What The Media Gets Wrong About India: A Guide To The 2019 Elections

What The Media Gets Wrong About India: A Guide To The 2019 Elections

by Ruchir Ferrero Sharma - Apr 12, 2019 10:42 AM +05:30 IST
What The Media Gets Wrong About India: A Guide To The 2019 ElectionsPrime Minister Narendra Modi. (Vipin Kumar/Hindustan Times via GettyImages) 
  • Deconstructing many false narratives and assumptions floating around this year’s elections, often shaped by the international or Indian English-language media.

Before we begin, allow me to suggest a little thought exercise.

I am going to describe what a certain world leader did with his or her political capital upon coming to power, and you should think of who it reminds you of, past or present.

  • Extending health insurance access to the poorest.
  • Bringing electricity to the most poor and remote communities.
  • Building toilets and street lights that keep women safer in cities and villages.
  • Protecting the economically vulnerable from rapacious moneylenders, through financial inclusion and microcredit.
  • Liberating rural women from wooden stoves that decimate their life expectancy and consume much of their productive time.
  • Strengthening women's legal rights when it comes to divorce, domestic abuse, and protection from sexual violence.
  • Reducing diarrhoea rates from 199 million per year to almost zero and preventing 300,000 deaths from water-borne diseases within 5 years.
  • Investing in renewable energy to become a leader in solar power.
  • Decriminalising homosexuality.
  • Introducing and passing laws to protect the transgender community.
  • Enforcing animal welfare, food safety, and consumer protection laws.
  • Resisting the call to privatise the country's state-owned airline and banks, to recapitalise them with public funds instead.
  • Drafting a law to make it easier for refugees escaping religious persecution to claim asylum.
  • Becoming the first ever head of government from their country to visit Palestine, and using the occasion to proclaim support for Palestinian independence.
  • Providing foreign aid to disaster-hit countries in Asia and Africa, to the extent that one president from the Non-Aligned Movement even named his grandchild after them. Received the highest civilian honours from Afghanistan, Palestine and the UAE.

So, is it the darling of the contemporary liberal world, Jacinda Ardern or Justin Trudeau? The radical feminist communist revolutionary of Burkina Faso, Thomas Sankara? The Arab socialist Abdel Gamal Nasser? The original himself, Vladimir Lenin?

Well, it is actually Narendra Modi, the supposedly 'right-wing', 'Hindu nationalist' Prime Minister of India. Strange, since his policies and rhetoric sure don't sound like they fit into the contemporary right-wing populist trend of Trumps, Orbans, or Netanyahus. In fact, it sounds more like something out of the Bolivarian socialists of Ecuador and Bolivia.

The World Has Moved Beyond The Left-Right, Liberal-Conservative Paradigm

So, why is there such a disconnect between reporting and reality? Let's take a step back. The liberal-conservative or left-right paradigm is wearing out its utility even within the Western world from where it arose, as we can see from the current developments taking place across the global north today, between ‘mainstream’ parties of the neo-liberal centre, and ‘populists’, who are challenging the hegemonic neo-liberal consensus both from the left and right.

As soon as one moves even slightly away from the metropole of the West into central or eastern Europe, it barely fits at all when one looks at post-socialist states of the region. In the Czech Republic, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia negotiated to support a billionaire businessman from an anti-establishment populist party as prime minister. Does that make them a left-wing party or a right-wing party? Should the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, with its Marxist-Leninist rhetoric but protectionist economic policies and nationalistic social policies be considered left-wing or right-wing?

To really bamboozle you, in the Slovak presidential election this month, the candidate from the Progressive Slovakia party, which claims to be centre-right, was the socially liberal environmental lawyer Zuzana Caputova, who won votes among pro-EU (European Union) voters. Meanwhile, while the candidate from SMER-Social Democracy, the centre-left party that merged with the far-left Party of the Democratic Left in 2004 but today is in coalition with far-right nationalists, was a retired EU bureaucrat who talked about conservative social values and won votes from anti-EU voters. Bet you didn't read that in The Guardian or The New York Times – which made it about a liberal David fighting a conservative Goliath.

