Modi Will Be Put to the Test


Above, a volunteer for the Election Commission carrying Electronic Voting Machines calls for directions to a polling centre that he was to help set up and man in Hajipur, Bihar as it goes to polls in the second to last phase of the Indian General Elections. Photo by @ravissahani


The unprecedented victory of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies in the recent parliamentary elections in India has produced shock and distress in left-leaning and secular circles. Even though most opinion polls had predicted a win for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA), many on the left had cherished the hope that, as on some previous occasions, the poll predictions would be proved wrong. But most dispassionate observers had expected an NDA victory. What was surprising was its gigantic scale.

However, a look at the regional distribution of the NDA seats brings out some interesting features of the election results. First, the victories have come largely from the north and west of the country. In the south and the east, regional parties such as the AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, the TRS, TDP and YSRC in the two halves of Andhra Pradesh, the BJD in Orissa and the TMC in West Bengal have more than held their own. Second, those who were expecting a narrower margin of victory for the NDA were also expecting the Congress Party to get somewhere in the region of 75 to a hundred seats. As it happened, the Congress was decimated all over the country, managing a mere 44 seats. The difference is what explains the unexpected margin of victory for the NDA. Hence, the claim that the results mean a rejection by the electorate of multi-party coalition politics, in which a dozen or so regional parties jostle for power at the Centre, in favor of a two-party national system is not correct. In 2009, the Congress and the BJP between them had 322 seats in Parliament; this time they have 326. In other words, the regional parties have retained their combined strength; only the regional distribution has changed. The big difference is that the Congress has been reduced to the strength of a regional party: what it has lost has been picked up by the BJP.

Second, the elections this time had the distinct flavour of a US-style presidential contest with Narendra Modi pitted against Rahul Gandhi, even though the latter was never officially named as the Congress’s candidate for Prime Minister. Needless to say, the media – especially the television media – had a major role to play in mounting the campaign in this form. With the rapid spread of television in India’s countryside in the last two decades, the viewership of news channels, especially in the regional languages, has expanded by leaps and bounds. Not surprisingly, this was India’s most mediatised elections ever. And needless to say, it also involved the most expensive campaigns ever.

That brings up the third interesting feature of these elections. This was the first time that big business in India has so unequivocally and unabashedly supported one side, or rather one leader. Corporate houses and business organizations have always made political contributions, and sometimes individual businessmen have endorsed this or that party or leader. But for obvious reasons, they have usually hedged their bets, not taking the risk of antagonizing one powerful party by openly associating with its rival. This time, there was neither ambiguity nor secretiveness in the expression of support by business houses for Narendra Modi. Many went on to explain that it was not the BJP and its traditionally sectarian Hindu-nationalist ideology that they were endorsing. Rather, what they were most enthusiastic about was Narendra Modi and his vision of India’s economic future.

There is a small puzzle here. The Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government under Manmohan Singh was by no means unfriendly to big business. Indeed, Mr Singh’s image as an economic bureaucrat strongly inclined towards neoliberal reform had, in the first five years of his government, endeared him to the corporate world. In his second spell from 2009, however, he began to be lampooned as a bumbling old man, utterly immobilized by the political intrigues that surrounded him, unable to lead or speak his mind. The transformation of Manmohan Singh’s image holds the key to explaining the reasons for the precipitous decline in the popularity of the Congress among India’s business community. UPA’s first spell from 2004 came at the crest of a period of dazzling growth that turned the attention away from the underside of that process: rising inequality, loss of livelihoods for those in traditional occupations, little additional employment in the formal sector, and the rapidly proliferating informal economy. When the global financial crisis put the brakes on the growth economy in India, the UPA government in its second spell had to face the political problem of coping with the negative social consequences of rapid growth. Agitations, unrest, even violence, broke out over acquisition of land for industry, destruction of forests for mining, clearance of slums for urban housing, exploitation of migrant workers from rural districts, and a host of other issues that could be described as evidence of the primitive accumulation of capital. In addition, there came one revelation after another of corruption in high places, mostly involving government decisions regarding purchases, licences and contracts. There emerged differences within the Congress leadership – one side still preferring to persist with structural reform to encourage capitalist growth, the other urging ameliorative measures of social expenditures and environmental regulations to contain the political damage caused by unrestrained growth. The result was a complete impasse, with the Congress leadership proving utterly incapable of piecing together a coherent structure of policies and decision-making.

