On my recent arrival in India, I was greeted with displays at the New Delhi airport urging everyone to Chalo Kumbh Chalo (Go to the Kumbh Festival), a massive Hindu celebration planned in the city of Allahabad in January 2019. Both the national and the state governments are enthusiastically promoting the festival. At the same time, the state government of Uttar Pradesh has left out the Taj Mahal from an official tourism brochure, reportedly because it considers India's most famous monument too Muslim, and hence not Indian enough.
Welcome to the new India, a nation that, like the United States, was established as a secular, multicultural, and democratic republic but is now losing its founding ideals. India's prime minister, Narendra Modi, belongs to organizations that espouse political Hinduism (or Hindutva) sharply at variance with the nation's multireligious ideals. And he is amassing power and subverting institutions in disturbing ways.
Modi and U.S. President Donald Trump have a lot in common. They are both rightwing populists who tapped into widespread anger among the electorate by vowing to take on corrupt and compromised establishments. They also harvested majoritarian resentments successfully mobilizing Hindus and whites in their respective countries as voting blocs. And both leaders have strongman tendencies, impatient with democratic processes and norms.
India has prided itself on its democratic and broadminded traditions and, in that sense, has been a role model for other nations. The direction it is now headed may prove to be an example of a different kind. Trump has expressed his admiration for Modi, even making a campaign ad mimicking his winning slogan in Hindi. And, to the extent that Trump learns from others, Modi may be offering him the wrong roadmap--how to remake a diverse and democratic society into a majority-controlled polity emptied of its pluralistic, democratic content.
Modi has a longtime association with an organized political movement, having been a part of the most prominent Hindu right group, the National Volunteer Corps, since he was eight years old. (Yes, you read that right.) An ex-member of the organization, Nathuram Godse, caused global shock waves on January 30, 1948, when he assassinated Mahatma Gandhi, supposedly for being too indulgent toward Muslims. It is that sectarian vision that Modi offers his country, on a spectrum that ranges from the patently absurd to the deathly serious.
For instance, there is an official attempt to impose vegetarianism on the populace, in keeping with the beliefs of certain Hindus. So the...