And yet, when one reads the reporting in the international media on countries such as these, do we get this sort of nuance? For the most part, no. Much of the reporting infantilises the reader, as if all we need to know to make sense of this strange and backward country is "which party/candidate is the closest to my favourite back home?" Or, put it more simply, "who are the good guys, who are the bad guys, and who is our guy?"

Moving further eastwards, when it comes to post-colonial societies like India, this left-right or liberal-conservative paradigm barely fits at all. Just to set the record straight, all Indian parties are to some extent economically pro-poor, interventionist and protectionist, all of them are to some extent socially conservative with nationalist tendencies.

Who Is Left-Wing And Who Is Right-Wing In india?

The Overton Window of acceptable politics within India is so skewed on account of the enduring socio-economic legacy of colonialism, that even the Indian ‘right-wing’ would be considered to the left of the Democratic Party, German SPD, or Australian Labor Party. Despite decades of economic growth, the vast majority of Indians are still incredibly poor, often one medical crisis or failed harvest away from penury. In this light, providing material prosperity and stability is something that every party needs to focus on, if it wants to be taken seriously.

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), when it comes to economic issues, suggests a middle ground between socialism and capitalism, historically with protectionist, dirigiste elements. Yet when in power, it had a track record of privatisation and neoliberal reforms between 1999 and 2004, but between 2014 and 2019, has a pro-poor focus on basic infrastructure development such as electricity and sanitation in villages, and offering access to medical insurance for the poorest sections of society. Just this week, two days before the beginning of the elections, the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh, one of the most visible leaders of the BJP, tweeted, a whole new term for this approach – “Modian socialism”. Although, perhaps, a missed opportunity to invoke Deng Xiaoping by calling it “socialism with Modi-fied characteristics”.

So, does that make the BJP a left-wing party? Or a right-wing party? A radical centrist, third way party?

When it comes to social policy, our ‘left-wing’ parties engage in the bigotry of low expectations, by assuming that Muslim or Christian voters are monolithic and that their most conservative leaders are representative of the entire community. To the extent that the grand coalition of opposition parties have chosen a Bahujan Samaj Party (BSP) candidate for the constituency of Meerut in this month's elections, who is a wealthy slaughterhouse baron, most famous for promising $11 million as a reward to the perpetrators of the Charlie Hebdo terrorist attack in Paris. Or that the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD) famously campaigned with a lookalike of Osama bin Laden, thinking that this was something that would be effective in winning over voters from the minority community. Or that the grand patriarch of the Samajwadi Party (SP), in response to reports of rising instances of rape and sexual assault, is famous for saying, "boys will be boys. First girls develop friendship with boys. They when differences occur, they level rape charges. Boys commit mistakes. Are we supposed to hang them just for rape?"

So, would the BSP, RJD, or SP be left-wing parties, because they claim to be socialist and secular, or are they right-wing parties because of their leadership's rhetoric and policies?

What does secular even mean in the Indian context? Does it mean Laicite on the lines of France or Quebec, where religion is a strictly private affair and religious symbols are banned in public and the state cannot gather statistics in their census on religious identity? Does it mean a separation of church and state, like in the US Constitution? Does it mean like in Germany, where the state funds each recognised religious community by collecting a church tax (or even zakat) on their behalf from each believer’s payslip every month?

None of the above, actually. Perhaps Ram Jethmalani said it best about Indian “secularism” in 2005,

The noble concept of secularism that took centuries to evolve through great struggle and blood in Europe was converted into a smokescreen for the worst kind of vote bank communalism practised by the Congress for luring minority communities, creating chasms between the majority community and the minority communities, particularly the Muslim community, and then proclaiming sole guardianship of their welfare through promoting religion based vote bank politics of the most anti-secular kind.
[T]he monopoly for declaring what is secular and what is not, however warped or diabolic its definition, still remains a very personal political asset of the Congress.

What Have Indian Parties Achieved Since Independence?

