Welcome Home Mr. Modi

Posted by sanyasi on July 18, 2013 · 11 mins read

Narenda Modi's global makeover owes much to neoliberal democracy and the ideology of developmentalism argues Sanyasi.

The global rehabilitation of Narendra Modi is well underway. A lunch meeting in January this year at German Ambassador Michael Steiner's home between Modi and representatives from the states of the European Union "ended a decade-long unofficial EU boycott of the 62-year-old politician" for his alleged role in the 2002 anti-Muslim violence in Gujarat. It is not quite as clear whether the US is warming up to Modi, but some Republican lawmakers have indicated that they intend to get Modi a visa to travel to the promised land.

The same Germany and Europe who endlessly exhort the rest of the world never to forget the Jewish Holocaust have after all of a decade conveniently forgotten Gujarat 2002. The amnesia is, to an extent, explained by the West's centuries-long history of hypocrisy on such matters, which involves innumerable instances of subordinating its professed commitment to rights to its base economic, political, and material interests. (Think of the coddling and arming of Saddam Hussein by the Thatcher regime and Rumsfeld's role in helping him secure chemical weapons. Or, more recently, the use of Malala Yousafzai's ordeal and heroic struggle to indict Pakistani culture at large, while laws in US states that violate American women's reproductive rights and deny them sovereignty over their own selves draw no such generalizations about American culture. [1]) With his image as a pro-business, pro-investment politician, Modi promises Western economies a means for accessing India's markets. India's consuming middle classes are his oil, his blood diamonds. But this is only part of the story. Modi's reentry into the civilized world--now defined as a global world in which a globalizing India anxiously seeks to assert itself--is enabled by two other factors that are more significant than the self-serving inconsistency of the West.

First, the rise of neoliberal democracy at home and abroad. Neoliberalism with its mantra of 'good governance' and its emphasis on formal, market-based democracy as opposed to substantive democracy works well for the likes of Narendra Modi. Modi has been tom-tomming the clean chit supposedly given to him by the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigative Team in the matter of the 2002 anti-Muslim riots. His reputation for incorruptibility impresses Indians weary of living in a scam-a-day nation.

But Modi's Gujarat is also marked by a culture of terror for those who exercise their constitutional right as citizens of India to question or criticize him. The Modi administration has used the law as a weapon, for example, to hound Ashis Nandy and Mallika Sarabhai. The Gujarat police has a nasty record of "encounter" killings, segments of it seemingly serving as a vigilante squad. In Modi's well-governed Gujarat an eyewitness to a massacre of Muslims is stabbed to death. Yet Modi's supporters refuse to recognize this state of affairs as "corrupt" or inept.

Secondly, as Ashis Nandy, arguably the best reader of Modi, has suggested, the ideology of developmentalism is a key reason for the ascendancy of Modi. Shared by Left and Right alike in India, the fixation with development, with its roots in the Nehruvian era, is what endears corporate India, the Indian middle classes, and economists to Modi. The Indian obsession with development converges perfectly with the rise of economics as a global master discourse for our times. The praise showered on Modi by renowned economists Jadgish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagriya for the Gujarat Chief Minister's economic policies will reaffirm his legitimacy at home while smoothing his way into the rarified environs of Davos and the like. In a superb piece on Modi in The Caravan, Vinod Jose has described corporate India's intoxication with Modi, who they see as a dynamic pro-business leader.

Here Modi's critics as much as his followers may be unwittingly doing some of the hard ideological work of making Modi's policies attractive. For Modi poses a problem for the free-market liberals who believe that political freedom and civil rights necessarily accompany market-driven economic prosperity. In the face of Gujarat's abysmal rights record, free-market liberals are compelled to question the state's economic record under Modi's tenure, in order to preserve the theoretical purity of their worldview. (Free-market capitalism can never be wrong, it is always the people who fall short). While pointing to the failures of Modi's economic policies, they attribute the achievements for which Modi claims credit to a number of factors, including the efforts of his precursors, and the Gujarati genius for business.

Yet, despite their specific disagreements about Modi's economic achievements--and these claims are not without merit--liberals are unlikely to see problems of Modi's Gujarat as problems of development and the market per se. This is an absolute limit to the discussion of economic and social issues in India, particularly in business and economics newspapers and journals. Modi is a creature of Indian middle class consumption and of the Indian middle class aspiration to consume more. A critique of the culture that sustains Modi must necessarily involve a critique of a reason that wants people to consume more: a critique of economic reason itself. But this is off limits, both for the Left that believes in a greater role for the state in development and for the economic Right that advocates free-market reform and further liberalization. Any alternative beyond these poles is dismissed as a relic of an untenable Gandhianism inimical to modernity itself. [2]

At its best, a belief in development (in Marxist or capitalist modes) when sensitive to context and cleansed of pretensions to universal economic reason can produce genuine economic and social gains for particular communities in particular settings.
At its worst, it leads to a smug, dangerous, and remarkably self-unaware kind of thinking. There is no better example of the folly of developmentalist thinking than Chetan Bhagat's "Letter from an Indian Muslim Youth"--a statement of peerless idiocy masquerading as well-intentioned advice for Indian Muslims, in which Bhagat in Avataresque fashion enters the consciousness of an Indian Muslim youth thirsting to taste the fruits of development denied to him by assorted Muslim leaders.