Narendra Modi took advantage of the Congress’s deficiencies with great demagogic gusto. He has the histrionic skills of an old-style ham actor in the Bollywood movies. Day after day, relentlessly, mostly with biting sarcasm, sometimes with righteous anger, he hammered away at the decrepit Congress, saddled by a dysfunctional dynasty that it cannot do without, riddled with corruption, and completely alienated from the aspirations of a burgeoning middle class and a younger generation in both city and countryside desperately wanting to become middle-class. That is where he got his votes.

Now comes Modi’s test. He will have to do something quickly to assure his big business supporters that he is serious about capitalist growth. There is a long wish list that corporate India has presented to him. For instance, there is a demand to change the law on compensating those who lose their land for industrial projects that the UPA government had passed a year ago which, business leaders claim, makes it prohibitively expensive to acquire new land for factories. There is a strong demand to change the labour laws that protect the wage rates and job security of workers in organized industry. Business lobbies have demanded substantial cuts in government subsidies and unproductive expenditures on what they call handouts to the poor. Modi’s government will have to show its willingness to attempt at least some of these pro-business policies. As I said earlier, Modi’s was a big business-led campaign like India has never seen before. By that token, this ought to be a big business government like India has never seen before.

The middle classes too have in recent years lost their earlier faith in the developmental role of a state that they had, in the decades after independence, relied on for employment and social leadership. Now they are sold on an expanding and globalized market economy which, they believe, rewards merit. The faith is illusory. The financial crisis exposed the chimerical nature of the hope that information technology would transport millions of educated young Indians into a global world of well-merited and ever expanding prosperity. But the illusion is still powerful. It is now firmly focused on Narendra Modi as the one person who will deliver on the promise to turn India into a world-class capitalist country where the middle classes will get their legitimate dues.

The difficulty is that rapid growth will inevitably produce its victims – millions of them. Indian democracy, at least in its present form, does not provide the space to wall in the beneficiaries in dozens of Singapore-like city states. While industrial and monetary policies will be made by the Central government in Delhi, the negative fallout will have to be politically managed by the state and local governments. That is where the pressure will build up, perhaps in a year or two, to provide the resources to deal with poverty and loss of livelihoods. The regional parties will certainly cry hoarse. But the BJP leadership in the states would not remain silent either; after all, the Modi magic could hardly rescue them from their everyday troubles of dealing with local agitations and unrest. And so the inevitable cycle will resume of transferring an ever expanding part of government revenues into social expenditures to deal with poverty and buying the support of the underprivileged millions who form the biggest chunk of the active electorate of the country.

That will be Modi’s test – to balance a pro-business policy seeking quick growth with the political management of primitive accumulation. His reputation as a strong-willed leader who governs through the bureaucracy rather than the political machine and who can ruthlessly suppress dissent even within his own party may help him impart an authoritarian streak to his regime. But Indian democracy has not proved to be a friendly terrain even for authoritarian leaders with a populist aura. Modi has thus far avoided much of the familiar pro-poor populist rhetoric of Indian political discourse. Can he afford that for long?

And then there is that other ideological trope – Hindutva. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and other right-wing Hindu organizations are, not surprisingly, gloating over their unprecedented electoral victory, even though they are nervous about Modi’s willingness to give them a say in the running of the government. It is reasonable to assume that given his economic priorities, Modi will not be keen to allow his attention to be diverted by ideologically volatile issues such as the alleged pampering of minorities or the righting of historical wrongs against the Hindus. But there are at least two states in eastern India where the BJP has tasted blood in the recent elections. It could well decide that by highlighting the question of illegal migration from Bangladesh into the border districts of West Bengal and Assam, it would make a credible bid for power in those two states by wooing the Hindu vote. That would stoke the flames of sectarian conflict. Deriving the political benefits of contentious religious conflict while keeping its violent fallout under control will test the political acumen of Narendra Modi, Gujarat’s leader of 2002.