All in all, it is lazy to assume that socially constructed groups such as Indians, Hindus, Muslims, Jews, conservative voters, or liberal voters are monoliths, with a hivemind, and that they are defined by their national, religious, or political identity before anything else. Rich urban bourgeois Indians in news studios and air-conditioned newspaper offices may have the leisure and social capital to expend on defining themselves by their political views, and are even paid for it, but in the case of ordinary people, it is quite different.

Before applying any of these labels on oneself, ordinary Indians define themselves, first and foremost, as hard-working — there is almost nobody in the country who does not wake up in the morning in order to provide a livelihood and build a better life for their children. There is only limited social security, inadequate unemployment allowance, minimum wages are rarely enforced, and pensions a pittance unless one was already wealthy during one’s working age.

The fact that over our first 65 years of independence, hundreds of millions of Indians lived in desperate poverty, without access to decent housing, healthcare, education or clean water was not just a heinous moral failure, but a deliberate policy choice.

If lifting people out of poverty is the biggest social, economic, and moral challenge of our country in this era, then labels matter less than results. As Deng Xiaoping said, "it doesn't matter if it's a black cat or a white cat, as long as it catches mice”.

For the entire second half of the twentieth century, instead of focusing on providing a roof over every Indian's head, access to healthcare, education, and clean water, or food security, our post-colonial socialist establishment instead chose to not only maintain, but strengthen, the two-tiered India we inherited from the British.

Rather than empowering the poorest Indians with the tools they needed to lift themselves out of poverty and to live with dignity at long last, our elites left them in darkness, literally and metaphorically.

Meanwhile, our Nehruvian bureaucrats began expending our state's limited resources on creating top-down institutions, like elite universities or an administrative service with perks that insulated its members from the poor, designed to not so much to serve our masses, as much as they were to send a message to the world that our elite could compete with their elite. To quote Oscar Wilde, we may have all been living in the gutter, but some of us were looking at the stars.

Looking out for themselves, these Oxbridge-educated Fabian ‘socialists’ created structures to ensure that their fellow Anglophone elite could retain the social capital they had enjoyed during colonialism, and be treated as equals with the Western elite, as unofficial ‘honorary whites’ .

During our lost decades of psuedo-socialism, committed socialist countries like East Germany, Poland, or Czechoslovakia, after having been ravaged by the trauma of war, occupation, and collaboration, somehow managed to build cities without slums, villages with indoor plumbing and toilets, an educational system that was the envy of the world, access to high-quality healthcare for every citizen, and women's access to work, safety, and legal rights. Today, post-communist Slovakia has the highest home ownership rate in the world. Its sister state, the Czech Republic has the lowest GINI coefficient in the world, making it one of the world's most equal societies in terms of income.

These countries started rebuilding as tattered an economy and society in the mid-1940s as newly-independent India, with the added limitations of command-economy socialism and a Soviet occupation, and yet managed to create dignified lives, safe cities, educational opportunities, and healthcare access for all their citizens within a generation, why couldn't our Indian ‘socialists’ do the same?

Plus, central and eastern Europe did not even need Marshall Plan aid in order to achieve this, like western Europe did. If anything, some of them had the opposite of reconstruction aid — their industrial infrastructure dismantled and transported to the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) as war reparations, like the original Audi factory in Chemnitz, East Germany. Infrastructure apart, some of these countries, like Poland, lost more than 15 per cent of their population.

If they could start from nothing (or even less than nothing) and yet achieve such results, India was in no worse economic or infrastructural shape upon independence. Money was not what was needed, political willpower was.

Which means our decades of poverty from 1947 to 1991 were the result of a clear policy choice by the Congress and its hegemonic elite.

