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Looking back – and forward – from Modi’s election


June 2, 2014

Guest post by SHASHANK KELA

So now the gloves are off. For the BJP, that is, whose victory in these gives not only its most right-wing government, but, more to the point, a prime minister to the right of his party – more laissez faire, openly contemptuous of minorities, authoritarian in style. What the party, and Narendra , will make of its – and his – comprehensive victory will soon be apparent, but the omens are far from good. Working in a coalition and under the supposedly moderate leadership of Atal Behari Vajpayee, the BJP between 1998 and 2004 achieved quite a lot – not just in the cultural wars that are its forte, but also in terms of putting economic “reform” on steroids. Now that it is being advised by that distinguished dispenser of received opinion and tireless self promoter, Dr Jagdish Bhagwati – an economist whose ignorance of history and the methods through which economic development was actually achieved in almost every successful industrial economy from Great Britain in the 16th and 17th centuries to South Korea in the 20th (cue: protectionism and lots of effective government intervention) is stupendous even by the low standards of the discipline – all bets are off.

His acolytes are, in any case, omnipresent in the opinion pages of Indian newspapers and magazines. Their fulsome compliments on the condition of Gujarat’s infrastructure, the number of industries setting up shop there, and the ease with which this is achieved, fail to reveal how a country that spends a derisory amount on the education and healthcare of its citizens (proportionally amongst the lowest in the world); whose social indicators bear comparison with sub-Saharan Africa; whose industrial policy from 1947 to the present (autarkic import substitution, which enabled domestic industries to flourish in a protected market without subjecting them to export discipline, and, after 1991, an increasingly unbridled embrace of foreign investment on any and every terms) is falsified by actual experience, is ever going to become an advanced industrial giant. It is Lockwood and Chalmers Johnson on Japan, Alice Amsden on South Korea, Joe Studwell on China, and Ha-Joon Chang – not Bhagwati and his disciples – who tell us how industrial economies are built; though not about the associated ecological costs.[1]

In any case, it is time to acknowledge that the old dream of industrialization based on infinite growth and ever increasing consumption has been overtaken by the cold reality of man made climate change. It is plainly impossible for India to follow China too far down the path it is embarked on, even if it could – the price is ecological catastrophe and social unrest whose contours can only be guessed at. The problem is global though the impacts are unequal and local – to address it, new ways of living with nature, limiting consumption, and respecting subsistence will have to be found.

Meanwhile let us at least hope that Modi’s victory will go some way in dispelling certain illusions, long nourished, about India and Indian exceptionalism. The first myth is the political sagacity of the Indian voter and his/her capacity to reshape the political landscape.

This is, frankly, a delusion. After all, in many “advanced” democracies, the political class, ruling elite, middle-class – take your pick – has had, more often than not, absolutely no trouble in convincing the mass of people to vote against their economic interests. This is true of American politics almost since its inception, with a few exceptions – such as the Radical Republicans who came to power with Lincoln and dominated national politics for a few short years after his assassination or the New Deal, that economic makeover spurred by the extended aftershocks of the Great Depression. And in each case normal service – which is to say, the status quo – was duly reestablished after an interval, short or long.

Short in the case of the Radical Republicans, who can fairly lay claim to being the most progressive political grouping in American history, for the key elements of their agenda as it developed from the 1860s widened from the complete abolition of slavery (by war, if necessary) to, after the American civil war, giving blacks in the south the vote, land, and a system of public schooling and special protections. Naturally they failed, and civil rights and equality for blacks came only a century later, but the astonishing thing is that they were (briefly) elected to power and came close to impeaching a president (Lincoln’s successor, the rabid Andrew Johnson) on this kind of platform. The fact that the term now signifies the loonier members of a far-right party is, doubtless, one of the intended ironies of history. Longer in the case of the New Deal, whose legacy, in attenuated forms, survived into the post war period until what Eisenhower called the military-industrial complex firmly took back control during his presidency. The examples can be multiplied: the crash of 2008-09 led to a rightward lurch in west European politics, with immigrants serving as convenient and illusory scapegoats.

