During an interview with LK Advani during the Bharatiya Janata Party’s first full term in power, Prannoy Roy asked him about growing extremism in the party, and how moderates like the deputy prime minister planned to clamp down on it. For those such as myself who associated Advani primarily with his rath yatra of 1990 that left a bloody trail of riots across the country, the ascription of moderation to him seemed peculiar. Nevertheless, I could understand where Roy was coming from, for in comparison to some of the younger BJP leaders like Narendra Modi, Advani came across as impeccably reasonable and restrained.

A little over a decade has passed since that interview, the Gujarat chief minister has graduated to heading the central government, and now a large section of the media views Modi as a moderate focussed on development, but surrounded by zealots whose excesses threaten his progressive agenda. This mode of thinking first revealed itself during in the 2014 election campaign. Sadanand Dhume,  a commentator sympathetic to the BJP  wrote, “While Mr Modi may have tacked toward the moderate center on interreligious matters, you can't say the same for his party… sooner or later he will have to confront the extremists within his fold.”

Another Modi supporter, Tavleen Singh, now displays signs of buyer’s remorse, but sticks with the Modi-as-moderate line of thinking. In her latest column, focussed on the lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri near Delhi, she writes, “Mr Modi would do well to notice that, along with the ‘gharwapasi’ nonsense that went on through his entire first year in office, it serves to distract from the reasons why he became prime minister. The vote was for change and development and not Hindutva.”

Pink revolution

Tavleen Singh is wrong: the vote for the BJP was for change and development and Hindutva, and Narendra Modi was at the sharp end of all three points of that trishul. Take the case of beef, which has become such a prominent issue this year, from the Maharashtra government’s ban on cattle slaughter to the appalling murder of Mohammad Akhlaq last week. Modi’s stump speech from 2013 onwards invariably included a section about the “pink revolution” in which he lamented that cows were being slaughtered for export.

Last week, after the Uttar Pradesh chief minister Akhilesh Yadav called out the prime minister on the pink revolution issue, and challenged him to ban cow slaughter, commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman replied in a series of tweets that the export of the meat of cows, oxen and calves is already prohibited by law, and India’s beef exports are all buffalo meat. That was the case during the United Progressive Alliance’s tenure as well, and Modi knew this very well, but it didn’t stop him from spreading the cow slaughter falsehood to inflame religious feelings.

Since coming to power, he has made no effort to roll back the benefits he repeatedly condemned, and India retains its position as the world’s largest beef exporter by quantity of flesh sold. Such appeals to religious sentiments were at least as crucial to the BJP’s electoral success as the plans he laid out for the economy which, as anybody who read the BJP manifesto could tell, were barely distinguishable from those the Congress had pursued.

No condemnation forthcoming

Why would the man primarily responsible for evoking outrage among Hindus during the previous general election campaign now rein in those who are fanning the flame he lit in villages across North India? There are two reasons he might do it, and his own belief system does not figure in either. First, the small but influential constituency of social liberals who supported him for his dynamism and pro-business policies is beginning to feel uncomfortable. Second, he is acutely conscious of his image abroad. It is significant that, while no BJP minister has condemned the Dadri lynching on moral grounds, Arun Jaitley, the most liberal minister in Modi’s cabinet, did so for pragmatic reasons. On a visit to New York, Jaitley said that incidents like Dadri “certainly don't give a good name as far as the country is concerned”.

However, even if Modi would like to curtail lynchings and sectarian violence to keep liberal supporters and foreign governments on his side, he cannot do so, for they are not the anomalies that Modi-as-moderate analysts would like them to be, but direct and inevitable by-products of the prime minister’s ideology and rhetoric. If I may be permitted to imitate the convoluted manner of medieval chroniclers, one cannot plant the seeds of division and nurture the tree of hatred to relish the fruit of power without also bringing forth leaves of savagery.