What about after 1991? Let's look at Vietnam, which only gained full sovereignty almost 30 years after India, and was sequentially at war with a superpower US, regional hegemon China, and an irrational, violent extremist neighbour in Cambodia until 1991. Why is it that Vietnam, a communist state to this day, is now featured by the World Economic Forum (WEF) for having achieved the most rapid and sustainable human development and economic development in our lifetimes? The WEF says this was achieved by simple reforms that transformed the country from one of the poorest in the world into a “socialist-oriented market economy”, saying,

In 1986 the country created its first Law on Foreign Investment, enabling foreign companies to enter Viet Nam. Since then, law firm Baker & McKenzie said in a 2016 report, the law has been revised a number of times, mainly to adopt a more pro-investor approach while aiming to reduce administrative bureaucracy and better facilitate foreign investment into Viet Nam.
Viet Nam’s efforts did not go unnoticed in international rankings. In the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Report, Viet Nam rose from 77th place in 2006 to 55th in 2017. In the World Bank’s Ease of Doing Business rankings, meanwhile, Viet Nam rose from 104th place in 2007 to 68th place in 2017. Last year, the Bank said, Viet Nam made progress on everything from enforcing contracts, increasing access to credit and electricity, paying taxes and trading across borders.
Finally, Viet Nam invested a lot in its human capital and infrastructure. Facing a rapidly growing population - it stands at 95 million today, half of whom are under 35, and up from 60 million in 1986 – Vietnam made large public investments in primary education. This was necessary, as a growing population also means a growing need for jobs.
But Vietnam also invested heavily in infrastructure, ensuring cheap mass access to the internet. The Fourth Industrial Revolution is knocking on Southeast Asia’s door, and having a sound IT infrastructure in place is essential preparation.

Our morally bankrupt (yet financially secure) socialists never even pretended to make an attempt at such institutional or ground-level reforms, either before or after liberalisation and the opening of our economy. The transition to capitalism in the 1990s, just like in our erstwhile leading trade partners in Russia or Czechoslovakia, was not about giving the poor new opportunities, it was about the elite monetising their social capital. Make as much money as you can while nobody was looking, was the mantra, like a certain socialist regional satrap from Uttar Pradesh, who lobbied to become defence minister, and suddenly went from sleeping on a rustic charpai to only staying at 5-star hotels. In the words of his Australian-educated son, “Khatiye pe sone waale mere baap ko five star ki aadat laga di,” who also went on to serve a term as chief minister of that state.

It was also exemplified by the son of the Admiral, who leveraged his connections in this new world of economic opportunity to become an arms dealer, and imported a BMW for his Wharton-educated son. A BMW which, within a month of its arrival in New Delhi’s tony Golf Links, still without an Indian registration plate, ran over seven people on Lodhi Road, killing six. But when you have money and connections and restrict anyone else from access to them, laws about registering your vehicle or speeding or killing people are not so much obligations as they are suggestions.

Speaking of BMWs, perhaps the best example of the Indian elite ecosystem in the 1990s was the idol of our nation, a stylish, wristy exponent of his art, with a love of watches, starlets, and Bavarian luxury sedans, who spent the decade in the country’s second-most important and by far most respected job, yet ended the decade breaking down in front of a video camera at the Central Bureau of Investigation in New Delhi, admitting that he took money to throw away the pride of the nation, and had even been photographed with the perpetrators of the worst terrorist attack in the nation’s history. This defining moment, was chronicled for future generations by Sharda Ugra and Sayantan Chakravarty, in poetic prose,

Even for a government babu’s office, it was a long, uncomfortable moment. There they sat, 10 interrogators all cramped into one room, taking notes, cross referencing their memories and shuffling through papers.
With them sat a man who was slowly, in front of their eyes, collapsing into himself. He wore a green and yellow T-shirt that screamed sunshine but chose to cover his eyes with dark glasses. His hands, the ones they called among the safest in the world, were locked into one another but his life’s work, his very life, was slipping through those fingers.
Mohammed Azharuddin, former India captain and darling of millions, found himself in front of the officers of the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and a mountain of evidence, and could only say, ‘Haan, maine match banaaya tha (Yes, I had fixed the match).’”

This one is the best story of all, because of what happened next. When the Congress came back to power in 2004, he was elevated to Parliament, claiming that he had been victimised for being of a certain faith. After the political ecosystem rehabilitated him into the corridors of power, their incestuous cousins in Bollywood finished the job by rehabilitating him in the public’s eyes. In a nutshell, the story of how the elite in India always looked after one other.

