India: The People’s Response to Neoliberal Nationalism

Interview with Shalmali Guttal, Executive Director of the Focus on the Global South, Thailand.

Given the scale of the mass protests since September 2020 and a resounding convergence between social movements on a national scale, the Hindu supremacist government of Narendra Modi was forced to repeal its agriculture sector reforms at the end of 2021. How can we understand this victory in the context of neoliberal nationalism and what are the current challenges for social movements? Insights from Shalmali Guttal, Executive Director of Focus on the Global South in Thailand.

India provides a good and peculiar illustration of what neoliberal nationalism looks like. Indeed, since his election in 2014, Narendra Modi has sought to impose a neoliberal, identity-based and authoritarian agenda on Indian society. Could you explain, in the case of India, how ethno-religious nationalism interacts with neoliberal policies?

The roots of neoliberalism in India were laid in 1991, when India entered into a structural adjustment programme agreement with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund under the Indian National Congress (INC) regime. Since then, successive governments have pushed economic reforms to move the country towards a full, capitalist, market economy, allowing agents of national and transnational capital increased influence in policy and regulatory reform proposals. But it was the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) that recast India’s economic-financial globalization programme into an elite, pro-corporate, hyper-Hindu-nationalist blueprint.

Some analysts argue that India does not as yet have a neoliberal economic order because the Indian state retains tremendous power over the country’s economy, and market forces are not as free as expected under neoliberalism. But neoliberalism is not about “less state;” rather, it is about whose interests the state serves. In India, the state increasingly serves those with wealth and/or the potential to generate wealth, primarily from particular strata of the Hindu social order and religion. For neoliberalism and nationalism articulated in cultural-religious terms to flourish in a country identified as socialist and secular in its Constitution, the state has to make structural changes that negatively affect much of the population, resulting in widespread unrest and justifying the necessity of an authoritarian state. A distinctive feature of the present regime is centralization of economic and political power and weakening of the basic tenets of federalism that bind India as a nation while respecting regional cultural, religious and political pluralism.

In contemporary India, neoliberalism and capitalist development are firmly attached to cultural, ethno-religious nationalism in narrative and practice. The former derides the public sector and make promises of an unfettered market leading to a prosperous future, while the latter invokes a romanticized civilizational past disrupted by foreign marauders, which then renders Indians (of particular religious groups, castes and classes) deserving of future rewards from economic and financial globalization. The ruling regime uses the lure of markets, operational permissions/licenses, tax breaks, land and other benefits to elicit the silence of corporations in the face of political, social-cultural repression. Criticisms that the regime does nothing for the poor are countered by a raft of expedient welfare schemes to satisfy particular constituencies, but without touching structures of social-economic inequality. Economic muscle and potentiality of profits to attract foreign investment are closely tied to political legitimacy–of both the party and leadership–even if the promised returns from economic growth do not reach the poor and rural-urban working classes. Economic self-interest and social aspiration combine to enable the mutation of democracy into a hideous form of majoritarianism.

Which are the main causes that explain the rise of hindu supremacist ideology in the country?

The main causes include material and cultural factors that are both, historical and contemporary. On the material side, there is a general failure of India’s post-independence modernist project to deliver well-being for a large proportion of the population, especially among the middle and working classes, and urban and rural poor. British colonialism not only impoverished the country, but also deeply fractured India’s diverse population through divide and rule strategies, injecting disunity in the liberation movement that became violently oppositional post-independence. The INC piloted India to independence, but then undermined its own integrity through factional leadership, patronage politics, social-religious opportunism and a turn to authoritarianism that resulted in widespread abuse of human rights. Instead of instituting robust democratic citizenship across classes and castes, the INC leadership resorted to populism and wooing vote banks, triggering backlash from upper classes and castes, and entrenching discrimination against particular castes as well as poverty among disenfranchised groups.

Economic-financial liberalization and structural adjustment reforms initiated in the 1990-s deepened the immiseration of rural and urban poor, and created economic hardships for the middle classes, resulting in widespread disenchantment with secularism, modernism and so-called socialism. The conditions were ripe for the Hindu right’s ascent to power through affiliations and coalitions at multiple levels, which it used effectively to promote its narrative of a prosperous, politically Hindu nation.

Hindu supremacist ideology is encapsulated by the term ‘Hindutva, ’which in its original Sanskrit formulation means Hindu identity and qualities but has been transformed into a national political ideology that extolls the virtues of Hinduism, and stigmatizes both non-Hindu identities/peoples, as well as oppressed social groups and castes within Hinduism. Hindutva was exalted as an organizing concept in the 1920s by V.D. Savarkar, a Hindu nationalist imprisoned by the colonial British Administration for organizing resistance against British rule in India. Savarkar was inspired by the Nazi and fascist parties in Germany and Italy respectively and called for the construction of a collective Hindu identity to build Hindu unity in the face of threats of non-Hindu ‘others.’ Hindutva was adopted as the central organizing pillar for building a Hindu nation by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationalist, right-wing, militant, volunteer organisation founded in 1925. The RSS has spawned nationalist organisations since its founding in both India and abroad, who form the RSS family (Sangh Parivar). India’s current ruling party, the BJP, is the political party of the RSS family and much of its senior leadership has roots in the RSS.

