Will Modi Fall?

Modi's right-wing party is the favorite in the almost-completed Indian elections. But the lack of a unified opposition doesn't mean left-wing dissent has disappeared.

A woman votes at a polling station on April 11, 2019 in Utter Pradesh, India. Atul Loke / Getty

The mainstream media in the US is deeply ambivalent about India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, and the political party he helms, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi’s five-year term is coming to a close, and for the last few weeks voters across the country have gone to the polls to elect a new parliament; results are expected on May 23, with exit polls predicting a BJP victory. While the prime minister is not directly elected, many commentators, both inside and outside the country, see the election as a referendum on Modi, who has ushered in a sea change in Indian politics.

As the contest unfolds — a massive seven-stage, five-week undertaking — US publications like the New York Times and Time have contorted themselves to show their simultaneous support for and condemnation of Modi. On economic issues, Modi is impeccably neoliberal, happy to follow the reform imperatives of the World Bank and ready to make India ever more open to international investment. On social issues, however, he is undoubtedly illiberal. A staunch follower of Hindu nationalism, or Hindutva, Modi has emboldened violent nationalist groups previously regarded as fringe: vigilantes lynch Muslims and Dalits (those formerly considered “Untouchable” by upper-caste Hindus); rationalists and anti-superstition activists are gunned down on the street; student leaders are arrested on trumped-up charges; and both media and state institutions are increasingly compromised by political inference.

For mainstream US outlets, then, Modi presents a conundrum — he’s a neoliberal in hyper-nationalist clothes. The Times has decided to split the difference, with one lengthy article praising all Modi has done to liberalize the Indian economy, and another equally lengthy article deploring the consequences of five years of Hindu nationalist rule. Time has followed the same Janus-faced approach, with a recent cover story decrying Modi’s divisiveness paired with an article lauding his agenda of “economic reform.”

Surprisingly, the Economist has taken a more consistent stand on Modi, opposing his candidacy in both 2014 and 2019. The capitalist publication par excellence has grasped a simple truth that’s eluded others: it is impossible to disentangle the economic and social aspects of Modi’s politics. Since his time as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, Modi has made his orientation clear: a mix of big business friendly neoliberalism and aggressive Hindu pride, dramatized most horrifically by an anti-Muslim pogrom in Gujarat in 2002. The extent of Modi’s culpability in this pogrom remains the subject of debate. State investigations, hardly unbiased, found no proof of his involvement, but the stain on Modi’s reputation was enough to push several Western governments, including the United States, to deny him a visa.

In the 2014 national elections, Modi sought to shed his image as the “Butcher of Gujarat” and rebrand himself as the “Vikas Purush,” champion of economic development. Despite this shift of emphasis, he never renounced his commitment to right-wing Hindu nationalism. And how could he? He owes his success to his time as an activist for the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or “National Volunteer Organization,” an influential group that’s meticulously built up support for Hindu nationalist mobilizations.

If 2014 foregrounded “development,” with Hindu nationalism ever-present in the background, 2019 appears to have reversed the situation. At recent rallies Modi’s right-hand man, Amit Shah — a master of dirty tricks who’s managed to fight off multiple murder charges — has urged crowds to vote for national security rather than development. And the BJP’s choice of the controversial sadhvi (Hindu ascetic) Pragya Singh Thakur as a parliamentary candidate signals the party’s explicit embrace of muscular Hinduism. Thakur, currently awaiting trial for her alleged role in planning a deadly bomb blast in 2008, has made a series of increasingly inflammatory remarks, most recently calling Gandhi’s assassin a patriot. While both Modi and the BJP have consistently stood on the twin planks of neoliberalism and Hindutva, such remarks suggest that they may be shifting their weight toward the latter.

This shift is hardly surprising to left critics of the BJP, who have long predicted that Modi would emphasize his Hindutva credentials once the hollowness of his economic claims became evident. And it is not just leftists who are questioning Modi’s claims to bring “acche din” (good days) through economic growth. Corporate India is also beginning to have its doubts. In 2014, Indian business leaders were more than willing to overlook the more unsavory aspects of Modi’s Hindu nationalism in deference to his pro-corporate agenda. Gurchuran Das, former CEO of Procter & Gamble India and bard of Indian capitalism, admitted as much in a surprisingly forthright op-ed. In 2019, the BJP may still be the favored party of capital, but it has lost some of its shine. Mukesh Ambani, the richest man in India and head of the omnipresent Reliance Industries, has endorsed a candidate from the rival Congress party in the upcoming elections.

Meanwhile, over the past five years, many prominent mainstream economists — no enemies of capital — have questioned the BJP’s policies and expressed skepticism about the integrity of the government’s economic data. In February, former World Bank chief economist Kaushik Basu voiced concern over news the government is deliberately suppressing information about unemployment. And just this month, a series of reports have suggested that economists the world over don’t trust the Indian government’s GDP numbers.

