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We Need To Talk About Modi

Sparsh Pandya, BA International Relations and South Asian Studies

The past year and a half of Narendra Modi’s term as prime minister of India has marked a clear push towards neo-liberal economic policy and an attempt to establish India as a powerful global actor. Within the domestic sphere, welfare issues and communal tensions have only grown in severity.

On the 10th November the SOAS South Asian Diaspora society and South Asia Solidarity Group held a meeting titled ‘WE NEED TO TALK ABOUT MODI,’ continuing those communities’ discussion of many of the resulting issues of Modi’s rule by asking questions about gender violence, neo-liberalism, Islamophobia, casteism, occupation and the role of the Indian diaspora in supporting Hindu supremacism and countering it.

Modi’s characteristically neo-liberal economics have led to a number of corporatist policies, coupled with a push towards securing foreign direct investment (FDI). Since 2015, Modi has made 29 prime ministerial trips, speaking especially to business leaders and investors.

Whilst this may look like a sign of growth from the international capitalist development model, the negative effects of such visits and dialogue have been witnessed in the last few months. Protests and demands by groups seeking to be included in the reservations system – India’s format of affirmative action, aiming to include Dalits, lower castes and other minorities in government, universities and other institutions – show that Modi’s neoliberal movement has created economic and political barriers for greater sections of society.

This is not a new phenomenon. During his time as Chief Minister of Gujarat, the ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ project’s focus on attracting private capital from both international and domestic sources was primarily enabled by the ease that state authorities allowed corporations their access to land and positions as important economic stakeholders with influence in financial policy.

The effects spanning from such heavily exploitative policies were felt most harshly by the rural population and those engaging in manual labour. An important example of these socio-economic effects was raised by Shruti Iyer. Iyer commented on increased suicides by farmers by highlighting how land privatisation policies and FDI-induced competition have led to farmers relying upon local money lenders for steady income. Such a system led to accumulation of high debt in rural communities, creating an insecure and uncertain environment.

Gujarat's chief minister Narendra Modi speaks during the "Vibrant Gujarat Summit" at Gandhinagar in the western Indian state of Gujarat January 12, 2013. Fresh off his re-election as chief minister of Gujarat and amid expectations he could contend to be the next prime minister, Modi avoided talk of a bigger political future during a state investment event. REUTERS/Amit Dave (INDIA - Tags: POLITICS) - RTR3CD39
During his time as Gujarat’s Chief Minister, Narendra Modi speaks during the “Vibrant Gujarat Summit” at Gandhinagar, January 12, 2013 (Image: REUTERS/Amit Dave)

Aside from the insecurities created by Modi’s economic policies, viewing national policy making through a religious lens also raises questions about the ideological alignments of the Indian People’s Party (BJP) government.

The rewriting of histories and regulation of education to suit the ideology of Hindu nationalism was an observed process in Gujarat in the last decade, and is now ongoing in national education policy. Hindu nationalist rhetoric is spread widely by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). The history of the RSS and its sister organisations is interwoven with complex Hindu-centric politics, envisioning an India where Hindus can accumulate and maintain social and cultural power and privilege over religious (especially Muslim and Christian) and ethnic minorities.

Ananya Rao-Middleton highlighted the powerful positions that Hindu nationalist institutions have and the influence they hold over politics and the media through over-simplified claims which capitalise on communal divisions. This exploitation of communal divisions can be seen in the development of the ‘Love Jihad’ narrative in recent months, which essentialises Muslim men as predatory and taps into populist, ‘fear of the other’ rhetoric by suggesting that Hindu women are under threat of conversion.

Furthermore, the Hindu nationalist vision colludes with and is legitimised by Islamophobia which has arisen as a consequence of the international framework of the war on terror, which has been used to justify domestic and foreign policies that target certain communities that are deemed as threats. This can be seen clearly in Jammu and Kashmir, with the Jammu narrative given more emphasis over Kashmir. As noted by a member of the SOAS Kashmir Solidarity Movement, Modi’s primary campaigning during the election was in Jammu, a region with a high Hindu population, signifying polarising, vote-bank tactics. The continued association of BJP politicians, including Modi, with divisive Hindu nationalist organisations is revelatory of how the political ambitions of the Modi government exclude minority groups.

Last month over 50 historians released a joint statement criticising Modi for not making any reassuring statement following concerns over ‘highly vitiated atmosphere’ prevailing in India. The group stated that ‘arguments are met not with counter arguments but with bullets,’ highlighting the legally and socially instable environment, with reference to the Dadri lynching in which a mob of people attacked a Muslim family.

The critique of Hindu nationalist organisations as political actors was met with some disagreement during the question and answer section, in which a student from Oxford argued that Hindu nationalist organisations are benevolent institutions which provide social support for communities, showing that Hinduism is not a religion but a way of life. However, this commonly held view fails to see the divisive communal lines along which the ‘benevolent’ efforts of these organisations run and attempts to establish the Hindu identity as a norm. It must be recognised that historically the ‘Hindu way of life’ manifested as a cruel and incredibly exploitative caste system. Members of the Dalit community still face social prejudice, most shockingly seen in the recent instances of violence and murder of Dalits for attempting to enter temples.

Modi’s politics are inherently divisive. From an economic perspective, his policies towards rapid growth show a disregard for welfare issues and the individuals who suffer most greatly – the working classes. From a social perspective, the continued presence of Hindutva in politics has led to an intensification of communal divisions and a continuation of caste violence. Whilst some of the agents involved are not directly linked to the Modi administration, the political environment fostered by the Modi government creates an enabling environment for opportunist groups to capitalise and grow for their self-interest.

Analysing Modi’s government from these perspectives can provide a voice to those who are affected most harshly in Indian society. Development cannot be selective, nor can it span from large-scale labour exploitation. The reorientation of economic policy towards welfare and wealth distribution and the removal of caste, religious and ethnic prejudice from politics should be prioritised if true development is to be seen. In the name of international recognition, power and influence, the Modi government is failing to provide for those it claims to represent. Politics must be for people, not profit.

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