Modi and Merkel: dealing with the challenge from the fringe

Both Chancellor Angela Merkel and Prime Minister Narendra Modi face divisive elements determined to polarise and splinter society. The differences in their approach could not be starker.

Over the last couple of months, both Germany and India have been dealing with forms of right wing nationalism that speak of homogeneous identities and cultural uniformity and imagine the nation through constricted lenses.

In Germany this nationalism is manifested through a growing anti-immigration movement called Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the Occident), that claims that multi-culturalism has failed.

In India, such nationalism has taken the form of far right Hindu groups who are becoming increasingly assertive in pushing their own agenda including through demanding and organizing reconversion camps, ‘Ghar Wapasi’, for persons belonging to other religions. These groups have also targeted minority places of worship, in what appears to be a systematic campaign to create insecurity, and the vitiated environment has enabled elected leaders of parliament to speak out openly about furthering a Hindutva agenda.

In the midst of fringe elements becoming increasingly emboldened, and in many circumstances even attracting substantial popular support, the differences in approach of Chancellor Merkel and Prime Minister Modi in tackling these divisive elements determined to polarise and splinter society could not be starker.

This article examines the divergence, firstly at the level of the attitude towards constitutional principles, secondly in the usage of popular media to promote such constitutional principles, thirdly with respect to the politicians’ proactively intervening to promote tolerance and fourthly through defending alternative views.

Constitutional principles

In many ways, modern Germany and India have developed around the constitutional principle of Basic Structure and the idea that there are certain elements of a Constitution which are essential, eternal, and inalienable and cannot be abrogated on the whims of a special majority.

Against the background of Germany’s past, the German Basic Law places pre-eminence, through eternity clauses, on rights to human dignity and basic structural principles like democracy, federalism, social welfare, ideals which the Indian Supreme Court in Kesavananda Bharti also introduced primarily to ensure that constitutional limitations would safeguard against situations where unlimited power could sustain majoritarianism and destroy the diverse polity.

This foundation has influenced how Chancellor Merkel has responded to the challenge from the fringe. In a powerful New Year’s Eve address she slammed the leaders of Pegida for harbouring “prejudice, coldness, even hatred in their hearts” and stated that the biggest compliment to a nation, like Germany, was if children of those persecuted could be brought up without fear.

This unequivocal defence of basic structural features highlighted how eternal and non-negotiable these principles are perceived by the leadership as essential to the life of the country. It was also compelling that Merkel used her media platform aggressively to rally her compatriots around the idea of a plural society and chose the moment to also emphasize her concern for the shrinking space for tolerance in Germany.

Stoic Silence

In India, Prime Minister Modi, a rather accomplished Twitter user, maintained a stoic silence for over two months despite repeated media coverage of ghar wapasi’ camps by groups associated with the BJP. Five attacks on churches have taken place in two months across Delhi and it was rather telling that only after President Obama had addressed the rise of religious intolerance in India, did these communal incidents evoke a reaction from senior cabinet ministers.

Instead, the Government managed to ignite, and introduce, a debate on a long standing idea of India by questioning the use of the word ‘secular’ and ‘socialist’ in the Preamble to the Constitution. This they did by first publishing an original version of the Preamble during Republic Day where both words were not included and then by casting doubts about the authenticity of the amendment which was introduced during the time of Indira Gandhi’s emergency rule. This argument clearly sidestepped the fact that this amendment was making explicit what was expounded as the principles of Basic Structure by the Supreme Court of India.

Clear Stand

In the aftermath of the attacks on Charlie Hebdo in Paris, Chancellor Merkel, sensing that the attacks would vitiate the mood in Germany and strengthen the resolve of Pegida members, decided to join a Muslim community rally in Berlin to promote tolerance. She stated unambiguously that she recognized that the problem was not about Islam but about elements of radicalism within the Muslim community and strongly went on to proclaim that “Islam belonged to Germany”. This powerful support for a community, at its most vulnerable, was not entirely popular, given the polarizing nature of the Paris attacks, but it reinforced her vision of Germany as a tolerant and open state.

In contrast, a few weeks ago when members of the Christian community in Delhi marched silently to protest against systematic attacks against their places of worship, not only was the silent march stopped for not having the required permissions but the police force outnumbered a small number of protesters who gathered peacefully outside Delhi’s Sacred Heart Cathedral. Even after the excessive use of police force, where several priests and nuns were dragged on the road and arrested, the Prime Minister, rather than assuage and reassure an insecure community, continued to keep his mysterious silence.

Alternate Views

It seems that the only thing that Prime Minister Modi and Chancellor Merkel converge on albeit through different approaches, is their protection of alternate views which might be antithetical to the idea and constitutional principles of their respective nations. When Pegida protesters were denied permission to stage a demonstration because of threats from the so-called Islamic State, not only did Chancellor Merkel express embarrassment that people’s fundamental right to demonstrate was curtailed but she also promised federal help to protect the protesters despite stating on several occasions that the group’s views were unpalatable for a modern pluralistic state such as Germany. Prime Minister Modi, however, because of his long silence on issues of tolerance and pluralism allowed persons like Sakshi Maharaj to have confidence to make statements such as that the government may be broken if a Hindutva agenda is not delivered.

Recently, things have changed or at least cosmetically. Prime Minister Modi, whether due to electoral reverses or other compulsions, finally spoke out against religious intolerance and at a ceremony to celebrate church leaders promised that his Government would protect India's diversity. His call however lasted merely a couple of days when the head of the RSS, associated closely with the BJP, sought to cast aspersions on Mother Teresa by accusing her of working primarily to convert persons to Christianity during her lifetime.

This latest outburst has reinforced the need for the Prime Minister to articulate a clear stance of the supremacy of the Constitution and a zero tolerance for elements that attempt to subvert India’s plural polity.

The Basic Structure, as a matter of fact, places this obligation on him.

Siddharth Peter de Souza is a fellow at the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation. Views expressed are personal

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