interviewed by Andy Heintz
First published on: siawi.org
Do you see Prime Minister Narendra Modi as part of a worldwide trend of country’s electing nationalist leaders around the world?There is an international phenomenon of nationalistic and xenophobic forces that are on the rise in the world. There are some similarities, but considerable local national differences that have driven Modi’s rise. The big common element is creating perceptions of being anti-elite, anti-cosmopolitan, anti-intellectual, and nationalist. The local national conditions are crucial here though there are international factors, the most notable being the role of India’s influential right-wing diaspora from the UK and the USA.
What can the Left do to counter the nationalist appeal of figures like Modi? What mistakes have the Indian Left made that has allowed Modi and his Hindu nationalist party to gain such a foothold in Indian politics?
The long process of rise of the Far right in India has had its own reasons and history can’t simply be attributed to the failures of the Left. The language of Modi is pretty crude, sharp, brazen, uneducated talk – often intended as a spectacle of shock and awe and that appeals to an impatient public. He is a new type of authoritarian leader – different from the old conservative elites of the Hindu right – but he is very much part of the right-wing Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which dates to the mid-1920s. The RSS, whose founders saw the Nazi final solution against Jews as exemplary and made links with Mussolini to refashion their organization model along Italian lines  has been banned thrice since India’s independence in 1947. Modi was an RSS ground-level activist for more than 20 years and rose from the ranks to become the three-term chief minister of Gujarat state , which saw big pogroms in 2002, that received a huge amount of social support. The RSS believes in majoritarianism and defines Indian Identity as essentially rooted in ‘Hindu culture’, that all other religious groups must lend allegiance to the dominant Hindu-ness. This ideology is one of creating border lines and cleavages along religious lines or camps and creating an imagined glorious history of the past of India – dominated by all things Hindu and creating an atmosphere of suspicion towards the minorities and whipping up fear. It is the India version of fascism. Its growth has been slow and molecular, but widespread across India. .
Modi’s idiom, that of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) is part of the old RSS fare, but its dramatic manner of deployment of divisive communal ideology and crude nationalism has had a big social echo in political mobilization certainly starting in 2013-2014. He is popular among large sections of the jet-setting professional class, and also the new entrants to the middle classes who have an axe to grind against India’s eroding democratic institutions, and there is a social consensus for arm-twisting authoritarian ways to deal with social chaos and upheaval.
In the post 1990s liberalization phase, there has been a change in the social composition of the middle classes, and a whole vast new section of the labouring people with poor schooling and limited familiarity with history of the Nehruvian period and the anti-colonial period. The liberalization phase has certainly shifted the social fulcrum to right-wing ideas and neoliberal methods as the route to take. The Nehruvian period has been under attack by BJP and Modi. A mass poisoning of minds – crafting a ‘communalised’ social common sense. The BJP is one party which has had an early organized communication’s strategy, and which has used technology effectively. Upon being denied a visa to travel to the US in 2005, Modi spoke from Gujarat to supporters in Madison Square garden via satellite link video. The BJP used the mobile phone messages and personalized calls like no other party, since then they have a special IT cell. The BJP and Modi regime has engineered a whole new technical ecosystem in the Indian context way beyond anything attempted by other parties. Modi has over 20 million followers on Twitter, they use WhatsApp, Facebook, mobiles phones for spreading their propaganda very massively. A number of very big media networks (owned by tycoons close to the BJP) that spread fake news and target liberals also have been used to great effect. BJP adopted hologram technology in pre-election rallies prior to the 2014 general elections creating a new visual register as if in religious mythology seen on TV  . Over the past three years, there is a Narendra Modi App available for phones and tablets  and people are being encouraged and pushed into using this app with direct messages from the prime minister. A whole new technical ecosystem, that Indian political formations haven’t been used to.
