Same Difference? The Politics of Development in Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka and Modi’s Gujarat: Anonymous

This is a  guest post by ANONYMOUS

President Mahinda Rajapakse in Sri Lanka and Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi in India have positioned themselves as champions of development and good governance. Hardly a day passes without a media comment in the two countries on their respective development achievements. By and large, claims and counter-claims regarding development in Gujarat and Sri Lanka have tended to focus on mobilising data and ‘facts’ pertaining to a range of vital indicators—economic growth, levels of foreign investment, per capita income, employment, industrial or agricultural output, housing, rural infrastructure, roads, electrification, social welfare allocations, etc.

While working with development data is useful and necessary, an approach that relies too heavily on them tells us little about why development matters to the two regimes and how and to what ends it is actually deployed and leveraged by them at this point in time—the focus of this commentary. The question is not just what Modi and Rajapakse are doing for development but also what development is doing for them. Notwithstanding the significant differences between Gujarat and Sri Lanka, as argued herein, there are many striking similarities with respect to how and why Modi and Rajapakse are constructing, invoking and championing the cause of development.

Mass Crimes and the Rise of the Development Agenda

Both Modi and Rajapakse face serious allegations pertaining to mass crimes, the former with respect to the pogrom against Muslims in 2002 and the latter with respect to the grave excesses against the Tamil civilian population as well as many surrendered or captured combatants during and immediately after the end of the civil war in 2009. In addition, both also face a range of allegations pertaining to the treatment of ethnic/religious minorities and their mobilisation of majoritarian ethnic/religious sentiments. Faced with unabated charges of grave injustices in relation to mass crimes and an aborted post-war and post-pogrom reconciliation project, both Modi and Rajapakse have actually chosen to position themselves as messiahs of development.

In other words, they seek to change the terms of the debate altogether. And Modi at least, if the obsession with ‘measuring’ Gujarat’s development achievements (or lack thereof) is anything to go by, is actually succeeding. Fundamental to Modi-Rajapakse approach is the developmentalisation of all issues i.e. the reduction and recasting of all grievances, including that of victim-survivors of mass crimes, and especially those of minorities, to various forms of material deprivation or ‘quality of life’ issues to which development is the answer. According to Modi: “Development is the real path that will lead our nation out of the era of darkness” and it “is the solution to all problems”. And Rajapakse, addressing Parliament shortly after the defeat of the LTTE: “I must specially mention here that this great battle for national revival will be waged with the aim of raising the lives of the Tamil people who live in the north and east of our land, too. In the past several decades those people did not have the right to a meaningful life. They were denied the right to life, the right to freedom, the right to development. I shall give all of that to those people.”

It is important to remember that even as serious allegations of mass crimes surfaced both Modi and Rajapakse were quick to capitalise on the momentum from the pogrom and the war respectively. Elections in both Gujarat and Sri Lanka were advanced and both leaders secured thumping electoral majorities ostensibly on a development agenda while thousands were still deeply traumatised, dispossessed or displaced including large numbers in refugee camps, while many (thousands in Sri Lanka) remained unaccounted for. In fact, if it were not for the Election Commission of India, elections in Gujarat would have perhaps happened even sooner after the pogrom. Rajapakse used his resounding Parliamentary majority to abolish term limits on the Presidency and give himself further sweeping executive powers, again in the name of effective governance and development.

A second and equally important manoeuvre at work is projecting demands for accountability for mass crimes as impediments to development. In Sri Lanka and Gujarat those calling for accountability for war crimes and the pogrom respectively are dismissed as intent on undermining progress on the development front and being divisive forces, out not only to discredit the respective regimes but to also insult and divide the country (Sri Lanka) and the state (Gujarat) respectively.

The ‘Divisive Threat’, Minorities and Development

The ‘divisive threat’ is especially important to consider. In both Gujarat and Sri Lanka, the presiding regime’s own support for and mobilisation of majoritarian ethnic/religious sentiments—Hindutva and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism respectively—far from being seen as divisive is actually presented as providing a foundation of values for development (more on this later). The divisiveness, we are told, comes instead from those who call for accountability or challenge the hegemonic and assimilative nature of identity politics nurtured by the two regimes, which call for all citizens to be first and always ‘Gujaratis’, ‘Sri Lankans’ or simply ‘patriots’, all as defined by the regime of course, even while they themselves continue to leverage social cleavages for their own political ends.

