The Economic Performance of Modi’s Government in India: The Politics of the Hindu Right

By Kalim Siddiqui

In this article, the author examines the economic performance of Modi’s government, which came to power in 2014, and also analyses the politics of the Hindu Right, especially since the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) gained a majority in the last parliamentary election in India. 

The BJP came to power in 2014 because it projected an image of a party that would address the economic difficulties of the people, such as the rising unemployment, the severe problems in the agricultural sector, and rising inequality. However, in the subsequent five years, these problems remained; the promise of creating jobs remains unfulfilled, and the problems in the agricultural sector have actually deepened. These issues were further compounded by demonetisation and the hurriedly implemented GST (goods and services tax), both of which occurred at enormous cost to the common people. Rather than resolving the problems people faced, and indeed still face, the BJP government has been frantically attempting to divert attention from these economic issues by stirring up a nationalist frenzy and religious bigotry.

Politically, Modi’s government is now much more aggressive in the sense of reinforcing ‘Hindutva’ project, and has thus hardened attitudes towards minorities compared to Vajpayee’s previous BJP government. This was due to the BJP’s improved performance in the last election, and the fact that it now holds a large majority in the Indian parliament. This was not previously the case, as under Prime Minister Vajpayee (1998-2004), the BJP was only a minority government, who consequently needed to accommodate the smaller parties in order to remain in power. For this reason, Vajpayee image was projected as one of a soft democrat, accommodative and less aggressive; however, this was purely due to the then prevalent political circumstances. At present, the RSS/BJP leadership is more confident of its position, which is why the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) leader, Mohan Bhagwat, is currently more aggressive in terms of propagating, and adherence to, Hindutva than his predecessors.

Rather than resolving the problems people faced, and indeed still face, the BJP government has been frantically attempting to divert attention from these economic issues by stirring up a nationalist frenzy and religious bigotry.

The BJP’s anti-minority policy seems to hold immense appeal to educated upper-middle class Indians, including professionals. At present, all the top constitutional functionaries in India, such as the President, Vice President, Speaker, Prime Minister and the majority of the BJP ruling state’s Chief Minsters, have been members and functionaries of the RSS. The media, with very few exceptions, is also complicit in its tacit support of the Hindutva camp.

This narrow RSS/BJP narrative about history and minorities is even being forced upon school children through the teaching in thousands of primary schools run by the RSS. The Modi government has clearly been involved in the systematic destruction of various institutions, especially public universities and higher academic institutions, where the majority of the top administrative posts have subsequently been filled by people who have been either functionaries of the RSS or are sympathetic to the organisation. Any academic pursuing a course of true critical thinking is charged as being “anti-national”. The RSS has repeatedly called for a ‘strong state’ and the control of the media, and indeed this has been a major part of the RSS’s strategy in recent years. RSS members have been appearing on the prime-time shows on all major Indian TV channels.

Economic Performance

Indian capitalists see in the Modi-led BJP government a disciplined and authoritarian regime, and one which would implement neoliberalism and keep the workers in control, while workers and farmers are currently deeply disappointed with today’s economic policy. This has become apparent through a series of demonstrations in India’s major cities by trade unions and farmers that have taken place over recent months. Modi is facing a crisis of credibility in terms of his much-vaunted ability to deliver on either investment or jobs.

The BJP government claims that the Indian economy has experienced rapid growth in the last five years, which is blatantly incorrect. The claimed GDP figures have been incorrectly calculated through the use of poor data sources and due to methodological change in the calculations. This has enabled the present government to suggest that the Indian economy has performed better during the current term of government (2014-18). There is a lack of correspondence between other crucial developmental indicators, such as agricultural and industrial production and figures on investment and capital formation and trade.

In India, public education and health are the worst hit under neoliberalism. Education spending by the central government has decreased from 6.15% in 2015 to 3.71% in 2018. The government is allowing the Higher Education Financing Agency to allow the private sector to dominate the education sector, which will make higher education a distant dream for the poor sections of the society. Similarly, in the health sector, the government has chosen private insurance companies and private healthcare lobbies as its partners, leaving the poor at the mercy of market forces and profiteers.

The BJP government claims that the Indian economy has experienced rapid growth in the last five years, which is blatantly incorrect.