On paper in statements and in its every day discourse, the left is very clearly challenging the Hindu Right, But, oddly it shares a common thread (with right-wing BJP) of disdain for India’s Congress party, a former ruling party now in opposition. The left has long history of being unable to directly mobilize the public to challenge communalism hands on. It has had interminable debate on whether ‘communalism’ is fascism or authoritarianism (or on the character of the Modi regime). It has an old fashioned ‘Comintern’ (Communist International) style take on fascism. It explains it away simply by pointing at connections to capitalist big business interests. The slow sustained work on society by RSS through propaganda, social work and thousands of schools has had a considerable mind shifting influence and cultural appeal on society in India. The RSS has over 50,000 branches in small towns and cities across India that holds daily or weekly meetings.
The RSS of today has become socially acceptable. It has a wide social influence beyond its membership that has a lot to do with BJP having been in government earlier in 1998, 1989-2004 before returning to power again after 2014. Its ‘communal’ project resonates at multiple social levels through multiple entities – it also has infiltrated different arms of the state, the bureaucracy, and particularly the police. It has a vast project of working through educational, cultural spaces and lately through the media. The RSS runs thousands of schools and coaching facilities and has a large student arm in the university campuses. Whenever the BJP wins political power it facilitates the activities of the full network of RSS associate bodies, which include ‘soft’ ones to those on the extreme right that are erroneously described as marginal fringe groups but are a connected with the RSS nomenclature. Since Modi took power the institutions of national importance have systematically been taken over by members and supporters of Hindu nationalist organisations (The National film school, The State Broadcaster, National Book Trust, Museums, Archives, Universities). Efforts have been made to intensify the communal campaigns around ‘beef eating’, ‘against interfaith love marriages’ and ‘ghar-wapsi’ (return back to the fold) or conversion to Hinduism of the tribals or indigenous people’ and whip up massive anti-Pakistan, anti-migrant, anti-Rohingya, and anti-Bangladesh hysteria. Muslim citizens and Christians are being labelled as outsiders and foreigners with suspect national loyalties.
A large chunk of India’s youth population is jobless and economically precarious, and they are politically targeted, cultivated and mobilized by the right-wing message machines. There is no shortage of social rage and short attention spans, so one-liners were used for propaganda to egg people on to join the fray against the scapegoats. The target pointing and direction setting is usually done by the right-wing activists with love for militarism, masculinity, regimentation, for scapegoating some social group as the cause of the social and economic crisis and lack of jobs. The emphasis is on nationalism, national flag, the borders, against anti-nationals, challenging reality-based facts with fake news. The RSS has in its social mobilizational project often used Hindu religion as a social marker. They have systematically infiltrated, appropriated and re-crafted religious events and festivals. Obscure festivals have been politicised where now national flags, nationalist songs and anti-Pakistan slogans get chanted in addition to religious fare. What were marches of devotees and believers have been turned into events with spectacular loud noise events – with a large number of unemployed youth as participants – promoting a muscle flexing intolerant Hindu culture. The BJP and RSS are heavily invested in this ground level mobilisation. Since coming to power in 2014, the BJP has gone in an overdrive to enlarge its membership and now have over a million members, larger than any political party in India.
The broad left (Parliamentary Communist Party’s and the socialists, the far left and the unorganised open left) doesn’t run schools, soup kitchens, do yoga in the parks, do relief work with victims of natural disasters, or put on popular festivals. It has no counter-educational program with labouring, poor classes or the middle class who are all today also divided along chauvinistic identitarian lines. It’s very characterisation & theorisation of communalism and secular politics remains a prisoner of a minority syndrome – this has been the case for most in the broad left liberal circles … where you are mostly firefighting. There has been a hesitation to push universal secular family laws for all citizens with no concessions on identity.
Has identity politics influenced progressive politics in India?It’s important to mention that the Indian left has a hard time washing an old stain from the past. As the political movement led by Jinnah demanding a separate homeland for Muslims gathered steam in India in the 1940s the communists passed what was called the Adhikari resolution (1942) – which saw the Muslim demand for partition as justified in keeping with their Stalinist take on the nationality question – Muslims were turned into a nationality by this stretch of imagination.  They regretted it as mistake later, but there is no big public discussion of this history, and it remains a taboo topic.