I trust that readers will forgive this brief excursion into history in order to make the obvious point that the Indian voter is no less gullible than his counterparts elsewhere, an observation amply confirmed by experience. It was Indira Gandhi, after all, who refined posturing into a winnable electoral strategy back in the early 1970s. At most, he or she has the choice of two evils – the Congress and the BJP, the AIADMK and the DMK, the SP and the BSP – and does no more than punish one or the other, resignedly or enthusiastically as the case may be. Despite its dynastic veneer, Indian politics has always worked on the basis of social coalitions: neither Jawaharlal Nehru nor Indira Gandhi won despite their party or stood separate from it. They won because of caste coalitions assembled by it in different parts of the country to which they added votes that accrued to them personally. Whenever and wherever these coalitions wavered or cracked – in Tamil Nadu in the 1960s, in Andhra Pradesh in the early 1980s, in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar in the late 1980s – the party was summarily removed from power, either temporarily or permanently, and no genie could paper over the cracks.

This leads to an obvious question, namely, why has the Indian voter been so little spoiled for choice. For all the reams of paper expended on the fragmentation of the polity and the rise of regional parties since the 1990s – and this is generally seen as positive, indeed textbook-democratic development – the fact remains that in terms of economic policies there is little, if any, difference between national and regional parties. Their acronyms are many, but the underlying fact remains the same – the rise of regional formations masks a continuity in economic ideology; not unsurprisingly since many of these parties are controlled by regional elites who once supported the Congress. If economic issues matter to Indian voters, why have they failed to throw up a single party that represents the economic interests of the poor, for these would appear to require, at the very least, an institutional overhaul of the existing system? (A point that I have made elsewhere at greater length.[2])

Progressive economists of left-liberal persuasion are fond of pointing to the social indicators and infrastructure of the southern states as examples of what can be done under the right conditions (social pressure, political will) – indeed Jean Dreze and Reetika Khera devoted a long article in Outlook not too long ago to the merits of welfare programmes. For those of us lucky enough to live in these states the experience is less rosy. It is true that the public distribution system works in Tamil Nadu after a fashion, that teachers actually go to school to teach (most of them anyway), that state hospitals and dispensaries are better than in the north, but the standard is so appallingly low that everyone who can scrape together the money seeks only to escape them.

It is striking that the poor who vote – and those who champion their interests – seem to accept that our basic social infrastructure is essentially un-reformable: that there is no way to get armies of government teachers, doctors, nurses, policemen etc. to do their jobs in the way they are supposed to, but have never done. Instead attention is switched to “welfare” and development (meaning jobs). But surely welfare programmes – like feeding children at school – are meant to supplement infrastructure (like education) and not to replace it: a mid-day meal is not a substitute for a competent, hard-working teacher and schools with class-rooms, toilets and good textbooks. Just as jobs require skills, of which effective literacy and manual/technical training are not the least. Yet in state after state, electoral victories – the Congress in Andhra (2009), the BJP in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh (2013), the BJD in Orissa (a fourth election win and counting) – are attributed to welfare programmes: loans to build houses, grants for weddings and education and suchlike, but the meritocratic building blocks of upward mobility – effective, affordable schooling and healthcare – remain absent. In other words, if political parties in India have been adept at making promises and spreading a little money around, the poor have been willing to accept this situation.

Perhaps B R Ambedkar, that ignored outlier (and Cassandra) amongst modern India’s founders, put his finger on the answer when he asked Marxists how they expected to make or sustain a revolution in India when its putative foot soldiers were so fragmented on the basis of caste:

‘[I]t is obvious that the economic reform contemplated by the socialists cannot come about unless there is a revolution … That seizure of power must be by the proletariat. The first question I ask is: will the proletariat of India combine to bring about this revolution? What will move men to such an action? It seems to me, that other things being equal, the only thing that will move one man to take such an action is that other men with whom he is acting are actuated by feelings of equality and fraternity and – above all – of justice. Men will not join in a revolution for the equalization of property unless they know that after the revolution is achieved they will be treated equally, and that there will be no discrimination of caste and creed.’[3]

Ambedkar’s answer, fairly obviously, was that this was unlikely to happen as things stood. If, for revolution, we substitute a social programme of the kind that in most east Asian and Latin American countries is taken for granted, we might begin to comprehend the failure of the Indian middle-class – and the concomitant failure of the poor to react to it.

