Why Narendra Modi is a bad choice for India

Narendra Modi mask held aloft at a BJP rally, photo by Reuters

It had been evident for more than a year that Narendra Modi and the BJP were going to win the recent elections in India, facing a lackluster campaign by the once-dominant Congress party now led by the dregs of a political dynasty.  Still, the scale of the BJP’s victory — which gave them an outright majority in the Lok Sabha, avoiding the coalitions that are common in India — was quite extraordinary.

Alas, I am vehemently and irredeemably opposed to Narendra Modi and the BJP, which is the political wing of the Hindu-fascist RSS of which Modi is a life-long member, and suspect this will prove an unhappy day for India. The fundamental issue is that India, like the US, is too internally diverse to privilege any single group within society; only a pluralistic, state-level neutrality on matters of religion can work.  But the Modi/RSS view is that India is “really” a Hindu country and other groups — particularly Muslims, of which there are nearly 200 million in India — are welcome to stay if they act nicely but do so as something less than full citizens, required to submit to Hindu supremacy in the public space.

Of course, Modi didn’t run on this platform.  He didn’t need to: the catalytic event that brought the BJP to power for the first time in the 1990s, ending the half-century Congress monopoly on power, was the destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya in 1992 by Hindus persuaded by BJP leader L.K. Advani and the VHP — a Hindutva group allied under the Sangh Privar umbrella with the BJP and RSS — that it was the birthplace of Ram.  It was a deliberately incendiary act that left 2,000 dead immediately afterward but, more importantly, triggered waves of sectarian violence on both sides over the ensuing years that radicalized the moderates and favored groups like the BJP, whose argument all along was that Muslims can’t be trusted.  This strategy — commit an atrocity, wait for the reaction, use it to force your own moderates to choose sides — was known as ‘compromising the villages’ in Bosnia during the Yugoslav civil war.  It also worked in Northern Ireland and in some ways the BJP today acts as Sinn Fein to the RSS’s Irish Republican Army: the latter does the agitation, the former presents itself as a responsible political party able to restrain the madness while advocating on behalf of precisely the same constituency.

In India’s case, this radicalizing strategy led directly to the inter-communal riots in Gujarat in 2002, which were much discussed during this campaign because Modi was chief minister of the state at the time.  At best, he can be said to have done practically nothing to aid the victims; at worst, quite a lot more could be said, but Modi’s tight control of the state institutions in Gujarat have meant his role has been inadequately documented by the authorities.  But, in fact, this ‘direct responsibility’ question was a red herring.  What matters is not whether Modi was out in the streets coordinating the killings — though his former minister, Maya Kodnani, also BJP, was convicted of that — but that the triggering of sectarian violence is the very essence of RSS strategy.  [It was also the essence of Shiv Sena strategy, a similarly chauvinist political gang, whose leader Bal Thackeray died last year — I denounced him too.]  It is neither spontaneous, as sometimes claimed, nor unwelcome, at least when seen from the perspective of the extremists: it is how you build your base and, eventually, work your way into mainstream politics.  As strategies go, though, it is not very commendable.

With that as background, Modi could campaign on an entirely different platform — as Mr. Development, tapping into the massively aspirational life force that has seized Indians in the last decade.  But it should be remembered that Modi was chief minister of Gujarat, where encouraging economic growth is not difficult: Gujaratis are as naturally mercantilist a people as exist anywhere in the world so policy need consist of little more than getting out of their way.  Had Modi achieved this in, say, Bihar or UP it might have meant something.  Nevertheless, the BJP occupies much the same position on the political spectrum as the modern Republican party in the US: pro-business on the one hand, which provides a steady stream of campaign funds, and chauvinist on the other, which provides foot soldiers who have rallied to the notion that the majority group is somehow the true victim and the minorities have all the advantages.  This cynical record — combined with Congress-led stagnation and corruption — was enough to vault Modi onto the national stage.

What will he do with national power?  Even his constituents aren’t sure.  Modi’s unprecedented invitation to Pakistan’s leader Nawaz Sharif to attend his inauguration was a master stroke, sparking comparisons to the red-baiting, anti-communist Richard Nixon’s groundbreaking visit to China in the 1970s.  But it shouldn’t have been a surprise.  Unleashing riots in the streets is what you do when you’re weak and out of power, but Modi now has as strong a mandate as any Indian leader since Rajiv Gandhi came to power after the assassination of his mother, Indira Gandhi, in 1984.  As long as Modi’s position remains strong he’ll focus on the economy, but if his position erodes he’ll unleash the hounds. The French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot makes roughly the same point in an illuminating interview with Shivam Vij in Scroll.in:

What is the relationship between Hindutva/secularism/minority rights and development/economic growth/prosperity?
Plan A for Modi is to succeed on the economic front, and if that does not work then emphasising on Hindutva politics may be an important Plan B. It’s more a plank the BJP uses when it wants to conquer difficult seats or fears electoral defeat – like in Gujarat in 2002.

Some said that after 2002, the era of large-scale communal violence is over. But Assam in 2012 and Muzaffarnagar in 2013 seem to be disproving that. The BJP has openly used the violence in Muzaffarnagar for electoral gains.
They are not in power in UP and that was probably the best way to make inroads. Muzaffarnagar is a dangerous test case. If riot-driven communal polarisation brings electoral gains once again, it means that the tactic still works.


What does the Sangh Parivar [the Hindu nationalist umbrella group, to which the BJP and RSS belong] really want?

It wants to equate the identity of India with Hinduism.

What does that mean in practical terms?

A fusion between the Hindu culture and the public culture of India. This means that Muslims and Christians can remain Muslims and Christians in the private sphere, in the mosque and the church, but in the public sphere they have to show allegiance to Hindu symbols. That is why in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement [which led to the destruction of the mosque in Ayodhya] they asked Muslims to give up the Babri Masjid and chant “Jai Shri Ram”. Ram is to be seen as a rallying figure of all Indians, not just Hindus. It also implies that a temple has to be built in Ayodhya, and no special recognition of religious minorities in social programmes. That is why scholarships for religious minorities as recommended by the Sachar Commission have not been given to Muslims in Gujarat. It also means no quota for Muslim and Christian dalits, the rewriting of history of India, new anti-conversion laws and the promotion of Hindu cults – including new Sampradayas and festivals. On the contrary, iftar parties may not benefit from any official recognition. These are some of the ways in which the Hinduisation of India is to be carried out.

So religious minorities need to worry less for their rights and more for their visibility in the public sphere?

Yes, and no. The polarisation strategy can be routinised in the form of a politics of fear. The fear of the other can rely on fake encounters for instance. More importantly, the magnitude of the BJP’s success in the long term may be such that, eventually, items which are not on the NDA agenda but on the BJP agenda – like the abolition of Article 370, the Uniform Civil Code and the building of a Ram temple in Ayodhya – may become the order of the day. At least, components of the Sangh Parivar may put pressure on the government on that front with a simple argument: we are now in a position to implement our program. And the government may implement some items of this program for defusing this pressure or if it is losing ground on the socio-economic front. This is the Plan B I mentioned before, which may be seen as a provocation by the minorities, and which may be deliberately offensive.




2 Responses to “Why Narendra Modi is a bad choice for India”

  1. Gaand says:

    What bunch of fucking bullshit. Same shit that has been trotted out for years, but now used to delegitimize his victory. Fucking butthurt losers.

  2. […] a touchstone for policy.  India, too, just voted for a religious chauvinist — I wrote about why that was a mistake here — and in both countries the internal diversity makes privileging any one group […]

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