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Mainstream, VOL. 52, No. 21, May 17, 2014

Should Only Minorities Be Worried Over Narendra Modi?

Monday 19 May 2014

by Sanjay Kumar

By stealth, wealth, and media barrage a phalanx of powerful interests is trying to create a public opinion favourable to Narendra Modi. It appears the entire privilegenstia of the country, the super-rich capitalists, professional elites, entrepreneurs of the religion, top bureau-cracy, including retired Armymen and police, upper castes, media pundits, even NRI acade-mics, are united in their enthusiasm for Modi. From Ratan Tata to Ramdev, people have been told how the man is the only saviour of a country in crisis. What exactly do this bunch of rich and privileged, but discontented, people hope from Modi as the PM is important for the future of the country. The moot point here is the difference between declared intentions and actual motives. Perhaps even more important is the response of Modi’s political opponents, because that indicates the kind of resources the country can fall back upon when confronted with the reality of him in power. The moot point here is a lack of understanding of the significance of the usual, non-Modi type of politics for ordinary Indians. The stakes are high indeed. Far from what the phalanx and its ideologues claim, it is actually this politics which is their target, and which they wish to change under Modi.

The most prominent charge levelled by Modi’s opponents is that he is communal and divisive, and will alienate the minorities. From Laloo Prasad to Prof Amartya Sen, that appears to be the chief misgiving. If the charge against Modi is so framed, then by implication it also appears to be asserting that if there had been no Gujarat 2002, Modi and the kind of politics his party represents will be as good or bad as any other party politics. Are the minorities’ misgivings about Modi the only fact that the rest of Indians should worry about? Is the hesitation of minorities about him the only legitimate concern that may stop the man from reaching the PMO?

It would be really stupid of the majority of Indians if the minorities, who constitute about 15 per cent of the people of India, were the sole social group which may prevent the ascent of Modi to power at the Centre. Because in reality the man is dangerous for most Indians. Among many, here are a few reasons.

The Man and his Character

First, the man’s persona. Individuals do not make history. However, tinkering with a system, or wrecking and destroying it are far easier than making, and here individuals have played a big role. Modi is pompous, arrogant, aggressive and too much taken in by himself. The moral economy of neo-liberalism in India promotes precisely these qualities among humans, a partial reason for his popularity. Such persona-lities can be found among property agents who lie through their teeth, many drivers in urban India who violate every rule of traffic and get violent if they do not get their way, and loud TV anchors given to hyperbole and falsification. To understand full public implications of such a personality type consider the recent incident when Modi after voting showed his party symbol near a polling booth, against which an FIR was lodged under orders from the Election Commission. What was his response? In a press conference in Tirupati the next day he went like ‘What wrong did I do? I only showed a lotus.’ This is like the reply of children who have learnt the art of lying but have not yet internalised the important lesson that facts of any matter have durability, which cannot be wished away by turning one’s eyes away from them. Our man though is not only a seasoned liar, but he also seriously believes that he can turn any set of facts his way. He sincerely believes that he can make no mistake, and that whatever he does is actually the best.

It does not take much time to realise how dangerous such men can be in public office. If a property agent lies, one can be reasonably sure of other sources of information to filter out his falsehoods; one can adapt one’s driving and accept as norm the behaviour of drivers in urban India; but what can one do if such men come to occupy the most powerful seat in the country! The point is: when small fries violate rules, their actions can still be judged, and possibly corrected because the framework of rules, at least in the abstract, still stands. The PM of the country does not violate rules, s/he actually makes, or bends them. Modi, who sincerely believes he is the only source of wisdom, will try to wear authority so thoroughly as to make him unaccountable to any institution.

Let us not forget he made the Gujarat Government spend crores in legal fees up to the Supreme Court (where he lost the case) because the judge picked up by the State’s Governor to be the State Lokayukta was not to his liking. He will wreck any system of governance based on division of power. He has dystrophied the Gujarat State Assembly, has done the same with his party in the State, and is in the process of doing it on the national level. He has not allowed an autonomous State Lokayukta to function. All Indians who feel a stake in the Constitution should be mighty worried about what the man will try to do to the system of authority mandated by it.

