Elections in the world's largest democracy, India, have come to an end after eight arduous phases of voting. The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies, riding on the anti-incumbency wave and aided by several factors such as a series of high profile corruption scandals of the ruling Congress party, have won the elections with an absolute majority in India's 543 member parliament. The BJP rode to victory on 31% of the total votes cast in the elections. Narendara Modi, the controversial and deeply polarizing prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, also played a key role in his party's victory.
Modi was considered a persona non grata by the United States and was denied entry into the country in 2005 on the grounds of a religious freedom violation under the International Religious Freedom Act of 1998, the first and only time such a denial has been issued. This brings up a very interesting scenario for US-India relations. Given the deeply troubling background of Modi and his dismal record on human rights, the violence against minorities that was carried out under his watch in the Gujarat pogroms of 2002, and his association with the Hindu supremacist group called the RSS, the US needs to move cautiously in establishing a relationship with the new government led by Modi.
The United States Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) recently released a comprehensive report on the state of religious freedom and its impact on minorities in India. The Obama administration must, as a priority, adopt the USCIRF recommendations on including religious freedom and human rights in any strategic partnership that the US establishes with India. This assumes an added urgency considering the track record of the BJP and its leader. The USCIRF recommendations are as follows:
- Integrate concern for religious freedom into bilateral contacts with India, at both the federal and provincial level, and encourage the strengthening of the capacity of state and central police to implement effective measures to prohibit and punish cases of religious violence and protect victims and witnesses;
- Increase the U.S. embassy’s attention to issues of religious freedom and related human rights, including through visits by the Ambassador and other officials to areas where communal violence has occurred or is likely to occur and meetings with religious communities, local governmental leaders, and police;
- Urge India to boost training on human rights and religious freedom standards and practices for the police and judiciary, particularly in states and areas with a history or likelihood of communal violence;
- Urge the central Indian government to press states that have adopted anti-conversion laws to repeal or amend them to conform with internationally-recognized human rights standards, and
- Encourage the establishment of an impartial body of interfaith religious leaders, human rights advocates, legal experts, and government officials to discuss and recommend actions to promote religious tolerance and understanding.
The US and India have a great role to play in furthering democratic ideals in the world. The cornerstone of democracy is invariably rooted in how well a democratic country ensures the safety and security of minorities and an equal opportunity for all at the economic table - not just on paper but in practice as well.