Indian PM Nahrendra Modi, May, 2015. Demotix/ Kshipra Simon. All rights reserved.Almost two years ago, in an article for openDemocracy, this writer made a couple of predictions regarding the outcome of the general elections in 2014 that turned out to be wide of the mark. The article made other assertions that, after what came to light later in 2013 and early last year, help explain why the predictions went awry.
I had predicted that Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s party, “can hope for a maximum of 25 percent vote share nationally.” In the event his Bharatiya Janata (Indian people’s) Party got 31 percent of the votes polled nationally, resulting (thanks to the first-past-the-post system, as in Britain) in a comfortable majority for the BJP on its own, without having to depend on coalition partners. So the following prediction stood nullified: “Modi will have to make deals with several smaller parties, each claiming bigger pounds of flesh than their strength in terms of seats warrants.”
The article concluded that India’s “central government will keep lurching from crisis to crisis as coalition partners of the bigger parties run rings around them”. A year after he was sworn into office on 26 May 2014, there is no crisis threatening Modi and his government.
But then India and its people – especially the indigenous peoples who live, unfortunately for them, in mineral-rich forested lands, Dalits (formerly known as “Untouchables”) as well as Muslims, Christians and other marginalised groups – are in acute crisis, thanks to the pro-corporate and majoritarian Hindu-supremacist policies the Modi regime is pursuing.
This is not to suggest that the crisis in India is merely a year-old: the previous Congress party government, a corporatist and generally supine dispensation, was hardly anything to look back to. Led for ten long years by Manmohan Singh, who not only failed to check massive corruption among his ministers but failed to address massive poverty and destitution on a mass scale while his finance minister and others – especially in the run up to the 2014 general elections – went about dispensing massive largesse to corporate entities, the previous regime disappointed on all counts. Singh, a person of the Sikh faith, went along with the non-prosecution of several members of his party who were engaged in the anti-Sikh pogrom in New Delhi in 1984 that claimed more than 3,000 lives and left thousands of families in dire straits following the assassination of the then Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi by her two Sikh bodyguards.
And this is not a crisis discernible to most media-attuned people living in India’s cities – chaotic though they may be with traffic problems, power outages, water shortages and so forth. There are vast swathes of India that the Indian media – much less foreign – rarely ever gets around to covering, including in the cities. Indigenous Indians protesting against illegal evictions by government entities backed by paramilitary forces in order to hand over vast lands to corporations are dubbed Maoists and extreme leftists. It is open season on them. Members of police and other “disciplinary” and armed forces in most if not all parts of the world are trained to be ruthless to any quarry pointed out to them. In India the police, the paramilitary forces and the armed forces used for “counter-insurgency” well within the country’s borders enjoy “special powers” meaning impunity. They have done so under the Congress dispensation as they do now.
Someone who has been very much a part of the establishment in India – grandson of M.K. Gandhi, former civil servant, former Indian ambassador in South Africa and former governor of the state of West Bengal – sees the country as being in a “state of emergency”: Gopalkrishna Gandhi said while delivering a lecture in March in memory of one of India’s foremost dissidents albeit from a privileged caste-class background, Jayaprakash Narayan, “There is no emergency in force in India today. There is no promulgation of the emergency either in the states or in part of the states or in the country ... but let us examine for a few moments the ingredients of authoritarianism which is what the emergency was, an unashamed exercise in authoritarianism and self-assertion,” he said, alluding to the state of Emergency proclaimed by Indira Gandhi on 25 June 1975 which lasted until March 1977. “In a country which has been through the fires of Emergency, we do not have a state of emergency today but we have in the air the whiffs of the emergency sentiment, we have strains of the emergency doctrine and palpable pulsations of emergency fear."
Gopalkrishna Gandhi went on to say: “Dissent enfeebles the dictator; the absence of dissent enfeebles the common man and woman.” He then turned to the fear gripping the minority communities in India now and said, “in times when there are no riots or riots in real time there has never been a time when fear has been so pronounced in the hearts and minds of the minority communities in India”.
Alluding to the Hindu chauvinist groups’ campaign to convert Muslims and Christians to Hinduism under the name “Ghar Wapsi” (home-coming), Gandhi said: “the PM has said nothing against Ghar Wapsi but then the PM has said nothing about so many things and they are happy and they are being justified. Conversion and reconversion have been part of our country’s life for centuries but a political payload that has been put into the matter today is unprecedented … this is the first time so sharp a polarization is sought to be introduced in the trust between communities in India.”