A bunch of academics and journalists, Ashutosh Varshneys and Shekhar Guptas, are claiming that the liberal institutional structure of governance in India is sufficiently robust to tame any individual (they have argued so to mainly buttress the claim that Modi cannot be as communal as a PM as in the past). Well, the country’s governance from the PMO to the tehsil pradhan is riddled with corruption, the country’s judiciary has failed to convict anyone of substance for the mass crimes of Nellie (1983), Delhi (1984), destruction of Babri mosque (1992) and Gujarat 2002. One wonders what institu-tional safeguards these people are thinking of. All they can reasonably claim is that given a dejure liberal governance structure in place, it won’t be easy for Modi to be as authoritarian as some of its opponents claim. Reification of institutions and laws is the favourite stratagem of status-qouist intellectuals. Rest of the Indians, who actually are agents in the making up of their country, rather than mere apologists for the status quo, need to face a much more straightforward question: why should they let a threatening bull in the China shop in the first place?

Everyday Morality against Self-declared Saviours

Now, why are persons like Modi popular public figures? Arthur Rosenberg, the Left historian of Nazism, in his perceptive ‘Fascism as a Mass Movement’ identifies authoritarian conservatism as the ground support of Fascism. This support exists as diverse illiberal attitudes and ideologies with deep roots in popular cultures. Caste, religion, misogyny, property and nation are the main sources of authoritarian conservatism in India. We witness a union of these tendencies in the phalanx of pro-Modi priviligenstia referred to earlier. Ordinary folks though, at least till now, present a mixed picture. There is an utter lack of appreciation of citizenship rights in the popular culture of India. Political parties in power, that have indulged in open violence, have been returned with resounding mandates, both in 1984 and in Gujarat after 2002. The largest sustained popular campaign after independence was for the destruction of Babri mosque. However, if these dark chapters were the be-all and end-all of Indian popular culture then the conti-nuing existence of liberal democracy in the country cannot be explained. The key lies in the everyday life of ordinary Indians. This life would have been much more violent and conflict ridden if the personality types of Modi were the norm. The every day life of a majority of Indians is lived through informal networks requiring continuous negotiations, but most importantly also, accommodation. This life is essentially an exercise in sustaining life; it abjures extremes as they lead to possible breakdowns.

This life appears opportunist and unprin-cipled to a rational gaze, it is exasperating to a revolutionary looking for sparks of rebellion, it has little place for citizenship rights if looked from a liberal framework, yet its quality of accommodation is one factor that has contri-buted to the sustenance of liberal governance. Notice how flexible Indian governance has been in accommodating articulated group interests, of castes secularised as electoral bodies, regional aspirations of sub-nationalities and linguistic groups, or of religious minorities, even while it has shown scant regard for the citizenship rights of individuals. This character appears more sharp when viewed in comparison with experiences of other nation-states, or even liberal democracies of the West. Electoral politics, whose protagonists are ridiculed by middle classes and upper castes, is the key arena where the country’s governance gets stamped by its popular culture. This arena has given space to diverse social forces seeking political represen-tation, making it a mela (of democracy, according to the late Arvind N. Das). Hence, rather than the state, a formal institution with coercive power, transforming everyday life through its regimes of governance, it is the informality of everyday in India that has put its definitive stamp on the politics of governance.

The accommodating aspect of every day life is called ‘Bhal-Maansiyat’ in Hindi. The bhale- maanas (good-natured) everyday Indians may not openly challenge the likes of Modi on streets and bastees, yet they certainly do not approve of them. In fact somebody like Modi as a PM of the country should be a moral affront to them. They form the largest number of Indians, much larger than minorities, whose moral world is in danger from the politics of Modi. The paradox is that a significant number of Indian bhale- maanas may think they can accommodate Modi too. Given the moral degeneration of the political opponents of Modi, none of them has been able to penetrate or establish a dialogue with the moral world of ordinary Indians. The only exception seems to be the AAP. A critical oppor-tunity to bring out contradictions between the everyday public morality of ordinary Indians, and Modi’s politics appears to have been lost.

What is at Stake

Now, to the politics and policies of Modi. Violence against minorities in fascist programmes is actually a stepping-stone for larger goals. Fascists want to redefine the majority political community on the basis of religion, ethnicity, or langauage. Their programmes’ very premise is against the inclusive citizenship concept of liberal Constitutions. The progress of these programmes is episodic (riots, pogroms, demoli-tions) as well as incremental, which appears to be worming its way legally. Here we will take only one example of how the Hindutva forces are using these elections to try to change the meaning of electoral democracy in a subtle way.

