperation on economic, defence, counterterrorism, maritime, and Asia-Pacific issues to name just a few. U.S. President Barack Obama's early invitation to Modi to visit Washington and Modi's positive response signals both sides' willingness to collaborate on future projects and to move past the 2002 Gujarat riots.

The U.S. had revoked Modi's tourist visa in 2005 on grounds that he could have done more in his position as Gujarat Chief Minister to stop the rioting. The riots, which left nearly 1,000 Muslims dead, followed an incident in which a group of Muslims allegedly set fire to a train carrying Hindu pilgrims destined for Ahmedabad, while it passed through the town of Godhra. Modi allowed funeral processions in the streets of Ahmedabad the next day and the state government failed to control Hindu mobs that went on a systematic rampage murdering Muslims.

Communal Agenda Worries Religious Minorities

Prime Minister Modi has made an effort to try to repair his reputation as a hardline, communal politician. He stayed away from divisive rhetoric and communal politics during the election campaign, and in his first speech to the Indian parliament on 11 June 2014, acknowledged that India's Muslims lagged the rest of the nation in socio-economic terms and noted the importance of addressing this challenge. He said, "If one organ of the body remains weak, the body cannot be termed as healthy...We are committed to this...We don't see it as appeasement."

In the past, the BJP has supported policy positions considered divisive by the Muslim minority community. These include support for the construction of a Hindu temple at Ayodhya, where a mosque was destroyed by Hindus in 1992; the establishment of a uniform civil code, rather than allowing Muslims to maintain certain personal laws based on religious custom; and repeal of Article 370 of the Indian Constitution, which provides the state of Jammu and Kashmir special autonomous status.

Christians, numbering about 25 million in India, have also faced harassment and violent attacks by organisations following a hindutva (Hindu religious and cultural nationalism) agenda. Christians feel especially vulnerable in states that have adopted anti-conversion laws. The anti-conversion laws are aimed at preventing "forced conversion" but have been misused by Hindu zealots to harass Christians and to legitimise mob violence.

Hindus would like access to Ayodhya, as they believe it to be the birthplace of the Hindu God Ram, where a prominent Hindu temple (the Ram Temple) once existed. It remains to be seen to what degree the BJP might focus on trying to rebuild the Ram Temple.

In 1992, BJP leader L. K. Advani led a protest march to the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya that resulted in its destruction by Hindu zealots and ensuing communal riots that killed nearly 2,000. In September 2010, a high court in India ruled that the land at Ayodhya be divided into three segments: one-third for the reconstruction of the Ram Temple; one-third for the Islamic Sunni Waqf Board; and one-third for another Hindu group. The 2014 BJP Manifesto expresses support for rebuilding the Ram Temple within the confines of the Indian constitution.

The BJP did not pursue most of these controversial issues when it held power previously (1998 – 2004), mainly because it lacked support from its coalition partners. Even though the BJP now holds a majority on its own, it's still doubtful Modi will prioritise a Hindutva agenda. He knows doing so will cost him support at home and abroad, undermining his goals of building a strong and prosperous India with a positive global image.

Prioritising Regional Relations

Modi has shown he is ready to turn a new page with Pakistan. In an unprecedented move, he invited all South Asia leaders, including Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif, to his swearing-in ceremony. This was the first time in history an Indian or Pakistani leader had attended an oath-taking ceremony of the other.

Modi has some work to do with regard to shoring up confidence with neighboring Bangladesh. During campaigning in the Indian state of Assam, Modi railed against Bangladeshi migrants, who cross the border into India to flee endemic poverty in their own country. The rhetoric was aimed at garnering votes from the Assamese, who are concerned about being outnumbered as a result of the Bangladeshi migration. But it also angered Bangladeshis and led Dhaka to question whether Indo-Bangladeshi ties would be as strong under the new Indian administration.

Cautious Optimism

While it is early days for the new Indian government, so far the signs are good that it will pursue policies beneficial for the Indian economy and that will enhance India's international role. Still, the U.S. and European countries should engage India on religious freedom issues to ensure that Modi follows through on his promises to meet the needs of all Indian citizens and stays away from controversial policies supported by hardliners within his party.

 - Lisa Curtis is Senior Research Fellow on South Asia at the Heritage Foundation.

Originally published by The Tony Blair Faith Foundation

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