23 June 2014

Modi operandi

Narendra Modi is someone to be watched with great care. Not only Pakistan, not only China and not only Southeast Asia have good reason to be wary of him. The Western world as well should take great care, and not welcome him with the enthusiasm of a warm ally (as, for example, David Cameron and Barack Obama seem to have done already).

In the Anglosphere, I feel there may be a certain kind of patronising and infantilising orientalism at play – of the same sort which makes Buddhism so popular amongst a certain segment of white suburban liberals – which surrounds Hinduism as well in the mystique of its fuzzy, deracinated ‘spiritual’ New Age permutations and refuses to take a good hard look at the elements which might not be so palatable. The extremist ideology of Hindutva encapsulates and magnifies too many of these unpalatable elements, even though the inspiration for the ideology is, in its entirety, Western.

Hindutva is essentially a deliberately militarised middle-class striving after a ‘pure’ Hindu national and cultural essence, informed by an inflated sense of past colonial grievances and of disdain or any form of cultural expression considered ‘non-Hindu’ – including Christianity and Islam. The forefather of Hindutva, Vinayak Damodar Savarkar, exhorted his followers to ‘Hinduise all politics and militarize Hindudom, and resurrection of our Hindu Nation is bound to follow’. Other leaders in its first generation, in particular Bal Thackeray, praised, admired and deliberately sought to emulate the examples of Mussolini and Hitler.

The organised rapes, beatings and killings of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 (in which Modi’s personal complicity as the leader of the provincial government is still a matter of dispute) and of Christians in Orissa in and after 2008 are prime examples of the nature of this virulent and violent form of far-right political Hinduism. The three civil bodies of the Hindutva movement: Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP), Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS – in which Modi was a member) and Bajrang Dal, all took part in the violence in each case. To this day, Gujarat (in spite of its vaunted economic achievements) still shamefully retains also the highest rate of anti-Christian and anti-Muslim communal violence.

Modi himself, in the position of India’s PM, may not be able to do as much damage or as much good as either his most strident detractors or his most fervent fans tend to think. No one is well-served by turning India into a pariah state over his election. But his rise does signal a sea-change in Indian politics which has been in motion since at least 2002, channelling the country’s continuing economic frustrations into old but nevertheless virulent forms of identity politics. This heightened belligerence will also, of course, siphon over into foreign relations with his immediate neighbours like China, and into India’s internal relations, particularly those based on caste and class.

But for all their vaunted nationalism, Modi and his party seem to fail the realisation that the independence of the Indian nation is guaranteed only by the one facet of that nationalism which they do not adopt: that in the economic realm. The independence of India’s small farmers from foreign agricultural multinationals seeking to make fortunes on their backs is not an independence valued by the BJP or by the RSS – willing though they are to exploit said farmers’ frustrations and pin them on the Muslims and the Christians! Yes, great care should be taken now with India, particularly if and when the geopolitical fractures with their northeastern neighbour begin to emerge.

Speaking of which, the RSS and the VHP both continue to receive the enthusiastic support of one Tenzin Gyatso, the fourteenth Dalai Lama. Famous though he is for troubles he does not and cannot make for the government in the country of his birth, and which enjoy broad support only amongst Tibetan white émigrés, unfortunately he has a great deal of clout in the West and, indeed, in India – where he stands to do great damage to the civil society.

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