Commenting on the BJP’s performance, the eminent economist and the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen (2018) argues that despite being the fastest-growing economy the country has taken a “quantum jump in the wrong direction” since 2014. India is now the second worst performance in the south Asian region. “Things have gone pretty badly wrong… It has taken a quantum jump in the wrong direction since 2014. We are getting backwards in the fastest-growing economy… Twenty years ago, of the six countries in this region – India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan, India was the second best after Sri Lanka. “Now, it is the second worst. Pakistan has managed to shield us from being the worst.”1

Growth in the industrial sector was 6.7% in 1980-1990,5 and while it slowed down somewhat in the post-reform period (1991-2017), the secondary sector still grew at an average of 5.7% annually. The past decades in India appear to have witnessed inadequate diversification of India’s production structure away from agriculture and into manufacturing3 and somewhat premature rapid diversification into the service sector.2

However, since neoliberal reforms were undertaken in 1991, the agriculture sector hardly saw any benefits and, during this period, its growth rates were negligible. The pursuit of neoliberal economic policies has led to the withdrawal of the state role in assisting farmers in particular and the rural sector in general, and is instead promoting the interests of global financial capital, with which the Indian corporate capital is closely integrated.3 Despite the fact that the majority of the country’s population has not witnessed any improvement in its living conditions, the government nevertheless celebrates this as a “great achievement” 4. On this account, the statistics reveal that half of India’s population has witnessed stagnation in its real per capita income.

The share of agriculture in terms of GDP in 1950-51 was 56.70%, while its share in total employment was 85% for the same period. Since the share of agriculture in GDP fell sharply and by 2015-16 it was 13.05%, while the fall in the share in the agricultural employment was much slower (55%), and more than half the population still depends on agriculture for their livelihood, as shown in Table 1.

Table 1: Share of Agriculture in GDP and Employment in India, between 1950-51 and 2015-16

Source: National Sample Survey, various years, Central Statistical Organisation, Government of India, New Delhi.

Under neoliberalism, India has cut spending on irrigation and withdrawn agricultural subsidies. This has made it more difficult to raise good yields of food crops to compensate for the diversion of land to exportable crops. India has been advised by the IMF and WTO to dismantle the price stabilisation measures enacted for various agricultural commodities, which the government has used to purchase from farmers at guaranteed minimum prices. This has resulted in the exposure of farmers to extensive global price fluctuations. This also meant a loss of income for farmers and a rise in debts. Ultimately, all these problems have led to increased desperation among farmers amongst whom, according to official data, more than 17,000 farmers took their own lives in India in 2017.

In the past, some farmers have performed better than others and gained their prosperity due to two factors: first, through land reforms, which although incomplete have enabled a large number of tenants to become landowners. The land reform removed absentee landlords and provided better deals for rich and medium-income farmers, but has achieved little for landless labourers; most of the latter belong to the untouchable Hindu castes, also known as Dalits. The second was through the ‘green revolution’, and those farmers who had a certain amount of land and money to invest in irrigation and high-yield seeds and chemical fertilisers, i.e., the ‘green revolution package’. They became more prosperous in the 1970s-80s, but since the adoption of neoliberal reforms, the situation has changed, especially for small and medium-income farmers.6 Agricultural workers, who constitute about 50% of those employed in agriculture, saw their wages rise by 3.8% during the BJP government, whilst over the same period per capita GDP rose by 6.1%. During the previous government (i.e., Congress Party), agricultural wages rose at a faster rate of 7.7%, as compared with a 6% growth in per capita GDP.

Traditionally, agriculture has been seen as providing a surplus and as a market for industrial goods.6 However, the agricultural sector was hardest hit by the Modi government. It was not due to a fall in production levels, but has done so because of the low prices of agricultural products due to a stagnation in demand, lack of remunerative support prices, inadequate procurement and also rising costs due to cuts in subsidies on chemical fertilisers and power charges.

Despite the fact that the majority of the country’s population has not witnessed any improvement in its living conditions, the government nevertheless celebrates this as a “great achievement”.

The neoliberal economic policy, which was initiated in 1991 as the so-called “economic liberalisation” has changed the economic reality of the agricultural sector. The current growth, as led by the service sector, demands certain attributes and levels of education and skills. For the last few decades, it appears that agriculture has lost its relevance as a leading contributor to India’s growthand its contributions to India’s GDP have decreased from nearly 31% in 1991 to only 13.5% in 2017.6 The service sector has become the leading sector in recent years. Despite this, as seen in Figure 1 India’s macroeconomic performance has not improved. Two crucial performance indicators, namely investments and exports, are both are lower than they were five years ago.

Figure 1: India’s Macroeconomic Development, 2007-2017

Source: OECD, 2017

It seems that recent growth based on neoliberal economic policies are fragile as their success relies heavily on foreign capital inflows3; if such inflows reverse due to external reasons or the global situation, then this could lead to a similar situation as that experienced during the 1997 East Asian crisis.9 In fact, the process of uneven development and deepening socio-economic crisis has created conditions of backwardness and poverty in India, which in turn had created an opportunity for right-wing Hindu organisations to organise people on the basis of religion.4

Traditionally, agriculture has been seen as providing a surplus and as a market for industrial goods. However, the agricultural sector was hardest hit by the Modi government.