So, How Is Modian Socialism Different To Nehruvian Socialism?

It was only with the election of 2014 that India saw its first Prime Minister to have been born after Independence — some called him a “backward caste”, some a “subaltern”, some a “proletarian”, some a “chaiwallah”, some an “upstart”. Narendra Modi, whose political education was informed and shaped not by the freedom struggle to end British colonialism in India, but by the very real economic and material struggle that hundreds of millions of poor Indians face every day.

And thus, “Modian socialism", to use Yogi Adityanath’s colourful phrase, was born. Those wealthy libertarian economists in the US, who cheered for Modi’s election thinking he would be a pro-business, pro-bourgeois reformer, were soon to be sorely disappointed. For, far from a shock therapy transition to full capitalism, like they had pushed for in Poland or Russia in the 1990s, Modi turned out to be a socialist in the garb of what they assumed to be a ‘centre-right’ leader.

Not dissimilar to Vietnam’s reforms, Modi focused on the low-hanging fruit, broad institutional reforms to improve the ease of doing business, while focusing on improving grassroots access to electricity, sanitation, healthcare, housing, cooking gas, and even Internet. Removing the structural barriers to growth, while empowering those at the bottom of the pyramid with the basic infrastructure they need to lift themselves out of poverty.

His surprise demonetisation, to howls of protest from what had been seen as the BJP’s core voters — the urban and petite bourgeoisie of small and medium business owners, made him wildly popular with the masses. Whether it achieved its stated goals or not can be debated, but sometimes, like the Joker said in The Dark Knight, “it’s not about the money. It’s about sending a message.” A quote from the peak of demonetisation came from Indian Minister Uma Bharti, a window into this mentality,

This is the Marxist agenda which the PM has started. What Lohia, Kanshi Ram, Marx had had said, the PM has started that.
Marx always said there should be samaanta (equality). There should be no disparity. If a person has a house of 12 rooms and elsewhere there’s a single room where 12 people are living, then such disparity is unacceptable. And that’s exactly what the Prime Minister is saying — reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.
But it shouldn’t be done in a way that people are pulled out from those 12 rooms and the place occupied forcefully. It can be achieved by opening Jan Dhan accounts, MUDRA yojana and bringing accounting for black money.
I believe that Left groups across the world should compliment (sic) Modi.

Poor Indians remembered that message very well, saying that for the first time in their lives, they saw the rich having to line up for something just like they do. The first time the money and connections of the wealthy could not grease away an inconvenience, the first time nobody could act like they were any superior to them.

The best example of the change in mentality is a simple one.

Before the advent of Modian socialism, poor people were shamed or forced into behaving in accordance with a certain elite definition of civility or decency, with signs like "Littering/Urinating/Spitting here is strictly prohibited. Rs 50 fine — By order”. This was an approach which criminalised the poor for something they did not perceive to be wrong, nor was an alternative available. Rules like these were often perceived as unfair by their targets, and thus either ignored or actively contravened.

Laws or signs like these only work when one gives people alternatives they can use. Nobody wants to live surrounded by garbage or the smell of urine, the poor did not choose to live like that — it was the state that chose not to waste infrastructure budgets on the unworthy.

Nothing says this more than the engraving above the doors at New Delhi’s Central Secretariat. When the new imperial city was completed according to Sir Edward Lutyens’ master plan, this engraving was revealed, which gives us a rare window into the mentality of our colonial masters, and their pseudo-socialist successors.

“Liberty will not descend to a people;
a people must raise themselves to liberty;
it is a blessing that must be earned before it can be enjoyed.”

Compared to the paternalistic, patronising, infantilising approach for 65 years, after 5 years of bottom-up Modian socialism in place of top-down Nehruvian socialism, we are now seeing a change to a culture wherein instead of forcing or shaming people to follow rules, the focus is on making it is accessible, attractive, and affordable for them to do so.