AFTERWORD: February 2015

The above was written in June 2014, a month or so after Narendra Modi took charge as Prime Minister. He took his time before embarking on any bold steps on the economy, causing some anxiety among his supporters in the corporate world. The only significant announcement he made was the decision to close down the Planning Commission, a vestige of the era of state-controlled industrialization. Besides, taking advantage of conditions in the global oil market, he abolished the system of administered prices of diesel and kerosene, leading to the immediately popular result of a drop in retail oil prices; needless to say, when global prices rise again, there will be no mechanism left to shield the Indian consumer.

Modi was waiting for a series of elections to the state legislatures. These were concluded by November and, riding on the wave of its success in the parliamentary election, the BJP was victorious in most of the states that went to the polls. When parliament resumed its session in November, Modi introduced a slew of business-friendly legislation, including modifying the land acquisition law, allowing greater foreign investment in insurance and retail marketing and relaxing environmental controls on some crucial sectors such as acquisition of forest lands for industry and mining. Given the government’s comfortable majority, the bills were easily passed in the lower house but faced stiff resistance in the opposition-dominated upper chamber. Soon after parliament adjourned in late December, the Modi government enacted the laws by executive ordinance. These will now have to be approved by both houses when parliament meets again in late February, but Modi’s plan seems to be to use the exceptional constitutional provision of a joint session of both houses to get the laws passed. This is likely to be a contentious move. But Modi must find a way to get his pro-business reforms going, especially when he has the unanticipated windfall of a sustained spell of low oil prices in the global market leading to a significantly reduced oil import bill.

Rather unexpectedly for the BJP, however, it was ignominiously defeated in early February 2015 in the elections to the Delhi state assembly by a three-year old populist party explicitly campaigning against rising inequality and the increasingly precarious economic future of the poorer sections of the residents of the nation’s capital city. The alarm bells have now begun to ring, raising questions about whether Modi’s grand plan to bring pro-business reforms to boost growth can be pushed through at all within the framework of India’s electoral democracy where the poor and the marginalized seem to be permanently mobilized into protest. It will be worth watching if the results of the Delhi elections will give pause to Narendra Modi.

In the meantime, the Hindutva brigade has not been silent. There have been localised attacks on Muslims and Christians in different places, perhaps most blatantly in the Delhi neighbourhood of Trilokpuri. Hindu right-wing organizations have stirred up the issue of religious conversion, staging so-called “return to the fold” ceremonies of Muslims and Christians who they claimed had been lured into renouncing their allegiance to the Hindu religion by material inducements. They demanded a complete ban on all religious conversion in India. Various official bodies now packed with BJP appointees are busy replacing textbooks and curricula in schools to bring them in line with the Hindutva version of Indian history and culture. The government has also appointed a new Film Censor Board whose chairman has announced his intention to strictly regulate the content of foreign film and television broadcasts in order to conform to “Indian moral values”. On the more lunatic fringe, there have been demands for strict vegetarianism on university campuses and claims at the premier national science conference that ancient Hindus had successfully built aircrafts and space vehicles.

There are reports that corporate leaders have expressed to the Prime Minister their concern that the project of economic reforms and growth might be derailed by these unnecessary ideological skirmishes. But Modi has not publicly commented on any of these incidents, preferring, one assumes, not to compromise his lofty primacy by getting dragged into sectarian debates. Those familiar with right-wing politics in the United States will know that the Republican Party there has mastered the art of letting its national leaders in Washington satisfy the wishes of big corporate interests while allowing its rank and file in the red states to pursue their ultra-conservative religious and social agenda. Modi and his team appear to have learnt a lot from American election campaigns. They may now be attempting to create the Hindu version of the economically neoliberal and socially neoconservative Republican Party.

Partha Chatterjee is a political theorist and historian. He divides his time between Columbia University and the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta, where he was the Director from 1997 to 2007. He is the author of more than twenty books, monographs and edited volumes and is a founding member of the Subaltern Studies Collective. He was awarded the Fukuoka Asian Culture Prize for 2009 for outstanding achievements in the field of Asian studies. His books include: The Politics of the Governed: Considerations on Political Society in Most of the World (2004); A Princely Impostor? The Strange and Universal History of the Kumar of Bhawal (2002); A Possible India: Essays in Political Criticism (1997); The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories (1993), and Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World: A Derivative Discourse? (1993). He is also a poet, playwright, and actor. In the Mira Nair film The Namesake (2007), he played the role of “A Reformed Hindoo.”

Partha Chatterjee