The average level of support for Indian farmers is currently 6% lower than the OECD average of 18% for the period 2014-16. According to OECD calculations, India, Ukraine and Vietnam showed a negative average percentage of producer support estimates (PSE) for 2014-2016 (see Figure 2). Compared to the East and Southeast Asian countries, the level of government support offered to producers in India was much lower than in Japan (47%) or Korea (49%), and somewhat lower than in Indonesia (27%), the Philippines (24%) and China (15%)9.

Figure 2: Producers Support Estimates (PSE) in India and other Selected Countries, 2014-2016

Source: OECD, Agricultural Policies in India (2018) 

In the Indian context, liberalisation of the economy was initiated on the premise that the dirigiste economic policy had outlived its utility and that private ownership and market forces would be more efficient.8 However, it was ignored that such policy was attempted earlier in other Latin American countries, but the opening up of the domestic economy and neoliberal policy led to the unprecedented concentration of wealth in the hands of a few and a marked shift in the actual centres of power. In India too, with the adoption of neoliberal policies, the crony capitalism has been growing fast. As a result, India has become the second most unequal society in the world. According to Credit Suisse Research Institute’s Global Wealth Report, 1% of the Indian population owns 51.5% of the wealth in the country, and the top 10% own about three-fourths of the wealth. On the other hand, the bottom 60%, the majority of the population, own 4.7% of the total wealth.

The national income share of the Top 1% has risen sharply since 2012, as shown in Figure 3, while the figure shows that the national share of the bottom 50% has declined since 2005 (see Figure 4). Moreover, since the adoption of neoliberal reforms in 1991, the share of the bottom 50% in terms of national income has declined 5. Moreover, between 2014 and 2018; the bottom 50% of the population has seen their income fall from 17.6% to 16%. According to a recent Credit Suisse Report on wealth inequality, which is measured using the Gini coefficient that indicates perfect equality when it is a 0% and maximum inequality when at 100%, the Gini coefficient rose from 18.3% in 2013 to 85.4% in 2018. This clearly shows that growth has only benefitted the rich. Figure 5 indicates that income inequality in India is not only much higher than the OECD average, but is also higher than various other developing countries.

 

Figure 3: Top 1% National Income Share, India, 1922-2015

Source: https://wid.world/country/india/

 

Figure 4: Share of the Bottom 50% in terms of National income in India

Source: India Inequality Report 2018 – OXFAM India

 

Figure 5: Income Inequality in India and other countries, Gini coefficient, 2013

Source: OECD, Promoting Strong and Inclusive Growth in India (2017)

The Modi government’s failure is nowhere more apparent than in the economy. Instead of the ‘millions of jobs’ a year as Modi had promised in 2014 election6, jobs have been lost on an unprecedented scale under his government. According to the latest report by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), there are 11 million fewer workers in the industry today than there were five years ago in India. In rural India, one in six young men between 15 and 29 are now without any kind of work, as compared with one in 20 just five years ago. In the towns and cities, one in five is now unemployed compared to one in eight five years ago. Registered unemployment was almost constant at around 10 million until 2011-12, but had increased to 16.5 million by 2015-16. The latest data suggest that this situation had worsened further by 2017-18. There was a sharp increase in unemployment among the educated, which rose between 2011-12 and 2016 from 0.6 to 2.4% for those with a mid-level education, from 4.1% to 8.4% for graduates, and 5.3% to 8.5% for postgraduates. Even more worrying, for those with a technical education, unemployment rose for graduates from 6.9% to 11%, for postgraduates from 5.7% to 7.7%, and for the vocationally trained from 4.9% to 7.9%. The leaked periodic labour force survey report carried out by the National Sample Survey Organisation revealed that, in 2017-18, India’s unemployment rate had reached a 45-year high of 6.1%.

 The demonetisation policy proved hugely damaging to the livelihoods of the poor in agriculture and the informal economy. 

Modi shocked the country by freezing 85% of the currency in circulation in order to rid the country of black money, corruption, and terrorism.10 This policy proved hugely damaging to the livelihoods of the poor in agriculture and the informal economy. His intention was clearly to divert attention away from development issues by identifying other problems. By doing so, the government was only worsening an economic situation that had already been damaged by its basic policy stance.

A recent report by researchers at Azim Premji University found that the unemployment situation has been getting worst in recent years, especially after demonetisation and GST. According to the Report (2019), as many as five million Indian men lost their jobs between 2016 and 2018. In addition, the Report notes that women were worse affected by the employment scenario than men. Modi’s demonetisation policy of 2016 has hurt the farmers and rural poor the most. According to the associated data, rural India accounts for two-thirds of India’s population but for 84% of job losses. There has been the debilitating impact of demonetisation and the implementation of GST across sectors as diverse as trade, agriculture, industry and labour. Demonetisation severely hurt small enterprises that are otherwise reliant on cash and which represent the majority of the Indian economy, and diverted the purchasing power that remained after the withdrawal of currency notes towards enterprises already connected with formal digital payment mechanisms. Both income and wealth inequality, and indeed socio-economic disparities, have increased over just the last five years.

