India's Narendra Modi reins in Hindu hardliners

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi.REUTERS/David Gray

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi warned his lawmakers for the first time to stop promoting controversial issues such as religious conversions and to focus on economic reforms as he struggles to pass legislation needed to kickstart the economy.

A right wing Hindu group called off a plan to convert thousands of Muslims to Hinduism this Christmas, which had threatened to stir fresh religious discord, after Modi's intervention.

But opposition politicians continued to disrupt parliament on Wednesday, saying they were not convinced the ruling group had given up its partisan agenda.

"The prime minister feels that we should not deviate from our agenda of economic reforms and development," said Yogi Adityanath, a Hindu priest-turned-lawmaker who has been running Hindu reconversion campaigns, a sensitive issue

Modi, who was elected in May with a mandate to provide jobs and economic growth, has already seen his reform agenda stymied by inflammatory statements by members of his Hindu nationalist party. With a week left before the session of parliament ends, he risks ending the year without passing a single major reform.His election raised hopes that the right-wing leader would build on the economic transformation that began in the 1990s. Instead, efforts to overhaul the tax system and lift caps on foreign investment have been derailed by deadlock between the government and opposition parties.

"The problem with Modi is not the opposition, it is fringe elements within his own party," said S. Chandrasekharan, director of the South Asia Analysis Group, based in New Delhi.

Modi's rise to power has emboldened right-wing activists to openly declare India a nation of Hindus, posing a challenge to its multi-faith constitutional commitment. About a fifth of India's 1.27 billion people identify themselves as belonging to faiths other than Hinduism.

One member of Modi's council of ministers said non-Hindus were "illegitimate" at an election rally and another party MP said the man who killed freedom fighter Mahatma Gandhi was a patriot. Even the right wing Hindu group Dharam Jagran Samiti, which called off the mass conversions planned for December  25 in the city of Aligarh, said it had only paused its campaign to bring Muslims and Christians back to its fold.

"We have suspended our plans but this is just a suspension not a ban," organiser Satya Prakash Navmann, who stands accused in six communal riot cases, told Reuters. "No one can stop us from making India a land of Hindus."