Today, a mobile app (accessible even to the poor) can tell you where to find the closest public toilet. The “Don’t litter — by order” signs are slowly being replaced by those which say, "The nearest dustbin is 50 metres to the left."

A culture of bottom-up reforms that empower people with the tools and knowledge they need to make better choices. This twin approach encompasses what MIT professor Otto Scharmer talks about as "ecosystem rather than ego-system" solutions that contextualise problems and their root causes at the societal level rather than focusing on the failings of individuals, and what his colleague Bill Aulet calls User Innovation, creating solutions that solve the individual's problems in an effective and accessible manner.

But, Is Narendra Modi An Islamophobic, Fascist, Hindu Nationalist?

It is a myth that Muslims do not join nor vote for the BJP, and that the party is hostile to their interests. It is estimated that 8 to 10 per cent of Muslims voted for the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance in 2014. In the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan and Karnataka, this figure rises to more than 15 per cent. Take a deeper look into this data, and one even finds some surprising patterns. According to Rahul Verma from the University of California, Berkeley and Shashwat Dhar at Vanderbilt University,

The BJP’s Muslim voters are economically better off than Muslim voters of other parties. The BJP’s Muslim voters are more educated with 55 per cent of them having studied up to Class 10 and above … Interestingly, Muslim women are more likely to vote for the BJP. Women constitute about 56 per cent of the BJP’s Muslim support base, while men account for only 44 per cent.
The BJP’s Muslim voters are more religious in their outlook: they are more likely to pray, attend religious gatherings, observe fasts and visit mosques. They are also more likely to oppose inter-caste and inter-religious marriage. While 55 and 68 per cent Muslim respondents who voted for other parties said inter-caste and inter-religious marriage is unacceptable, the proportion among the BJP’s Muslim voters was 62 and 73 per cent respectively.
What can be the driving factor for these Muslims to vote for the BJP? First, while it may be a bit early to argue, the data suggests that the aspirational classes among the Muslims are more likely to vote for the BJP.

The BJP may indeed be hostile to the Congress-groomed conservatives who appointed themselves gatekeepers of the community, such as the All India Muslim Personal Law Board or AIMPLB (which despite the fancy name, is not a constitutional body, just an ordinary non-governmental organisation or NGO given undue patronage and attention by the establishment), but at the level of individuals, it treats minorities not merely as equal citizens, but has created specific initiatives for their socio-economic empowerment and improved access to education and welfare schemes.

I do not claim to speak for anyone but myself, but I can say this: assuming that all Muslims or Catholics or Jews collectively vote against the BJP because the AIMPLB or Catholic church or Israeli government tells them to, is a particularly insulting and patronising form of bigotry, robbing individuals of their agency and voice, assuming them to not have the capacity to make their own choices and vote in their own self-interest.

The current Minister for Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, has come on record to say that "development without discrimination" is a priority of the BJP government, adding,

Education is an effective step towards empowerment. The government is successfully moving forward towards educational and social empowerment of all weaker and backward sections of the society, which will stop their political exploitation.

This has included scholarships directly deposited into the bank accounts of more than 31.1 million students from minority communities, 60 per cent of them are girls. He credits this with a reduction in the school dropout rate among Muslim girls fell from 70 per cent to 35 per cent, with a view to reaching 0 per cent in the future.

The BJP’s core slogan in the 2014 election was not an appeal to religious identity, but rather the promise of inclusive development — ‘sabka saath, sabka vikaas’ (with everyone, development for everyone).

In Pakistan last year, the religious conservative candidate, backed by the army, Imran Khan (sometimes known by the moniker ‘Taliban Khan’ among liberal Pakistani living rooms) campaigned with the promise to build what he calls an "Islamic welfare state", saying “my inspiration comes from the last Prophet who set up an ideal welfare state in Medina”.

For this, he was hailed by sections of the Indian and international media as a great liberal reformer. It is very interesting indeed to note the approving response to a welfare state directed only at members of one faith by the Prime Minister of Pakistan, and the hostile response to an inclusive development agenda by the Prime Minister of India, who never even invoked the term “Hindu Rashtra” in his campaign.