Both Modi and the Rajapakses are steeped in a politics that is profoundly uncomfortable, to put it mildly, with ethnic and religious pluralism. Modi comes from the RSS, whose discomfort with religious minorities, pluralism and attachment to assimilationist politics is well known; its leader had once famously declared that there were no minorities in India. President Rajapakse holds similar views; again from his first post-war speech to Parliament: “We have removed the word minorities from our vocabulary three years ago. No longer are there Tamils, Muslims, Burghers, Malays and any others minorities. There are only two peoples in this country. One is the people that love this country. The other comprises the small groups that have no love for the land of their birth.” Modi will almost certainly agree with these sentiments.

Needless to say both are adept at instrumentalising ethno-religious identities, for after all both Modi and Rajapakse are creations of a competitive politics of identity that has captured electoral democracy in both India and Sri Lanka. On the one hand, as Rajapakse said in an address at Oxford: “The [Sri Lankan] government although elected by a Sinhala Buddhist majority represents a coalition of Sinhala, Tamil, and Muslim communities and all the religious groups in the country.” True but only on paper because this representation has not made any difference in terms of promoting justice, democracy and meaningful post-war reconciliation with Tamils in the war-affected North. Nor has it stemmed the surging tide of anti-Muslim and anti-Islam sentiments unleashed by Sinhala Buddhist nationalists since the war ended, resulting in movements to demolish and attack mosques and vandalise Muslim businesses with impunity while calling for their boycott and mounting a virulent and successful campaign to end all forms of halal certification, etc.

Modi, on the other hand, makes no such claims of representation, which are dismissed as ‘appeasement’ or ‘vote bank politics’. Despite his slogan of Ekmat Gujarat (United Gujarat) and his own much publicised state-wide tour to promote communal harmony prior to the elections, Modi’s BJP did not field a single Muslim amongst its 182 candidates for the 2012 state legislative assembly elections though Muslims constitute nearly 10 per cent of the population. One news report quoted a leader close to Modi as saying “It [fielding a Muslim candidate] was too risky a gamble. This symbolic gesture may have confused the majority who see Modi as a saviour of the Hindus, [….] “If this election has to be a springboard for 2014, it is important to keep Gujarat’s majority sentiment in mind. There will be enough time for symbolic gestures later.”

There have, however, been gestures of another kind, much more than just symbolic. Modi’s development agenda includes proposals to build a Sant Nagri (city of saints) and a Shreeram Pagdandi—a tourist circuit of places in the Dangs supposedly associated with Rama. In addition, it also includes cow protection, promotion of Sanskrit, a yearlong celebration of Swami Vivekananda’s 150-birth anniversary in 2012, etc. At the same time, last year, Modi’s government opposed a plea in the High Court and then unsuccessfully in the Supreme Court, to pay for the repair and restoration of over 500 mosques destroyed during the 2002 pogrom. The High Court had directed the government to meet the costs of repair and restoration because “inadequacy, inaction and negligence on the part of the state government to prevent the riots resulted in large scale destruction of religious structures across the state.” Moreover, Modi’s development agenda also did not include releasing funds for pre-matric scholarships for students from religious minorities, his government’s argument that the scheme, largely paid for by the Central Government, was unconstitutional was recently rejected by the Gujarat High Court.

Cultural/Religious Nationalism, Global Capital and Development

To be sure, their development agendas do not actually signal a departure or break from the ethno-religious nationalist agendas long championed by Modi and Rajapakse. For instance, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad has claimed it was Hindutva that was at the heart of Modi’s most recent electoral victory in Gujarat, highlighting the absence of Muslim candidates among other things. Of greater significance is the view that Hindutva and development are in fact synonymous. As Nitin Gadkari, the former chief of the BJP claimed, “Hindutva is related with nationalism and nationalism is development of the country”.  Both Modi as well as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan are seen as advocates of the ‘hindutva is development’ school of thought, captured much more forthrightly by Praveen Togadia: “Hindutva is development, development is Hindutva.” Modi’s discourse on development is not merely as a continuation of Hindutva but a new phase in its consolidation.

Unlike Hindutva in India, there has long been a significant degree of left-right ideological consensus over the Sinhala Buddhist nationalist project in Sri Lanka. Some time ago to a senior leader of the JHU (Jathika Hela Urumaya), a Sinhala-Buddhist party and an ally of Rajapakse claimed, “Sinhala Buddhism is the philosophical solution for problems of the present day, be it ecological, energy, economic or social.”  It is not a coincidence that the official development policy framework of the Sri Lankan government, the Mahinda Chinthana, deftly echoes the idea of Jathika Chinthana  (race/national consciousness), which has underpinned Sinhala Buddhist nationalism for decades. The official document†, a well-known Buddhist prayer prominently inscribed on the inside cover, begins its first significant chapter, on agriculture, by outlining the societal base of the national development project: “The tank and the field; the tank next to the dagoba [Buddhist temple]: this is our social foundation; our very special heritage…” Elsewhere, stressing that “moral and physical development […] should go hand in hand”, Rajapakse has underlined the importance of a 20-point action plan drawn up to ensure the preservation of the Buddha Sasana “aimed at moral development by preserving Sinhala Buddhist Cultural identity.”