The current problem is not the only deteriorating economic condition for already existent livelihoods, but the vanishing of all forms of livelihoods itself. As the appropriate data shows, India is currently facing its highest unemployment rate in forty-five years. Not only has the unemployment rate risen, but the labour force participation rate has also fallen. The fall in labour force participation and rising unemployment are signs of economic difficulties and the inability of the Indian economy to generate employment, which are reflected in the extremely high rates of youth unemployment today.

The developed countries and financial institutions advocate that developing countries, including India, should adopt liberalisation of trade and foreign capital investment and reduce public expenditure on the social sector, and should also begin privatisation.11

In contrast to the above prescription, Karl Marx, in Capital volume 1, insisted that the development of capitalism, despite the associated increases in productivity, leads to unemployment, poverty and misery and impoverishment for the many, while on the other hand huge wealth is accumulated only by the few rich. At present, despite higher growth, the Indian people are facing massive dispossession, staggering levels of derivation, malnutrition, lack of a public health system and various forms of other operation.9 Unemployment in India has touched a forty-five-year high. The plight of Indian farmers over the last two decades is the result of the neglect of the agricultural sector through cuts in public investment and subsidies. The government’s efforts have been directed towards making agriculture unprofitable and removing farmers from agriculture, so as to push them into the cities to provide the labour supply for construction and infrastructure.

The Politics of the Hindu Right

On the political front, for the last quarter of a century in Indian polity seems to be undergoing a historically unprecedented process of change and the irresistible rise of far-right Hindu parties (i.e. BJP, RSS, Shiv Sena also known as Hindutva) to dominate the areas of culture, educational institutions, judiciary and administration.7 It raises a question: is there really an irreconcilable contradiction between liberal democratic institutions and the takeover of the state by the extreme far right Hindus?

At present, despite higher growth, the Indian people are facing massive dispossession, staggering levels of derivation, malnutrition, lack of a public health system and various forms of other operation.

The ascendency of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) in politics has coincided with a sharp rise in sectarian hatred and attacks against Muslims12. Then a number of riots took place in the north and west part of India where thousands of Muslim were killed and the police was criticised for acting in a partisan manner. As Jurist B.N. Srikrishna in the Commission on Enquiry Report on 1992 riots in Bombay (now Mumbai) indicted Bal Thackeray then leader of the Shiv Sena to incite riots. The Commission also indicted the police to have indulged in violence, looting and attacks against Muslims. Moreover, those responsible of burning properties and killing Muslims in Mumbai identified by the Srikrishna judicial commission as responsible are now ministers in the central and provincial governments and despite the judicial inquiry report, almost no one was punished.7 This despite India being home to a tenth of the world’s Muslims, around 190 million people, making it the largest Muslim country after Indonesia and Pakistan.

When we look back, since the demolition of the Babri Masjid a quarter of a century ago, it seems a well-planned and well-thought act. The huge electoral dividends it has achieved for the Hindu extremists, especially BJP and its allies. The mobilisation to attack and destroy mosque was a political move, as the leader of then the BJP, L.K. Advani acknowledged during the rath yatra “I am a political, not a religious leader”.12

The mobilisation by the Hindu far right is based on religious identities, which is shaping the Indian politics towards Hindu nationalism. This will mean further subordination and subjugation of minorities. These semi-fascist groups have legitimised by claiming that Hindus were subject to discriminatory treatments, even though this is completely false as the upper-caste Hindus dominate all institutions and are very powerful politically, economically and culturally. The far-right have spread lies that Hindus have received an unfair deal in the post-independent India. They are changing educational syllabus and textbooks to incorporate views of history based on mythology and religious texts as they define it. To accomplish this, Hindutva sympathisers are being appointed to top positions in the country’s prime educational and cultural institutions to promote extremist ideas of Hindu nationalism. Such steps will mark the end of secular India and the creation of a Hindu nation (i.e. Hindu Rastra). However, Hinduism remains a very varied religion and India is a very diverse country with an ancient, pluralist tradition.

The mobilisation by the Hindu far right is based on religious identities, which is shaping the Indian politics towards Hindu nationalism.

The RSS was founded in 1925 and its founders had nostalgia for a Hindu Golden Age, which totally ignores caste subjugation, atrocities against women and the socio-economic marginalisation of Dalits (i.e. untouchables in the Hindu castes) at hands of upper caste Hindus. There was plenty of evidence of RSS that the organisation had been inspired by German and Italian fascism and also had collaborated with the British colonial rulers.8 The RSS declares itself “cultural” organisation, which is to exempt any kind of accountability and scrutinising that is required of political parties.

