Feyzi Ismail interviews Priyamvada Gopal on the recent victory of the extremist BJP in the Indian elections and what it means for society and politics in India
The BJP and Narendra Modi in particular are known to be associated with Hindu fundamentalism and for initiating and condoning communal violence in Gujarat in 2002, which left thousands dead and tens of thousands displaced. Why has the BJP won what some in the media are calling a landslide?
The reason for the ‘landslide’ (it’s a clear majority but in fact, a historically small one with only a 31% of the overall vote share) is really rather simple: the abysmal failures of the ruling UPA Coalition which formed around the Congress Party. Corruption on a gargantuan scale and dynastic rule around the entitled—and thoroughly cut-off—members of the Gandhi family have left most of the Indian electorate weary and thoroughly desperate for an alternative—any alternative. At the same time, ironically, it is the promise of Narendra Modi to take to their extreme, the same neoliberal policies fostered by Manmohan Singh, the UPA Prime Minister and his advisors—which also appeals to a large number of middle-class Indians, nurturing dreams of untold prosperity and global power for India.
What does Modi’s rise to power mean for Hindu-Muslim relations?
Modi’s rise to power will legitimise and embolden what has been a worrying feature of the Indian social and political landscape for a while—an aggressive Hindu majoritarianism which has been nourished on the anti-Muslim (and more generally anti-minority) rhetoric peddled by the extremist groups which comprise the ‘Sangh Parivar’ (family of political Hindu-ist organisations). In addition to the continued marginalisation of Muslims—who are disproportionately economically disenfranchised—we can expect more sanctioned discrimination, repression and ghettoization even as some token ‘achievers’ are made poster people. The message from many of those who voted for Modi—although still a minority of the Indian electorate as a whole—is that Muslims should either leave or stay in India ‘knowing their place’ (which is to be left behind, a token handful of celebrity successes notwithstanding). What this, in turn, will do to Islamist extremism on the subcontinent, remains to be seen: repression in Kashmir, in particular, is going to lead to more violent conflict.
What does it mean for Indian politics and for democracy in India?
It certainly means the ‘saffronisation’ of the political scene—or rather, an intensification of the ideological (rather than religious) Hindu-ising of society and politics—that has been underway for some time now. Already, with these elections, we have the fewest number of Muslim MPs in the Parliament historically—a real blow for a country with a Constitution that, warts and all, enshrines and elevates some form of official pluralism and plural representation. But the most worrying development of these elections is the inordinately scripted nature of the so-called ‘Modi Wave’ which saw an unabashedly partisan corporate media more or less run the show—many of the magazine and TV channels in question are owned by the same behemoths which backed Modi financially and ideologically. This is, of course, not a scenario unfamiliar in the West, particularly in the United States, but it’s happening on a scale that is relatively new to India and bodes ill for the public sphere and for dissent. We’ve also seen enormous amounts of vitriol and threats directed at critics of Modi—the example of the venerable and hugely respected writer, UR Anathamurthy comes to mind—he now has to live under police protection. Anyone who says the slightest critical thing about Modi is instantly subjected to physical threats and shocking amounts of violent and sickening verbal abuse. So between the mass manufacturing of consent and the violent suppression of dissent, things for democracy look grim; it is going to take courage and determination which, fortunately, many Indians have, to defend the country’s democratic framework and stop it from backsliding further into futility.
What is Modi’s agenda for exploiting India’s natural resources and for development? How will he deal with those attempting to resist this exploitation?
First of all, we need to begin with Modi’s definition of ‘development’ which has been singularly tendentious and articulated purely in terms of corporate profits and related infrastructure—roads, Special Economic Zones, continuous electric supply—which, of course, then benefits the middle-classes as well. This fabled ‘growth’ in his home state of Gujarat has happened at the cost of widespread displacement of the rural poor, spiralling debt for farmers, and horrific environmental degradation. If this model is replicated across India—and let’s be clear, he wouldn’t be the first to try to implement it—then we can certainly expect enormous resource exploitation by multinationals and other huge corporations, alongside sweetheart deals and subsidies, as well as grave environmental degradation and displacement. That’s already been happening in various states, of course, both under BJP and Congress rule, but it could intensify on a dangerous scale. The harsh repression which the Maoists—and, even more worryingly, ordinary adivasis (indigenous people) faced under the previous government will continue or intensify. What we can see—and are already starting to see—is more arrests, detentions and prosecutions—of non-violent dissenters as well, from opposition politicians and critical journalists to disagreeable tweeters. It’s already begun with a Facebook user in Goa who has been arrested for ‘anti-Modi’ postings and the opposition politician, Arvind Kejriwal, jailed for refusing to put up bail having been arrested for criticising a BJP leader for corruption. The renowned author, UR Ananthamurthy, now needs police protection from Modi supporters who have threatened him physically.
How did the left do in the elections and what does the BJP victory mean for any progressive left in India?
The electoral left, the two parliamentary communist parties, did poorly except in Kerala where they did reasonably well but failed to win. Nationally, of course, they were supporters of the discredited ruling coalition. They have very little credibility left, to be honest, except in pockets, and for any real resistance to neoliberalism, we have to look to the development of a third force, emerging out of civil society resistance movements and grassroots activism—including revitalised new trade unionist initiatives. There are several of these scattered across the country—movements against caste discrimination, gay rights initiatives, feminist organisations, tribal rights collectives, anti-nuke groups, environmental campaigns and so on. The question is whether some kind of wider progressive coalition can emerge that will allow for a third anti-neoliberal force to emerge. It will, however, take massive organisation and fresh leadership to weld these into a powerful third force against the status quo and the lethal twinning of extremisms, Hindutva and neoliberalism.
Feyzi Ismail teaches at Goldsmiths, University of London, and is active in UCU
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