Central to the Modi and Rajapakse model of driving development is a commitment to mainstreaming cultural nationalism, a revivalist agenda that looks back to a glorious past, a stress on ‘traditional’ family values, an emphasis on duties and discipline as opposed to rights, top-down welfare, rhetoric against the use of addictive substances and well timed tirades against ‘western’ and ‘secular’ tendencies.  However, their image as champions of development is not built only around a combination of paternal authoritarianism, populist morality and mobilising chauvinistic national zealousness, but also around their patronage of free enterprise, championing of economic freedoms, and promise of decisive government.

Reagan and Thatcher would have heartily approved of Modi’s recent assertion: “Minimum government, maximum governance – there is no alternative to this” or Rajapakse’s call to integrate “the free market economy with domestic aspirations”. It should come as no surprise that both lay a heavy emphasis on presenting Gujarat and Sri Lanka as heavens for foreign and domestic capital, wooed with many sweeping incentives and a promise to transform their respective capitals into ‘world-class’ cities where global elites can feel at home. Their ‘success’ in attracting foreign investment and capital is amongst the most widely advertised claims of Modi and Rajapakse. Imposing harsh market discipline is not at all at odds with Modi’s “Trade with Tradition, Commerce with Culture” or Rajapakse’s plan to “reposition Sri Lanka in the global arena as a knowledge based strong middle income country with better and improved living standards which continues to preserve cultural values and traditions.” In fact, their rhetoric on ‘culture’ and ‘tradition’ is also mobilised in the drive to attract global capital through aggressive international place marketing using devices such as ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ and ‘Sri Lanka: Wonder of Asia’, roping in top-flight international public relations firms for help.

Development is Justice?

The idea of ‘development as justice’ has been advanced to simultaneously ground concerns over equitable distribution of resources, protection of democratic rights and a constitutional morality that provides safeguards against entrenched societal prejudices as well as state excesses. However, in Gujarat and more recently Sri Lanka, we have seen the emergence what may be termed ‘development is justice’.  In contrast to ‘development as justice’ wherein the idea of justice provides an ethical framework or anchor for the pursuit of development, in ‘development is justice’ the latter is collapsed into the former. In this framing, justice and development are not only redefined but their relationship is more akin to ‘development in lieu of justice’.

In reality, both Modi and Rajapakse have discovered ‘development’ as an electoral-political agenda only fairly recently. In the case of the former, given the troubled legacy of the 2002 pogrom and his wider national political ambitions Hindutva became development. Moreover internal concerns within a stumbling BJP that an explicit electoral agenda grounded in Hindutva may be construed as bigoted, affecting electoral fortunes and alliances also played a role. In the case of the Rajapakse regime, which also rode to power on surging Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism, development has been deployed as a shield against allegations of human rights abuses and demands for accountability as well as a counter-discourse to call for meaningful and substantial reconciliation, which is now delivered in the form of infrastructure projects and other top-down development interventions in the North, mostly under close military scrutiny.

It is significant that both leaderships have steadfastly refused to undertake a symbolic act of contrition for the pogrom or war-related deaths and suffering under their watch or tender an apology to victim-survivors. In fact, the Lesson Learnt and Reconciliation Commission (LLRC), set-up by the Rajapakse regime, had explicitly recommended in 2011 that the Sri Lankan government do so (jointly with other key Tamil political actors), along with other symbolic measures such as instituting a national day of remembrance, singing the national anthem in Sinhala and Tamil, etc., but like many other recommendations all of these have been ignored.

Their so-called ‘development nationalism’ also enables Rajapakse and Modi to legitimate their authoritarianism. The former has used it to entrench militarisation at large including expanding role of the military within the economy as well as bringing range of functions under the Ministry of Defence post-war—policing, urban development, land reclamation, registration of voluntary organisations, etc. It has also enabled the rise of new modalities of authoritarianism such as the Divi Neguma programme, which gives the regime unprecedented powers and control in the name of promoting rural development countrywide undermining provincial and local governments.

