Guest Post by Shankar Gopalakrishnan
On August 14th, Narendra Modi declared that his Independence Day speech would attract as much attention as that of the Prime Minister. He appears to have been right. The fact that this is hardly unexpected should not obscure the deeper puzzle that it hides. It is a rare occurrence for a state level leader to suddenly get so much prominence in the media, and that too for such a long period. Why, then, have powerful forces in our society – including most of the media – chosen to endorse Modi? Why the sudden promotion of this particular leader at this particular time? What is it that he and his regime are offering?
Each of the standard explanations offered can easily be disposed of. There’s the claimed “Gujarat development model.” But even the staunchest BJP advocates have to scrounge and dig to find a single indicator in which Gujarat stands out. In most respects, Gujarat actually falls in the middle. Corporates themselves seem to prefer other States. Maharashtra and Karnataka (out of large States) have received more FDI; and a report by the “Institute for Competitiveness” reportedly also ranks Maharashtra higher than Gujarat. With respect to the oft-touted “success” of electrification, the 2011 Census reports that fifteen other States have a higher rate of electrified households than Gujarat – including Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala and Punjab. In terms of “clean and effective administration”, the CAG has twice indicted the Gujarat government for providing favours (a fact that has received little media coverage), and the move to render the State Lokayukta toothless demonstrate that Gujarat is no different from other major States in the country. In GDP growth rates from 2002 – 2011, Gujarat comes fourth. This is apart from the fact that the 2011 Human Development Report placed Gujarat at the eleventh position in human development, behind Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Maharashtra and Punjab.
There’s the fact that the Modi regime has won three consecutive elections. But he is hardly the first CM to do so; 12 others have, including, among serving CMs of large states, Naveen Patnaik and Tarun Gogoi (aside from, in the smaller States, Sheila Dikshit, Manik Sarkar, Ikram Obobi Singh and Pawan Chamling). Then there’s talk of his “new ideas” and “fresh thinking.” Yet even a cursory glance shows that Modi’s rhetoric is remarkably stale. Practically every statement made by this supposedly “remarkable administrator” is a rehash of ideas that date from twenty years ago. His statements on economic policy could have been taken from Manmohan Singh’s speeches in 1991. His statements on “secularism” are standard saffron rhetoric which we have heard since the 1980s. On anything other than ‘development’ and Hindutva, he has nothing to say at all.
So what exactly is the appeal of the Modi brand? Of course, there is one (and indeed only one) point that does distinguish the Modi regime: the 2002 massacres. No other leader so openly represents the politics of pogrom and killing. Hence some suspect that all this talk of development is just a smokescreen for promoting fascist politics. There is no doubt that those who support Modi, at the very least, do not particularly object to 2002. Nowhere was this clearer than in the reactions to his “puppy” remark; after this equation of organised slaughter with roadkill, two major English newspapers (The Times of India, July 15; Indian Express, July 16) ran lead editorials advising Modi to improve his “communications strategy,” making it clear that they not only have no problem with his attitude to mass murder, but that they regard themselves as part of his campaign team.
But it is also clear that Modi’s support from the powerful extends beyond those who identify with the Sangh. Several mainstream commentators have deliberately tried to claim that Modi is “moving away” from Hindutva, and he draws support from a whole spectrum of forces not known for any strong allegiance to anti-minority hate politics. The Modi phenomenon, in this sense, goes well beyond hatred alone. To understand where this originates, we need to look beyond Modi as an individual and understand the background of the forces that have seen fit to make him their face.
After 1991, the Indian polity has been characterised by a curious contradiction. On the one hand, every political party in government has, to a greater or lesser extent, implemented policies that have favoured big business and the financial sector. Yet, at the same time, these policies have had no consistent support or endorsement from any major political force. Indeed, most such “reforms” have been implemented by ‘stealth’ – complex notifications outside the public eye, efforts to bypass Parliament, MoUs signed with bureaucrats, or quiet policy changes whose implications only come to light later. This is in sharp contrast to many other countries that have followed this pathway, such as the Latin American countries in the 1980s and 1990s, Britain under Thatcher or the United States under Reagan. In India, in most cases where the reformists have had to confront an organised group, they have lost the open confrontation. Examples include the dilution of labour laws, withdrawing the PDS, etc., all of which have – for them – only been partly achieved (as compared to the open demolition that they desire). One of the few exceptions was the recent liberalisation of FDI in retail, but in a sense it is the exception that proves the rule – such FDI was barred in 1997, after the start of “reforms”, and it has taken sixteen years for the reformists to reverse that decision.
This political weakness has had two consequences. Firstly, it has lent Indian “reforms” a particularly avaricious and corrupt quality, especially over the past ten years, when their weakness became more clear. Whether the SEZ Act, the liberalisation of mining regulations, the changes in gas prices, or the dilution of environment and forest clearances, most of the recent “reforms” have been aimed at little more than making it easier for certain corporates to grab more natural resources and/or pre-existing value (often by simply making it easier to evade the law). Broader “policy reforms” have been rare.