The non-communist left has a long history of allying with the RSS and its political fronts. They did it in 1967 to form a non-Congress party government in different states and again in 1977. The communist left front engaged in seat adjustments with the BJP in 1989. In 1991 the far left in its bastions in Bihar refused to move against a communalist BJP mobilizational caravan that later led to the demolition of the Babari mosque in Ayodya in December 1992 by Hindutva activists.
Prominent leaders of the left addressed political meetings along with conservative Muslim religious leaders when the US President Bush came visiting India in 2006 . What was the point? Why rub shoulders with the Muslim Right to challenge imperialism and war? Some on the far left, for instance, have at times joined hands with political Islamists for solidarity, turning the perfectly secular Palestinian question into a Muslim question. Many Dalit groups join hands with student Islamist groups. Progressives have given some traction to occasional alliances with different sectional interests organised along identitarian lines … allying with ‘dalits’, or indigenous people without having a shared universe. This is short-term political opportunism without doing educational work among its own membership to challenge caste and identity politics. In fact for sections of new-generation far left political activists, universalism is a bad idea, politico-religious circuits of militant Islamists, Indigenists, nativists are respectable allies, they consider India as a conglomeration of conflicting identities driven by popular will of ‘the people/ masses’ who are essentially ‘pure’, incorruptible and can’t go wrong.
The left and democrats are also way behind in efficient use of technology to challenge the right. The digital environment is now an extension of the public sphere so it’s very crucial to use that space. Left parties have been unable to address and persuade a public drawn to right-wing culture … and that is because there already had been a pre-existing social acceptability to values of obedience and conformity, misogyny and xenophobia. This is the utterly ordinary fascism of everyday, the hierarchical and authoritarian Indian family and society which is what the right wing or extremist forces have used as building blocks. The parliamentary left that ruled parts of India for over three decades hardly managed to change social mores, obscurantist beliefs, or widespread discriminations based on caste or religion among the ‘unwashed masses’. It fought public political battles over right to land, over wages, but left the social outlook connected to the personal sphere un-addressed. The left and secularist circles should have stood out by creating a new secular culture (e.g. by actively promoting inter religious, inter-caste, inter-ethnic marriage. Promoting secular public education in a manner going far beyond school, connected with daily life, everyday matters, challenging orthodoxy and social biases.) But the left put all its beans on what the state should be doing, not on what democratic forces could do to create a progressive counter culture (counter to a closed culture of moral policing over sexuality, personal freedoms and openness) in society to inculcate a practical everyday secularism and not sloganeering.
The Modi government may go out of power one day, but communalism or Indian fascism is here to stay unless it is fought every day in society.
Have the police made any efforts to crack down on the violent campaign against people suspected of trading or consuming beef? Have the police received impunity for some of their own alleged crimes?The federal police and state level police administration take orders from the governments of the day. Corruption and political interference in police affairs have been going on for decades, but in current times with BJP in power at the center and in vast number of states, the police have been told to go after beef traders and cattle transporters. there also are parallel volunteer militias of the Hindu right that have had the active cooperation of police in their activities. The police have not cracked down on their own. They have acted on complaints, many of which are fake. There have been many instances of mobs attacking and even lynching people suspected of consuming beef and or transporting it. In these instances, police have watered down cases against lynch mobs, and cases have been filed instead against the victims, many who are in prison or facing continued harassment. It’s a situation that is similar to the so-called blasphemy cases in Pakistan.