For the second myth about India is that the poor take an active part in democracy. They do nothing of the kind, for the institutions of the state are controlled by the middle-class – an elastic group which includes the government clerk or schoolteacher, the small time village trader, the middle and upper caste farmer all the way to the rarefied heights occupied by the Ambanis, Tatas, Nilekanis and their ilk. This coalition of middle and upper castes is united by aspiration and contempt for their social inferiors (the adivasi, dalit, poor Muslim etc.) and are capable of pulling their poorer brethren along with them. Since the overwhelming majority of government functionaries are recruited from their ranks, the absence of social infrastructure bothers them little if at all. And thus state employment remains a means of patronage and profit, a channel of upward mobility.

The original sin of the Nehruvian nation building programme (to which historians like Sunil Khilnani and Ramchandra Guha look back with such nostalgia) was its failure to reform colonial mechanisms of government so as to make it minimally accountable to the citizenry. This inevitably begat social exclusion and we are living with its consequences to this day. There is a straight line that can be drawn from Nehru to Modi and that line has nothing to do with secularism and even less with “socialism”. It can be defined as paternalism, the belief that the poor must be kept in their place and that the institutions of the state must be insulated from them except for the five yearly carnival of elections. It was the upper and middle castes that benefited most from Nehruvian “socialism” and more and more of the latter began turning to the BJP from the late 1980s (adding to its small core of upper caste supporters), until now the metamorphosis is complete. In other words, much the same groups, with aspirations supplemented by rising xenophobia, religiosity, nationalism as dormant desires, dreams and fantasies awaken.

Pankaj Mishra in a fine article in The Guardian casts a lucid, magisterial eye on the travails and changes along the way[4]; here I am concerned with the continuities and symptoms of decay visible from the very beginning. As for the vast underclass, both urban and rural (plebeian castes, small peasants, artisans, adivasis, dalits): riven by caste, religion, prejudice, they have, as Ambedkar predicted, gone along with the charade, casting their votes to punish rather than to build anything new.

It is perfectly true that the extent of Modi’s victory is less decisive than it seems: with only 31 percent of the vote (out of a turnout of roughly 66 percent), the BJP’s share compares unfavorably with previous Congress majorities based on 40 percent or more of the vote from a turnout of anything between 55 to 65 percent. Yet all talk of electoral reform is dead in the water not only because it was rarely a subject of debate when the Congress was winning its majorities, but because not a single political formation in India is likely to support it. Not even Mayawati for, if it were applied in Uttar Pradesh, the BSP would never get a majority of seats in the legislative assembly any more than the DMK or the AIADMK, the BJD or the TDP would in their respective bailiwicks. Proportional representation makes coalitions an absolute necessity and when each regional party can dream of winning state elections with 30 percent or thereabouts of total votes cast under the current system there is no way on earth they are going to change it, come hell or high water.

Meanwhile Manmohan Singh, for now at least, seems to have escaped most of the odium for the Congress’s debacle. The orthodoxy is that he was a weak prime minister, undercut by the Gandhis, unwilling and unable to assert his authority, as if this authority had been a magic wand that would have averted catastrophic unpopularity. Whereas the truth is almost exactly the opposite. Personally honest he may have been, but Manmohan Singh presided over a corrupt and kleptocratic government, turned a blind eye to the corruption of his colleagues in cabinet, failed to support reforms that might have averted corruption even when he had the ability (in the coal ministry, for example), and felt no need, ever, to explain or justify himself or the policies of his government to the public at large. It is worth pointing out that this is the typical bureaucrat’s pattern of behaviour. Singh’s hope that history will judge him more kindly then his contemporaries is misplaced, for history is no more than shorthand for the received wisdom of each generation. Thus Narsimha Rao’s venality is excused for he served the rich well; Manmohan Singh’s failure to do all that they expected (though not for want of trying) is unlikely to receive any accolades.

As for the Gandhis, they have failed entirely to realize that no member of the family since, well, Indira Gandhi, has ever had the ability to add significantly to the party vote – not Rajiv, and certainly not Sonia or Rahul Gandhi. In other words, the Congress, in order to win elections, has to build caste coalitions and actually do something, or be seen to be doing something, for the poor while in power. This lesson, painfully learned in 2004, was forgotten after 2009 as its flagship national employment programme became enveloped in the usual fog of corruption (the myriad ways in which village and small town elites siphon off public money are truly wonderful) and the failure to do more than dig a few holes in the ground (many of the middlemen into whose pockets its funds vanished doubtless voted for the BJP), and new workable ideas dried up. Rahul Gandhi’s dishonest and unprincipled effort to ride two horses – to mask the actual policies of the UPA government with rhetoric designed to show sympathy for the unpropertied – failed as it was bound to. Meanwhile his near comic lack of understanding of how politics in India actually works (even Indira Gandhi was careful to keep powerful regional satraps like Devraj Urs and Karunakaran on her side – even after 1980 when her delusions of grandeur once again became manifest) seems bound to prolong the party’s history of shooting itself in the foot.

