"Worse than Reagan": Meet the violent chauvinist now leading India, Narendra Modi

The world's largest democracy's new leader is committed neoliberal everyone should worry about, an expert explains

Published May 23, 2014 6:30PM (EDT)

Narendra Modi         (AP/Altaf Qadri)
Narendra Modi (AP/Altaf Qadri)

Earlier this month, India, the largest democracy in the world, held its national parliamentary elections. As was widely expected, the result was a clear and potentially epochal victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the country's leading right-wing party, and its leader, the pugnacious, nationalistic and neoliberal Narendra Modi, whom the Economist — in a somewhat unprecedented anti-endorsement — recently described as "a man who is still associated with sectarian hatred."

In an effort to better understand Modi and what his ascension might mean for the future of the second-most populous country in the world, Salon recently spoke with Thomas Crowley, a Delhi-based researcher who has written of "myriad reasons to see [Modi] as embodying fascistic tendencies" and who's argued that the rise of Modi and the BJP signals the full embrace of neoliberalism by India's elites. Our conversation follows, and has been edited for clarity and length.

So, what just happened with India's election?

The results were announced on May 16 after all the phases [of the election] were complete. And, basically, May 12 was the last phase of voting ... So after all the phases of voting ended, the exit polls suggested that [Modi's] BJP — or the Bharatiya Janata Party — would have the most votes. And then when the results were announced, four days later, [BJP] got a majority that was way bigger than any of the polls had predicted ... It had been the main opposition party for the past 10 years, and everyone was kind of expecting that they’d win, but they thought they’d get a plurality of votes because there are a ton of regional parties in India that generally have a lot of power and eat into the larger national parties ... So this was the first time since 1984 that one party has had a majority of seats in the parliament, it’s generally a plurality that falls short of a majority.

What's the generally accepted identity of the now-ruling BJP?

There are two main tenets of [their ideology], and they kind of emphasize different ones at different times, depending on which audience they’re addressing. During this election a big emphasis was on development. And development seen in a very neoliberal way, of opening up the markets, allowing more foreign direct investment, reforming the tax code, that kind of thing —

By "reforming the tax code," what do you mean? Does that mean the same thing in India that means in America — i.e., lowering taxes on corporations?

Yeah, something very similar to that ...

Anyway, you were saying about the BJP?

Narendra Modi has built a reputation — and very consciously built up this reputation — as someone who is a friend of business but also ... that that kind of development benefits everyone. The facts on the ground are quite different, but that’s the kind of rhetoric [he uses]. So there’s that kind of neoliberal development, so that’s one of their main platforms.

Sometimes in the background — sometimes it comes to the front — is this very strong Hindu nationalism, and a kind of Hindu nationalism that is very exclusionary and is at times violent against religious minorities, which is mostly Muslims but also Christians and a few others.

During the campaign, was the BJP pretty consistently focused on this idea of development, or did they emphasize Hindu nationalism in front of some audiences and downplay it with others?

I do think, generally, that [development] was the dominant theme. But like in American politics, they talk about these dog-whistle things that, say, Republican politicians use to refer to race without referring to race? I think similar things went on in this campaign. For example, [Modi] made some comment that infiltrators from Bangladesh should be kicked out of the country. It's very clearly understood that that means illegal immigrants of Muslim origin; Hindu refugees from Bangladesh are considered "refugees" but if they’re Muslims, they’re considered "infiltrators." So very slightly veiled language was used, and sometimes it was more odious: One of Modi’s key aides, he went to an area that had suffered from religious riots, where Muslims had been the main ones to suffer, and ... was talking to the Hindu community, and said, "You should vote for our party and it will be a vote for revenge." It was very clearly "We’ll help you get revenge on the Muslims."

One of the things you see a lot in Western media when it comes to Modi — especially from left-wing sources — is references to fascism. Is he a crypto-fascist?

I would say that he definitely has fascistic tendencies — and actually just a quick side note on that: There’s this magazine that recently ... fired two editors, replaced them with two editors who are very sympathetic to Modi, and just recently they came out with a kind of commemorative edition of the magazine, to basically celebrate Modi, and the name of it was “Triumph of the Will.”

Oh, I saw that, but I didn’t understand that that was from people who were supporting him. I thought that was a not-so-subtle dig. That's scary.

