West’s problematic embrace of India’s Modi

Modi’s poll win is evidence that India’s slow and complicated process of decolonisation is in advance state of arrest.

The Hindu right-wing, which is Modi's political home, peddles a recycled imperial understanding of India [EPA]

The mainstream Western media, its liberal outposts included, is quick to denounce unfriendly non-Western politicians as despots and dictators but is not known for judging pro-Western politicians in Africa and Asia with questionable records too harshly as long as they sing throatily from a hymn sheet that is friendly to global big business.

The accession of Hindu nationalist, Narendra Modi, to India’s top post, however, appears to have blunted any critical edge altogether. Editorials greeting the electoral victory of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have ranged in tone from carefully neutral to actively laudatory, a reception that is hard to imagine being accorded to any other political adherents of religious chauvinism, still less one on whose watch terrible religious pogroms took place.

In the weeks leading up to Modi’s win in national elections, mainly on a powerful anti-incumbent wave against the outgoing United Progressive Alliance (UPA) coalition government, the respected conservative magazine, The Economist, actually stood out for its firm refusal to endorse Modi, understatedly describing him as ‘a man who is still associated with sectarian hatred.’

Following his victory, editorials in Britain and the US have treated the question of Modi’s role in the 2002 Gujarat massacres (euphemised as ‘riots’) where over nearly 800 Muslims and over 200 Hindus died, as something of an unfortunate footnote. It has been reduced to a passing query that might be considered (or not) while getting on with the main business of pushing up profit figures for the big business interests whom Modi has pandered to and who in turn backed his campaign vigorously, not least with disproportionate airtime.

Editorials greeting the electoral victory of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) have ranged in tone from carefully neutral to actively laudatory, a reception that is hard to imagine being accorded to any other political adherents of religious chauvinism, still less one on whose watch terrible religious pogroms took place

Such bland endorsements of democratic outcomes (even where 70 percent of the electorate has not voted for the BJP) were to be expected. More problematic however, is the suggestion that Modi’s victory represents a moment of final decolonisation, ‘the day when Britain finally left India,’ as one prominent British newspaper editorial put it.

Postcolonial nation

Nothing could be further from the truth. Modi’s election is, rather, tragic evidence that India’s slow and complicated process of decolonisation is in an advanced state of arrest and that the postcolonial nation may now remain in thrall to the British Empire and its pernicious legacies for good.

Far from offering a new or original vision of collective good, the Hindu right-wing, which is Modi’s political home, peddles a recycled imperial understanding of India and is parasitic upon some of its worst civilisational assumptions and the repressive institutions the British Empire bequeathed its former possession. These include laws criminalising ‘sedition’ and criminalising homosexuality, both of which are embraced enthusiastically by the Hindu right. Rather than any kind of original economic vision, the much touted ‘Modinomics’ embraces a very Western idea of what ‘development’ means and craves validation from the West.

The ethos of ‘Hindutva’ or ‘Hindu-ness’ which insists that multi-religious and multi-ethnic India is fundamentally a ‘Hindu Rashtra’ or ‘Hindu Nation’ first emerged as a political reaction to the racial and civilisational superiority inflicted by the British on those parts of the Indian subcontinent which they governed. A racial hierarchy where Britain was at the top and ostensibly in a position to ‘civilise’ its subjects provided the justification for ruling over the diverse principalities and communities which comprised the British Empire.

Those strands of Hindu revivalism which were the precursors of today’s Hindutva, sought to redress the wound of colonialism by building itself in the mirror of its oppressor as a muscular, aggressive, superior, homogeneous and unassailable entity that would rule rather than be ruled.

Gandhian pluralism

In line with the colonial notion that Hindus and Muslims were irreconcilable entities, Muslims were blamed for weakening Hindu society and enabling Britain to colonise. As it happened, it was not this version of Hinduism that prevailed in the anti-colonial movement and the subsequent constitution of a formally secular state – those drew more strongly on a Gandhian version of pluralism.

But the seeds of an aggressive and reactive religious nationalism which moulded itself on a Victorian model of masculinity and civilisational superiority had been sown. It is this imitative mode which is now ascendant, replaying the quintessentially colonial rhetoric of the need for ‘lesser breeds’ – Muslims and other minorities – to be kept in their place and insisting on the need for a strong authoritarian state that will crush challenges to it when necessary whether these derive from tribal resistance or other nationalist movements. Far from breaking with the colonial model, the Modi regime may intensify its most lethal dimensions including militarisation.

An authoritarian state and rule by an omniscient leader is not, however, simply a relic of a superseded historical formation. It will be pressed into the service of the other most important legacy of the British Empire in India and elsewhere: proxy government by big business and multinational corporations, the East India Company being the world’s first such corporation, as the author Nick Robins has shown.

It is unclear how India’s continued incorporation into the trajectories of global capitalism, one of Modi’s most cherished aims, represents the ‘end’ of the colonial era. Does it do very much more than triumphantly replace, as the anti-colonial writer Frantz Fanon saw it, the rule of the white capitalist by the rule of the brown capitalist?

At the sharp edge of this recolored picture of exploitation, however, will remain many of the same groups who were also at the receiving end of British imperialism – the indigenous peoples displaced from their homes to accommodate mining conglomerates; the masses of sweatshop labourers making cheap consumer goods for export; smallholding farmers who commit suicide in the face of spiralling debt and the might of agribusiness, and the millions who live in gigantic urban slums eking out miserable livings servicing a prosperous global middle class.

True decolonisation

For Western journalists to hail the electoral triumph of Modi as a moment when the wretched of the earth have finally found a voice and banished the legacies of imperialism is not just historically absurd: it is also self-serving and ideologically skewed. 

Worst of all, though, it is deeply paternalist (another legacy of imperialism that has apparently yet to be discarded by sections of the Western media) to suggest that Modi’s record of authoritarian governance and his adherence to a rhetoric of Hindu civilisational supremacy (which has translated into violent practice by some of his supporters) somehow matters less because he supports big business and is likely to dismantle what pitiful welfare provisions there were in place for the poor, derided as ‘handouts’.

As is clear from the dismay with which far-right groups like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and the Tea Party movement in the US have been greeted by both liberals and mainstream conservatives, links to fascist ideologies and racist formations, however populist their appeal, are still considered beyond the pale for Western democracies. (Whether they continue to be so is another matter).

Is postcolonial India to be held to lower ethical and political standards and, if so, is that because it is not Western or simply because of the good business prospects on offer? As long as such deplorable relativism and degraded pragmatism shape the global economy and international relations, true decolonisation anywhere in the world, and India in particular, is destined to remain something of a desirable but distant dream.

Priyamvada Gopal teaches in the Faculty of English at Cambridge University. She is the author of two books, Literary Radicalism in India: Gender, Nation and the Transition to Independence (2005) and The Indian Novel in English (2009). She is currently working on a book called Insurgent Empire: Anti-Colonialism in the Making of Britain.