Prayaag Akbar points out that Bhagat rhetorically appropriates the voice of India's entire Muslim population by speaking as "a young Indian Muslim angry at his exclusion from the mainstream capitalist, neoliberal project." Akbar's withering response shows the conflation of neoliberal sentiment with barely concealed anti-Muslim prejudice in Bhagat's patronizing letter. No accident then that Bhagat is impressed with Modi's talents for development and sectarian politics, or that he is speculating on what it may take for Modi to become the Indian Prime Minister as the "general" of the BJP in the 2014 elections. As a friend of mine wrote to me in an email, only half in jest I suspect, Bhagat may be scheming for the post of the Minister of Culture should Modi succeed in realizing his Prime Ministerial ambitions.

It is a prospect at once terrifying and comic, a monstrous Shakespearean retelling of India's sordid Emergency with its violent subtext of modernization and development. Modi the classic fascist personality and authoritarian leader with Bhagat as his court jester and poet laureate. The autocrat at the head of the family-as-nation, running an RSS-style "organic democracy" in the name of Foreign Direct Investment-powered economic development, global India's upgraded version of "garibi hatao." Salivating for a taste of India's markets, Western nations are likely to very warmly welcome Mr. Modi as India's PM, mouthing the usual platitudes about India's 'vibrant democracy' and 'independent judiciary.' Given the authoritarian streak in Western civilization "from Plato to NATO" and Europe's history of fascism and genocide at home and abroad, Modi should feel right at home in the West. [3] One can only hope that the India that exists beyond development and the market, beyond the Indian middle classes with their dreams of strong, chest-thumping leaders, nuclear power, and global brands, produces a fifth act that sends Mr. Modi, flunkies and all, into the political wilderness.


1. Economists and economic and business journalists in India often describe critics of developmentalism like Ashis Nandy and P. Sainath as ignorant of the basic tenets of economics, or simply ignore their scholarship. Curiously, however, these economists and economic and business journalists often assume and assert the authority to comment on art, literature, history, and social issues, without engaging in any meaningful way with theories of art, literary criticism, paradigms of historiography, or social theory. This asymmetry stems both from the privileged role of economics and economists in independent India and from the fact that we live in the time of homo economicus.

2. I owe this point to Altaf Makhiawala. See also Derrick O'Keefe's reflection, "The Misuses of Malala."

3. The phrase belongs to Terry Eagleton, but he uses it to make a somewhat different point.


Jyotsna Singh | July 18, 2013

What a brilliant piece indeed.. but when I was in Delhi recently, I was amazing how all the people "we know" were sallivating over Modi.. it is all patriarchy I think..the strong leader stuff. J

sanyasi | July 18, 2013

Thanks very much Jyotsna. I have also heard these eulogies to Modi. The idea of the strong state headed by the patriarch seems to deeply resonate with Indian elites.

Subhash | August 03, 2013

I am reluctant to engage with the "substance" of the author's criticisms, as there is really nothing new here . Like every other critic of Modi, the author makes use of tried and tested tropes (btw, glad to see that the laughable "patriarch" criticism made an appearance above), the most offensive being that Modi and Hitler are somehow equivalent in their moral turpitude. Perhaps a quick survey of the Wikipedia entry for The Holocaust would serve the author well. Even if we accept, despite evidence to the contrary (expecting the author to weigh evidence on both sides is clearly out of the question, though interestingly enough he/she certainly seems willing to accept as valid evidence that mitigates Modi's economic credentials), that Modi played a direct role in the riots, the conflation is absurd, offensive, and grounded in willful ignorance. Then, of course, there is the criticism of Modi himself. He is authoritarian, runs a state with a culture of terror, and is a fan of encounter killings. Every other Indian state, the author seems to believe, is a bastion of freedom, democracy, and respect for the rule of law. Modi is surely not perfect, but that is not the story here. The real story is the author's fixation on Modi and his/her disdain for millions of Indians who dare to aspire towards a better life. Instead of taking these aspirations seriously, the author engages the most vulgar type of reductivism, painting the entire Indian middle class as selfish and purely concerned with consumption. What about the millions of poor Indians who are tired of sleeping in shacks, tormented by the stench of the excrement and sewage that lies outside their homes? No mention of them. What about the millions of Indians who, unlike the author, look back at their history of invasion and colonization and feel humiliation and pain for what they've suffered? What about the millions of Indians who are tired of seeing their countrymen and women live in dire poverty as shamelessly corrupt politicians, aided and abetted by the corporate media, continue to line their pockets? Does the author deny that these feelings exist? One of the more uncomfortable truths and unresolved contradictions regarding Indian society is that throughout a history punctuated by bloody invasions there was always an indigenous class that was complicit in the crimes committed against their fellow Indians. A class of people whose privilege depended on their position as intermediaries between the rulers and the subjugated masses, both during the Mughal era and that of the British. Now that the masses have finally awoken, members of the aforementioned class are doing their utmost to maintain their position. Modi is just a symbol (an imperfect one, certainly) here for the class of Indians who have for so long been excluded from the halls of power, the Indians that the author seems to hate so much. This scares individuals like the author to such an extent that they are ready to suspend all notions of reasonability and civility. Not only that, but they would rather see India balkanized. To wit, while they are quick to criticize Modi, they seem to be more than willing to champion politicians who make shamelessly parochial appeals to caste and creed in order to win votes, perpetuating what is worst about India's cultural heritage at the expense of the syncretism that has always been the hallmark of the expansive banian tree of sanatan dharma. In fact, they'd rather have ANYONE lead, for they forgot how to lead long ago. As long as the rest of India remains poor and forgotten, the author will remain satisfied.