Akeel Bilgrami


What Narendra Modi proposes as change and novelty is entirely continuous with policies that Manmohan Singh’s government have put into place.


One pundit in the aftermath of the Indian elections has described the Prime Minister-elect as seeking to “reshape the entire political universe of India” (Ashutosh Varshney in The Guardian). It is in the nature of public life in the modern period that even just the rhetoric and pretence of “change” can bestow upon a politician an ersatz glamour. In the drumbeat of electioneering over several recent months that rhetoric and pretence on the lips of Mr. Narendra Modi was flamboyantly yet carefully cultivated and, above all, purchased at obscene expense. The media, funded and controlled by the same corporate sources that paid for this public relations achievement, acquiesced with conviction in the pretence and repeated the rhetoric each day both in print and on screen.


The strategy has paid off; the man now has the added glamour of the nation’s most exalted office which, suppressing his natural swagger, he has approached with an affectation of humility and express concern for the poor and working people of the country, the very people that the policies and politics he stands for will sink into ever-increasing poverty and insecurity.


Declaration of change a pretence?


These unstintingly negative remarks I have made are intended to recoil from the charitable and hopeful responses that even some of those made anxious by Mr. Modi’s election have resigned themselves to. A belief in democracy requires two things: an acceptance of the upshot of an election and a refusal to blame the electorate if the upshot fills one with dread. Beyond this no graciousness is required, least of all a slackening of the critical powers one brings to assessing the upshot. In particular, there is no reason to surrender to some hope that a deeply tainted victor is going to revise his convictions or his character, simply because of the reality of having to live with his victory. Such realism, like much realism, is better described as complacence. It pacifies the effort and struggle that is called for to oppose what he represents. This pacification was already being advised prior to his election by political commentators who chastised Mr. Modi’s critics as unintelligent for applying the term “fascist,” with its European connotations, to what Mr. Modi represents in the Indian context.


In the Europe of the 1930s and 1940s, the term “fascist” came to be associated with two defining features. First, the finding of an external enemy within a nation (in the case of Germany, the Jews, the gypsies) and despising and subjugating them. Second, what Mussolini offered as an explicit definition of fascism: the fusion of the interests of corporations and the state. I ask the reader to look at Mr. Modi’s record with Muslims and his avowed economic programme and decide for herself where the lack of intelligence really lies.


Why am I calling Mr. Modi’s declaration of change and a new future for India an empty rhetoric and pretence? Because what it proposes as change and novelty is entirely continuous with policies that Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers have put into place. If there is any change, it is, as so often with the BJP, a more clear-eyed and unqualified pursuit of what the Congress had first generated. This had happened earlier, too — though not on the economic front — when Indira Gandhi first and then Rajiv Gandhi had introduced majoritarian and communal elements into the political arena. The BJP was then able to pursue that to its logical end without the lip service to secularism that the Congress was bound, by its more honourable past, to retain. And similarly now the neo-liberal policies of the UPA government will be extended by the BJP, unhampered by the former’s lip service to an employment scheme and food security programme that, for the most part, remained unimplemented. For anyone without amnesia, even as a regional messiah, Mr. Modi has had antecedents who similarly promised fabulous transformations. The euphoria around the “Gujarat Model” had its premonition in Chandrababu Naidu’s “Andhra model,” whose lopsided metropolitan development at the cost of ignoring the rest of his region eventually led to his steep downfall in a subsequent election and then later to the Balkanisation of his state. A few truthful commentators have already observed just how much the “Gujarat model” pursues growth at the cost of what is called “human development.”


Finally, the proposal that the BJP will seek to change the large-scale corruption that came to be associated with the Congress is also pretence. This same pretence was adopted by an earlier BJP government and exposed to be so then, proving that corruption is now built into the kind of thing that Indian capitalism has become in the last two decades, no matter who is in power.


Indifference to immiseration


Another pundit (Victor Mallet, Financial Times, May 22) revealingly says: “Educated Muslims in India are willing to give Modi a chance.” It reveals first of all that the educated urban Muslim stands politically apart from the mass of other Muslims, a fact that goes back a long time. Jinnah’s form of nationalist politics as it developed in the post-Khilafat period (indeed it was motivated to combat the dynamic effects of the mass mobilisation of Muslims during the Khilafat movement) represented precisely such careerist Muslims, mostly from Uttar Pradesh, continuing, as Maulana Azad had pointed out, an aspiration that Sir Syed Ahmed Khan had first formulated many decades earlier. But what it further reveals is that those same educated urban Muslims who in their separatist politics under Jinnah were expressing an anxiety about their prospects for jobs in a united India dominated by a Hindu majority, are now confusedly expecting that a Hindu majoritarian ideologue because of his zeal for metropolitan “development” will create a scenario that provides them with jobs.


The zeal for this particular form of development is not a novelty of Mr. Modi’s either. It was an explicit aspiration of the previous government, with P. Chidambaram preposterously declaring (Tehelkainterview, May 31, 2008) that he wanted 85 per cent of India to become cities. Preposterous not only because of the impertinence of an aspiration to transform within a few years the agrarian forms of livelihood that have defined a society for millennia, but because of its brazen indifference to the immiseration that it brings in its wake through the dispossession of countless people of their land and their livelihood.


Neo-liberalism and dissatisfaction


Given these deep continuities passing themselves off as a promise of change, one needs a diagnosis of the striking difference between the outcome of the present elections and that of the elections in 2004. In 2004, the mass of Indian people repudiated the pretence of an emergent and luminous India. This time they have not. The diagnosis is not hard to find. It is true that in 2004 the Congress party was galvanised by an impressively energetic campaign almost single-handedly by Sonia Gandhi, a form of leadership it wholly lacked in the current election. But the underlying explanation is to be found in the very continuities I have been insisting on. The effects of neo-liberal economic policies pursued by both major parties and their coalitional partners over this entire span have created deep dissatisfaction among the Indian electorate with whichever of them held power. The dissatisfaction may not be articulated explicitly as one against neo-liberal policies because those policies are seldom identified by the media and the pundits as the causes of those effects. But even just a little knowledgeable and honest analysis would reveal them to be so.


The point, however, is that so long as those effects are with us, this pattern of failure and dissatisfaction will continue until the political parties who oppose rather than promote neo-liberalism emerge out of their abject weakness and begin to assert their political energies and will. The prospect of this happening may seem bleak at the moment, but the continuing failure of the policies adopted in the last two decades, which Mr. Modi now offers in their most unconstrained form, can be safely predicted and it is bound to breed the stimulus for a genuine rather than pretence at change.


It is not as if this has never happened in other parts of the world. Some of the countries in South America, such as Bolivia for instance, which the international media utterly ignores precisely because these countries are striving to remove themselves from the orbit of neo-liberalism, are exemplary. Against overwhelming odds, their people have generated movements which elected governments that have creatively resisted the insistent weight of globalised finance and are gradually uplifting the poorest sections of their societies. What sort of politics allowed such governments to be elected? How was such a politics constructed and mobilised among the people? How exactly are they resisting the pressures to succumb to neo-liberal policies? We would be well advised to study these polities and political economies and seek detailed and careful answers to these questions for ourselves.


(Akeel Bilgrami holds the Sidney Morgenbesser Chair of Philosophy at the Columbia University.)

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