India’s New Right

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At a polling station in Naroda Patiya in Ahmedabad during the Assembly election on December 12. Photo: Rajeev Bhatt

At the fourth Vibrant Gujarat Global Investors Summit in Ahmedabad, in 2009. (From left) Tata Motors chairman Ratan Tata, Kenya's Prime Minister Raila Amolo Odinga, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, Japanese Ambassador to India Hideaki Domichi and Reliance Industries chairman Mukesh Ambani. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

A dried up river bed in Lakhtar, Photo: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg

A woman collects water from a well in Lakhtar. Photo: Adeel Halim/Bloomberg

Modi being greeted by a Muslim during his day-long fast in connection with his Sadbhavana mission, in Jamnagar . Photo: PTI

Modi with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat (left) and BJP President Nitin Gadkari. Photo: PTI

The question is not whether the BJP or Narendra Modi is about Hindutva or development, but what their vision of development is.

A VICTORY for development and good governance over the divisive politics of caste and creed: this is how Narendra Modi described his third straight State Assembly election victory in Gujarat. Coming from the most divisive figure in the country’s politics bar none, one might have thought such a claim would be dismissed out of hand. It was not.

Even while reaping the harvest of hate in 2002, and later in 2007, Modi was heard speaking of Gujarati asmita, or identity, and development. In the 2012 campaign he projected himself as “Vikas Purush”. He drew attention, inter alia, to the State’s growth statistics, its impressive infrastructure investments, and its biennial “Vibrant Gujarat” investors’ summits bringing Indian and foreign capital to the State. Soon the media were contrasting a “Gujarat Model” of high growth and industrial development to the “Kerala Model” of human development.

Modi also stressed inclusivity. To the Hindutva’s standing allegation that it was the Congress that indulged in casteism and the claim that it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that rose above it, Modi added class and religious inclusivity. His government had initiated welfare schemes such as the Garib Kalyan Melas for the poor and the Vanbandhu Kalyan Yojana for the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts). More incredibly, Modi launched a “Sadbhavana Mission” to counter the criticism of Gujarat, his government, and himself in particular on account of the 2002 pogrom against Muslims. It emphasised the inclusiveness of Gujarat’s development and his government’s policies, and ostentatiously staged meetings with Muslim leaders.

If all this were not enough, Modi used his victory speech before delirious supporters in Ahmedabad not only to say that his was a government for all Gujaratis, regardless of caste, creed or class but also to deliver what some took to be an apology for the infractions of 2002.

Hindutva vs development

So whatever happened to Hindutva? Had development replaced it? Why? The answers to these questions in the media were unfailingly refracted through another one: Modi’s electoral “hat-trick” is widely seen to have catapulted him into the ring of contenders for the position of the BJP’s Prime Minister-designate in the Lok Sabha elections scheduled for 2014. Was this possible? What might it mean for India?

These questions are the latest form of the question posed since 2002: what does Hindutva’s apparently unshakeable hold on Gujarat imply for India? In 2002, the circumstances in which the Gujarat elections took place were sufficiently exceptional to permit the shelving of this difficult question. In 2007, Modi’s victory was portrayed as something of a paradox—how could this happen in the land of the Mahatma, in the last of vibrant civil and commercial society? But paradoxes are only to be wondered at, not resolved. By 2012, with a Modi victory more or less assured (indeed, with exit polls predicting an even bigger majority), and the only question being whether the victory would be of a scale sufficient to clinch Modi’s claim to the Prime Minister-designate’s position in 2014, the media settled into portraying Gujarat as having “always” been communal and casteist. So far then, whether as exception, paradox or renegade, Gujarat has been safely quarantined and the possibility of similar developments outside Gujarat precluded. However, we would be doing the country a disservice if we left matters there.

Limits of the makeover

To begin to give a proper answer, we note the limits of Modi’s makeover. Many studies and reports have exposed Gujarat’s development over the last decade as profoundly unequal. It has favoured capital one-sidedly, against labour, women, minorities, lower castes and S.Ts and peripheral regions. Wages’ share of gross domestic product (GDP) has shrunk, that of profits swelled, and labour and environmental laws are usually observed in the breach. The State’s vaunted agricultural growth “miracle”—the result of structural changes that harnessed agriculture’s fortunes to industrial growth and raw material demand—has subjected the sector’s growth to the fluctuations of industrial investment. A more stable growth path based on supplying consumption demand for food remains closed given the low wage regime, which the agricultural sector, still the State’s largest in terms of employment, shares with the rest of the State’s economy.