Time for another thought exercise. Which of the following sentences was said by British Home Secretary Sajid Javid and which by Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi?

  1. "Every year, we spend over 100 billion dollars on securing the world from terrorism, money that should have been spent on building lives of the poor."
  2. "You can't get away from the fact that these people are using Islam, taking a peaceful religion and using it as a tool to carry out their activities"
  3. "The fight against terrorism is not a confrontation against any religion. It cannot be."
  4. "I think it is absolutely fair to say that there is a special burden on Muslim communities, because whether we like it or not, these terrorists call themselves Muslims."
  5. "We must reject any link between terrorism and religion. Those who spread terror in the name of religion are anti-religious."
  6. "We must advance the message of Sufism that stands for the principles of Islam and the highest human values."
  7. "You can't get away from the fact that these people are using Islam, taking a peaceful religion and using it as a tool to carry out their activities"
  8. "I will also be looking at what more I can do to strengthen our already strong partnership with Israel, especially in security."
  9. "[We] hope that Palestine soon becomes a sovereign and independent country in a peaceful atmosphere"

So, how many did you get right?

  1. Narendra Modi
  2. Sajid Javid
  3. Narendra Modi
  4. Sajid Javid
  5. Narendra Modi
  6. Narendra Modi
  7. Sajid Javid
  8. Sajid Javid
  9. Narendra Modi

Surprised? Don’t be. Sajid Javid, despite his Muslim background, is an ex-Muslim and admitted atheist, who not only seems comfortable being one of the top leaders in a Conservative Party currently being rocked by allegations of Islamophobia, but often appears to share hostile views of some of his party members, towards the Muslim community. Just ask Baroness Warsi.

Yet, there are people who feel that Sajid Javid becoming prime minister of the UK once Theresa May steps down would be a great victory for tolerance and inclusivity for the Muslim community. If you are interested in shallow symbolism and tokenism, by all means do so. If you would rather have an Uncle Tom who merely looks the part but does nothing for you, that is completely your choice.

But it is indeed amusing when the same people who choose to turn a blind eye to Sajid Javid’s hostility to the Muslim community in his country, are the ones who choose to turn a blind eye to Narendra Modi’s inclusive policies towards the Muslim community in his country.

Interestingly enough, the governments of the Muslim-majority states of Afghanistan, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE have taken note of Modi’s inclusive policies. Enough to have awarded him their highest civilian honours — the Nishan-e-Dawlati Ghazi Amir Amanullah Khan, Grand Collar of the State of Palestine, Order of Zayed, and Order of Abdulaziz Al Saud.

That apart, if you are interested in peace between South Asia's two nuclear-armed neighbours, even Pakistan's conservative, Islamist, military-backed Prime Minister, Imran Khan, who many Indian liberals and leftists view as a great and generous broker of peace, and trust more than their own state’s military or government has said, in the run-up to the election,

Perhaps if the BJP — a right-wing party — wins, some kind of settlement in Kashmir could be reached.

All in all, Modi is more pro-Muslim than any Western liberal leader. He publicly stood up for giving Muslim women equal rights, railed against the "all Muslims are terrorists" trope, condemned mob justice by vigilantes, supported Palestinian statehood, expanded financial aid to minorities.

Western leaders, no matter how liberal or progressive, cannot seem to see beyond engaging in tokenism, and offer mere “tolerance”, with all its negative connotations. Do we tell our parents, siblings, partners, or children that we tolerate their presence in our homes and lives, or that we love them and want to offer them every opportunity available to them?

Instead of tolerance, the policies of Modi and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi offer not just equality of opportunity, but upliftment and mainstreaming, so that no citizen of India can feel socio-economically disadvantaged by virtue of their birth or religious identity.