It is well known that the BJP has tried to transform the current elections for the Lok Sabha into a presidential-style contest. Indians should realise the motive behind it and its ramifications. That India adopted the parlia-mentary style of rule was more of a result of colonial hangover, than serious thought. How-ever, the system turned out to be well adapted to the diversity of the country and has allowed progressive integration of the oppressed social groups in State politics. Within its framework the regional and oppressed caste mobilisations have managed to find a stake in the system, leading to its overall durability. Given its fascist heritage, the BJP has always clamoured for a ‘strong’ state under a ‘strong’ leader, and it has viewed many accommodations of the Indian state as signs of its weakness. In fact the BJP is paranoid over the so-called unity of the country. It was wary of even State names like Uttara-khand and Jharkhand (the word khand in Hindi translating as division) and preferred Uttaran-chal and Vananchal (aanchal in Hindi translating as region). The kind of strong state desired by Hindutva will kill the inclusiveness and flexibility needed to deal with the diversity of our sub-continental country under the force of brute majority. Hence, all Indians, who think that their regional, caste or religious identities (including smaller Hindu sects) are important for them, should be wary of Modi.

The last and the most important reason ordinary Indians should oppose Modi is the reactionary class and caste character of his programme, the reason why the phalanx of Indian privilegenstia is so wedded to him. The declared motive of these people is the need for a strong and decisive leadership. Actually they want Modi to bend and make rules for their benefit, without fear of opposition, genuflection before judiciary or tribunals, and negotiations with agitationists, the way they believe he has been doing in Gujarat.

The Modi raj in Gujarat, of course, is many things to many people. What people at large, and not just the minorities, need to have is a critical gaze sorely missing from fawning economists and journalists. Here is just one data that makes it very clear whom the Modi raj does not serve. According to a Labour Bureau, October 2013 report, mentioned in The Times of India on May 3, 2014, the wage rate for unskilled male agricultural labour in Gujarat is the lowest in the country. Yes, it is lowest in Gujarat, there is no mistake here. The all India average is Rs 192 per day, in Gujarat such a worker gets Rs 129, which means an agricultural worker anywhere else in India on an average earns fifty percent more than in Gujarat. In Kerala he earns four times more. Even in backward States like Bihar, UP, Orissa, or Assam, he earns more. Nor is it the case that only unskilled workers are lowly paid in the high tech economy of Gujarat. A tractor driver too has the lowest wage in Gujarat than anywhere else in the country, fifty per cent less than the national average. Agricultural economists of the ilk of Prof Ashok Gulati (The Times of India, April 24, 2014) have waxed eloquent over the agricultural growth rate of Gujarat, proclaiming it to be the best bet for inclusive growth. Well, if the wage rate is an important indicator, it seems the rest of India is already more inclusive than Gujarat. The question of concern, perhaps not to paid professional economists, but certainly to the people at large should be: why despite enjoying the highest growth of the agricultural sector, agricultural wages in Gujarat are the lowest? Or to put it in another way, what are the rules of the political economy of the Modi raj in Gujarat for such a phenomenal wage depression?

The reasons for the wage depression in Gujarat are many and complex. Ordinary Indians, however, need not wait to be convinced of any of them. The very fact of wage depression should make them wary of the so-called Gujarat model of development advertised by Modi’s sales agents. Nevertheless, there is one reason for low wages which should make Indians take immediate notice. Gujarat under Modi is a society with entrenched casteism. This has been shown amply in a three-year study by the Navsrijan Trust of Ahmedabad; more than ninetyfive per cent of villages practice untoucha-bility in one form or another, in more than sixty per cent of villages Dalits are not allowed to use common water resources. The social exclusion and weakness of the Dalit castes in Gujarat have a direct bearing on their bargaining power as wage workers, and they, like everywhere else in India, form the bulk of the agricultural labour force. Modi cannot be held responsible for casteism in Gujarat, but the class and caste character of the Modi raj has certainly contributed to the weakness of anti-caste mobilisations in Gujarat.

All successful experiments in Fascism have relied on popular mobilisations behind a charismatic leader. It seems for the first time the Hindutva fascism in our country has found some one with that potential in Modi. The privilegenstia of the country has made up its mind. Modi’s political opponents are addressing the remaining Indians, telling them of his role in the 2002 pogrom. It is a sign of weakness of the anti-fascist forces in the country that they have continued to harp on his anti-minority record only, and have failed to develop a generalised critique of the man and his politics. In reality there are enough reasons, even without the 2002 pogrom, for ordinary Indians to be worried over the rise of Modi.

Sanjay Kumar is an Associate Professor in Physics, St Stephen’s College, Delhi. He is associated with the New Socialist Iinitiative.