Blog of Justin Podur
22 August 2015
Since Narendra Modi began campaigning to be Prime Minister of India in 2013, he and his party, the BJP, gave the impression of an unstoppable march, culminating in a massive electoral victory in 2014. The BJP's story went like this: Anti-incumbency was strong, and the people were sick of Congress corruption. As Chief Minister of Gujarat, Modi had administered the Gujarat miracle, reaching developmental heights unheard of elsewhere in India. Given the chance, he could do the same for the entire country. If there were accusations that he had also been Chief Minister during an organized massacre of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, well, was there any proof? Hadn't the courts given him a clean chit? And anyway, with so many terrorist threats facing India, maybe a tougher hand like Modi's was needed: to keep Kashmir in line, to fight the Maoist rebels in central India, and, of course, to stand up to Pakistan.
None of the elements of the story were actually true. Economist Jean Dreze showed that Gujarat's economic achievements were middling. They also "largely predate(d) Narendra Modi, and have as much to do with public action as with economic growth". Nirmalangshu Mukherji showed that there was, in fact, no clean chit and there was plenty of evidence of Modi's involvement in the massacres of 2002 in Gujarat. The Indian state under Congress had shown plenty of "toughness", if "toughness" includes the willingness to violate human rights, in Kashmir, in Chhattisgarh and elsewhere in the counterinsurgency war against the Maoists. As for Pakistan, even the "toughest" leaders on either side need to be careful, given the possibility of mutual nuclear annihilation.
Even the electoral victory was not quite what it seemed. Nirmalangshu Mukherji's post-electoral analysis in Kafila foretold some of what was to happen this year. Mukherji's analysis argued that Modi's party, the BJP, had only a very modest increase in the popular vote from 19% in 2009 to 31% in 2014. The major achievement of the BJP, Mukherji argues, was the scientific method used by the campaign of increasing communal strife in key disctricts and profiting from these electorally, gaining the maximum number of seats with the minimum increase in the popular vote. When, in February of this year, the BJP were routed in the Delhi legislative elections, with a relatively new party, the AAP, winning 67 of 70 seats, the BJP's march was shown to be stoppable, indeed.
Once unable to get a US visa because of the 2002 massacres, Modi now has a direct hotline to Obama, reports the NYT. And a little bit of saber-rattling with Pakistan over Kashmir is also happening right now.
But domestically, the Delhi elections were a blow and his legislative program has been slowed down by opposition. The Indian media talk about a 'resurgent Congress': left writer Badri Raina analyzed the Congress return in May. Modi had planned a series of changes to India's Land Acquisition Act, changes to facilitate the transfer of peasant and indigenous lands into corporate hands. Economist Smita Gupta, in an interview on Newsclick, called the planned act a "return to colonial oppression". But strong opposition in the legislature has set the Act back: now it will wait for the winter session of parliament.
In a new interview for Outlook, Arundhati Roy summarized these developments: "The attack we are up against is wide and deep and dangerous, but the euphoria around the Modi government has evaporated pretty fast, much before anyone would have expected. I fear that when they get really desperate, they’ll get dangerous." As an example of the danger, Arundhati mentioned the hanging of Yakub Menon, convicted of participating in a conspiracy in a series of 1993 bombings. Badri Raina wrote about the BJP euphoria around the hangings and the hatred directed against those espousing a position against anti-capital punishment, as the arrival of India's own Tea Party.
India's Tea Party has another target, one of the lawyers who has been following up on Modi's role in the 2002 massacres: activist-lawyer Teesta Setalvad, who has been targeted for some malicious and frivolous prosections as well as an organized campaign of bullying by BJP followers - a campaign so vicious that it has made the NYT as well, in a story by David Barrow on August 19 titled "Longtime Critic of Modi is now a Target."
Another area of danger where all of these threads come together: the political value of a "war on terror", valuable land to be acquired for corporates, the need to overcome legislation protecting people and the environment - is in central India, where an active counterinsurgency operation continues against the Maoists, and ends up violating the rights of indigenous people throughout the territory. In 2005, the state of Chhattisgarh was carved up into a series of memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with corporations. The MOUs coincided with the rise of the paramilitary, anti-Maoist organization, Salwa Judum, by Mahendra Karma. Salwa Judum was declared an illegal organization by the Supreme Court, after they had already burned villages, killed, and displaced people across the state. Mahendra Karma was killed in an ambush by Maoists in 2013. His son, Chavindra Karma, founded a new successor to Salwa Judum in May of this year. Activist Gautam Navlakha, in an interview on Newsclick, argued that the re-founding of Salwa Judum followed a visit by Modi to Chhattisgarh and the announcement of a whole slate of new MOUs with corporations. On this file, the state has distinguished itself with the "insane, inhuman" arrest in May of a completely paralyzed academic, N. Sai Baba, because he expresses views sympathetic to the Maoists.
Modi may be running out of steam, or he may find a second wind. The deeper issues India faces preceded his rise and will continue after he's gone: the extraordinary and deadly inequality, the ongoing land grab, counterinsurgencies in Kashmir and central India, and a justice system that still has the death penalty and that offers those trapped in it a horrendous and impossible bureaucratic maze (see Manisha Sethi's book, "Kafkaland", for examples). He has channeled these problems in anti-secular, chauvinist directions and exacerbated them. India is a more dangerous place because of him and his party. But resistance to him and his agenda has arisen fast. It has been surprising. Perhaps there are more surprises ahead.