Worldbeater... Narendra Modi
Job: Prime Minister of India
Reputation: Hindu fundamentalist of ruthless ambition
Channi Anand / Press Association Images
In March 2014 liberal and secular India had some of their worst nightmares realized when Narendra Modi emerged as Prime Minister at the head of a government spearheaded by his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
They didn’t just win; they routed the traditional Congress Party and gained a rare absolute majority in the Parliament. Modi’s victory transformed the political landscape of India, pushing the dominant Congress Party to a marginal position from which it may never recover.
Modi had made his controversial reputation as chief minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, where in 2002 he failed to stop inter-communal riots which resulted in over 1,000 deaths.
Over two-thirds of those killed were Muslims murdered by Hindu mobs and Modi’s government was widely criticized for insufficient effort to protect the community, and for its Islamophobic appeals in subsequent electioneering.
Modi’s backers, of course, prefer to focus on the ‘Gujarati [economic] Miracle’ they claim (based on very partial evidence) he wrought in the state. Wisely Modi, since gaining national power, has stayed away from overt attacks on India’s 170 million Muslims.
Modi is not a man of modest self-regard, frequently referring to his virtues and accomplishments in his speeches. After he was elected, his official website declared him ‘a dynamic, decisive and development-oriented leader who has emerged as a ray of hope for the dreams and aspirations of a billion Indians’. What could possibly go wrong?
The cult of personality that has grown up around him is rooted in the enthusiasm of his young militant supporters of Hindu nationalist organizations such as the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh), Bajrang Dal and the VHP (Vishva Hindu Parishad).
Their militaristic hostility to non-Hindu Indians sometimes involves violence against political opponents and has recently included campaigns of forced conversions of Muslims and Christians. While Modi has had a lifelong connection with such groups, these days he keeps his distance, while providing them with the context and the space in which to expand their influence.
But Indian Gandhian and secular opinion may have under-rated the political skills of Modi and his inner circle. He has played the international card very well, being seen in foreign capitals from Washington to Tokyo and hobnobbing with the likes of Russia’s President Vladimir Putin and China’s main man Xi Jinping – thus maintaining traditional Indian diplomatic balance.
The Congress Party’s dismal record on everything from poverty to corruption and cronyism opened the door wide to Modi and the BJP. But Indians hungering for progress in the direction of honesty and equality are not likely to find much satisfaction in this change of the neoliberal guard.
Modi’s self-presentation as a candidate of modernity who supports ‘development with Hindutva characteristics’ helps conceal his commitment to the agenda of the business élites who bankrolled the BJP campaign. His record is already showing that his notion of ‘development’ involves attacks on workers’ rights and weakening environmental regulation.
He is currently in a big battle with India’s coal unions over privatization schemes and is doing his best to weaken the rights of village tribal councils to oppose projects endangering India’s fragile forest and water resources or the government’s plans to ‘streamline’ (read ‘weaken’) project approval processes.
Since the early 1990s, the policy of opening the Indian economy to global economic forces has created both great wealth and great poverty. The prosperity of middle-class ‘new India’ has been counterbalanced by the stagnation and misery of the old India rooted in the impoverished countryside and urban slums.
‘An Uncertain Glory’, a recent report co-authored by India’s Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen, reveals a consistent underfunding of education, health and other services compared to other countries of similar levels of development. It is the poor that have suffered most from this neglect.
Modi, with his commitment to orthodox growth combined with a religious moral discipline designed to maintain traditional hierarchies of caste and gender, shows every sign of exacerbating rather than alleviating this situation.