Whose ‘India First’?

Bharath Joshi

Two years ago, just a week before Indian Independence Day, the successful entrepreneur and wildly popular yoga guru Baba Ramdev descended on Ramlila Ground, a stretch of land between Old and New Delhi used for religious and political festivals. For weeks, Ramdev and his followers had prepared for this protest. Tents were erected and medical stations set up as throngs streamed into the capital from across the country. Ramdev arrived in a private jet in time for 5 a.m. prayers and proceeded to lead a series of yoga asanas, or poses, and to address the throng from a podium, his left hand jabbing the air.

Ramdev’s message: India has been corrupted. Its health has been stolen by a dishonest, greedy government, by Indian funds sent overseas as “black money.” Its moral fortitude has been compromised by Western influence, crooked leaders, and unnatural practices. Congress, the ruling party since the time of independence, has lost its way and must be forced out of leadership. India needs discipline to cure its illnesses.

On the first day of the gathering, Ramdev began a hunger strike that he vowed to carry on indefinitely. For five days he and his followers at Ramlila fasted, as opposition politicians and celebrities stopped by for visits. This was not his first fast against corruption. The year before he’d attracted thousands. This time he decided to march on parliament. Riding atop a bus, Ramdev led the march, but the massive crowd was detained by Delhi Police. Ramdev and more than five thousand supporters spent the night in Ambedkar stadium, essentially prisoners. “The victory of a movement lies in its people,” he told the crowd. He broke his fast at 11 a.m. the next morning with lemon juice, then flew off to an ashram, but not before vowing to bring down Congress in the next national elections two years later.

It is now two years later, the end of May, 2014, and I’m sitting in an eleven-story glass-and-steel hotel in Chennai, India, the city once known as Madras, on the southeast coast. It is the summer season here; the temperature hovers around 100 degrees, the humidity around 80%. Through the hotel’s large windows I can see a private school where small white children in short pants play with hula hoops throughout the day. In the distance I can see the hazy grey line of the ocean’s horizon. In between is a field of homes, patches of green, and buildings, mostly under five stories. Chennai’s above-ground train bisects my view. Throughout the day, I walk the streets of Chennai in the heat. I shop at the dusty, brightly-lit stores, I eat rice and fruit from street-side stands. Everywhere I go I see colorful election posters. Every person I talk to has a line in indelible ink drawn down the length of their left index fingernail. The ink comes from Mysore; the line means they’ve voted. Every day the English-language The Times of India, hung in a cloth bag on my hotel room door, screams with enthusiasm about India’s rebirth, reinvigoration, reinvention. Today’s headline on page two quotes M.S. Bitta, chairman of the All India Anti-Terrorist Front: “Mr. Modi is an angel sent by God for the good of the nation.”

This week Narendra Modi was sworn in as Prime Minister of India. Leaders from Pakistan and across South Asia attended the star-studded 4,000-guest ceremony. Reuters reported, “Many supporters see him as India’s answer to the former U.S. President Ronald Reagan or British leader Margaret Thatcher. One foreign editor has ventured Modi could turn out to be ‘India’s Deng Xiaoping,’ the leader who set China on its path of spectacular economic growth.” Modi is a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), or the People’s Party, founded in the 1980s and characterized by right-wing, social conservative and Hindu Nationalist policies. Only days before the inauguration ceremony, BJP leaders thanked Ramdev. “The role played by Baba Ramdev in awakening voters is similar to the struggles undertaken by Mahatma Gandhi,” their statement read in part, harking the nonviolent spirit of the great civil-disobedience leader who challenged British rule of India with hunger strikes and Satyagraha, adherence to truth. Gandhi had been one of the early members of the Congress party, those the BJP had just defeated.


It costs about 120 rupees to ride an auto-rickshaw, a yellow, three-wheeled vehicle with open doors and the two-cycle engine of a chainsaw, from my manicured hotel compound to the campus of the Theosophical Society. Founded in 1882 by occultists H.P. Blavatsky and Henry Steel Olcott, the Society’s international headquarters covers a lush 250 acres on the banks of the Adyar River. Today the campus is a quiet, leafy refuge from the crowded city, with sturdy but aging colonial-era buildings, and a library where damp periodicals wilt on wooden reading tables under the huff of ceiling fans. It is here in 1885 that international and Indian Theosophical Society members founded the Indian National Congress Party, a vital part of the Independence Movement in India, and after independence in 1947, the dominant political party in the country for more than 50 years. Known today simply as Congress, it is the legendary party of Gandhi; the country’s first minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru; and three-time prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The election of BJP this month and the inauguration of Modi as prime minister is considered by the liberal elite of India–by anyone who’s watching, really–as a striking departure from the left-center values the country was established under. But to the millions of young, middle-class Indians who are hungry for a particularly explicit form of progress—namely, better infrastructure funded with money reclaimed from corruption–Modi signifies patriotism, pride, and rebirth. They have overlooked his Hindu nationalism, his role in the 2002 riots in Gujarat that killed 1,000 Muslims and other minority group members, even his conservative social values. It’s a variety of economic ambition and hopefulness that early Congress members would have known from their sometime allies/sometime foes in the Swadeshi movement during the fight for independence. The Swadeshi (“of one’s own country”) were formed at the turn of the century in Bengal, India. They promoted Indian nationalism through economic means, by supporting the sale of Indian goods and burning British and Western products. It is this adherence to conservative, masculine Hindutva, cultural nationalism and Hindu nationalism, that Modi and Ramdev share.