These developments lend credence to the analysis of the scholar and activist Shankar Gopalakrishnan, who has long argued that the India’s neoliberal reformers would fail, not only in providing broad quality-of-life improvements, but also in meeting their own narrow goal of boosting GDP growth. Gopalakrishnan was clear about what this would mean, predicting: “As its unpopularity increases, the obvious way out for this government is to resort to a combination of fear-mongering and repression …. Hysteria will be whipped up, along with an intense crackdown on resistance and dissent.” And this is just what has happened, with the BJP ramping up both its nationalism and its Hindutva rhetoric.

If the BJP has acted as expected, the resistance to the BJP has thrown up more surprises. Not that resistance in itself is surprising — both the neoliberal project and the Hindu nationalist project have been deeply contested in a country marked by immense diversity and regional complexities. Still, after the 2014 elections, the opposition to the BJP looked remarkably weak. The parliamentary left, including the Communist Party of India (CPI) and the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPM), had been decimated. And Congress — once the dominant national party but now a patronage-driven and ideologically rudderless force — sustained what looked to be a decisive blow.

Today, though, the BJP looks far less invincible, even if most commentators predict that it will win the election. Who, then, is the opposition? The parliamentary left continues to be weak on a national level. They are falling apart in the state of West Bengal, once a CPM stronghold. CPM cadres’ hatred of the state’s current ruling party has, alarmingly, pushed them into the arms of the BJP. And yet, even as their electoral fortunes dwindle, the CPM has offered up some surprises, most notably leading a massive farmers’ march that highlighted peasant discontent with decades of neoliberal policies.

If the CPM has found some unexpected successes with mass movements, the CPI (once the only Communist party in India, now a mere shell of its former self, long overshadowed by the CPM electorally) is trying to reverse its electoral fortunes. The CPI made headlines by choosing Kanhaiya Kumar, the talented student activist best known for being arrested on spurious sedition charges, as its candidate for the rural district in northern India from which Kumar hails. This selection, though, has proven controversial — not just with the “nationalists” who see Kumar as unpatriotic, but by some progressive and anti-caste activists who argue that Kumar, who comes from his district’s dominant caste, is overshadowing candidates from more oppressed backgrounds.

The relationship between the Left and the anti-caste movement has been a tense one historically, and the Communist parties in particular have a long history (with some exceptions) of neglecting the centrality of caste in Indian social and economic life. The chasm between the two movements remains wide, and attempts to suture them together — a necessary project — will face many challenges.

The good news, though, is that more and more groups are taking up the challenge. In the southern state of Telangana, for instance, the CPM has joined with several other leftist and anti-caste political parties to form the Left Bahujan Front, a formation that has received strong backing from the anti-caste scholar Kancha Ilaiah Shepherd. Although the front performed poorly in state-level elections in Telangana in December 2018, it has worked to build grassroots support in the run-up to this year’s elections.

The Left Bahujan Front has received strong support from the politician Prakash Ambedkar, grandson of the towering Dalit leader B.R. Ambedkar. In his own state of Maharashtra, Prakash Ambedkar is trying an experiment of his own, forming the Vanchit Bahujan Aghadi with backing from a prominent Muslim politician, Asaduddin Owaisi. The new political alliance is meant to bring together marginalized classes, castes, and religions in a state that has been a cradle of both Hindu nationalism and anti-caste resistance. Like all experiments, this one has its proponents and its detractors. It is still unclear how much support it can mobilize for the elections.

The oft-quoted words of Antonio Gramsci seem appropriate here: “The crisis consists precisely in the fact that the old is dying and the new cannot be born; in this interregnum a great variety of morbid symptoms appear.” It’s hard to think of a symptom more morbid than the resurgence of the deeply exclusionary and violently regressive Hindu nationalist project in the world’s largest democracy. On the electoral level, there is a disappointing lack of a convincing alternative. But there are glimmerings of a new being born. Will these emerging movements be able to survive another five years of Modi rule? Will there even be five more years of Modi rule?

There is a pragmatic answer to these questions, which is useful to bear in mind. In purely electoral terms, the absence of a united opposition to the BJP does not guarantee a BJP victory. Commenting on a series of defeats by the BJP in state-level elections last year, the political scientist Suhas Palshikar noted, “Voters do not wait for an ‘ideal’ alternative. Unlike theoreticians, voters are aware of the job: To choose from existing options rather than wait for the best option to emerge …. This may produce clumsy outcomes and certainly it won’t bring great transformations, but it may just bring the BJP’s narrative down to earth.”

As Palshikar and others have suggested, simply defeating the BJP at the ballot box is not enough, given the party’s success in redefining Hinduism, democracy, and economic practice. But it is a crucial first step, creating the breathing room for the new to emerge and the truly transformative to take hold.