Can you talk about how the violent campaigns against anyone suspected of trading or consuming beef has had negative ramifications on the way many Dalits make a living?[BTW since you specifically mention Dalits (who are not just Hindu but also Christian and Muslim) you should know that the BJP and many Hindu right outfits has managed for the past decades to woo large numbers of Dalits and lower caste people and tribals within its fold, their numbers are considerable; they were the foot-soldiers in the Gujarat pogroms of 2002)]
A whole set of new cow-protection measures were introduced after the BJP came to power in 2014 and licences for thousands of small meatshops and slaughterhouses were cancelled this has hurt the cattle markets and leather industry, where the poor and Dalits are employed. And, on the other hand private vigilante groups and cow-protections militias with links to the RSS came to operate on the streets with full impunity. Dalits and low caste workers (Hindu, Muslim or other) are the ones who were butchers, meat workers, or those who would skin dead animals and trade in skins and hides. There have been umpteen public instances of mobs of Hindutva-driven right-wing men attacking dalit workers. In 2015, in Dadri not far from the national capital Delhi, a mob of neighbours attacked a Muslim home and lynched a man for allegedly slaughtering a cow calf. In 2016, there was an assault on four dalit workers in a small town called Una in Gujarat, and a Muslim man was lynched by a mob on suspicion of cow slaughter in Madhya Pradesh’s Satna district. There have been hundreds of such instances .
The important thing to note here is wide participation of villagers and residents of cities who join in the crowds led by right-wing militants. Phones videos of these incidents are recorded and circulated massively on social media. As to ramifications, yes there are considerable economic implications of this for rural and urban informal sector workers, vendors, consumers, even transporters. No serious studies are available, but this has led to disruption of the economy, work lives, and job losses as people have had to find alternative occupations. Statistical estimates are limited, and it will take some time for serious studies to understand the scale of impact which isn’t just limited to Dalits but to a large-sections of meat-eating India. 
What are the main sources of Modi’s popularity? Do you think it’s his promises of economic populism? Has his popularity lessened since his election? Why or why not?Modi’s economic policies and promises have not gotten very far (The unemployment rate has gone up from 3.41 percent in 2014 to 6.22 percent in 2018), but still despite that the facts don’t seem to matter. His entire election campaign show was around corruption, but he hasn’t gone after the big guys among whom some are his own funders. He suddenly ordered a hugely disruptive de-monetization affecting millions and harming the vast informal sector of the economy. He used very clever propaganda saying all the millions standing in queues outside banks to pull out money are facing hardships like soldiers do on the national borders to protect the security of the nation. This sacrifice by the people will cleanse the country. Like a showman he launched a day of yoga where all state officials were on call to be on yoga mats. Big spectacle as if that would cleanse the country’s health in one shot. Modi has considerable popularity, though recent polls do show a decline. The four-year tenure of the Modi government has really changed the social atmosphere: vigilante mobs roam freely with impunity (they have active connections with RSS affiliates and BJP), and a widely shared sense of fear has crept in for the minorities.
The rare far-right activists, politicians or state officials/senior police officers who were charged for extra-judicial killings and complicity in 2002 Gujarat riots have mostly been acquitted of charges after Modi’s arrival to power. A very prominent case is that of Swami Aseemanand, a far-right Hindu extremist monk who worked in Gujarat state with close ties to the BJP, including to Modi himself, was allegedly involved in multiple bombings in which over a hundred people died, was acquitted and allowed to walk free, despite his confessions. 
Social violence has been growing. India was ranked fourth in the world in 2015 – after Syria, Nigeria and Iraq – for the highest social hostilities involving religion, the Huffington Post reported on April 14, 2017. Modi still has a star rating of sorts and manages to reach out through high velocity media spectacles. The big leader with a wide chest that the world takes note of is sold every day. His anti-intellectualism, jingoism, tall tales of mighty nationalism can be intoxicating when laced with religion or identity.