Since its inception, the RSS had the policy agenda to portray the Muslim community as alien, and created a false narrative of their past history and culture. The organisation has consistently tried to incite hate against Muslims. This has not been done purely by falsifying history but also physically, whereby its members have carried out violent attacks against Muslims in India. With the appointment of Mr Yogi Adityanath as the BJP’s UP State Chief Minister in 2017, who was an RSS member and who had previously been arrested for violence and organising attacks against, and the intimidating of Muslims, the BJP/RSS sent a clear signal that their core agenda was to create divisive politics and to build a Hindu Rastra. The RSS/BJP would like to declare India as a Hindu nation, which poses a challenge to its multi-faith constitutional commitment. Harsh Mander, activist and former bureaucrat, says there is a “growing climate of hate” in India. “We have a political leadership now in the country that has created an environment which is permissive of acting out hate speeches and hate actions. Lynching of this kind is a growing phenomenon in many parts of the country.” 13 Moreover, in the last five years of Modi’s government, such attacks and the public lynching of Muslims by the RSS/BJP and its allies have risen sharply.13

It is important to emphasise that in India, the BJP government is run by the RSS, which not only provides the cadres and money but also the muscle during elections. The RSS/BJP main agenda is to establish ‘Hindu Rastra’ and to undermine secularism in India. Their strategy of arousing fear of the alien, particularly Muslims and Christians is the cornerstone of the Hindutva movement. As a result, atrocities against Muslims in the country have risen sharply, since Narendra Modi became Prime Minister of India five years ago. In India, cow slaughter is banned in most states. Since Modi and his party assumed power in 2014, beef ban has been used by Hindu nationalists to justify their attacks on innocent Muslims.14

Since its inception, the RSS had the policy agenda to portray the Muslim community as alien, and created a false narrative of their past history and culture.

The recent report on mob violence in India says since 2015, in cow vigilantes attack 36 persons (mainly Muslims) have been murdered and these attacks are not spontaneous expressions of mob anger, but the product of incitement to violence and hate propaganda. As the report: “The shift in method, from mass violence to low intensity individualised ones, being perhaps a deliberate strategy by those behind the violence, to at once avoid too much public scrutiny, whilst also ensuring that the minorities [Muslims] are constantly under attack”.13

Last year Hapur, near Delhi, two Muslim men were attacked on the street while police stood by guarding the mob. One of the two was kicked and dragged along as he lay unconscious and later died of his injuries. The other, an elderly man, was pulled by his beard and dragged through a field and attacked by the BJP members. A recent report by news organisation called India Spend noted that “Muslims were the target of 51% of violence centred on bovine issues over nearly eight years (2010 to 2017) – and they comprised 84% of 25 Indians killed in 60 incidents. As many as 97% of these attacks were reported after Narendra Modi’s government came to power in May 2014.” 13 India’s Prime Minister Mr. Modi is creating a dangerous precedent, setting the tone for an India whose syncretic values and democratic principles are under threat. He was head of the state of Gujarat when thousands of Muslims were killed in front of the police in the riots of 2002.

Despite the hate propaganda and rise in occurrence of violence about the past between Hindus and Muslims, the truth about India’s past community relations is very different. As eminent historian Professor Mukhia noted: “there is no record of what we know as communal riots anytime from around 1200 (establishment of Delhi Sultanate) to the first quarter of the 18th century, when the Mughal state had started to run its downward course. The first communal riots were recorded in 1713-14 in Ahmedabad on the day of Holi festival, instigated by two rivals in the jewellery business, one Hindu and the other Muslim. This was brought under control within two days”.7

The RSS/BJP main agenda is to establish ‘Hindu Rastra’ and to undermine secularism in India. Their strategy of arousing fear of the alien, particularly Muslims and Christians is the cornerstone of the Hindutva movement.

The placement of Hindu idols in the Babri Mosque at Ayodhya in 1949 was a dispute over building rights on an adjacent site which had been ongoing since the late 19th century. Officially, Prime Minister Nehru wrote soon after the incident to the then UP Chief Minister G. B. Pant, who was also from the Congress Party, insisting that the smuggled Hindu idols should be removed from the Mosque. However, the UP government and civil servants who happened to sympathise with Hindu right-wing ideas refused to implement it. Jawaharlal Nehru was personally a secular person and he was against the political use of religious identity. He openly criticised the use of religion to gain political power, i.e., communalism, as it is known in modern Indian politics.

A number of paramilitary organisations and the police were involved in the most horrific custodial massacre to take place since independence was gained in India, where the government seems to have failed to protect the lives of minorities. For example, in 1987, U.P. state paramilitary forces rounded up dozens of Muslims from their homes and killed 38 of them whilst in their custody; the government and its institutions continued acts of wanton disregard against Muslims, and the culprits have gone unpunished.

The government has failed to ensure the adequate investigation of allegations of extra-judicial killings and further failed to hold perpetrators to account, meaning that the government has not ensured accountability within the police, paramilitary forces, and civil services, and its inaction is, in fact, a tacit authorisation of extra-judicial killings. The government has failed to investigate, persecute and punish the perpetrators. The encounters seem to be seen as a swift action to control the people and, indeed, dissent, but there is also a nexus of politicians and criminals and that ensures the immunity of criminals.

