NARENDRA Modi’s BJP government has sent the subcontinent spiralling towards a new and potentially unprecedented crisis. The already subjugated people of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh, currently in the throes of a complete communication blackout, face a fresh assault on their basic freedoms, including their very right to life. Pakistan-India relations have already taken a hit with Islamabad’s decision to withdraw its high commissioner in Delhi. And all this so soon after the country’s respective airspaces were reopened following months of eyeballing.
Exclamations aside, it is not at all surprising that the Modi regime has upped the ante in what has been Indian democracy’s longest-festering sore. His recent landslide victory in the general election reinforced his mandate to transform India into a Hindu majoritarian state. Donald Trump then added further fuel to the fire by claiming that Modi had asked him to mediate with Pakistan on the Kashmir issue. Hyper-nationalists were demanding a response, and in the revocation of Article 370, they got what they wanted.
The question, as ever, is how far all of this will go. We appear to have entered an era in world affairs in which nationalist posturing is trumping the imperative of economic growth and expansion; in which the logic of capital — which has been virtually unimpeded in recent decades — is now being thwarted by an insular right-wing identity politics. Or is it?
Modi embodies these contradictory pulls in extremely demonstrative ways. He rose to prominence as chief minister of Gujarat by luring waves of foreign direct investment into the state, propelling it to the highest growth rates in India. The Gujarat development model dovetailed perfectly with neo-liberal ideology in which free entry and exit of capital keeps investors happy, while a burgeoning urban middle class is afforded cheap credit to indulge in ostentatious consumption.
It is not surprising that the Modi regime has upped the ante.
It was also as chief minister, Gujarat, that Modi presided over one of modern India’s most shameful episodes in 2002. Organised Hindu mobs ransacked Muslim-majority neighbourhoods, killing thousands and maiming many more. The BJP state government let it all happen, feigning ignorance. The whole episode in fact bolstered Modi’s reputation as the man to restore mythical Hindu Raj across India.
Modi rode this wave of support all the way to the prime minister’s house in Delhi. During his first term in office, he remained loyal to the neo-liberal mantra amidst a downturn in the global economy following the financial crisis of 2007-9. India’s urban middle classes remained loyal to him despite the slowdown, but it was clear in the lead-up to general elections earlier this year that Modi’s development miracle narrative was insufficient to win him re-election. If neo-liberal growth has a captive middle class gallery, then its fallouts are borne by the poor, and women and minorities within the toiling classes most of all. And so Modi decided to play the hyper-nationalist card, to offset the fallouts of neo-liberal economics by appealing to Hindu majoritarian sentiment. It worked, earning Modi a bigger mandate the second time around.
Donald Trump offers a similar tale. On the back of the financial crisis, and the impoverishment of the white working class, he won the 2016 US presidential election by promising to bring back the jobs, which of course American companies had themselves outsourced to low-wage countries like China over the previous decades. In essence, Trump played the economic card and made a commitment to his white working class constituency to rein in the neo-liberals.
After coming to power, he did nothing of the sort. There has been no major shift in economic policy, only attempts to renegotiate trade deals with China — which have been more bark than bite. As the next US presidential cycle approaches, Trump has abandoned the economic card that won him white working-class votes in 2016, and is now relying completely on xenophobic populism to win him white votes of all kinds. In other words, he is banking on a hyper-nationalist politics winning him the day, as it did Modi in India.
The last time the world went the way of hyper-nationalism — which at best rides on the economic miseries of the poor, and at worst, caters openly to the middle and upper classes — was in the 1920s and 1930s and its primary beneficiaries were Mussolini’s fascists and Hitler’s Nazis.
The world is of course a very different place today. But the BJP under Modi’s leadership is capable of going very far to cement its hegemonic urban middle class base. In Pakistan too it is this same class that is most supportive of the worst forms of state nationalism. Perhaps it is time for our urban middle class to take the moral high ground, to the benefit of not only Pakistan’s long-suffering toiling classes, but also all of the region’s teeming masses. Now that would be a politics to celebrate.
The writer teaches at Quaid-i-Azam University, Islamabad.
Published in Dawn, August 9th, 2019