When he spoke of ‘India first’ as his government’s religion and the Indian Constitution as its only religious book, Prime Minister Narendra Modi was moving beyond platitudes on religious freedom, and correctly re-emphasising the constitutional guarantees of India as a secular, democratic republic. Within the space of ten days, Mr. Modi went from offering mere reassurances to religious minorities to actually committing his government to the constitutionally conferred rights of all citizens to freely practise a religion of their choice. In a welcome contrast to the typical stance of Hindutva groups, he upheld the Constitution as the expression of the ethos the country had followed for thousands of years, and chided those making irresponsible statements in the name of religion. If his speech at an event organised by a Christian group was meant as an assurance to religious minorities, this response in Parliament, in which he insisted that the country could only be run in accordance with the Constitution, seemed directed against Hindutva hardliners who were making the functioning of his government difficult. Clearly, Mr. Modi was trying to distance his government from the vituperative hate-mongering of the Hindutva groups, including the RSS. Evidently disconcerted by the criticism of his failure to rein in the extremist elements within the broader Hindutva fold, Mr. Modi seemed to be hoping he would be judged on the basis of his own words and deeds, and not of those claiming to be the ideological affiliates of the BJP.
True, the statements of RSS leaders and Hindutva extremists are amplified many times over during the periods the BJP is in power. But if Mr. Modi does not want to be answerable for the behaviour of the Hindutva fringe, many of whom are also middle-rung leaders of his own party, he should not then hesitate to reprimand them more often and more openly for their provocative speeches. Otherwise, the government would be seen as cynically exploiting the work of the fringe for the political ends of the ruling party whenever possible, and tactically retreating where the fringe’s politics become inconvenient. The views of the RSS and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad would continue to make headlines as long as the ruling party leaders and functionaries treat these organisations as part of their extended family. What is troubling about the public agenda of the Hindutva groups is the impression that the implied aggression against non-Hindus has the tacit sanction of the ruling party. Mr. Modi will have to continuously speak up categorically against religious extremists of the saffron hue too, if the Hindutva fringe is not to cast a long shadow on his government and undermine its credibility.