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The Threat of Messianic Politics

The recent consecration of a vast new Hindu temple in Ayodhya has cast Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi as “the high priest of Hinduism” and confirmed his desire to undermine the secular state. Alas, plenty of power-hungry demagogues, including former US President Donald Trump, have also embraced religious nationalism.

NEW YORK – On January 22, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi consecrated the Ram Mandir, a vast new Hindu temple in Ayodhya. Cast as “the high priest of Hinduism,” in the words of his biographer, Modi gave offerings and blessings to an idol of Lord Ram, one of the most revered Hindu deities, who was supposedly born on this sacred spot. The temple is also a powerful political symbol for Modi and his ruling Bharatiya Janata Party: it was built on the ruins of a sixteenth-century mosque that Hindu-nationalist mobs, egged on by BJP leaders, demolished in 1992, sparking sectarian riots that left 2,000 people dead.

Modi promises to create a “new India,” by which he means a Hindu India, where the country’s more than 200 million Muslims will be seen as interlopers. In fact, this deliberate mixing of religion and politics is unconstitutional in India. Independent India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, as well as the political and spiritual leader Mahatma Gandhi, recognized how explosive religious strife could be in a multi-faith and multi-ethnic society, which is why they insisted that India be a secular state.

The desire to undermine the secular state long precedes Modi. The man who murdered Mahatma Gandhi was a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization with ties to the BJP that played a major role in the razing of the mosque in Ayodhya. In 1986, Hindu agitators seized upon then-Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi’s misguided decision to give into Muslim demands to permit Islamic law to override a Supreme Court ruling upholding the right of Muslim divorcées to receive alimony beyond 90 days. Using this exception to whip up smoldering Hindu resentments, these agitators pushed Hindu nationalism from the margins to the center of Indian politics.