Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister

Narendra Modi

By Graham Peebles

The landslide victory of Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in May 2014’s parliamentary elections does not bode well for the 800 million or so Indians living in destitution, or the 120 million minority Muslims in the country, or the Adivasi (indigenous) people and Dalit groups sitting on resource-rich land in Orissa, Jharkhand and elsewhere.

Modi may well come from a humble background but his loyalties lie firmly with the corporations of India, not the chai wallahs working the train station at Vadnagar in Gujarat State, like his father once did. And certainly not the Adivasi families being forced from their homes to make way for multinational bulldozers, or the marginalized millions on the fringes of India’s cities who live in tin shacks with no sanitation or healthcare, where children play alongside open sewers and women work on mountains of refuse collecting Chinese plastics for a few rupees a day.

A dangerous lurch to the extreme right

Modi is a far right Hindu nationalist whose election suggests India is entering its most sinister period since independence, as Indian author Pankaj Mishra put it. Hindu nationalism is an exclusive club made up of upper-caste Hindus who form the ruling elite; it is of course closed to the devout worshipers from the lower castes. Modi’s BJP openly promotes the ideal of an India run by and for Hindus. It is “quite open about its belief in the Hindu India… where everybody else lives… as second-class citizens”. Modi’s rise to electoral stardom is a “terribly sad thing and something to be ashamed of”, says Arundhati Roy.

The man and his message was polished, packaged and sold like any other fizzy brand, with advertised promises of economic revival and goodies galore.

Modi’s election campaign was the most expensive ever staged in India, funded as all these political games are by the men with the money. The billionaires and millionaires, the rupee resplendent corporations that own India – her sacred putrid rivers, the forests and bauxite rich mountains, the media, the schools, hospitals and water ways. That is, everything of value, catalogued within the business portfolios of a tiny few, while the majority starve, defecate in public, are violated, exploited, ignored.

Nobody knows the precise cost of the new prime minister’s campaign: it is estimated to have exceeded Rs 5,000 crore – that’s about USD 840 million. The man and his message was polished, packaged and sold like any other fizzy brand, with advertised promises of economic revival and goodies galore. “Can a massively funded and aggressive media campaign make people choose a particular leader?” asks Jayati Ghosh, Professor of Economics at Delhi’s Jawaharlal Nehru University. The answer, she says, “Sadly, seems to be yes.”

No limits are placed on spending by political parties, except what’s in their bank accounts. The BJP staged a media blitz, saturating the television and the press with images and sound bites from their charismatic candidate. He received “nearly 7.5 times more coverage [2,575 minutes] than Congress Vice-President Rahul Gandhi [his leading opponent] during prime time” viewing, according to the Hindu newspaper. Massive exposure facilitated by the corporate media that avoided asking probing questions, or “pointing to some of the clear dishonesty in the claims made about his success in Gujarat”, says Professor Ghosh. Such are the benefits of being in bed with the corporations. Big business rightly saw in Modi someone who would deliver all the benefits they have become used to.

Divisive, violent, prejudicial

A sign of Modi’s extreme prejudicial leanings is the disturbing fact that he is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). According to Mishra, this is “A paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founders believed that Nazi Germany had manifested ‘race pride at its highest’ by purging the Jews.”

Set up in 1927, the far right group admires Benito Mussolini and Adolph Hitler, whom they openly praise. Outlawed by the British Raj, the RSS had been banned three times since independence. It was a former member of the RSS, Nathuram Godse, who murdered Mahatma Gandhi in 1948 for being too soft on Muslims. Traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, the extreme group has led many vicious assaults on minorities, especially Muslims.

As Chief Minister of Gurjarat, Modi presided over a brutal Hindu pogrom against the state’s Muslim community in 2002. Over 1,000 (many put the figure much higher) lost their lives, and many women were raped, in riots that “began after a train with Hindu pilgrims was set on fire in Godhra, killing 59 people. Since then Muslims and other minorities in the state have been marginalized and silenced, terrorized into submission. “Muslim families and individuals are increasingly ghettoised, finding it impossible to buy or rent accommodation in dominantly Hindu areas,” says writer Zahir Janmohamed. Young Muslim men cannot find work and suffer police intimidation and violence. They are denied bank loans and “intercommunity social mingling, particularly between young men and women, is frowned upon”. It is a picture of social division, prejudice and injustice.