While similar modes of authoritarian control are beyond Modi’s reach, he has nevertheless leveraged and indeed built his popularity around being a strong leader able to stamp his authority on Gujarat and, he hopes, in the near future on India too. He also shares with Rajapakse an allergy to dissent, free speech and criticism; besides some senior police officials of the state and a former Home Minister have been implicated or facing charges pertaining to extra-judicial killing.  However Modi’s authoritarianism is best manifested in his “completely personalised […] system of governance” that makes “his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality”, thanks in no small measure to an unprecedentedly smooth and effective media machinery.

The Rajapakse-Modi path to development is one of guided and paternalist not genuine and participatory democracy, one in which Hindutva and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism respectively plays a key role. However, ethno-religious nationalism is not a mere prop for either. Apart from being their pathways to power, these are ideologies that have seeded hegemony, helped foster networks of patronage as well as myriad forms of institutionalised prejudice that have shaped many of the spatial and communal inequalities, injustices and disparities in development apparent today in Sri Lanka and Gujarat. The development agendas of the two regimes in question now claim to address the symptoms of these very exclusions but without naming them as such or even worse denying or reframing them altogether.

A substantial engagement with the development story currently unfolding in Gujarat and Sri Lanka must therefore necessarily account for the ideological histories and trajectories of Modi and Rajapakse as well as what development means in the context of Hindutva and Sinhala-Buddhist nationalism. Thicker and more politically contextualised critiques of ‘development’ in Gujarat and Sri Lanka are vital because the political and moral economies of development cannot be assessed independently of each other. A comprehensive approach to assessing the development claims of Modi and Rajapakse needs to go beyond considering the veracity of particular ‘facts’ and figures concerning development and the movement of vital indicators. It must be built around an analysis that knits together a) the socio-economic agendas they seek to advance b) the assimilationist and hegemonic nation-building agendas they cherish and c) the demands for justice and accountability for the mass crimes committed on their watch and its continuing consequences, which they strive to silence, neutralise and undermine. In sum, it needs to account for how Modi and Rajapakse are using development to fundamentally whittle down ideas of citizenship, democracy and justice.

†Sri Lanka The Emerging Wonder Of Asia, Mahinda Chintana Vision For The Future, The Development Policy Framework, Government of Sri Lanka, Ministry of Finance and Planning, Department of National Planning, 2010.

3 thoughts on “Same Difference? The Politics of Development in Rajapakse’s Sri Lanka and Modi’s Gujarat: Anonymous”

  1. If you start with the assumption that the earth is flat, all subsequent research based on this assumption would go wrong. Similar is the case with your article. You start with the assumption that Modi is guilty of a mass genocide in 2002. No court, no enquiry instituted by the Supreme court has held him so. The media trial of Modi and his conviction by them is on par with the flat earth assumption. Development in Gujarat is a fact of life. Muslims veering towards rather than away from Modi, their voting in his favour are also facts of life. All I can say is what the Big B says in an ad ” kuch din toh guzaro Gujarat mein ” provided you take your blinkers off ! Difficult for you but no harm in trying it.


  2. This article trivializes the challenge of ‘development’ in South Asia. The predominant narrative/thread while following anything South Asian, including this blog, is of the difficulties of life for people in this part of the world (no quality education, no quality law enforcement (rapes, anyone?), no quality government response, no quality entertainment, no quality air, no quality roads, no quality public hospital or school, etc etc) . It is clear that around here development is a massive luxury which doesn’t just happen! Politicians or parties can’t just turn on a development tap as diversionary tactics.

    So the premise of this article is scarcely believable. Which then leads one to conclude that the author has chosen this angle with a predetermined stance or axe to grind.

    (I am the now-privileged son of a grandmother who lives thru medieval conditions in a village with 50 degree temperatures and electricity 8/24 near Ramagundam, AP and whose uncle roams for 28 days (and counting) in deathly heat around Hyderabad for fixing a fraudulent withdrawal from his SBH account of 4 lacs, and whose close school friend is a RSS pracharak that hates Modi (go figure, may the RSS’s hate development too). I live in the US, where the tap of development is always turned on, and it kills me to see that tap being trivialized by someone who probably doesn’t understand what hard work and zeal and commitment it takes to make happen and keep that tap turned on.)


  3. The problem with the sections of the people by whose support Modi/Rajapaksa have risen have a very different idea of what justice for the events surrounding their ascension to power . They have been portrayed as necessary precursors to development (read efficient propaganda) so it is very hard to show them this perspective .

    Now the development part , in both these cases the mere use (actually misuse) of the term ‘development’ has created an illusion that there is more development here than anywhere else . Once the frenzy has been created some true and many fraudulent claims become facts and are accepted by the mainstream .Very few people actually know what development is in terms of facts and statistics so they will happily accept whatsoever little development there is as proof of rapid economic growth and expansion of opportunities for everyone .


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