India: Frightening Questions, Terrifying Answers

I was born into a devoutly Hindu family in India's commercial capital of Mumbai (then known as Bombay). I studied at a Jesuit school. I attended mostly-Jewish universities in the United States: Brandeis and Columbia. And every Friday in the United Arab Emirates, where I've been living and working for the last seven years, I attend a prayer session at the royal mosque in the capital city of Abu Dhabi with Emirati royalty and everyday workers alike.

So what does that make me? A man of many faiths? Yes. A man willing to enter any house of worship for the spiritual peace it induces? Yes. A secular man? Yes.

It makes me, most of all, a man who's proud of having been produced by a 5,000-year-old culture where a staggering number of diverse societies have coexisted over the millennia. I am a man shaped by my parents' sensibility that you can subscribe to many faiths or none at all, but that there needs to be a core to one's self.

That core is the belief that no religion is superior to another, that the edicts and teachings of all faiths underscore the values of extending a helping hand to the dispossessed, embracing others with love, and spreading (not proselytizing) the message that charity, good will and good cheer help transform people and their societies into better entities.

I write of these things because of what's happening in my native country, India. The world's biggest democracy, a nation of 1.3 billion people, is holding the world's biggest exercise in adult franchise. More than 813 million voters are registered, and at least 75 percent of them are likely to trek to poll booths over the next few weeks. On May 16 we will know which political party or grouping will form a government in our Westminster system of democracy.

The polls suggest that, most likely, that government will be led by a man named Narendra Modi, currently the chief minister (the equivalent of chief executive) of the western state of Gujarat. He's a self-styled Hindu fundamentalist, which, in the Indian context, means that his core belief is predicated on the moral and existential superiority of Hinduism.

Some of Modi's followers go well beyond that core belief. For them, the existence of India's 200 million Muslims, and of other "minorities" such as Christians and Jews, is inconsequential. At the heart of their ethos is the conviction that India is "Hindustan" ("land of the Hindus"), and that everyone who is not Hindu is an outsider. Building on that belief, some of Modi's supporters contend that "outsiders" are simply not entitled to the same freedoms and opportunities as Hindus are.

To be sure, during the election campaign, some of these extreme views have been toned down in the interest of political expediency. Modi himself avers that if he becomes India's next prime minister, he will treat every Indian as equal, as though that were a favor he would be granting. Equality is enshrined in the Indian Constitution, but Modi's reading may not have extended to that document.

I always thought that in the long years since India won its independence from the British Raj in 1947, the country was slowly but surely evolving into a polity of cultural tolerance and social understanding. Everyone was welcome to be an Indian. The Italian-born Sonia Gandhi, president of the ruling Congress Party and widow of the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi, has been widely accepted as a daughter of the soil. One didn't have to be born in India to be an Indian.

That's what I was taught by my parents when I was growing up. Our neighborhood in Mumbai was a mosaic of many faiths and ethnicities. We mixed easily with one another. We celebrated one another's festivals. We feasted during weddings and christenings. We were free to be who we were, and we had no compulsion to display our spiritual credentials.

But that was a very long time ago. The rhetoric of this election in 2014 and the concomitant actions of extremist political players point to the emergence of a different India. Plainly put, this has become a less tolerant India.

This India clamors for change in government, which is understandable in view of the ineptness of the Congress-led administration and its wide-ranging corruption. But does change in governance have to mean the exclusion from the social compact of those whose beliefs, whether through the accident of birth or the incidence of choice, do not resonate with those of a shrill and increasingly violent majority?

It is a frightening question. The answer is even more terrifying.

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