There are no simple explanations of his wide popularity, but he surely spurred a new cult of a high visibility leader figure bigger than his political party, with his photos on all roads and you name it. He has visited over 50 countries in his four-year tenure. Footage of his speeches to the abroad, particularly to the diaspora are broadcasted to ‘untraveled’ audiences in India with glamourous footage of the countries to great effect. His brash oratory seems to sell; he now officially uses the national public radio network for a monthly talk, unlike any previous prime minister of India. Massive use of social media to nurture and scale up Modi’s persona continues. A section of society is on a high (as in intoxication), and it will take them a long time to cool off. In any case, authoritarianism and regimentation are popular in Indian society, Hitler’s Mein Kampf remain’s among the most widely sold books. 
Can you talk about Modi govt’s crackdown on civil society, environmental and human rights groups as well as on journalists, academics, activists, and others critical of the government?There is a real sense of shrinking democratic space. Yes, there has been a long crackdown. It has been two pronged, at one level it has directly involved the state law enforcement machinery and at another level it was unleashed via its political party machine, a propaganda drive using right wing private TV networks, social media etc that create fake news inciting right wing groups and militia to go after civil society organisations and individuals. The Modi govt has clearly unsettled the governing consensus, many former state officials have been repeatedly been writing open letters to the govt to respect the framework of Indian constitution to not allow for misuse of state appartus . It’s a bit like 1950s’s style McCarthyist witch-hunt in America. The difference is that this hasn’t stopped at just depriving people of jobs and shaming them, some have been killed by ‘unknown assailants’. They have targetted civil society organisations working for social justice, lawyers groups, environmental groups run by activists with impeccable integrity. Many have been denied funding permits and faced trumped-charges in court to demobilize and exhaust their staying power. In 2016, for instance, the Modi-led Indian government issued a 24-hour blackout of NDTV, a TV news channel that had been critical at times of the Modi administration. Journalists have been targeted and threatened, editors have had to resign . A very popular Hindi TV anchor has been facing death threats and phone calls, and other journalists are being threatened almost daily by an online army of trolls on social media . The police under the control of the Modi administration has mostly desisted from taking action against these Facebook or Twitter users because they have leading members of the government, including the prime minister as followers. A number of progressive academics, intellectuals, lawyer’s, human rights activists who work with or write about campaigns of downtrodden have been arrested on charges of supporting the Maoist insurgency. Prominent citizens have taken up these matters with courts seeking relief and justice. 
There have been assassinations of prominent humanists: M.M. Kalburgi, Narendra Dhabolkar and Govind Pansare. The investigations into them haven’t gone far. Gauri Lankesh, a Bangalore-based journalist who was the last prominent humanist killed, has also seen an endless police investigation – finally many Hindutva right-wing activists have been detained, but they are likely get big time legal support funded by the Hindu right. . Vigilante mobs attack cinema halls and certain film directors and actors, and writers, teachers and student leaders have faced assault, foreign scholars and musicians visiting India have come under attack or threat. There have hundreds of instances of intimidation of right to information activists, anti-corruption whistle blowers and journalists.
Why do you think the number people being punished for gender-based crimes has been so low during the Modi government?The conviction rate on gender crimes in India is very, very low and has been for long time. Violence against women and children is a national sport that has been growing and will keep rising for a long time.
The standard talk from the right-wing figures or traditionalists is this is to constrain women’s freedoms: they shouldn’t step out, they shouldn’t wear this, etc.
Secondly, they call for death penalty for rapists, or cite security cams as the answer. The progressives may be different in outlook, but they put all their efforts in issuing statements and focus on punitive lawmaking, and ‘basta’ [Enough in Italian and Spanish].
India has had a declining male / female sex ratio since 1911. According to UN data, 37 million males outnumber women nationally in India . The number of girls born in India continues to plummet. India needs to counter this. It’s already a pretty violent society. There is practically no adolescent sexuality education in schools and beyond, so for millions sexual assault is adventure sport. The right has a very repressive take on sexuality. But taboos exist on the lefty circuits too, no one has stopped the progressives, trade unions, progressive social movements to vastly promote a healthy sexual culture in a sick society or to promote equality and sexual freedoms while at the same time challenging the misogyny seen every day.