The Gujarat pogrom in 2002 took place when the state was governed by the Hindu nationalist chief minister Narendra Modi, where more than 2,000 Muslims were murdered and tens of thousands rendered homeless in a series of well-coordinated and planned attacks against Muslims. The killers had been in touch with police and politicians. Gujarat state itself was witness to one of the country’s biggest pogroms, which was concentrated in districts or assembly constituencies where the BJP faced their greatest electoral competition, which indicates how this party had calculated the use of mass communal violence in the attempt to ensure electoral gains. In recent years, the RSS has penetrated the police, academic institutions and intelligence agencies, in effect creating states within the state. The Indian police have, in the past, been directly or indirectly implicated in involvement in communal carnage on several occasions by the judicial commission.7

India’s Prime Minister Mr. Modi is creating a dangerous precedent, setting the tone for an India whose syncretic values and democratic principles are under threat.

Despite the decline in the socio-economic condition and educational status of the Muslims in India, as noted by the judicial commission including the Sachar Committee Report, Ranganath Mishra Commission and Amitabh Kundu Committee Report, terrorists from the Muslim community are dealt with using the severest punishment available to the judiciary, which is to hand out a fine. But the Hindu Right Wing terrorists who were arrested and charged in a number of terrorist attacks, such as the Samjhauta Express, Mecca Masjid bomb blasts, and mob lynching, are allowed to go free due to a lack of evidence and poor persecution. Muslims are highly underrepresented in Parliament and state legislature, in government employment, and in the private sector.7

Muslims account for 14% of India’s total population, according to recent statistics. The Indian constitution guarantees equality before the law and access to public services and employment should ensure fairness for all. As for the Hindu-supremacist RSS, its plethora of affiliated storm troopers has transformed BJP-ruled India into a republic of fear, where the lynching and rape of Muslims, Dalits and Christians are common occurrences. The Hindutva agenda included attacks against a series of Muslim lynchings, with the suspicion of cow slaughter.

Muslims are seen as the safest enemies to have in India today because the narratives have been built such that Muslims are alien to India, which was preached by the founders of the RSS, such as Hedgewar and Golwalkar, when they suggested that the minorities could only live in India if they allowed the complete subjugation of their identity to that of the majority, or at the will of the majority.

The use of religion in politics was considered to be an excellent tool through which to undermine the movement for national independence by the colonial rulers.14 In the 1920s, soon after World War I, there was a certain optimism that India would gain its independence, and the freedom movement was growing. However, the colonial administration used brute force to suppress it.8 For example, on 13 April 1919, the day of the Sikh festival of Vaisakhi, General Dyer ordered British soldiers to fire indiscriminately on unarmed men, women and children attending a peaceful public protest in a walled park called the Jallianwala Bagh, in Amritsar, Punjab. An estimated 1,000 people were killed and many more injured as they were shot in cold blood, even as they tried to escape. The massacre finally exposed British imperialism in the minds of the intellectual and Indian elites, communicating what millions of working class people already knew, namely that Imperial rule was ultimately neither enlightened nor benevolent, but it was exploitative, brutalising, dehumanising and murderous. Certainly, it hastened the struggle and demands for independence in India. General Dyer did not believe Indians were capable of rational thought and thus did not deserve freedom. It is ironic to note that few years before this massacre, millions of Indian soldiers, including from a Sikh regiment, had died in the World War I in Europe to defend Britain, but of course, there was no recognition of their sacrifice from the imperialists. Its significance, however, was enormous to India.

British colonial rulers also feared Hindu-Muslim unity. They also found the key methods of control for the rest of British control, namely divide and rule, and repression and brutal violence as sanctioned by draconian laws. During the same period, the British succeeded in polarising the Indian people along religious lines. In 1915 and 1925, respectively, two Hindu-extremist organisations were formed, i.e., the Hindu Mahasabha and the RSS. The colonial administration was happy to see people were organised along religious lines and hoped that such development would undermine the Congress Party and the cause of independence. Both these organisations did not participate in the independence movement and remained pro-British throughout the struggle for freedom. It was V. D. Savarkar, the RSS ideologue, who first demanded the partition of India.

