The democracy in India, one of the poorest countries in the world, suffered a setback in 2004 when Narendra Modi, a member of an alt-right Hindu organization inspired by fascists and Nazis, was elected prime minister.
Indian novelist Pankaj Mishra, in his article appeared in New York Times, said two years after his election, Modi became India’s most powerful leader and appears to be an opportunistic manipulator of disaffection with little to offer apart from the pornography of power and a bogus fantasy of machismo.
Like Donald Trump, Modi rose to power demonizing ethnic-religious minorities, immigrants and the establishment media, and boasting about the size of a body part.
B R Ambedkar, the main framer of India’s constitution, warned in the 1950s that democracy in India was “only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially undemocratic.” Now the top dressing is being hosed away.
Under Modi’s rule, India’s Hindu nationalists, a fringe outfit for much of the country’s existence, have swiftly occupied the state, staffing chief institutions with loyalists while intimidating non-state actors like NGOs, journalists, writers and artists.
To paraphrase Jean-Paul Sartre: If the truth remains cloaked in the motherland, in the colonies it stands naked. Before Mr Trump’s election in America exposed the failures of democracy, they had been revealed in Mr Modi’s India. Most disturbing, in both places, the alt-rightists were enabled by the conceits, follies and collusion of impeccably mainstream individuals and institutions.
In the case of India, the role of institutional rot – venal legislators, a mendacious media – and the elites’ moral and intellectual truancy is clear. To see it one only has to remember that Mr Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, was accused of supervising mass murder and gang rapes of Muslims – and consequently was barred from travel to the United States for nearly a decade.
Mr Modi’s ascent, like that of many demagogues today, was preordained by the garish dreams of power, wealth and glory that colonized many minds in the age of globalization.
The fervent rhetoric about private wealth-creation and its trickle-down benefits openly mocked, and eventually stigmatized, India’s founding ideals of egalitarian and collective welfare. It is this extraordinary historical reversal, and its slick agents, that must be investigated in order to understand the incendiary appeal of demagoguery in our time.
Social and political life in India, America and Europe was drastically remade by neoliberal economism in recent decades, under, as the legal scholar David Kennedy has argued, the administration of a professional global class of hidden persuaders and status-seekers.
One of the first signs of this change in India was a proliferation of American-style think-tanks, sponsored by big business as eager as ever to influence political decision-making and military spending. In recent years, smooth-tongued “policy entrepreneurs” (Paul Krugman’s term) advocating free-market reforms and a heavily armed security-state have dominated India’s public sphere.
Jagdish Bhagwati, a Columbia University economist who claims to be the intellectual father of India’s economic liberalization, argued in 2013 that the poor celebrate inequality, and with the poise of a Marie Antoinette, advised malnourished families in India to consume “more milk and fruits.” Arvind Panagariya, a colleague of Mr Bhagwati’s who now works for the Indian government’s economic policy think-tank, took to arguing that Indian children were genetically underweight, and not really as malnourished as the World Health Organization had claimed. The 2015 Nobel laureate Angus Deaton rightly calls such positions “poverty denialism.”
The sheer potential of India’s market – 1.2 billion consumers, many of them young – bred intoxicating illusions among businesspeople, investment consultants and financial journalists. Never mind that it was the extraction of natural resources, cheap labour and foreign capital inflows, rather than high productivity or innovation, that was fueling India’s economy. Or that economic growth, of the uneven and jobless kind, was creating what the economists Jean DrŠze and Amartya Sen have called “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa.”
Many foreign journalists reporting on globalizing India had a knack for parachuting only into islands like tech-y Bangalore, from where the world perhaps does look flat. Their delusion was deepened by India’s own, chauvinistic, media: The country’s leading business daily, The Economic Times, even had a regular feature called “Global Indian Takeover.” Described with enough Ayn Randian clich’s about ambition and striving, every slumdog looks like a budding millionaire.
Indifferent to poverty and inequality, and immune to evidence or irony, India’s largely corporate-owned press and television reveled in the fame and wealth of corporate magnates and of cricket and Bollywood stars. All the while they stoked hatred against Kashmiri separatists and Pakistan.
But in 2010 corruption scandals began to expose India’s government – headed then by technocrats trained at Oxford, Harvard Business School and the World Bank – as both venal and inept. Mr Modi and his hawkish Twitter account emerged into national politics just as growth faltered and many frustrated aspirers and also-rans started to think of the promise of widespread enrichment as an elaborate hoax.
He noticed that they were venting against flailing political representatives and their apparent cronies among newsgatherers. He accordingly packaged himself as an efficient executive, exploiting Indians’ great esteem for technocratic managerialism. (“Mein Kampf” is a perennial bestseller in India, Hitler being seen as an exemplary nationalist-cum-people-manager.)
More important, Mr Modi grasped then, as astutely as Mr Trump does now, the terrible political potency of ressentiment. Positioning himself in the gap between the self-righteous beneficiaries of globalization and irascible masses, he claimed to be the son of a modest tea-vendor who had dared to challenge the corrupt old dynasties of quasi-foreign liberals.
For all his humblebragging, Mr Modi, like Mr Trump, illustrated perfectly how money talks, power seduces and success eclipses morality. One of Mr Modi’s most loyal fan bases was rich Indian-American businesspeople, who were naturally attracted to the promise of a wealthy India allied with the United States. And conversely. At a charity event in New Jersey last month, Mr Trump sought their support, and hailing India’s prime minister as a “great man,” declared, “I am a big fan of Hindu.” “Big, big fan.”
Since July Indian security forces have conducted a brutal campaign in Indian Occupied Kashmir; they have killed nearly a hundred people and injured thousands, including many children. Bellicose television anchors and op-ed writers, who acclaimed the savagery, are now calling for the war on “anti-nationals” to be extended to nuclear-armed Pakistan.
The blood-thirstiness against internal enemies and evil foreigners won’t subside anytime soon. Fewer jobs are being created on Mr Modi’s watch than under the previous government of quasi-foreign liberals.
India’s supposed “demographic dividend” – an overwhelmingly youthful population – seems like so much more boosterish talk by those policy entrepreneurs. Even the country’s comparative advantage in software technology is shrinking. And last week, Mr Modi abruptly withdrew two currency bills that account for the vast majority of cash in circulation, unleashing chaos across India.