As for the AAP, the eloquent and erudite Yogendra Yadav seems the only one able and willing to explain the party’s strategy in any rational terms. Thus it was he who told us why the AAP was welcoming all and sundry into its ranks after its success in Delhi (how long ago that seems now), why it was spreading itself so thin in the general elections, how parties in India could not be built slowly and incrementally, from the ground up, but must take advantage of the wind that blows unexpectedly. Well, in this case it blew for Modi, and the justifications inevitably seem a bit ridiculous after the fact. Yet the AAP is still there, still standing, if considerably battered and bowed. Nevertheless, its failure to do anything at all during its brief tenure in Delhi, to make even the slightest gesture towards institutional reform, and the obvious poverty of ideas of Arvind Kejriwal and his closest associates raise a question mark over its ability to reinvent itself as a social democratic party of the kind India has never had.

Briefly, the elections of 2014 can be summed up thus – the Indian electorate in order to punish the crony capitalism of the UPA, its kleptocratic economic policies, and relentless consumer inflation (to which the decision to let fuel prices float contributed in no small measure) has voted in a party and a man who promises more of the same – more effectively, more ruthlessly, faster. The irony, as they say, is profound.

The third myth of Indian exceptionalism may well be that Hindutva is not, and will not turn into fascism. We have been assured by scholars such as Achin Vinaik that its ideology and votaries have little in common with Nazis and blackshirts in Germany and Italy of the 1920s and 30s. This may be true, but the rise of Narendra Modi complicates the picture somewhat. For he is the quintessential strongman riding to power on a programme of national pride, development, and the vague and all encompassing rhetoric of “getting things done”, with its vaguely sinister ring. He has also been supported – and has, in turn, embraced – big business to an extent unprecedented for any Indian political party or figure before him. It seems clear from the available evidence that the biggest billionaires and corporate houses in India have lined up behind the BJP and failed even to hedge their bets, as they are wont to do, with its competitor: hence Rahul Gandhi’s unprecedented insistence on naming names and pointing fingers at some of Modi’s corporate supporters during the campaign.

This is, in part, a case of chickens coming home to roost. As domestic corporations grow bigger – and are encouraged to do so – and natural resources meant to be held for the common good are turned over to them with joyous abandon, there will inevitably come a time when the government of the day finds that it has no way to rein them in, and that money can, quite openly, buy power. It appears that we have reached that stage in India. For Germany’s then industrial giants who supported Hitler every step of the way, read Adani, Ambani, Tata et al. In that sense, the parallels are clear and obvious, for to the ideology of Hindutva has been added what it lacked so far: an authoritarian, demagogic personality. Obviously, if an Indian fascism does take root and flourish, its methods and targets will be different from those of Italy and Germany (and these varieties, it should be remembered, differed from each other). My own guess is that Modi resembles Mussolini far more than Hitler – whether he fulfils that potential, in what way, and whether the electorate allows him to are questions for the future. For the moment, one can only hope that the nay-sayers are right.

For the primary danger of Modi’s government is not just its cultural conception of India – after all, the NDA between 1998-2004 made a decent fist of saffronizing education and placing its men and women in key cultural bodies; its contempt for Muslims and Christians and propensity to stigmatize them as disloyal; or even its belief in a particularly predatory brand of unfettered capitalism – of course, it will be worse than the Congress, but the Congress, in all conscience, was bad enough. No, the real danger is the capacity that Modi has shown in Gujarat to stifle dissent and bend the institutions of state to his will, to browbeat an already supine bureaucracy into doing exactly what he – and his sponsors – want; and, like any effective demagogue, to press the buttons that arouse the baser instincts and prejudices of his listeners.

