Narendra Modi should stick to his pledge of toilets before temples

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Narendra Modi, the man most likely to become India’s next prime minister, has a wicked turn of phrase. In one of his most memorable remarks, he subverted his strong association with Hindu asceticism by declaring his support for “toilets before temples”. The same phrase, spoken by a Congress party cabinet minister, had provoked outrage from the Bharatiya Janata party of which Mr Modi is head. The BJP said the remark threatened to “destroy the fine fabric of religion and faith”. But the party hierarchy, knowing that its fate depends on the so-called “Modi wave”, barely demurred when its candidate adopted the slogan as his own.

The BJP leader is quite right to declare that India should spend less money on devotion and more on sanitation. According to 2011 census data, nearly half of households have no access to a toilet, forcing inhabitants to defecate in the open. More Indians own a mobile phone than a lavatory of their own. Poor hygiene, not lack of food, is the main reason that 40 per cent of children are malnourished. Much of Mr Modi’s appeal, which has swept through India like a brush fire, lies in his promise to conjure the growth that will eradicate such dire conditions and set his supporters on the road to a middle-class life.

Therein lies one of the conundrums of a likely Modi premiership, which will become certain only if the BJP proves to have secured enough votes when results are declared on Friday. Is he a leader who will prioritise development, providing jobs and bulldozing bureaucracy? Or will he revert to his Hindu nationalist roots and impose a sectarian agenda on a state largely moulded by the Congress party’s secular principles?

The question is not unlike that posed of Shinzo Abe, the Japanese nationalist who in 2012 stormed to the premiership on a Modi-like platform of halting the economic rot. In practice, Mr Abe has managed to be both a reactionary and a reformer. He spent his initial months putting in place an economic revival plan whose outcome remains uncertain. But he soon went on to indulge his rightwing predilections, passing a draconian secrecy bill and inflaming already volatile relations with China by visiting a nationalist shrine. Mr Modi, too, has his potential problems with neighbours, particularly Pakistan. The primary concern, though, is domestic; that he will stir up Hindu chauvinism and create the conditions for intolerance towards India’s 175m Muslims.

Fears about Mr Modi, a celibate who abandoned his wife to pursue religious devotion, are based not only on revenge killings in Gujarat in 2002 when, as the state’s chief minister, he was accused of standing by while more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, died. More fundamentally, many liberal Indians worry about his links with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, an organisation with its roots in a paramilitary group dedicated to the cause of Hindu nationalism. The BJP manifesto contains a pledge to protect the cow, considered holy by Hindus but eaten by some Muslims. It also seeks to rebuild the temple to the Hindu god Ram on the site of the Babri Masjid mosque in Uttar Pradesh. The mosque was torn down in 1992 amid much bloodshed by Hindus who believed it was erected on the site of Ram’s birthplace by Mughal invaders in the 16th century.

The hope, shared by most of the pro-Modi business elite, is that Mr Modi will listen to his better angels. A common refrain is that he has matured. Gujarat has been peaceful, and increasingly prosperous, since 2002. Another is that India, with its independent institutions and federalist system, can never fall under the sway of one man. Mr Modi may be, in the words of one of his admirers, “a one-man army”; it is his decisiveness that some find so compelling. But there is faith that, as one pundit puts it, “you cannot run a dictatorship in this country”.

The comparison with Mr Abe takes us only so far. A second aspect of Mr Modi’s electoral appeal more closely resembles that of Thaksin Shinawatra, another firebrand who rode to power on a wave of political and economic frustration. Mr Thaksin, now in self-exile after being ousted in a coup, was elected Thai prime minister in 2001. His main support base was in the poorer, rural, northeast where people felt ignored by the Bangkok elite.

Mr Modi, too, claims to speak for the marginalised against a corrupt and self-serving urban elite. He trades on his lower-middle-class status as the son of a tea-stall owner. Unlike previous BJP leaders, he is not from the upper Brahmin caste. He mocks Rahul Gandhi, Congress party leader, as a shahzada, or princeling. For many, a Modi victory would be a torpedoing of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, whose patrician grip on post-independence India the author William Dalrymple calls “sexually transmitted democracy”.

Mr Modi has stirred the pent-up yearnings of millions who have glimpsed India’s economic awakening from afar. He has also encouraged those who long for the birth of an identity politics based on a narrow definition of Hinduism. The former is to be welcomed. The latter decidedly not. Mr Modi should stick to toilets – and leave temples to the priests.

david.pilling@ft.com
Twitter: @davidpilling

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