Many Hindus believe that Muslims and minority communities have been appeased by the INC for votes at the cost of Hindu identity and dignity. The BJP is unabashedly Hinduist and has given disgruntled, resentful Hindus the confidence to valourise Hinduism. Over the past three decades, the RSS family has presented Hindutva as a broad and inclusive concept, challenging India’s earlier claims to secular modernism. Indian courts–including the Supreme Court–have also contributed to the promotion of a benign view of Hindutva in various judgements, conflating it with Hinduism and Indianness, providing the Hindu right with grounds to claim that Hindutva has a constitutional basis. The much-touted phrase that “Hinduism is a way of life rather than a religion,” is dangerous in the context of Hindutva: it reinforces a social order based on the belief structures of Hindu upper castes, rendering those of other castes and religions as adversaries of a hyper-Hindu social order. Caste and religion have colluded with market forces to reproduce and entrench power asymmetries and stoke intolerance and violence.

Could you explain how Modi mandate’s policies are nurturing socio-economic maldevelopment in India?

One of the most destructive policies in the past decade was Demonetisation, that came into effect in November 2016, and precipitated an economic crisis with long-lasting effects. Currency notes of Rs. 500 and Rs. 1000 were banned and almost 86 % of India’s currency was wiped out overnight. Demonetisation did not root out “black money” and wealth-hoarding as claimed by the government. Instead, rural and urban workers (especially daily wage earners) lost incomes and jobs, and the already meagre savings of low-income families without bank accounts were rendered worthless. People could not get cash from banks (especially in rural areas), nor pay for healthcare, medicines and food. Farmers and fisherfolk were unable to sell their goods, and small-scale businesses could not pay employees, suppliers and service providers.

Economic, social and environmental policies have consistently favoured corporations and large capital over small-scale businesses and food producers, workers and the poor. Land acquisition for large infrastructure projects, industrial agriculture and resource extraction-development projects have dispossessed rural populations and increased environmental fragility. India’s public health system was already enfeebled by three decades of disinvestment. When the COVID pandemic hit India, this bare bones public health system bore the brunt of the pandemic response and collapsed. Emergency measures to tackle the pandemic did not boost the public health system and health services outreach especially in rural areas, nor did they provide economic succor to the poor. Instead, we had brutally enforced lockdowns that caused tremendous suffering to millions of migrant workers across the country, and criminalization of those who critiqued government policies. Even today, two years into the pandemic, our public health, education, social protection and public distribution systems are starved for resources. Instead, labour and environmental protections have been further loosened, benefiting large businesses, but undermining the country’s working classes, rural communities and diverse eco-systems. The three farm laws that were rammed through Parliament in 2020 (in the midst of the pandemic) rob farmers of whatever little agency they have and allow corporations to expand control over the agricultural sector.

A very serious issue is the undermining of democratic citizenship, fundamental rights and freedoms, and a free, independent press. The social-economic impacts and implications of the Citizenship Amendment Act have been written about widely. Civil society organisations, human rights advocates journalists, academics, university students, social movement leaders and even lawyers, are being hounded, harassed, intimidated and arrested for questioning and criticizing government policies and programmes, and demanding accountability. The government can levy charges of sedition and harming national interests against anyone it considers a threat. This has the knock-on effect of silencing dissent and heterodox views and eroding public participation in governance.

To what extent collective action managed, as demonstrated by the recent mass protests (2020-2021), to counter attacks by the government on the working class and attempts to suppress any challenge to capitalism from below?

Although protests by farmers, workers and students have clearly mounted powerful challenges to capitalism and narrow nationalism, the ruling regime has many tools by which it suppresses dissent, discredits policy failures and persecutes critics. At the same time, these recent mass movements have birthed new conscientisation across the Indian public of the importance of solidarity, voice, agency and assertion of democratic rights. It remains to be seen how cognisant the regime is to these issues and how it will respond to them.

Would you say that those recent mass protests have undermined Modi’s majoritarian Hindu nationalist narrative and programme?

Not entirely. The farmer-led protests against the three farm laws are historical in their size, length, public participation and support, and clarity of purpose and strategy. The protest leadership effectively avoided capture by any political party and built much needed solidarity across religion, castes and cultures. They have given Indians much needed impetus to build inclusive, democratic, rights-based citizenship. But the Hindutva proponents have powerful social-cultural-political outreach machinery and abundant finances to retain their hold on people who have bought into the Hindutva-means-prosperity narrative.

From your perspective, what are the issues at stake now for the social and grassroots movements?

A pressing, continuing issue is addressing the economic crisis that urban and rural poor and working classes face. Pro-corporate and market policies, demonetization, communal riots and the COVID pandemic have resulted in dispossession from land and property, destruction of environments and livelihoods, hunger, poverty, and various forms of extreme hardship that can only be properly addressed through progressive structural change. Economic challenges are compounded by deepening climate change, the brunt of impacts of which are borne by low-income groups.

It is important to recognize that social, cultural and religious prejudice and intolerance result in violent events that have complex distributional effects in all spheres of our lives. But to stop such events and actions, we have to overcome deep mistrust, suspicion and polarization in our society that is constantly being perpetuated through partisan politics and policies, and amplified through various outreach means, especially conventional and social media.

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