As for the term ‘fascist’, it is not one to be used lightly, and fascism is a very specific historical socio-economic order, with specific socio-economic conditions around it. Everyone you don't like is not a fascist, not Trump, not Netanyahu, not Orban, not Duterte, not Modi. And it is not me who is saying this, discover it for yourself from those with the right credentials at the Economic and Political Weekly’s interactive tool – A Tic-Tac-Toe Guide to Fascism.

As for “Hindu nationalism”, Modi himself is on record saying in a nationally-broadcast interview that both he personally and his party institutionally do not believe Hinduism is a religion, but rather a way of life, in line with the views of the Indian Supreme Court, which ruled in 1995,

Ordinarily, Hindutva is understood as a way of life or a state of mind and is not to be equated with or understood as religious Hindu fundamentalism ... it is a fallacy and an error of law to proceed on the assumption ... that the use of words Hindutva or Hinduism per se depicts an attitude hostile to all persons practising any religion other than the Hindu religion ... It may well be that these words are used in a speech to promote secularism or to emphasise the way of life of the Indian people and the Indian culture or ethos, or to criticise the policy of any political party as discriminatory or intolerant.

Finally, even if the BJP were a nationalist party, and neither does it claim itself to be, nor do I, there is nothing to apologise for. There is a difference between the nationalism of the colonial metropole in the global north and the nationalism of cultures and civilisations in the global south which systematically hollowed out by colonialism over centuries. Doubly so for a multicultural postcolonial state like India with a civic, not ethnic, form of national identity.

India is not a European ethno-state like interbellum, post-Trianon Hungary, with a state policy of revanchist tendencies to reclaim what was lost in Partition. With the state that our neighbours are in, even the most hardcore Akhand Bharat enthusiasts find themselves unwilling to reintegrate Pakistan or Bangladesh into the country’s borders. Nor is India Poland in the 1990s, celebrating the end of socialism by replacing statues of Lenin with Pope Jan Pawel II and turning the government into the Catholic church's sandbox. Nor have Indians ever been a colonising power or settler state whose modern prosperity arose from slavery, genocide, imperialism, and racial supremacy, wherein nationalism means being proud of such a history and the structures and injustices from that era which still exist today.

The nationalism of the colonised is a movement for justice, equality, and a self-respect which was systematically destroyed during colonialism and which remains suppressed today. Suppressed by the top-down imposition of bourgeois values designed to strip the hoi polloi of the social capital they need for upward mobility.

For postcolonial societies, nationalism means reclaiming self-respect for indigenous cultures, value systems, and philosophies. Today, we only celebrate our Swatantrata Diwas (Independence Day) on 15 August every year. But as we have seen over the 72 years of an independent, democratic India, Swatantrata (independence) means nothing without Swarajya (self-rule), Swarajya means nothing without Swabhimaan (self-respect).

During our freedom struggle, be it Lala Lajpat Rai, Bal Gangadhar Tilak, Bipin Chandra Pal, Subhas Chandra Bose, or even Jawaharlal Nehru Mahatma Gandhi, all of them were called nationalists at one point or another, and our path to freedom was called the national movement for a reason. There is no party in India today that does not have a history of nationalism, barring those of the Left Front.

And if you still have a problem with the term or the concept, go ahead vote for the Left Front, we do live in a free country, after all, and I’m sure they’ll appreciate your vote. Vote for a party so untainted by nationalism, it even declared and fought an armed war on Independent India from 1947 to 1950, against what it saw as a “fake independence”.

The CPI declared that the Indian independence was fake — their new slogan said so: ‘Ye azadi jhooti hai’. The Congress and its leader Jawaharlal Nehru had become the stooges of Anglo-American imperialism and of the feudal elements within the country, and, therefore, a movement had to be started to replace it and thus achieve real independence.

So do enjoy the delicious irony that in order to avoid voting for nationalists, you may have to vote for a party that always saw your beloved Nehruvian socialism and its Anglophone elite for what they really were.

Also read: The Hypocrisy Of The Indian Elite And The Reactionary Brutality Behind Their Liberal Veneer

Ruchir Sharma is an international public policy professional in the fields of police reform, counter-terrorism, and climate change. 

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