What kind of pushback are you seeing against Modi’s sectarian rhetoric by groups and people determined to uphold India’s tradition of secular governance?Modi’s party, the BJP, has a domineering political hold over India. It has majority control of both houses of India’s parliament and has majority governments of its own in 13 provincial state assemblies. It is in coalition governments in several other states. So, its political footprint is big being in power in states across India.
A wide range of groups have organized public events and citizen’s tribunals to inform the public against these violent sectarian campaigns. One of the most impact-making events was the return of state awards by prominent writers: this got a lot of reading people to sit up and take note. The international media has done a remarkable job of giving visibility to dissenting voices in India. But the Modi government has hardly batted an eyelid as it has struck back by trying to discredit writers and intellectuals who speak up by calling them anti-nationals.
There is wide variety of groups speaking up for justice and freedoms. There have been long drawn out struggles by students and teachers on specific campuses, by national workers organizations, small urban non-governmental organizations, some protests by media workers but also by new citizen’s campaigns speaking out against mob lynching’s and shrinking secular spaces. These groups are able to draw a section of middle class and a silent majority to speak on single issues. But the fact remains that Modi and the RSS has a big reach-out machine. The divided opposition political parties have largely been absent or silenced and are not mobilising actively on the ground other than during elections. They are finally coming together to forge electoral alliances for the upcoming national elections in 2019, where much is at stake. Recently there have been a number of national mobilisations by political parties protesting against social and economic policies of the Modi government.
What kind of economic programs and policies do you think needs to be pushed to help those not currently benefiting from the Indian economy?An imaginative new social democratic economic program that offers creative solutions to protect worker’s rights and promote safer healthy work environments. The key focus should be to promote a transition to a new economy that is ecologically and socially friendly, and not dependent to a large measure on financial markets. It should include health and social protections, promote cooperatives and instill a high dose of public funds to improve public education – civic education at all levels – and to build re-training facilities for workers. De-militarize and fund large-scale public works for scaling up social and public infrastructure. India needs a whole new model based on a non-fossil fuel dependent economy that promotes reduced water use and waste recycling on a vast scale. This model should run cooperative solar farms, consumer cooperatives, alternative housing cooperatives, and cooperative digital services. It should rethink old-fashioned trade unionism married to productivist models of endless growth. It should be a time-limited system with affirmative action and minimum guarantees for the most economically backward. It shouldn’t be based on ethnicity, caste, or religion but on indicators of class and so on …
Has Modi been supportive of caste system in India? How much popularity does the idea of caste systems still have in the country?
No political party is overtly supportive of the caste system. There is an upper caste elite of north India that has big stake in the BJP, but it also has a big sway on other political parties in India. Modi has cleverly packaged himself being low caste. Modi has a whole slew of low caste representatives in his parliamentary majority or in the government. The newly elected president of India is a dalit and he was a candidate from the BJP led government. Data from the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) show that the rate of crimes against Dalits has been rising over time. In 2016, there were estimated 214 incidents. But still the Modi government tried to dilute Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes 
Modi or no Modi, caste and all manner of identity politics is flourishing in India. Caste prejudice is part of the essential infrastructure and makeup of society. Caste composition of electoral constituencies drives electoral strategies of all parties. So, this is not simple black and white issue. It’s much more complex. Modi or BJP may go, but caste is here to stay. it’s a long-term battle to take on caste and all identity politics via a common secular civil rights movement that doesn’t run out of gas. Difficult to say if such a formation will take long-term roots.
Harsh Kapoor is the founder and editor of sacw.net – South Asia Citizens Web. The interview was conducted in June 2018.
A shorter version of this interview will be included in Andy Heintz’s upcoming book ’Dissidents of the International Left’.
Andy Heintz is a freelance journalist who has been published in the Culture Project, Europe Solidaire Sans Frontieres, Foreign Policy in Focus, Secularism is a Women’s Issue, Balkan Witness and CounterVortex.
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