Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Taking back (Hindu) control, the Narendra Modi way

Narendra Modi used the glitz of neoliberal reform to enter the prime minister’s office, but at what cost?

Amrita Shah
24 February 2020, 8.00am
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi (center) performs yoga on International Yoga Day in 2018.
Stringer/Xinhua News Agency/PA Images. All rights reserved.

In the early years of the last decade, I was working on a book which took me frequently to the western Indian state of Gujarat. It was an unsettling time to be there. Hindu fundamentalist-led mobs had killed over a thousand Muslims in an outbreak of communal violence in 2002, most of them in the state’s largest city, Ahmedabad. The judicial repercussions of the riots continued to dominate the national news. Inside Gujarat I found Muslims fearful and Hindus unrepentant, many even justifying the violence as a necessary ‘lesson’ for the victims. Journalists covering the violence pointed to long-term indoctrination by Hindu fundamentalist groups. I felt there was more to it than that. What was it about Gujarat that had made it so hospitable to violence?

I began to look deeper, and it quickly became apparent that something unusual was going on in Ahmedabad. Every time I visited a new mall or hotel had gone up, or a new road had been built. To an extent this was not remarkable. When India adopted capitalist reforms in 1991, it committed itself to a programme of accelerated urbanisation, enacting laws to give more powers to local authorities and launching schemes like the (2005) Jawaharlal Nehru National Urban Renewal Mission (JNNURM).

The International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, influenced by globalisation and the neoliberal ideology sweeping the post Thatcher-Reagan world, were behind the urban push. With economies of speed and scale, the urban form was considered a necessary complement to neoliberalism and sold as a global aspiration. The city also became the unit of competition between nations, assuming an entrepreneurial role to attract global finance from corporate investors and tourists. In the late twentieth century, New York gentrified neighbourhoods, cleaned up Times Square, and launched the ‘I Love NY’ campaign to attract tourists; the desert outpost of Dubai emerged as a banking, tourist and transport hub; and Tokyo and Seoul leveraged their experience in heavy industry. In 2008, Beijing hosted the costliest Summer Olympics of all time. Terms like ‘place marketing’, ‘imagineering’ and ‘worlding’ entered the lexicon as cities vied with each other for attention and cash.

In India, urbanisation and liberalisation proceeded fitfully. The capital city Delhi was revamped for the 1982 Asian Games, and cities like Bengaluru (Bangalore), Hyderabad and Mumbai entered the global circuit, but these were exceptions. The cautiousness was understandable. Neoliberal reforms inflict huge job losses and mass displacement on everyday citizens, and democratic politicians are generally wary of causing potential voters such pain. In this context, the scale and haste of Ahmedabad’s transformation was unusual.

Naomi Klein presents us with a possible explanation in her book The Shock Doctrine, which describes how leaders use moments of crisis to push through controversial neoliberal policies. In this case, the violence of 2002 and its handling by the state had been bitterly criticised by the national and international media. Narendra Modi, then chief minister of the Gujarati legislature, presented the hostile media coverage as a blow to the pride of Gujaratis. To restore the state’s sheen, he told the electorate, he would institute a breakneck modernisation plan. In the peculiar atmosphere of heightened terror and emotion following the mass violence, his sell was startlingly successful.

By the time Modi commenced his rise to national eminence, the ‘Gujarat Model’ – a vague vision of hyper development – had become a household term.

Development included upgrades to the power, road, and port infrastructure, as well as a splashy makeover of Ahmedabad. India’s then seventh largest city mutated. It more than doubled in size. It sprouted new flyovers and roads, a concrete riverfront, and a new public transport system. It proposed to convert an existing hospital into Asia’s largest health tourism hub, and set up a splashy, biennial showcase called ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ for Indian and international investors. Though many of these projects pre-dated Modi, they were brought together under his insignia.

As news of these measures circulated outside the state, perceptions of Modi began to undergo a shift. By the time he commenced his rise to national eminence a decade later, the ‘Gujarat Model’ – a vague vision of hyper development – had become a household term. Enthusiastic television anchors gushed that the fire breathing majoritarian ideologue of 2002 had transformed into an efficient, hard-working moderniser whose goal was vikas (progress) and development.

Revanchist cities

The gentrification and marketing of New York was preceded by a war on tramps, panhandlers, squeegee car cleaners, graffiti painters and sex workers – all considered by then mayor Rudy Giuliani to constitute a threat to urban order. The police forcibly ejected homeless people from public places and random attacks on street people surged. What happened in New York led the urban geographer Neil Smith to coin the term ‘revanchist city’. He compared it to the revenge bourgeois nationalists in Paris took against the working-class after a defeated socialist uprising in the nineteenth century.

