Modi-fied India's growth-friendly sectarianism

A secular right-wing and a growth-friendly communalism will be the new name for Hindutva's sectarian extremism.

Saroj Giri
18 May 2014
Narendra Modi. Flickr/World Economic Forum. Some rights reserved.

Narendra Modi. Flickr/World Economic Forum. Some rights reserved.

India has now got itself officially Modi-fied! The scale of the victory for the BJP in the recently concluded general elections in India is such that it is not just about India electing another Prime Minister in Narendra Modi. The shifts in the Indian polity are very deep and analysts have not even started to decipher all or even most of them. Sectarianism and Hindu communalism coupled with business-friendly growth and neoliberal reforms are coming to the fore in a radical anti-establishment guise.

To start with, we must get over this debate about whether Modi's communalism or authoritarianism will be tempered by growth or by India's resilient democratic institutions. Obviously, big capitalist interests and 'ordinary people' do not want a riot every other day. In that sense, a tempered or moderate Modi is a banal possibility.

Riots will be controlled or modulated in the interests of business as usual. But that does not mean Hindu communalism itself will be tempered. It might very well change its modality and reappear in a growth-friendly fashion. This tempered version might be more sinister, hydra-headed, than the extreme that has come before! 

So, as it stands, opposing communal violence or the extremist-sectarian Modi is easier than unpacking a tempered communalism or the moderate Modi. The Economist as well as other growth-friendly commentators draw the line at Modi the extremist sectarian, but not the moderate Modi who is welcomed as positive. This has become a way for the secular right-wing to assert itself. If only things come back to normal, business as usual, then, it is asserted, things would be fine.

Amartya Sen is at the forefront of rejecting the extremist sectarianism of Modi. But Modi also occasions in him a yearning for a “strong and flourishing right wing party that is secular, not communal.” Sen pines for a “clear-headed pro-market pro-business party that does not depend on religious politics,” reminding him of the short-lived 'classical liberal' Swatantra Party.

Or take corporate honcho Deepak Parekh and billionaire conscience-keeper Narayana Murthy who once both criticised Modi for the 2002 Gujarat progrom. That does not stop them from now being big fans of Modi's economics today (May 11, 2014).

The broad orientation of this thinking becomes clear in Shekhar Gupta who thinks that Modi perhaps might finally bring about an end to India's socialist legacy and establish a real capitalist system. This might mean massive deregulation, privatisation, business-friendly labour laws, luring FDI and capital-intensive growth.

The rejection of the extremist Modi then turns out to be a vote for a normal capitalism and rejection of anything left wing or 'socialist'. This insistence on doing away with communal extremism contains nothing which would deter ‘normal’ Hindu majoritarian dominance. Hence, a tempered communalism is what right-wing secularism will give us, a low equilibrium communalism and a full blown capitalism. 

This does not rule out the occasional big communal massacre followed by a long spell of this low equilibrium combination. Perhaps moderate and extreme Modi are not either/or – they can coexist.

A secret Hindutva agenda

The point about a growth-friendly communalism is not that there is a secret Hindutva agenda behind the growth story or the development agenda, as many anti-Modi radicals claim (11 May 2014). The Hindutva agenda is treated as something separate from the development agenda. Instead this agenda itself must be understood in its own terms  and in terms of its social determinants and not just as a facade to a more sinister game of Hindutva behind the curtains.

Indeed the tons of money poured by big moneyed interests does not just create a 'Modi wave' but has social impact. It has mobilised, activated and strengthened hierarchies and oppressive relations across the entire social space. It seems to have mobilised lumpenised lower elements into a wider connection with big capitalist interests, funding an entire reactionary phalanx across the social body. It is plainly an intensification of the class struggle. It goes to the very heart of the social question.

Identifying communalism in terms of its social determinants allows us to go beyond understanding Modi's 'soft fascism' as only suppression of freedom of speech or even just minority persecution. So, for example, not just Hindutva, even good governance might be articulated in extremist sectarian terms. Preventing riots against minorities does not seem part of good governance. Nor would repealing draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act fall under it. We must start deciphering something like ‘Hindutva in the age of good governance’, as in the case of the Muzaffarnagar riots. ‘Good governance’, the secular right-wing development mantra today, can hardly be disarticulated from a tempered communalism, if not Hindutva itself.

Hindu majoritarianism does not in any case need an explicitly murderous policy towards minorities. Opposing reservations, opposing 'minority appeasement' and the Hindu upper caste majority playing the victim and calling for meritocratic competition – all of these 'normal', non-extremist stances already nurture a certain communalism (and casteism) with occasional openly violent eruptions. This in itself is nothing new in India. It took place under the earlier secular governments. What is new is that now opposition to sectarian extremism opens the way for the secular right-wing: a growth-friendly sectarianism.

The secular left participates too vigorously in this opposition, using extreme language against Modi calling him 'communal fascist' and so on - and yet they tend to overlook the social determinations of communalism and obscure the lineaments of class struggle at the heart of the phenomenon. They are full of moral outrage but ultimately align with the secular right-wing establishment. 

Indeed, the parliamentary left decries Modi's 'soft fascism' but cannot break their cringing dependence on the Congress party which in today's discourse is basically the aristocratically expansive Nehru-Gandhi Dynasty. Many social movements too are mired in this dependence and hence worked through Congress agencies like the National Advisory Council chaired by Sonia Gandhi. This left has no critique of 'the idea of India' which has come to be associated with the Dynasty. Naxalite left parties who have a left-wing critique of this 'idea of India' are labelled as terrorists or adventurists. But the Naxalite left does not as a matter of principle contest parliamentary elections. Hence at one point or another the task of 'challenging' the status quo always falls upon the right-wing.

Interestingly, the Congress initiated the neoliberal reforms which Modi vows to continue - the secularists and the 'soft fascists' have much in common. Instead of seeing this continuity between the Congress and BJP, the parliamentary left attacks the BJP on behalf of the Congress and not independently, on its own terms. Modi could therefore delegitimise the left and other non-BJP opponents of the Congress by calling them ‘the B-team’ of the Congress and the Dynasty. The neoliberal reforms initiated by the Congress are now seized by the BJP and given a radical, anti-establishment spin! Modi's own lower caste (Other Backward Class) status and his ‘tea-seller rising to be the PM’ back story made this anti-establishment packaging easier.

Therefore Modi/BJP has been able to pose as anti-establishment and standing for the socially marginalised. It is in this context that Modi has  emerged as the strong man about whom the world is supposed to wonder, 'who is he like?': Putin, Lee Kuan Yew, Ahmedijinad, Ariel Sharon, Xi Jinping, Thatcher, Shinzo Abe or Reagan. Perhaps most like Sharon, with the difference that Modi was more directly connected to the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat than Sharon was to the Sabra and Shatila massacre. And also like Thatcher, in his commitment to neoliberal economics and destroying working class power.


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