Now he and his party have the unlooked for opportunity of appointing such constitutional worthies as the CAG, the CVC, election commissioners et al. The prospect is not, to say the least, reassuring. And the power of patronage that Modi has at his command, is, quite literally, breathtaking. Judges now know who will determine their post retirement assignments for the next five years, bureaucrats know the kind of obedience he expects. The tenuous, largely ineffectual checks of the old order – the old boy network, the urge to present a liberal face, the incestuous ties that bound Delhi’s old money elites to a vapid idea of culture and a polite idiom in politics (the substance remained the same) – have all been swept away. A small section of the educated middle-class has always had a hankering for authoritarian figures. Many of Modi’s most ardent supporters amongst businessmen – and here I go strictly by anecdotal evidence and private conversations – are the kind of people who supported Indira Gandhi during the Emergency and again in the early 1980s, despite her economic policies (deregulation was already taking its first halting and necessary steps back then anyway), for her decisiveness and authoritarianism. “India needs a dictator” has always been a recurring refrain of some Indians: now in Modi they have a figure every bit if not more authoritarian than Indira Gandhi, and beholden for victory to a narrower and much less inclusive social coalition.

What can we expect? Repeal or evisceration of the right to information act, new “anti-terror” legislation, a new surge in anti-Maoist operations, more surveillance and snooping, the revival of special economic zones, more giveaways and cut-price deals with big business? All the hedge funds and investment bankers from the rich world who have been pouring money for months into India’s stock market in expectation of a Modi victory and the immediate speeding up of economic reforms will expect, and be given, their pound of flesh. In foreign policy, the Modi government is likely to be dovish towards China and hawkish towards Pakistan. One suspects that it would not at all mind a small border war on the lines of Kargil before the next general elections in order to rally its domestic constituency.

Meanwhile we will continue to inhabit that surreal country in which a handloom weaver earns less than an unskilled construction worker (this is the case in Tamil Nadu); where the old skills that made India an industrial giant long before the term was coined, clothing much of the pre-modern world, are lost or become defunct; where new skills are not learned because manual work, of whatever kind, is regarded as degrading. Everyone who can, as the sociologist Andre Beteille pointed out long ago, seeks only to escape it.

To travel through India’s countryside, to look at its identikit, shabby concrete hutches, the environmental devastation, the loss of skills once considered common (it is impossible to sink – build – a traditional well with masonry sides over much of the country even where the water table permits because the artisans who knew how to build them have vanished). Every article on weavers contains recurring refrain that no one wants to do it any longer because it is shockingly unrenumerative. The army of aspiring young men and women flocking to India’s towns and cities have been equipped with little by way of education and even less by way of skills, old or new – though no shortage of aspirations. They are, in every way, a time bomb waiting to go off. Meanwhile basic science research in India lags far far behind China, and the educated middle-class that admires itself this side of idolatry scarcely notices.

It is in this context that Ambedkar’s bleak and unflattering view of Indian society, democracy, potential – which the middle-class has done its best to airbrush out of existence – repays close study. It was precisely because Ambedkar was a Dalit that he was able to look at Indian realities with a cold eye, free from the the romanticism of Nehru or the conservative traditionalism of Gandhi. His bleakness is a necessary and salutary antidote to more than two decades of scholarship and received opinion that have consistently sought to justify India as it is, marching in lockstep with the ideological triumph of neo-liberalism (thus the fulsome celebrations of the so-called informal sector).

Meanwhile as the full heat of summer presses down and the tocsin of the common hawk cuckoo (also known as the brainfever bird) resounds fretfully in rising crescendo – less often than before and therefore less noticed – perhaps it is time to take a long, hard, self-critical look at ourselves and anatomize our collective failures from the moderate standpoint of social democracy; not to mention the failure of the poor to react to them – to educate, organize, and protest for a better order, less unfair, more just.


[1]     The Structural Development of Japan, William W Lockwood (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1954); MITI and the Japanese Miracle, Chalmers Johnson (Stanford University Press, Stanford, 1982; Asia’s Next Giant, Alice H Amsden (Oxford University Press, New York, 1989); Bad Samaritans, Ha-Joon Chang (Bloomsbury Press, New York, 2008.

[2]     ‘A Party of the Poor?’, Seminar, May 2012, number 633.

[3]     Annihilation of Caste in the splendid new edition by Navayana (Delhi 2014), 232.


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