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India’s Chilling Lesson for the Left

Narendra Modi has been reelected. In part, that's because Indian leftists, like American leftists, have been trying to imitate right-wingers rather than countering them.

Sam Panthaky/AFP/Getty Images

Shortly after the election results in India last week that returned the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party and its leader, prime minister Narendra Modi, to power, a video began circulating on social media. Shared widely by Modi’s supporters, it purported to show a “millionaire Indian” celebrating Modi’s victory in New York City’s diamond district by throwing dollar bills into the air, westerners scrambling to pick up the money.

It turned out to be a hoax, one in an unending series of absurd claims through these elections, some of them emanating from Modi himself. Yet much about what Modi’s electoral victory means, for India and the world, can be inferred from this piece of dross: the peddling of falsehoods as truth, the unabashed celebration of wealth and profiteering, the idea that Modi’s enriched Indian fanboys now command respect from the west. That, in essence, is what counts in what is routinely called the world’s largest democracy.

This claustrophobic bubble of spectacle offers little breathing room for truth. The truth, however, is that amidst an electoral democracy involving 900 million adults, Modi’s rise exposes uncomfortable realities about both India and democracy, increasingly host to violent majoritarianism that itself is morphing into outright fascism.

For details of who Modi is, what the BJP is—for their connection to a shadowy paramilitary organization of Hindu supremacy that took its inspiration from European fascism in the twentieth century—I refer the reader to the essay I wrote for this magazine in May 2016. In the aftermath of its publication, I was subjected to a barrage of denouncements and threats via Indian social media, which seems to include paid thugs of the BJP as well as likeminded follower in both India and the Indian diaspora in the United States. One man said, on Twitter, that he would cut my finger off. And yet this was nothing compared to the routine threats of violence, sexual and otherwise, that women, minorities, and dissenters are subjected to in Modi’s increasingly intolerant India, where people have been lynched by mobs, assassinated by hitmen, arrested by the police on questionable pretexts, driven to suicide through threats and social pressure, and assaulted in judicial complexes, in full view of the police.

Despite the many signs of trouble in Modi’s India, the BJP retains an air of respectability. India’s elites—educated, urbanized, upper caste Hindus—are today either rabid Modi supporters or conveniently indifferent to his majoritarian menace. The powers of the west have embraced Modi too, despite his record, when chief minister of Gujarat, of unleashing a pogrom against Muslims in 2002, violence so egregious that the Bush administration felt compelled to cancel his visa. In 2014, Modi’s election as prime minister was greeted with eagerness, by Wall Street, by Silicon Valley, by American journalists and by Indian pundits, by people who otherwise tend to assure you of their liberalism and commitment to human rights while swirling their expensive wine. Modi wasn’t really an instigator of violence against minorities, they argued, as much as the leader India needed at this historical juncture, a neoliberal dynamo who could modernize the country, sweeping aside the vestiges of labor legislation.

Not only did Obama visit Modi in India, he wrote glowingly in Time magazine that Modi’s “life story—from poverty to prime minister—reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.” Then, because this was not enough, he invited Modi, in 2016, to address the joint houses of Congress. A few months later, Modi cancelled 90 per cent of the Indian banknotes in circulation, devastating the lives of poorest Indians, people who live largely in a cash economy.

Western admiration of Modi continues. Last week, even before the counting of the votes in India had been completed, the New York Times ran an op-ed entitled “Why India Needs Modi.” The person who knows what India needs so well is Steven Rattner, financier and “counselor to the treasury secretary in the Obama administration.”

There is a lesson to be learnt here for everyone, but especially for those in the United States hoping for a regime change that might end the nightmare of the Trump presidency. If India’s electorate delivered a second term to Modi in spite of the breakdown in everyday life, riven by violence and accompanied by a collapsing economy—and in spite of India’s strong, anti-colonial tradition of leftism—the same can easily happen in the U.S.

Extreme majoritarianism—the sort that uses democracy to legitimize the subjugation of a country’s minorities—flourishes best in times of great turmoil. The history of twentieth-century fascism shows as much, although it also shows the labor-protecting legislation and welfare states that can arise out of that turmoil. But two decades of unchecked neoliberalism have eviscerated the social landscape and the idea of the welfare state, in India and elsewhere. This has been accompanied by the accelerating, catastrophic impact of climate change. Into this space, vacated by a dwindling left as well as a state devoted largely to protecting elites and their profit-making mechanisms (at the very moment when humanity needs to think of solidarity across hierarchies and borders, even across species) the BJP and its Hindutva allies have moved. They are the ones providing the underclasses with schooling and social services, offering the structure of their paramilitary organization and a simple, right-wing ideology that blends seamlessly into nationalism. For the classes living between the precariat and the elites such an identity-based political ideology seems to offer power, dominance, and the illusion of upward mobility, largely by suppressing minorities who fail to fit into the BJP’s Hindu nationalist vision.

The liberal opposition in India, led by the once-powerful Congress party, offers only a diluted version of this right-wing feast. In 2004, when the Indian electorate gave the parliament to the Congress party and its allies, they introduced few social programs, but squandered their chance by mainly continuing the BJP’s political and economic blueprint, from nationalist posturing over the restive Muslim-majority province of Kashmir to a neoliberal agenda that included kickbacks, handouts for corporations, and an unbridled assault on the poor, the indigenous, and the displaced.

All this, Modi and the BJP were capable of delivering in far greater scale, along with the added toxic dose of Hindu pride. As in Europe and the United States, the problem with liberals trying to compete with right-wing nationalists by moving right is that right-wing nationalists are far, far better at that game. The same pattern played out in 2016 in the United States when voters proved lukewarm on the centrist, banker wing of the Democratic Party represented by Hillary Clinton. It threatens to play out again as the American left lingers on arcane conversations about a Russian conspiracy and impeachment rhetoric, unable to find the moral courage to denounce Trump’s warmongering over Venezuela and Iran, or to support younger, feisty leftists like Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar as they fend off right-wing attacks.

If that is the state of the opposition, with the centrist, Trump-lite, folksy figure of Joe Biden at the head of a field of 23 candidates, then the conclusion is foregone. Modi’s challengers failed because technocrats adopting a few nationalist talking points stand little chance against a right-wing leader adept at channeling a nation’s rage and resentment. Even the Congress party’s talk of inequality and inclusion was seen as just that: talk, short on courage, conviction, or any meaningful track record of addressing inequality and uncertainty in a structural manner—something American leftists also lack. Against such pallid fare, anything will do, even fake news and false messiahs, with millions of thumbs forwarding the image of dollar bills raining down on a street of diamonds.