Self-pitying majority

A new book points out why India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not an economic reformer. His government is driven by a dangerous Hindu-supremacist ideology.
Whether he likes it or not, India’s Muslim history is undeniable: Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering an address to the nation from Delhi’s Red Fort picture-alliance / AP Photo Whether he likes it or not, India’s Muslim history is undeniable: Prime Minister Narendra Modi delivering an address to the nation from Delhi’s Red Fort

The situation in Kashmir remains tense. In early August, India's Hindu supremacist government cancelled the special rights Kashmir, the country's only predominantly Muslim region, had in the past. Parliament fast approved this constitutional change. Kashmir is no longer an Indian state, but has been declared a union territory. Union territories are under the rule of the central government.

Due to decades of troubles, Kashmir is a heavily militarised area. In August, however, even more troops were sent in. So far, the policy change has not triggered militant unrest, but my hunch is that violence will erupt sooner or later. The greatest danger is that Hindu fanatics will then launch pogroms against the Muslim minority in other parts of India. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to tell by the experience of the Gujarat riots of 2002 , will neither overtly endorse such action, nor will he disown it. Under his leadership, the government of India is unlikely to deploy security forces to protect minorities.

Not all of my dark fears come true, of course, and I sincerely hope this one will not. The danger is real, however, as I found confirmed in K.S. Komireddi's recently published book “Malevolent republic”. It was written before Modi was reelected in May. With about 45 % of the vote, his party, the BJP, and its allies won more than 50 % of the seats in the national parliament.

Modi's election campaign was marked by aggressive Hindu nationalism. His Kashmir policy fits that pattern.

At the international level, however, Modi has so far managed to cultivate the image of a business-oriented reformer. Even in development circles, western experts tend to expect him to endorse prudent economic policies. They should read Komireddi, who criticises Modi harshly, whilst basing his essay solidly on facts. The book is thoroughly referenced.

The journalist argues convincingly that Modi and his government are not interested in modernisation of either state or economy. They are driven by an aggressive and vindictive ideology. According to their world view, Hindus are now finally striving for world leadership after centuries of humiliation and oppression. That is the core issue, and the Gujarat riots in 2002 proved it early on. They happened when Modi was that state's chief minister.

In that position, he nonetheless earned his reputation as an economic moderniser. He basically did it by simply approving any application made by an industry leader, as Komireddi points out. He facilitated fast investment, but achieved very little in terms of reducing poverty. To judge by the relevant statistics, Gujarat stayed an average Indian state and never became a beacon of human development.

Chaotic demonetisation

At the national level, Modi's economic reform promises have not come true either. The greatest disaster was "demonetisation". Komireddi has dedicated an entire chapter to the annulling of most of India's banknotes on short notice in 2016. The chapter's fitting headline is: “Chaos”. The idea was to thwart corruption and get a grip on black money. Neither goal was achieved. The economy slowed down, and the lives of smallholder farmers, informal entrepreneurs and people who depend on them were disrupted seriously.

Komireddi only mentions in passing that the jobs wonder that Modi promised to bring about by promoting manufacturing never happened. The author does not assess minor achievements such as Modi's reform of the goods and services taxes, which was overly bureaucratic, but nonetheless a step in the right direction. In view of the damage the government is doing, these episodes actually do not deserve all that much attention.

What is far more important is how the Hindu supremacists are undermining the independence of important institutions such as the judiciary, the central bank or the election commission is as accurate as it is scary. Komireddis gives account. He also does an excellent job of explaining how Modi is increasingly politicising the military. Most mainstream media, in the author's eyes, have caved into government propaganda and pressure. He bemoans an empty personality cult that is typical of dictatorial rule. He makes it quite clear that speaking of India as the world's largest democracy only makes sense if one endorses the crudest form of majoritarianism.

The outlook is terrifying. The author sees India turning into “a make-believe land full of fudge and fakery, where savagery against religious minorities is among the therapeutic options available to a self-pitying majority frustrated by Modi's failure to  upgrade their standard of living”. With statements like this, Komireddi confirms Jan-Werner Müller's assessment of populist leaders: unable to fulfil the unrealistic promises they constantly reiterate, they can only thrive by hounding scapegoats once they have risen to power.

Modi, however, is worse than a typical right-wing populist, as Komireddi elaborates. The reason is that he is supported by a vast network of Hindu-supremacist groups. This network has evolved over many decades. At its centre is the RSS, an organisation that was originally inspired by Italy's fascists and Germany's Nazis. Modi himself rose through its ranks.

What facilitated Modi's rise to power

“Malevolent republic” does more than dissect Modi and his government. The first part of the book assesses what made his rise to power possible. It tells the story of how the Congress party, led by the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, lost people's trust in decades of bad governance.

Inner-party democracy ended under Indira Gandhi. Her emergency rule was brutal, and the forced sterilisation of masses of men was probably the worst excess. She was later killed by her Sikh bodyguard after her opportunistic support for Sikh extremism had backfired terribly. She had hoped to weaken a regional party, but instead fostered a terrorist outfit. Her son Rajiv Gandhi, who also served one term as prime minister, suffered a similar fate. He was killed by a Tamil suicide bomber after involving India opportunistically in Sri Lanka's civil war.

Komireddi excels at describing the Congress party's decades-long decline and how the RSS and its satellites managed to take advantage of that trend. Massive corruption became ever more obvious, so people had every reason to be angry.

A minor shortcoming of Komireddi's book, however, is that it fails to explain why Manmohan Singh, so far the last Congress prime minister, could be triumphantly reelected after a first term. The most likely reason is that his government had devised a surprisingly effective programme to fight rural poverty. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act was very popular.

Unfortunately, the Congress party entirely failed to introduce anything of similar impact in the years 2009 to 2014. One reason was probably that its majority had become so big that it no longer needed the support of leftist parties that were keen on pro-poor policies. The other reason was perhaps that Sonia Gandhi, Rajiv's widow and the successor as head of the Congress party, was ill. However that may be, Komireddi's judgment that the Congress had gambled away its credibility by 2014 is irrefutable. That is why Modi could become prime minister.

P.S.: I've checked out some Indian reviews of the book on the internet. The disturbing trend is that they tend to only commit rather few sentences or paragraphs to Modi. Their focus is on lambasting the Congress party. The reason is obviously that it has become very risky to discuss the prime minister's shortcomings in public. Piling blame on his predecessors is safer – not least, because Modi loves to do that himself. Sadly, what I read confirms Komireddi's assessment of the media having become docile.


Komireddi, K.S., 2019: Malevolent republic. A short history of the new India. London: Hurst/Delhi: Context.



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