Not surprisingly then, one of the country’s most prosperous States suffers lagging social indicators: worse malnutrition, a lower sex ratio, and poorer water supply than many less prosperous States. Gujarat’s infrastructure investments have created regional imbalances. The waters of the Narmada remain confined to politically dominant central Gujarat. Resources and effort are devoted to developing Ahmedabad’s Sabarmati waterfront for the pleasure of the city’s middle classes than to extending the canal network into Saurashtra and Kutch. And while the government successfully woos manufacturing investment through its costly Vibrant Gujarat summits, employment growth remains poor because most manufacturing investment is very capital-intensive.

As for inclusiveness, most of what passes for welfare is targeted towards what the party’s 2012 manifesto was pleased to call the “neo middle class”. And about the communal inclusivity of Sadbhavana, the less said, the better. Modi pointedly demonstrated its limits by refusing to don a skullcap proffered by a respected Muslim cleric, humiliating him in the most publicised moment of the campaign. This was just par for the course in a State where discrimination against Muslims—whether in employment, the housing market, access to credit or in society at large—remains rife, where cities have been transformed into dispiriting patchworks of communal ghettos and where, above all, so many of those guilty of the crimes of 2002, potentially including the Chief Minister himself, remain at large.

Modi’s “inclusiveness” is not about giving the State’s Muslims a place in Gujarati society so much as about showing them their place, unsurprisingly at the bottom of the State’s social hierarchy and the government’s list of priorities. Modi’s “apology” in his recent victory speech merely signalled this again: the refusal to specify the mistakes turned the ostensible apology into a deliberate and gratuitous affront to Gujarati Muslims. Their weighty claims to justice were wiped out by a single swagger. Thankfully, the various activist groups tenaciously fighting for justice, and not Modi, can still have the final word on this.

The dubiousness of Modi’s makeover may not be inadvertent. If his Hindutva slip is showing under the developmental skirts, that is because it is meant to show and always was for the titillation of some. However, as a major political party in a capitalist country, arguably still the preferred alternative of the Indian capitalist class, it must also have a vision of capitalist development. The question is not whether the BJP or Modi is about Hindutva or development, but what their vision of development is. The political viability of this vision is what will determine the prospects of Hindutva’s advance in the rest of India and whether Modi can become, if ever, the BJP’s Prime Minister-designate.

Hindutva is the Indian New Right, the political accompaniment of neoliberal capitalist development around the world in recent decades. Like the New Right everywhere, whether from Margaret Thatcher to David Cameron or Ronald Reagan to Mitt Romney, Hindutva combines neoliberal economic policy and authoritarian social and cultural policy and politics. Originating in, and for long confined to small upper-caste enclaves in north India, Hindutva came into its own as the ideology of India’s New Right, as economic policy progressively liberalised and laid the basis for neoliberal capitalist development in India in recent decades. Slowly but inexorably, neoliberal development changed India’s political landscape too. The Congress began its long-drawn-out decline as the upper and middle castes abandoned it, while Hindutva and the regional parties emerged.

Of course, the pace of capitalist development was never uniform across the country: some States were more dynamic than others. And in each State the pattern and pace of neoliberal capitalist development interacted with its specific caste (that, in the Indian context, is to say socio-economic) structure. In each State such interactions configured the three political trends in its own unique way, creating the complex mosaic of the various States’ party systems and the national party system that rests on them. In this process the middle castes, being the most numerous stratum of castes, have played a most decisive role.

Neoliberal capitalist development, particularly where it was most dynamic, expanded the capitalist class. New entrants into it were typically middle caste, usually with origins in agriculture. Hindutva’s modern vocation would be to ideologically bind the new middle-caste propertied to their upper-caste counterparts in many States to create what the late K. Balagopal called “provincial propertied classes” (PPC).

This role is the clearest in States like Gujarat where the middle castes did not form regional parties. Instead, an amalgamated PPC united under the BJP banner, leaving lower caste and class groups and minorities to support the Congress. Gujarat may be the most pre-eminent in this category but it is by no means exceptional. Chhattisgarh, Delhi, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan have all evinced similar political dynamics.