Furthermore, British colonial officials never considered the RSS to be working against their interests. The RSS did not take part in the Civil Disobedience Movement of 1930, or the Quit India movement of 1942. It is well known that the then RSS chief issued instructions that the routine work of the organisation should continue, and nothing should be done to antagonise the British. Neither Hedgewar nor Golwalkar joined the anti-colonial movement, instead opting in favour of ‘character building’ tasks. Also, L. K. Advani, the leader of the BJP, noted (as cited in Jafferlot, 1996:72): “I joined [RSS] about the same time [1942] as the ‘Quit India’ movement. I joined a couple of months earlier, but my motivation was the conviction that India would never attain independence by the methods the Congress was commanding. Much more was needed, and the RSS approach used to be that unless we first build, form a nucleus of people willing to sacrifice their life for the country India would not become independent.”8

The RSS has emphasised its ideology of extreme nationalism since the days of the Hindu Mahasabha, as led by Savarkar and Golwalkar; the founders of Hindutva had clearly put forward their intention to ensure the ethnic cleansing of the so-called ‘alien’ minorities in India. They adopted similar aspirations to those of fascism in Germany, namely the extermination of minorities, and they took the fascist model as an approach to dealing with Indian Muslims.12 The ideological guru, Golwalkar, unabashedly characterised minorities as “alien” in his book (1966) Bunch of Thoughts. But such a blatantly divisive and sectarian ideology was obviously the very opposite of nationalism. An ideology that treats sections of a country’s population as being inherently questionable in their loyalty can hardly be considered a nationalist ideology.17

Recently, the RSS/BJP have labelled dissenters and critics of their policies as being ‘anti-national’, and nationalism is mobilised to intensify the atmosphere of violence and hate through propaganda against those who do not adhere to their definition of nationalism7. It is important to revisit the experiences of Italy and Germany in the 1930s. Otto Bauer (1978) emphasised the fact of the intelligentsia extending their support to extreme nationalism, which seems to be a crucial cementing block in the fascist ideology.15 Also, Rosenberg (2012) noted that a central point to the fascist ideology can be found amongst the intelligentsia. For instance, the police, the army, government officials and the judiciary all play a crucial role in supporting the building of fascist movements.16

An ideology that treats sections of a country’s population as being inherently questionable in their loyalty can hardly be considered a nationalist ideology.

The RSS was modelled on Mussolini’s blackshirts; the RSS is still active, and its members organise drills every morning in their many thousands of branches all over India. The RSS is also the parent organisation of today’s ruling BJP.17 In Italy during the 1930s, squadristi (paramilitary squads) first emerged in rural areas of Italy to suppress the sharecroppers and other workers’ movements. They attacked tenants and sharecropper unions, and industrialists saw their potential as a tool to attack and control the trade unions. The authorities then conveniently ignored, and indeed permitted them to continue such right-wing violence, who were later used by the fascists as storm troopers to intimidate the minorities. These storm troopers should have been tried in the courts and sentenced to prison but either nothing was done, or they were pardoned, rendering the law effectively helpless.

In Germany in the 1930s, the common German people similarly did not participate in the attacks against minorities but extended their support to the Nazi party, ultimately helping to install them in power. Sartre (1976) has argued that during the independence struggle in Algeria in the 1950s, the police treated the Algerian people with contempt; where searches, raids and beatings were the norm. In France, nobody protested what he calls an accomplice to the crime. He described the pogroms as ‘the passive activity of directed seriality’. The word ‘passive’ in this context means that responsibility is the crucial factor in major communal violence since the individuals involved in such dispersive acts of violence are instruments of a directing group. He points out the passive complicity that helps the mass base of fascism as being a form of serial complicity, which he terms ‘serial responsibility’. Sartre points out that the manipulation of seriality is important to fascists. Sartre divides society into those who are well organised and act in groups, while there are others who do not organise (series). Those who are organised can get things done through pressure, and they are more likely to have the capacity to control the people, while this is less so for those who are unorganised (seriality). He calls the former ‘manipulated seriality’, which for him means the process of groups dominating non-groups.18

Rosenberg and Sartre argued that fascism can only succeed in a society where fascists remain marginal in the sense that they have not mobilised a mass base, and can only succeed in building mass moment through what Rosenberg called in the late 19th century ‘new authoritarian conservatism’, were the elite want the full support of society and where any opposition to such by the working class is unacceptable. Nationalism was used to undermine the organised working class. It is a known fact that fascism will only flourish in a democracy when the state is either complicit with it, or ignores it. The question arises as to why the working class become supporters of organisations which are opposed to their economic interests, to which Wilhelm Reich’s (1946) response was that the fascist organisation will bring ‘subjectivity’ into their propaganda, where family, tradition, culture and patriarchy are central themes of their appeal, where submission to an employer and authority and support for a strong state are fascism’s key elements.12

The RSS is rewriting history to present a narrative of vilifying religious communities, especially Muslims, and using state power to spread hatred against different religions. The RSS has propagated the message that, in the past, Muslim kings attacked Indian temples. However, on the destruction of Hindu temples in the past, an eminent historian Romila Thapar (2002) notes that Hindu kings often plundered and looted temples for a number of reasons. “Harsha, an eleventh-century king of Kashmir, for whom the despoiling of temples was an organised, institutionalised activity. Kalhana informs us in the [book] Rajatarangini that Harsha appointed a special officer, the devotpatananayka (officer appointed for the uprooting of gods) whose special job was to plunder the temples. Here, clearly, the explanation cannot be that he was religious iconoclast but that he plundered temples for their wealth which wealth he used for other purposes…” 19

The RSS is rewriting history to present a narrative of vilifying religious communities, especially Muslims, and using state power to spread hatred against different religions.

