India’s Modi: ‘free market’ authoritarian

May 14, 2014

World in View

by Gerry Emmett

Narendra Modi, the head of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), has brought a new wrinkle into politics. He manages to appear simultaneously at his Hindu Right campaign rallies in different cities via the holographic projection of his image.

This science-fiction style of politics mirrors India’s social transformation in recent decades. The country has become more urban, developed new hi-tech industries, and has a larger middle class with income to spend.

Odisha state, India—Dongria Kondh villagers stop development of bauxite mine on tribal land. Photo by Bikash Khemka/Survival International.

Odisha state, India—Dongria Kondh villagers stop development of bauxite mine on tribal land. Photo by Bikash Khemka/Survival International.

The historic Congress Party, led by Rahul Gandhi, and the Communist Parties that have ruled states like West Bengal, have run into the contradictions of capitalism and been unable to deliver both capitalist growth and social security. Modi states openly that his program will be to unleash “free market” reform coupled with authoritarianism in government.


Modi’s own history can tell us what his authority portends: the massacre of 2,000 Muslims in his own state of Gujarat in 2002, for which he, as chief minister, was charged with “comprehensive failure” by India’s National Human Rights Commission and refused a U.S. visa. He shows no remorse for his role in this, and continues to attack the rights of minority groups. Modi in fact aims to reverse the central ideological tenets of Indian independence—the “free market” vs. Congress’ mild version of socialism, and religious fundamentalism vs. Gandhian universalism.

Indian democracy faces capital’s inherent contradictions, which won’t be overcome by a turn to the Right, while at the same time being beset with other problems rooted in the pre-capitalist past. Modi’s use of Hindu religious bigotry is an example of the deadly interplay between all these. The thought of a religious bigot controlling the nuclear arsenal aimed at neighboring Muslim Pakistan is ominous.

Issues of caste prejudice, and the brutal exploitation of tribal peoples, remain. The areas inhabited by Indigenous peoples are among the poorest in India. They have been repeatedly subject to violence and the theft of their ancestral lands. The introduction of an even more authoritarian form of capitalism only promises them more conflict.


Women are another group threatened by a Modi-led government. The ratio of girls to boys in Gujarat (918 girls to every 1,000 boys) is among the lowest of any Indian state. Child marriage, teen pregnancy, maternal mortality, domestic violence, and sexual assault remain at high levels. The campaign that followed the brutal gang-rape and murder in New Delhi two years ago generated a new consciousness of the problem, but as yet little change in the culture or human relations that lead to such crimes.

The rate of conviction for crimes against women is very low in Modi’s Gujarat. What is worse, as pointed out by Amrit Wilson, “…it is the fascistic violence of the Sangh Parivar [Hindu Right] that, more than anything, indelibly marks women’s lives in Gujarat. During the 2002 pogrom against Muslims, women and children were specifically targeted” (The Guardian, April 4, 2014). This has been repeated by fundamentalist Hindu groups in other states as well.

Modi’s proposed “free market” reforms remain vaguer than the authoritarianism of his actual record. What can be said with confidence is that he won’t scruple to use the kind of force against workers that he has shown himself willing to use against Muslims. This has included even the frame-up extrajudicial killing of “terrorists.” The extension of that label to struggling workers is utterly predictable.


Labor struggles have grown along with the development of Indian capitalism. Over 4,000 Toyota assembly workers are currently locked out in Bidadi, near Bangalore; 26,000 public transport workers are on strike in Maharashtra; and nearly 4,000 Nokia assembly workers, mainly women, went on hunger strike over the threat of job losses in Tamil Nadu—exactly the kind of job losses free market ideologues see as necessary to rationalize the labor market.

A Modi victory bodes ill for all India’s poor and oppressed. Yet it may happen. Modi has used the very unsustainable rate of economic growth seen in recent decades as a mirage to court voters, a trick Reagan mastered decades ago. It may gain his Right-wing coalition enough parliamentary seats to place him in office.

Promise and delivery are two different things, however. What Modi would deliver would be another variant of the authoritarian capitalism seen in various forms in Reaganite America, Putin’s Russia, and China.

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