In many States where regional parties of the propertied middle castes did emerge, the major regional party has allied with the BJP or the Congress, more often with the former. These include Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Karnataka, Odisha and Punjab. In Maharashtra, each of two regional parties is allied with a national party. In Tamil Nadu, two regional parties form the State party system, with each allying with a national party in national politics. Though there are complex exceptions to this pattern—Uttar Pradesh, Kashmir and the States with a substantial Left presence—they do not prevent the national politics of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) and the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) from resting on these State-level patterns.

A final point may be made: contrary to expectations as recent as the 1990s, middle-caste regional parties have not opposed Hindutva on principle. Nor have they effected more than a marginal dilution of it. The middle-caste regional parties of the country’s economically less dynamic States, which also happen to have electorally significant Muslim populations, in particular Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, have held out best against Hindutva, though not for considerations of “secularism” alone.

The key anomaly in this pattern of class polarisation is the Congress. It has failed to challenge the NDA and Hindutva ideologically even though electoral fate has, over recent decades, transformed it from the preferred party of the capitalist class into a party with the lower castes-classes and minorities as its electoral base. Though dissatisfaction of these groups with the NDA’s neoliberal and socially and culturally authoritarian politics has given the Congress two Central and many State-level electoral victories, it shows little enthusiasm for representing their interests fully and enthusiastically. If it did, Modi’s elevation to the status of BJP Prime Minister-designate would be even less certain than it is at the moment.

Certainly, Modi’s campaign was designed to realise this aim. He campaigned hard, marshalled help from overseas Gujaratis, and deployed his own television channel NaMo (Modi’s initials in Gujarati), the Internet and social media—Modi is an expert and calculating tweeter. And there were the famous 3-dimensional holographic projections that sent virtual avatars of Modi to several locations at a time.

This massive campaigning effort produced, however, a fairly unremarkable victory: two seats fewer and a 1 percentage point reduction in the popular vote compared with the 2007 election. The reduction in vote share is likely to be more significant than it appears at first because of revisions of the electoral rolls to eliminate superfluous and double entries. They were great enough to create the false impression of a massive, 11 percentage point increase in turnout. A 48 per cent vote share of this leaner electoral roll may be considerably, rather than just slightly, lower than the 49 per cent share of the inflated roll in 2007. The Congress, despite its less-than-spirited campaign, remained a repository of popular discontent, and its 1 percentage point gain in popular vote share might be correspondingly greater thanks to the revised electoral roll. Certainly the facts of Modi’s development model might lead one to expect this. The less-than-thumping victory for Modi did not, of course, stop BJP workers celebrating outside the party headquarters in Ahmedabad from holding up placards saying, “This is the trailer, watch the movie in 2014” and “CM in 2012, PM in 2014”.

Whether the 2014 movie will feature Modi as its hero is debatable. The less-than-spectacular electoral achievement is only the first reason why. A second is Modi’s relations with Nagpur. The Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) top brass are, to say the least, not enamoured of a leader known for his autocratic and arrogant style. And that it is backed by a certain independent mass appeal is likely to make them even more wary. They prefer organisation men who carry out orders, not give them.

Within the BJP too, Modi has his detractors and, more importantly, perhaps, rivals for that position—such as Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley. Finally, as Janata Dal (United) leader and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar’s cold shoulder to Modi over recent months has made it clear, his acceptability to the BJP’s coalition partners will be an important factor too. However, whether Nitish Kumar proves to be an outlier thanks to Bihar’s large Muslim population or whether other regional party leaders join him depends largely on whether they feel they can get away with it electorally. And that depends on the pace and pattern of economic development, the winners and losers it creates, and how well they are mobilised politically. The recent economic crisis has put many question marks over the neoliberal path of development. However, the political will for a radical reorientation of economic policy to a strategy of domestic demand-led growth, one which is both necessary and likely to be politically progressive, appears hard for the Congress to muster. As does the will to mobilise its lower caste-class and minority electoral base into a proper opposition to Hindutva and its neoliberal development model.

Radhika Desai is Professor at the

Department of Political Studies,

University of Manitoba, Winnipeg,

Canada. She is the author of several

academic papers and books including

Developmental and Cultural

Nationalisms and Slouching

towards Ayodhya: From Congress to

Hindutva in Indian Politics .