A testing moment for Mr Modi

India's political landscape and its government's legislative agenda are in danger of being held hostage by hardline groups seeking to reconvert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, and by strident demands for an anti-conversion law designed to prevent religious "straying" in the future.

These initiatives are an attempt to reclaim the felt continuities of India as an ancestral Hindu land from the appearance of Muslim rulers and Christian missionaries, whose religious zeal and proselytisation are blamed for having changed the demographic contours and the spiritual direction of Indian history. More conversions, it is feared by some, would consolidate the lingering legacy of invasion and imperialism.

Such fears surely would be placed in perspective by the fact that roughly 80 per cent of Indians today are Hindus, with Muslims and Christians making up the bulk of the modest remainder. Yet, in India as elsewhere, the agitation of the right wing cannot be ignored. This must be handled sensitively but also decisively, with the overarching demands of national cohesiveness kept uppermost in mind.

In any case, these are matters for Indians to decide for and among themselves. What well-wishers of India, particularly under its dynamic and forward-looking leader, Mr Narendra Modi, would hope is that contestations over history would not intrude into the task of building a new India, which he has so ambitiously but also sincerely undertaken. The needs of that India are economic primarily - to unleash the wealth-creating potential of more than a billion people whose entrepreneurial skill and intellectual imagination are assets that should be fully exploited.

Prime Minister Modi proved that this could be done when he led his home state of Gujarat. Now, he faces the challenge of turning India into a macrocosm of Gujarat. Certainly, differences of geographical scale and regional diversity make his task onerous. But for precisely that reason, he does not require the diversion created by regressive politico-religious factions. These are trying to make his national project a part of their confessional programme when they should be helping him with his transformative economic vision instead. If they do not wish to do so, they deserve to be relegated to the ideological suburbs where they originated and where they hold fitful sway.

New Delhi, by contrast, is the capital of all India. As its chief politician, Mr Modi represents the collective aspirations of the Indian people, to whom - and to only whom - he is accountable. Given that the religious groups depend more on his political credibility than it does on them, he ought to show them their place in India's proper scheme of things.