Another historian Audrey Trushke has emphasised in her book Aurangzeb: The Man and the Myth that the Hindu-Muslim divide and violence in Indian subcontinent is the product of the British colonial period as she argues (2017:100): “Such views have roots in colonial era scholarship, where positing timeless Hindu-Muslim animosity embodied the British strategy of divide and conquer”. She further adds: “Modern suggestions that Rajputs and Marathas who resisted Mughal rule thought of themselves as ‘Hindus’ defying ‘Muslims’ tyranny are just that: modern. Neither Mughal nor Maratha writers shied away from religiously tinged rhetoric in narrating this clash, especially in later accounts. But on the ground, a thirst for political power drove both the opposition to Aurangzeb’s rule and the Mughal response”.20

In order to divide history between Muslims and Hindus, British colonial rulers intensely propagated such interpretation in order to strengthen their rule over India. Prominent historian Romila Thapar (2002) argues: “James Mill was the most distinguished name in terms of influencing Indian historical thinking. What is perhaps the most significant aspect of Mill’s [book] History of British India was that in a sense it laid the foundation for a communal interpretation of Indian history and thus provided the historical justification for the two-nation theory. He was the first historian to develop the thesis of dividing Indian history into three periods which he called Hindu civilisation, Muslim civilisation and British civilisation (interestingly enough not Christian civilisation)…What is puzzling, however, is that this periodisation was accepted by subsequent historians  and hardly any attempt was made until very recent years to seriously  investigate its validity.”19

India has a vast and highly diverse culture; it is also a deeply fragmented country along geographical, political, economic, language and cultural lines, which seem to be providing the biggest obstacles to a fascist takeover. The BJP politics of polarisation that played out well in the past led to large-scale communal riots, but which now seem to be counterproductive. Then, drumming up war hysteria and nationalism was seen as a last option against the backdrop of the Pulwame attack in Kashmir.

In conclusion, the past five years of Modi’s government seem to have produced intense popular disillusionment with the government’s track record, especially in terms of growth, employment, development and social justice. The intense communal polarisation generated by the BJP and other Hindu extremist organisations has created fear among Indian minorities. In recent years, GDP growth rates have promoted crony capitalism, participants in which have enhanced their wealth multifold, even while pursuing policies that push the poor into greater poverty. The unprecedented agrarian crisis has stifled rural India for at least the past three years, resulting in thousands of farmers taking their own lives. There has also been a sharp increase in the number of attacks against Muslims by Hindutva outfits for a number of reasons ranging from food habits to the right to worship. The aggressive drive by the RSS/BJP towards that of a jingoistic nationalism has left Muslims, and indeed religious minorities in general, feeling like second-class citizens. It seems that the crisis of neoliberal capitalism has given way to a bourgeois formation that is committed to resort to rabid communalism and to taking the country towards authoritarianism and fascism.

Poverty and unemployment in society are caused by the current social arrangements under which we live, not due to some perceived fault of the poor or the unemployed. It is the government’s responsibility to eliminate such arrangements. Hence, instead of the people having to be “accommodated” within the financial, and other, constraints imposed by a particular social arrangement, the arrangements must be altered so that every member of society is entitled by right to a decent quality of life.

A progressive and democratic government should boost home markets in order to integrate job creation by building a green economy and labour-intensive industries. India needs huge public investment in health and education, agriculture, and renewable energy, which could be funded by taxing the rich who have largely and disproportionately benefitted from the last three decades of neoliberal policy. Once agriculture becomes economically viable, it will absorb millions of people in terms of creating employment. It will boost rural-based industries and thus, in the process, trigger a reverse migration. India needs to promote inclusive growth by ensuring the incomes of those at the bottom of the social ladder, thus reducing the inequality gap. Public investment in agriculture and social welfare would certainly improve the living conditions of the people at the bottom.

Feature image: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves to supporters during a campaign rally ahead of the national elections in Cooch Behar in West Bengal state on April 7. (Diptendu Dutta/AFP/Getty Images) 

About the Author

Dr Kalim Siddiqui is an economist, specialising in International Political Economy, Development Economics, International Trade, and International Economics. His work, which combines elements of international political economy and development economics, economic policy, economic history and international trade, often challenges prevailing orthodoxy about which policies promote overall development in less developed countries. Kalim teaches international economics at the Department of Accounting, Finance and Economics, University of Huddersfield, UK. He has taught economics since 1989 at various universities in Norway and UK.

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The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of The World Financial Review.