While it’s unclear what part Modi played in the pogrom of 2002, what is apparent is that when Hindu mobs roamed the streets looking for Muslims to kill and rape, he did very little to stop them. In 2005 the American government felt the evidence against him was strong enough to deny him a US diplomatic visa.

Economic recipe for disaster

India has witnessed GDP growth of up to 9 per cent per annum since the economic reforms of 1991; it now sits at around 3 per cent. Liberalization, globalization and privatization are the cornerstones of this process, which has involved the transfer of support from the poor to India’s corporations, triggering, among other calamities, a plague of farmer suicides – 19,000 according to the Lancet killed themselves in 2010 alone. It has been resource-led growth, based mainly on the extraction of natural resources, cheap labour (including children) and foreign investment. While a small number (15 per cent of the population, perhaps) have slipped into the ranks of the middle class, the chief benefactors have been the corporations and the already wealthy who have become extremely rich. India boasts 60 dollar billionaires plus 153,000 millionaires, and 800 million – 60 per cent of the population – living on less than USD 2 a day. Over half the population has no sanitation and defecates in public and 43 per cent of children are malnourished. It is an unjust and shameful economic system that facilitates such inequality.

An internal armed conflict from the northeast of the country to Karnataka state in the southwest, along with the displacement of hundreds of thousands of Adivasi and Dalit people, has been the major consequence of the race for resources, together with an enormous dam building programme and the construction of ‘Special Economic Zones’ (SEZ). Since Independence it is estimated that as many as 65 million people (excluding those displaced through armed conflict) have been displaced in India, mostly due to “development” projects.

Modi’s approach in Gujarat showed him to be in line – in many ways way over the line – with the government’s divisive development policies: promote and incentivize big business “through all sorts of explicit and implicit subsidies, keeping wages low and suppressing any workers’ action; repression of popular movements; and cracking down on dissent”, says Professor Ghosh.

Consumer nirvana

The desire for material delights has been sown firmly into the minds of India’s young population – two-thirds of which is under the age of 35 – and Modi has scratched away at the itchy insatiable surface promising consumer heaven. “The good days are coming” was his theme tune, with a ‘B’ side being “We need a corrupt Congress-free India” and “Give me a massive mandate”. Sounds like the predictable rallying call of politicians worldwide – no wonder nobody trusts them.

Hundreds of millions of Indians (not the 800 million who can barely eat) have seen no benefits from market liberalization and are denied the chance to shop. They have been seduced by Modi’s saccharin-laced images of a consumerist future, where “skyscrapers, expressways, bullet trains and shopping malls proliferate”, and the army of poor is hidden away in the slums and rural India, to quietly die.

Along with the Bollywood brigade, the young voted for Modi, seeing him as the one to package and deliver their designer trainers, smartphones and essential cosmetics – the “long-awaited fruits of the globalized economy”. However, because the adopted development model is undemocratic and fundamentally flawed, based as it is on an unwavering belief in the market economy, rewarding the rich, excluding the poor and victimizing minorities, “he actually embodies its inevitable dysfunction”. It is a model that aggravates desire, creating discontent and fear – the essential ingredients of social upheaval and conflict.

True democracy, which is based on participation, equality, freedom and the rule of law, is denied. But then India is far from being a democratic nation: “there isn’t a single institution anymore which an ordinary person can approach for justice: not the judiciary, not the local political representative… all the institutions have been hollowed out and just the shell has been put back”, says Arundhati Roy. The comical catchphrase, “the world’s largest democracy”, has little meaning when the voice of the people is consistently and brutally suppressed and the caste system dominates all areas of life, particularly in rural areas where most people live, while the country is run by a group of elite Hindu men. “We’re a country whose elite is capable of an immense amount of self-deception,” says Roy.

As millions worldwide respond to the tone of the times and demand freedom, justice and a new, fairer civilzation, we ask: is Modi of the time? Is he the kind of man who will be able to empathize with the people; does he possess the vision and imagination needed to create a new way of living; is he kind and inclusive?

In a detailed document published in Wikileaks, Michael S. Owen of the US consulate in Mumbai, said: “In public appearances Modi can be charming and likeable. By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person… He reigns by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory. He hoards power… and has an abrasive leadership style.”

At a time when the world needs new ideas, politicians who can listen, are inclusive and tolerant, who long to cooperate and understand others and themselves, at such a time India has a man at the helm rooted in the ideological Stone Age, who , as Mishra put it, “resembles the European and Japanese demagogues of the early 20th century”.

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