In 2002, mob attacks forced an estimated 100,000 Muslims to flee their homes in Ahmedabad’s mixed localities. Arbitrary arrests, extra-judicial killings, and loaded references in advertisements for new urban beautification projects continued the stigmatisation of the Muslim community. Muslim ghettos expanded on the poorly serviced margins of the city. Meanwhile malls, multiplexes, clubs, parks, educational institutions, and a host of temples – including replicas of Hindu pilgrimage sites – emerged in gentrifying areas. A lakefront built by a fifteenth century Muslim sultan was overlaid with pink granite and tracks for a toy train. Thousands, mostly low-caste Hindus and poor Muslims, were evicted from their riverside homes for a beautification project.

Modi’s developmental utopia conflated a neoliberal and a majoritarian vision. In the fault lines of the neoliberal project, in its uneven development, its revanchism, its class privileging, its forgetting, and its re-imaginings, multiple aspects of the majoritarian project were inserted.

There are aspects of the Modi personality that remind one of Vladimir Putin.

The neoliberal city is crucial to understanding Narendra Modi, now the prime minister of India. Demonetisation, the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana (a scheme for providing banking facilities to all), and even huge political leaps like revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir are all steps in the project of neoliberal transformation. Even apparently apolitical programmes have a neoliberal underpinning. The Clean India mission, for example, extends the logic of a 1997-8 USAID programme in Ahmedabad to improve hygiene and create green spaces in order to improve the circulation of capital and healthy labour.

Similarly, one can construe recent acts of violence (the lynching of Muslims by cow vigilante squads, attacks on students, and so on) as sustained revanchism. Revanchism works in two ways. At one level it creates an informal but rigorous hierarchy of claims on citizenship. Uitermark and Duyvendak describe this aspect in their book Populism and Revanchist Urbanism:

“Revanchism predicated on a belief system that naturalises as universal the interests and cultural codes of the White middle class while at the same time it essentialises marginalized individuals into subjects who cannot be reformed.”

Revanchism also serves to augment a leader’s clout. There are aspects of the Modi personality that remind one of Vladimir Putin. Like the Russian leader who initially configured himself “as a charismatic leader whose very body symbolized a new and confident Russia”, Modi symbolises the aspirations of rising India when he dresses in designer togs, hobnobs with foreign leaders, and rides a seaplane. He is also a patriarch, able to command highly choreographed events such as the countrywide celebration of International Yoga Day. Underlying all these efforts is an unarticulated threat, a shadowy battalion of Hindu nationalists (Hindutva) who keep themselves in the public consciousness with occasional acts of violence and crude, often deliberately ludicrous threats.

Modi the media personality

Like many leaders of our time, Modi draws considerable power from media projection. He is not so much concerned with generating positive coverage as he is with capturing the public mind through a relentless media presence in the manner of a global brand. Similarly, in keeping with the concept of brand loyalty, he is not looking to cultivate general public opinion but a strong core of supporters. He is looking for fans.

This has ramifications for the way politics plays out. Most politicians, political observers and the public have regarded the Indian prime minister as they would any other conventional Indian politician. They expect him to be ideologically unfixed or, at least, amenable to persuasion and responsive to public sentiment. But Modi is not a conventional Indian politician. He is a new kind of political entity. He draws his strength more from the changed socio-cultural landscape of post-liberalisation India and a corresponding global environment than from traditional sources. More importantly, he is a point person in a long, unfolding trajectory of India’s journey to modernisation. Ever since the British girdled the country with railway lines, India has aspired to a level of infrastructure that would give it the wealth and appearance of a developed western country. Modi has styled himself as the man to deliver on that aspiration.

There is an underside to India’s dream of smooth asphalt and shiny glass-fronted towers. As Brenner and Theodore point out:

“While neoliberalism aspires to create a utopia of free markets, liberated from all forms of state interference, it has in practice entailed dramatic intensification of coercive, disciplinary forms of state intervention … neoliberal political practice has generated pervasive market failures, new forms of social polarization and economic insecurity, a dramatic intensification of uneven development and recurrent crises.”

Neoliberalism’s most ardent supporter, the International Monetary Fund, released a paper in 2016 titled “Neoliberalism: Oversold?”. In it they admit that the programme’s ability to deliver high growth had expanded inequality.

Real change in India may not perhaps be as much about changing a leader as much as it is about changing the dream.


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