Narendra Modi and Barack Obama watch India's Republic Day parade from behind rain-streaked bullet proof glass, New Delhi, January 26, 2015.
Jim Bourg / Courtesy Reuters

In the wake of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s overwhelming victory in 2014, exit polls suggested that his success was due largely to widespread disillusionment with the United Progressive Alliance, the center-left coalition that had ruled the country since 2004. Throughout the campaign, Modi had positioned his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as the vanguard of good governance and economic dynamism—a stark contrast, he hoped, to the coalition’s record of corruption and slow growth. Since assuming office, Modi has taken steps to differentiate himself from his predecessors, particularly with his second budget, which promises to improve the country’s infrastructure and remove bottlenecks in the energy sector. The most remarkable feature of his time in office so far, however, has been his engagement in a realm he scarcely mentioned during the campaign: foreign policy.

Modi has brought tremendous energy and dexterity to foreign policy in his brief tenure in office. Although it has not yet been a full year since his election, Modi has already visited a dozen countries, ranging from those in India’s neighborhood to some as far away as Australia and Brazil. Perhaps most significant, he has jump-started the bilateral relationship between India and the United States. In a remarkable departure from tradition, Modi hosted U.S. President Barack Obama as the chief guest at India’s Republic Day Parade on January 26. The invitation was highly symbolic: it was the first time a sitting American president had been accorded that honor.

For far too long, India has punched well below its weight in the global arena. Modi’s activism may thus be a sign that he is ready for a new era of Indian foreign policy, reflecting a belated willingness to engage with the world on a host of pressing bilateral and multilateral issues. In his visits to Mauritius, Seychelles, and Sri Lanka, for example, he has proffered security assistance, promised developmental aid, and promoted trade expansion—efforts that appear designed to counterbalance China’s influence in the region. Beyond India’s immediate shores, Modi has reached out to Australia, Japan, and the United States to boost existing security ties. Before Obama’s visit, Modi personally intervened to change India’s stance on a trade dispute that had deadlocked the Doha Round of global trade negotiations. During Obama’s visit, he sought to settle areas of discord between India and the United States, such as the fraught U.S.-Indian civil nuclear accord.

Despite Modi’s best efforts, however, domestic developments in India threaten to jeopardize his foreign policy initiatives. Even as he courts foreign leaders with grace, projecting professional cosmopolitanism, his government has tolerated, even abetted, a dangerous, parochial social agenda at home.

The first signs of such parochialism came in the early days of Modi’s prime ministership. In June 2014, Modi appointed a relatively unknown historian, Yellapragada Sudershan Rao, to the Indian Council of Historical Research, a government agency that awards grants and fellowships to Indian and foreign scholars. Rao, among other controversial views, believes that the two Hindu religious epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, should be considered historically truthful, even in the absence of suitable archaeological evidence. In January 2015, at the annual meeting of the Indian Science Congress, in Mumbai, several scientists made similarly absurd claims. Among them: that Indian physicians had pioneered plastic surgery several thousand years ago, that helicopters had existed in ancient India, and that an Indian aviator had flown a heavier-than-air craft nearly a decade before the Wright brothers.

These statements can be dismissed as the fantasies of hypernationalist cranks and charlatans. But other developments cannot be so easily ignored, and they threaten to unravel the delicate social fabric of India’s secular order. The most disturbing of these is the emergence of the ghar wapsi, or “return home,” movement. This effort, the brainchild of various BJP-affiliated organizations, most notably the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), seeks to convert members of other faiths to Hinduism. It has targeted mainly poor and working-class minorities. According to the Deccan Chronicle, an English-language Indian newspaper, at least 8,000 people in the southern Indian states of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana have been converted to Hinduism under the aegis of the program. The irony of this endeavor is lost on Hindu zealots: Hinduism, unlike Christianity or Islam, does not believe in proselytization, meaning that the very notion of conversion is anathema to the faith. Despite this inherent contradiction, the effort is well under way and has generated abject fear in the minority Christian and Muslim communities. The ecclesiastic leadership of both communities has begged Modi to end the program, but the prime minister has evinced scant interest in the matter.

More disturbing, the country has seen an uptick in religious violence, particularly in attacks on churches. In the past six months, eight churches have been attacked. Five of these took place in New Delhi, India’s capital, yet it took till mid-February for Modi to publicly condemn them. Despite the prime minister’s belated reassurances, members of the Christian community remain fearful. In an op-ed in The Indian Express, published March 17, 2015, Julio Ribeiro, a retired Christian police officer, expressed his anxiety about India’s tide of intolerance toward minorities. He wrote that he was beginning to feel like a stranger in his own country.

These episodes alone are sufficiently disquieting in a country of extraordinary religious and cultural diversity. But the outrageousness does not stop there. The activist Vijaykant Chauhan, for example, has launched a campaign in the densely populated state of Uttar Pradesh to prevent what he refers to as “love jihad,” or marriages between Muslim men and Hindu women. His campaign cannot be dismissed as that of a fanatic; it should be understood, instead, as part of a larger effort by a segment of Modi supporters to fashion a new social order. In their worldview, India’s minorities can exist only at the sufferance of the Hindu majority. During his campaign, Modi relied heavily on the grass-roots efforts of far-right organizations such as the RSS. Now these groups are asserting their claim to influence the country’s direction and ideology.

As Obama said in a recent speech delivered in New Delhi, however, India can ill afford this descent into religious intolerance. What’s more, Modi has little political future if his policies remain Janus-faced. On the one hand, he has actively and adroitly sought to engage the world. On the other, he appears willing to tolerate religious hatred and bigotry at home. In so doing, Modi hopes to straddle two markedly different constituencies: the first, sophisticated and cosmopolitan; the second, prejudiced and parochial. Thus far, Modi has managed to maintain this delicate balance. But things could easily get out of hand. For example, if a sectarian riot were to erupt in a major city, and the government were to be indifferent to the plight of the afflicted minority, Modi might be forced to relive his past. (In 2002, when he was chief minister of the western Indian state of Gujarat, ethnic riots in his state killed some 2,000 Muslims.)

Put simply, his juggling act cannot last. As India’s disturbing domestic developments swiftly draw global attention, Modi will find it impossible to sequester one realm from another. A government that is committed to promoting economic development, attracting foreign investment, and integrating India’s markets with the world is simply incompatible with one that allows intolerance to sweep unchecked across the nation.

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  • SUMIT GANGULY is Professor of Political Science at Indiana University, Bloomington, where he also holds the Rabindranath Tagore Chair in Indian Cultures and Civilizations.
  • More By Sumit Ganguly