Saturation control over the media
The article two years ago said, “a virtual army of supporters has been working the internet from within India and abroad: there is a sizeable Gujarati and upper caste Indian presence in North America and Europe and good numbers of whom back Modi.” Crucially, the geographical spread and numbers staffing these call centres in India or elsewhere are difficult to gauge, wrapped as so many of them are in various cloaks of secrecy. However, media had access to one well-run outfit named Citizens for Accountable Governance staffed by hundreds of highly educated and technically qualified individuals and which is credited with masterminding that crucial leap from 25 percent national vote share to 31 percent.
Not with a view to hedging bets, the article pointed to some dangers: “Hindutva (Hinduness) forces are trying to recruit adherents from among the Dalits (formerly untouchables) and even indigenous people of India, selling them the idea that Muslims and Christians are their enemies.”
Where the article – and many others written by numerous astute observers of Indian politics in 2013 and early 2014 – fell short was in gauging the extent of “saturation control over the media” that Modi and his party had come to enjoy by then. And it was only by early to mid-2014 that the realisation began to dawn on media-watchers in India that there were massive monies ranged behind Modi’s campaign. Opinion polls in India have at times proven completely wrong – albeit at others spot on – and thus there was considerable scepticism over survey results that said Modi’s party and coalition would win.
For instance, in the run-up to the general elections photographs began to emerge of Modi campaigning in far off places across the vast expanse of India while flying on jets provided by an Industrialist – Gautam Adani – who has been fattening on Gujarat state largesse. Industrialist Mukesh Ambani now controls significant sections of the media. He and Adani, Ratan Tata as well as numerous other “captains of industry” are now being rewarded for their backing of Modi with tax write-offs, controversial loans and other gestures on a national scale that previously was offered in Gujarat, as Rohini Hensman brilliantly documented in openDemocracy early last year.
Naturally, the government has gone after human rights activists and non-government organisations such as Greenpeace and the Ford Foundation for supporting grassroots activists opposing such government-backed loot of land and resources belonging to the people of India.
One of the Modi government’s most controversial initiatives is a law to make it easier to grab farmers’ land that can then be gifted to the moneybags funding the ruling party. Farmers have been committing suicides in their hundreds (both under the current and the previous Congress regimes).
India’s already low spending on health has been further cut in the current year’s budget and the government has shut several official programmes, including those covering AIDS, child malnutrition and tobacco control, while healthcare is being increasingly privatised. The government has meanwhile allowed pharma companies to raise prices manifold.
Modi’s pre-election claim that he would bring back unaccounted wealth stashed abroad or “black money”, was just a gimmick, the BJP’s current president and the prime minister’s close confidant, Amit Shah, admitted earlier this year.
While Modi has spent much time on foreign travels – accompanied by his favoured business tycoons – his foreign minister and senior BJP leader Sushma Swaraj has been sidelined. In fact there are few foreign ministers around the world whose roles have been as eclipsed by the chief executive as hers. And many others among Modi’s other ministers have rarely been heard from, so centralised has been his manner of functioning.
A few ministers and other Hindu supremacist hotheads speaking out of turn and using foul language against the minorities and calling for Muslims to be disenfranchised or to be hounded out of Hindu-dominated housing complexes has gone largely unnoticed by Modi.
Just months after he took office, violence engulfed an area named Trilokpuri in the capital, most likely stoked by Hindu chauvinists. Churches have come under attack in Delhi and elsewhere. That Modi, who presided over an anti-Muslim pogrom in his native Gujarat state in 2002 that left more than 2,000 people dead and thousands homeless, is an unreconstructed Hindu fanatic demagogue and fascist needs hardly any corroboration: There are far too many Youtube links and news links testifying to that fact.
Trumped up charges of being Maoists
Meanwhile, away from media gaze, a war has been mounted on the indigenous peoples living in the central Indian states of Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Orissa. Human rights activists say jails are over-flowing with under-trial detainees most of them facing trumped up charges of being Maoists.
Education is being under-funded and the directorship of government bodies overseeing it is being handed over to known Hindu chauvinists, most of whom conflate Hindu mythology with history. Meanwhile, 16-year-olds will henceforth be treated as adults if they are charged with heinous crimes, should a bill passed by the lower house of parliament be approved by the upper house. The government has also allowed children as young as 14 to work in family enterprises and in the audio-visual entertainment industry.
A former minister and ideologue of the prime minister’s party, Arun Shourie, has criticised Modi for poor handling of the economy. Shourie’s criticism is from a right-wing perspective, but reveals that not everyone even within his camp is buying the hyperbole of economic turnaround under Modi.
As he begins his second year in office, there is little hope that Modi will mend his ways. But resistance might be building: a labour group aligned with his party has signalled its impatience with current policies hurting workers and has decided to join a protest to be organised by opposition groups. It is only such resistance from within and without the ruling circles that hold out the hope that India might eventually emerge from the nightmare of Modi Raj.