By Guest Blogger Minal Hajratwala
Last Friday, India voted into office a Prime Minister whose opponents—and some of his fans—have regularly compared to Hitler. Narendra Modi is also the only person ever to have been denied a U.S. entry visa on the grounds of fomenting “severe violations of religious freedom,” for his still-controversial role in anti-Muslim violence that killed more than 1,000 people in 2002, while he was chief minister of the state of Gujarat.
Naturally, LGBT Indians are worried. At a key social moment for gay and transgender rights, the ascendance of a right wing party with a poor track record toward minorities threatens to call a halt to progress and perhaps even turn the clock backward.
Mr. Modi’s Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) was one of the only national parties to celebrate the troubling December 2013 verdict of the Supreme Court, which upheld the constitutionality of India’s 1861 anti-sodomy law (article 377 of the Penal Code). While other politicians pledged to support the community’s efforts to overturn what they acknowledged as a “repressive” and “unjust” statute, BJP party chief Rajnath Singh lauded it, calling homosexuality an “unnatural” act that “cannot be supported.”
The party, whose roots lie in fundamentalist Hindu ideology, won with an overwhelming voter mandate. Mr. Modi has a pro-business reputation, but “Modinomics” contains contradictions. Certainly, it’s difficult to see how multinationals can continue to drive innovation and growth in a climate where diversity and inclusion efforts are dampened.
LGBT Indians depend on the central government directly for certain issues, such as funding for HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, and indirectly for many others, such as the securing of basic rights. Over the next six months, for example, the government is supposed to ensure compliance with a recent Supreme Court victory on transgender equality. Every agency, top to bottom, state and federal, should be adding third-gender options to its forms and developing plans to include transgender people in programs for economically “backward” minority groups—but of course, it takes great will to make such a change happen expeditiously.
It remains to be seen how the BJP will behave on such issues. Mr. Modi will enter the Prime Minister’s suite with a strong Parliament backing him and, therefore, the power to do—or not do—what he wants.
Moreover, a general disregard for minority opinions and rights could leave India’s left scrambling to protect itself on all kinds of fronts, from Dalit human rights, to land grabs, to censorship, to women’s concerns. A fragmented and beleaguered progressive movement in India may be less inclined, or have fewer resources, to support LGBT issues as strongly as it has in the recent past.
The anti-gay law awaits its final challenge in the courts: a long-shot petition claiming judicial error. If that petition fails to overturn the law, the only other remedy available is an act of Parliament—now unlikely, with the BJP in power for the next five years.
If there is any good news in this election, it is that the BJP won on a platform of economic expansion, not social issues. Unlike in the United States, where culture wars place homosexuality and abortion at center stage, in India LGBT rights remain a fairly obscure area of interest. The very invisibility of the topic is, perhaps, a strength. While the BJP is certainly no friend to the gays, neither has it made homophobia a rallying point, let alone a wedge issue.
As some gay activists have pointed out, one outcome of the election may be that the Indian LGBT advocacy community will be forced to reach out to a party with which it has, till now, had very few dealings. And if Mr. Modi can indeed deliver on his promise to expand the economy, some LGBT people—particularly those who depend on corporate well-being for their livelihoods—are even cautiously optimistic that they could join that rising tide.
For the moment, then, the impact of Mr. Modi’s victory on India’s LGBT movement, which has blossomed over the past five years, is an open question. If the BJP remains focused on economic development, the direct impact could be minimal. But if it fails on the economic front and goes looking for minority groups to target, there could be trouble.
And the picture looks even worse if the right wing becomes emboldened by its mandate, or entrenched with victories over the next few elections. In such a scenario, it seems unlikely that politicians will be able to restrain themselves from pursuing the narrow, moralistic agenda of their grass roots—and that cannot possibly be good for the rainbow that is India.
Minal Hajratwala is an author, coach, and consultant; editor of Out! Stories from the New Queer India; and a principal of PrideSpeak, which brings LGBT speaker panels to corporate India. She tweets at @MinalH and welcomes dialogue and inquiries at firstname.lastname@example.org.