Secondly, this weakness has led to a continual search by the “reformist” forces – and their real backers, finance and big capital – to find a political force that could guarantee them enough popular support to confront their opponents. Both before and after 1991, one such effort led to an increasing alliance with the saffron forces, culminating in the NDAs’rise to power in 1998. Notwithstanding their occasional rhetorical hostility, big capital and its reformist allies have a lot of common ground with the Hindutva forces. Both believe in a “strong state” and are keen supporters of the police and the military; both believe that society needs to be “depoliticised”, which in practice means that all forms of protest against power should be crushed; both are inherently hostile to collective politics, especially class and caste politics. In historical terms, this is not surprising – around the world, “reforms” have always been undertaken under such regimes. The 2002 pogrom worried these forces insofar as it damaged India’s international image (hence the continued obsession with any and every international visitor to Modi); but as long as such open violence and “vulgar expressions” of Hindutva were combined with lip service to secularism, they were quite happy to support the NDA, and expected that Hindu chauvinism (with accompanying authoritarianism) would provide the stable popular support base that they had so long lacked. In turn, the Hindutva brigade toned down some of their rhetoric in the English speaking sphere and embraced “reforms” wholeheartedly, culminating in the “India Shining” slogan (these issues are discussed in more detail here).
But then came the 2004 election defeat – which shocked many of the same media outlets who are today promoting Modi. The NDA experiment had failed to deliver what it promised. The Congress-led UPA then attempted another experiment, “liberalisation with a human face”, in which they tried to address a few issues of social conflict while trying to ensure that such measures did not threaten the core interests of the corporates and the financiers. The presence of the Left also restrained the government, in the process saving the Congress from itself. Thus we had a government that simultaneously passed the Employment Guarantee Act and the SEZ Act; that carried out the coal scam and a skyrocketing rate of forest and land grabbing even as it passed the Forest Rights Act; that granted loan waivers to farmers even as it continued with policies that made farming unviable. This precarious Janus-faced policy secured the 2009 election, but by then the UPA had already had the rug pulled from under it by the 2008 global financial crisis.
Now, desperate to maintain their profits after the collapse of international finance and capital inflows, the big capitalists became intolerant of even the slightest gesture that did not directly cater to their own interests. As the Mint newspaper editorialised, “India does not need democracy that does not deliver growth” (April 1, 2013). The second UPA term has been characterised by corporate scam after corporate scam, howls of “policy paralysis”, and the undercutting of the UPA’s own political selling points. Indeed, after five years in power, the only things the UPA has to advertise are a Food Security Act that provides less than what several major States have already guaranteed, and ‘direct benefit transfer’, which is not a social measure at all but an attempt to destroy public provision through the back door (and in any case is practically certain to be an implementation disaster). Meanwhile, the UPA faces a growing wave of popular anger and resistance, ranging from struggles against resource grabbing to wildcat strikes by industrial workers and riots over power cuts and inflation. In a classic sign of a government facing a crisis of legitimacy, practically the only response it is now capable of deploying is repression.
As a result, the UPA’s defeat in 2014 now appears quite likely, and in any case it is unable to do what its corporate sponsors want it to do. It hence represents another failed experiment. This presents the corporates and financiers with a dilemma. With no alternative politics in sight, and with their heavy influence over the media, they continue to dictate the political agenda. But they are now morally and intellectually bankrupt. After seeking saviours in everyone from Vajpayee to Manmohan Singh to (even) Anna Hazare, they have run out of ideas. They have nothing to offer to the majority of India, and in this time of financial crisis, they are not even willing to try; even by the historically low standards of Indian business, their myopia and venality is extreme. The only thing left for them is to seek a repeat of the NDA formula, while imagining that for some reason, this time, it will work.
And there is only one regime in India which still speaks the language of the NDA at all. Practically every other leader/government, including Modi’s BJP rivals, has adopted the UPA’s formula – appease the big capitalists while providing some kind of social welfare scheme too. This is the model that the “reformists” no longer want. Hence the fact that practically every “reformist” intellectual – from Bibek Debroy to Jagdish Bhagwati – has embraced the non-existent ‘Gujarat model.’ Modi’s appeal is one of default; he brings nothing new to the table, but there’s no one else left. It is this bankruptcy which comes through in the vacuity of the Modi rhetoric.
An NDA / Modi victory, one should note, is not the sole point of this campaign. The promotion of the NDA formula, through the praise for Modi, is already working in terms of setting the terms of the debate and continually discrediting and lambasting the ‘UPA model.’ The rightward shift of the UPA, now a daily affair, shows that whatever little political space existed is being closed. In this sense these forces are already achieving their goals. This is not a contest over Modi vs Rahul or BJP vs Congress – it is a contest over political discourse, which they are currently winning.
There is of course a good chance that the NDA may actually come back, either in 2014 or following the collapse of an interim regime. Ironically, though, Rahul Gandhi is right about one point – it is extremely unlikely that a new NDA, or indeed any regime, will be able to fulfill the hopes of corporate India. For the pre 2008 heyday of global finance is not coming back, and hence the short-sightedness of big capitalists will continue, preventing the new government from doing anything concrete socially. But no regime can hope to win long term popular support unless it does so. The political vacuum of Gujarat and its long history of social domination do not exist at the national level, and corporate fantasies aside, such things cannot be created overnight.
It’s an old truism of politics that hysteria is a symptom of weakness, not strength. The sheer shrillness of the Modi campaign reflects the reformists’ sense that this might be their last chance, at least in this form. In order to survive, any new NDA under their control will have to rely on whipping up hatred and fascist politics, necessarily combined with intense repression. But such politics cannot last very long; history says it will collapse under its own contradictions, though it may well extract a human cost that is disproportionate to its time in power.
It is too early to say what will follow it. That will depend on whether a genuine progressive or revolutionary alternative emerges. If it does, this may be a watershed in Indian politics. If not, the descent into barbarism and conflict will continue.