I would say that there are definitely fascistic tendencies, that [BJP leaders] have. And I think a lot of people who are saying, "No, he’s not a fascist," are also people who are trying to defend him and say, "Oh, he’s not that bad, he’s gotten more moderate," and people who are emphasizing the business-friendly side. Personally, I think for various other theoretical reasons, whether to think of a fascist formation is the most useful, I’m not sure; but I think there are very strong authoritarian tendencies and if you look at how he rose within the party, consolidating power, brooking no opposition, he’s definitely very consciously created a cult of personality around him. One of the famous — or one of the much-quoted statistics — is that the BJP, it’s estimated they have spent 5 trillion rupees on advertising. And I was actually just looking this up, what that actually is in dollars, so that’s $85 million. That’s a massive, massive budget put into revamping Modi’s image.

Which was so gravely damaged by the riots in 2002. Could you tell us a bit about those riots?

Modi was the chief minister of this western state of Gujarat, and ... these Hindus were returning on a train from celebrating the 10-year anniversary [of the disassembling of the Babri Mosque], and the train caught on fire ... The police story was that a Muslim mob had set the train on fire, but people have questioned that account ... but there was a fire and people died. In response to that, there were these widespread riots — although I think calling them "riots" suggests it was two-sided, when it was really a pogrom against Muslims in Gujurat. There’s a lot of debate about whether Modi was personally responsible, but what seems very clear [is that] he didn’t do much to stop it. Even when he knew what was going on, he didn’t seem very keen on slowing it down or reining it in. There are interviews with people who are close to him anonymously saying that he was telling the police, "Let the Hindus let their anger out; they need to let their anger out, so let it happen."

Assuming Modi didn't plan it, but did let it happen and didn't do anything to stop it, would that be outside the norm of Indian politics?

It is but … I mean, there are similar cases. There were anti-Sikh riots in 1984, and at that time it was the [longtime ruling party] Congress government who was letting it go on longer than it should have. [But] this was unusual because it was unusually violent, and unusually widespread, and unusually severe.

Turning back to the recent election, you note that BJP has been the longtime leading opposition party. So why did it have its big breakthrough now instead of previously? Why now?

I can only give conjecture. One important thing, just to qualify that [is that] the way the electoral system works in India, as in the United States, is "first past the post," winner-takes-all. So ... the BJP won 30 percent of the votes, say, but they have about 50 percent of the seats in Parliament ... [But] the fact is 70 percent of voters voted against BJP.

The other side of it is also what Congress has done wrong. Congress actually lost more votes than the BJP gained. And in some ways, it’s easier to say where Congress messed up [than where BJP succeeded]. Part of it is external economic crises that have happened that have been kind of blamed on Congress, whether fairly or not. There’s also been a lot of very widespread corruption scandals that have really hit the Congress, and also extremely high inflation. That was the context of it.

But BJP ... picked up on the aspirations not only of the middle class and the upper class that traditionally voted for BJP, but also aspirations of lower middle classes or even some of the urban working class, the upper tier of that. There really was this idea that a Modi or BJP government can create, can fulfill, these aspirations.

The other side definitely is the ... Hindu-Muslim polarization that they’ve capitalized on. The Hindu community is so large, and ... is very internally differentiated. You have different religious traditions within Hinduism, and also the hierarchies of caste. I think where the BJP was successful was in forging this idea of a united Hindu community against the Muslims, or against religious minorities.

Now, Modi himself isn't from a higher caste background, right?


Is he sort of a Nixon-style scrabbler, the kind of guy who rose to the top through hard work and determination and grit and resentment and all that? Or is the class disconnect between his base and his background less pronounced?

No, I think he is. There is that kind of rags-to-riches element of his story. When he was a kid, he was selling tea on a railway station platform. From a caste perspective, he’s not from the very-most marginalized castes. He’s from the lower, middle castes. So he didn’t face the most extreme caste suppression, but he certainly wasn’t from a very privileged caste. And from a class background, he did come from a less privileged background. The other side of that is that he had, from seemingly a young age, a vicious sense of what-he-wants-is-what-he’ll-do. And he was extremely ambitious and seeking power in a very single-minded way.

This is a big question — and you could devote your whole career to trying to answer it — but what is the relationship between ascendant neoliberalism and, at the same time, Hindu nationalism?

Maybe the simplest way, or the most basic way, to see it is that both are rising with the failure of the kind of development project in India. After Independence, [there was] this idea of building a ... socialist state (in a social democratic kind of sense, a strong welfare state idea) ... That failed, and why that failed is also a very complicated story. But with the failure of that, that kind of strong welfare state model, that social democratic model —

I know it’s a complicated story, but what are the manifestations of the failure you're talking about? What does it mean to people that it failed. For example, in America, people would claim Carter's presidency was proof of liberalism's failures and they would point to stagflation. So for people in India who think the old Congress model failed, would it be a similar explanation?

