Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata party has won a landslide election victory - despite being implicated in mass murder. Sheena Sumaria reports
On Friday, the world’s largest democracy elected a religious nationalist accused of mass murder as its Prime Minister.
“India has won” were the famous words tweeted by India’s newly elected Prime Minister, Narendra Modi. While the last of the votes were counted and Modi supporters were celebrating a majority win for the Hindu nationalist BJP party, countless victims of the 2002 Gujarat pogrom were left in disbelief.
In 2002 around two thousand Muslims were killed by Hindu nationalists in Gujarat, a state in North Western India where Modi has been Chief Minister since 2001. The violence erupted after 59 Hindus were killed when a train carriage caught fire in Godhra following a dispute between Hindu passengers and Muslim vendors. While a number of arrests had already been made in Godhra, where no subsequent violence took place, Hindu nationalist groups mobilised overnight and carried out heinous attacks and rapes on thousands of Muslims elsewhere in Gujarat. Narendra Modi faces serious allegations of complicity in this pogrom. He is accused of making hate speeches to incite violence, parading the burnt bodies of the Hindu train passengers in an open cavalcade across the state and ordering the police not to intervene during the violence. Following the violence, Modi refused to provide relief to the hundred thousand displaced Muslims; during a rally in Mehsana he claimed that “relief camps are actually child-making factories” and that “those who keep on multiplying the population should be taught a lesson.”
Gujarat, often called the laboratory of ‘Hindu nationalism’, has seen a steady rise in support for Hindu nationalist organisations under the umbrella of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS since the 1980s. The RSS seeks to establish India as a Hindu Rashtra (a Hindu nation), where minorities are at best second class citizens, and has been labelled by many a fascist ideology. Indeed, its founding ideologues, such as Golwakar and Moonje, celebrated Nazi Germany and Italian fascism. It advocates violence as a political strategy and is active in providing military training and indoctrination to young boys and girls through its numerous ‘shakhas’ across India. Narendra Modi himself joined an RSS shakha at the age of eight, and has since devoted his life to the cause.
Modi and his supporters have built their campaign on the promise of economic development through an efficient market economy and by making a break with the ‘out-dated’ and dynastic Congress party.
While there have been some economic gains during Modi’s 13 years as Chief Minister of Gujarat, the fruits of his neoliberal economic model have mainly accrued to the elite. As highlighted in a 2012 government report, a Rs. 16,000 crore (£1.5 billion) hole was found in the Gujarat state’s finances due to crony practices such selling off public land and electricity at throwaway prices to favoured industrial houses without a proper bidding process, and allowing them to violate environmental standards, for example in the Adani Port Special Economic Zone in Mundra.
In their recent book ‘An Uncertain Glory – India and its Contradictions’, Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze have provided statistical evidence based on the World Development Indicators and the Census of India, that Modi’s Gujarat has lagged behind the other major states in India in tackling infant mortality, reducing poverty, and increasing literacy. In 2005-6, Gujarat trailed behind 16 other Indian states in child and female nutrition. When questioned about this, Modi attributed persistent malnutrition to the fact that women are beauty conscious.
Despite Modi’s neoliberal track record and the fact that he has not yet been cleared by higher courts for his involvement in the 2002 Gujarat riots, he has successfully been able to promote himself domestically and internationally as an efficient administrator, single-handedly responsible for Gujarat’s economic boom. Since 2007, US lobbying and PR agency APCO Worldwide have been managing Modi’s image and projecting him as a business and development friendly Chief Minister at no small cost of over $25,000 per month. The firm, which specialises in political PR, is notorious for having dictators such as former Nigerian dictator Sani Abacha amongst its clients. Furthermore, the Indian media has failed to seriously question Modi about his role in the Gujarat pogrom in the run up to elections. Modi has often walked out of interviews that raised questions about the 2002 violence.
While the Indian stock market soars, global banks sing praises for India’s new business friendly government, and investors whet their appetites for a share in India’s predicted economic boom, it is unlikely that the new government will achieve much for India’s 400 million poor people. Since India’s post-1991 liberalisation, economic growth has not seemed to touch the poorest third of the population but has produced 122 billionaires as of 2013. Further neoliberal reforms under Modi’s government would only exacerbate such inequality.
While Hindu nationalists genuinely support Modi’s ideology and some stand to gain directly from his investor-friendly policies, India’s dissatisfied masses seem to have indicated a wish for change. Despite the dominant media narrative on Modi’s landslide victory being a broad-based vote for the BJP, statistics show the vote to be fractured. The BJP’s 31% vote share represents the lowest share to win a single-party majority by historical standards. Contrary to BJP claims that all communities and classes have placed their faith in a Modi-led government, almost 70% of voters supported other parties. The Muslim vote has become more polarised with an 11% increase of Muslims voting for Congress. The struggle for economic and social justice in India is more critical now than ever. It may indeed be difficult, in a more censored and intolerant Modi-led India, to keep a check on minority abuses and on the conditions of workers and the marginalised, but India’s left has to rise up to the challenge of proposing real alternatives and tap into the country’s angry and side-lined multitude.
Sheena Sumaria, co-director of the recent film on Modi, Hindu nationalism and Gujarat, ‘Even the Crows: A Divided Gujarat’
Sheena Sumaria is a director and producer, known for the film Even the Crows: A Divided Gujarat (2014), Still Standing (2011) and others. She runs Guerrera films with Sonum Sumaria.