After Ramdev staged his first hunger strike against corruption in 2011, academic Veruni Bhati wrote: “The key to Ramdev’s success lies in his projection of himself as a rejuvenator of the Indian nation.” Ramdev was bringing back the language and tactics of independence, waged and won two generations ago. He was applying it now to the long-time holders of power, on behalf of an urban population that did not share Congress’s ideas of equality. Instead, this ambitious group wants economic opportunity and paved roadways, the more obvious global signifiers of progress. Freedom from colonialism was the language of their parents; freedom from the moral superiority of the ruling liberal elite is theirs. When Modi saw the millions of Indians who awoke each morning to Ramdev’s yoga show on their TVs, when he heard the cries for an end to corruption from thousands on hunger strike in New Deli in 2012, he saw the future of the BJP party. In search of a new populist message that could unite a majority broad enough to dispel Congress–without the compromise of a coalition–BJP saw Baba Ramdev shake his fist and close his lips to black money, and they embraced him. India’s ambitious mainstream claimed morality for itself.


One hundred million more Indians were eligible to vote this year than were in 2009. In the lobby of the business park hotel where I’m staying, south of Chennai’s city center, men in the business dress of India, slacks and collared shirts, come and go. Most are between 25 and 35. If I ask them who they voted for, they tell me Modi. “What choice did we have?” they say. Their keywords are change and corruption. They see themselves as going against tradition: the tradition established by Congress after Independence. They’re entrepreneurial, ambitious, and frustrated.

Two men I spoke with dismissed Modi’s role in the 2002 riots that killed nearly a thousand non-Hindus. Riots happen, they tell me. They look at the economic successes Modi has brought to Gujarat, where he was chief minister, and want the same for their entire country.   When I ask them if they are Hindu, they say yes, but quickly clarify that they don’t allow religion to influence their politics. One has the red mark, given by a temple priest, on his forehead. The men talking to me in the lobby want what Times of India columnist Santosh Desai calls “benign majoritarianism, where the majoritarian is imagined not merely in terms of religion but in all aspects of reality as it exists.” The majority, as they see it, is Hindu, apirational, tired of divisions. India as it is right now is what they want, not a chastened India that must right its social inequalities before it can end corruption and revive the economy.

These men do not want to talk about religion. When I ask them about Baba Ramdev, they laugh because they do not take him seriously. But they know that those who do were influenced by Ramdev’s support of Modi and helped win this election. The difference between Ramdev’s followers and the businessmen in the lobby may be their understanding of Modi’s Hindutva, his patriotism. Is it a conservative, religious pride that shuns minorities for the sake of advancement, that adheres to traditional gender roles, to Hinduism, and eschews western influence? Or is it an embrace of India in all its diversity, a healthy nationalism that wishes to reform existing systems in order to advance the national economy? As in the United States, in India the nature of one’s patriotism may be defined by one’s understanding of secularism.

Secularism is a contested hallmark of India. It is not the separation of church and state that we know in the West, but rather the inclusion of every religion, an ideological pluralism that enforces order by holding religious groups accountable to their own religious laws. This sustained attempt at inclusion–as a mantra, as a method of governance–in a sense ended the reign of Congress. They had become the party that holds up the vulnerable and oppressed for their own financial and political benefit, appealing to special groups in order to sustain a coalition of power. When Modi exclaimed “India First,” voters heard what they wanted to hear, much as “religious freedom” in the U.S. means what the non-believer and the fundamentalist each want it to mean. Now everyone–Indian elites, the middle class, Baba Ramdev, and the world–must all wait to find out what “India First” means to Narendra Modi.

Ann Neumann has written for Bookforum, Lapham’s Quarterly, New York Law Review, The Nation, Guernica and others. Her monthly column, “The Patient Body,” about issues at the intersection of religion and medicine, appears at The Revealer, a publication of The Center for Religion and Media at New York University, where she is a Visiting Scholar. Her first book, Sitting Vigil: In Search of a Good Death, will be published by Beacon Press in 2015. Follow her on Twitter @otherspoon.