Yeah, part of it is that. There was just a series of economic crises throughout the '60s, '70s, '80s, often having to do with the current account deficit ... There were these economic problems, and it also failed in the sense that it didn’t alleviate poverty to a great extent. You still have horrendously low levels of human development index throughout that period. You’d eliminated famines but you still had widespread hunger and malnutrition. So, even on its own terms, it failed ...

OK. Anyway, you were saying that the failure of that model buoyed both neoliberalism and Hindu nationalism, I assume because the Congress model was not only social-democratic but also secular?

Yeah, so the first prime minister was Jawaharlal Nehru, the Nehruvian consensus people talk about, the cornerstones of it were secularism, democracy and socialism. You can argue that that was all just rhetoric, and to a great extent it was just rhetoric … but at least those were the ideals they were aspiring to, even if politicians were using those ideas in a cynical way. And that consensus ... started breaking in the '60s, was really broken in the '80s, and in the '90s onward there was a new turn toward both [neoliberalism and Hindu nationalism].

It was a slow process, though. If it started in the '90s at the latest, that means it took at least 20 years.

It was a slow process. And what’s interesting also ... is that both the neoliberal ideology and the Hindu nationalism are old. Hindu nationalism is very, very old. And even those kind of liberalization policies [are old, too]. But I think it’s because these old ideas — and you can call it old wine in new bottles — but it has an appeal now because of the current social and economic situation in India.

Considering the idea that he's risen from the ruins of a long-standing consensus, that he's bringing back old ideas and packaging as if they're new, and that he's mixing a kind of laissez-faire economic model with more reactionary social ideas, would it be wrong to describe Modi as sort of India's Reagan?

Since I don’t like Reagan, I’d say there’s some truth to that. One thing that’s just true about both of them is this thing of Teflon, I mean, being able to just — criticism just sliding off of them. After the BJP won the elections, there were two mosques that were attacked by BJP party members. And this ... was barely reported, and Modi didn't suffer from that happening. From my view, Modi is worse [than Reagan] because he’s been directly implicated in these riots and that kind of violent nationalism ... I think why Modi is scary is because of that kind of direct involvement with violence, and personally being extremely authoritarian.

The implication from that answer is that Modi's close relationship with religious violence is a break from the norm of the modern independent India, right?

Yes, that’s definitely correct ... that is very unusual. And, actually, when the BJP was in power, the only other time they had a full term in governance was 1999-2004, and at that time ... their candidate was one of the more moderate leaders of the BJP, and they put up that more moderate leader because they thought if they put one of the more extreme politicians, that he wouldn’t have a national appeal. And the fact that now, 10 years later, they feel they can put someone like Modi forward, and he does get this kind of support, it does show a disturbing trend.

Looking forward, now that the BJP and Modi are going to have a level of power that they’ve never had before, are you worried that the kind of sectarian violence that they get associated with will continue or increase? Or do you think there’s a chance that was a very cynical electoral maneuver, and that once they’re actually in power they’ll be interested in economics rather than religious division?

It may actually go against their interests to have riots ... Now they want to prove they’re kind of responsible rulers, and they can also terrorize minority communities in other, more subtle ways. So if you see the case of Gujurat, what Modi’s supporters say is that after 2002 there hasn’t been a riot in Gujurat, which may be true, but the Muslim population in Gujurat has been terrorized into submission. Hindus and Muslims don’t live in the same neighborhoods, there are hardly any schools in Muslim areas, there are very few economic opportunities for most Muslims. So I think in that sense the riots may have done their job, and they may not be necessary anymore. Even if they’re not inciting riots, I don’t think that necessarily means they’re stepping back from their religious agenda.

How optimistic or pessimistic are you that Modi represents a new normal for India, or that this is kind of an anomalous moment?

My short term is very pessimistic. With the BJP having an outright majority, they basically have a free hand on the neoliberal front and also on the communal front. Not necessarily to incite riots, but to change personal laws. And there’s a lot of other ways that they can really tinker with the makeup of society. So, in the short term, the prognosis isn’t good. But I also think that, at some point, the BJP will run up against the falseness of its propaganda — and the kind of promises they’ve made, the aspirational claims that they’ve made, sound plausible because Congress has done such a terrible job, but I think it will be very clearly evident very quickly that they can’t deliver on those promises, that what they’re actually promising are advantages that accrue to a very small segment of the population. So I’m a pessimistic in the short term, but I don’t think this necessarily means that the BJP is the dominant power for the next several decades.

So this is not the end of India as we know it?

No, I’d say it’s a very low point, and it’s a very disturbing prospect, but it was moving in this direction [before], and it’s not a radical break or anything like that with the Indian political scheme.

By Elias Isquith

Elias Isquith is a former Salon staff writer.

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