By Pankaj Mishra
The legal cases against Yogi Adityanath, the new chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous and politically significant state, include attempted murder and criminal intimidation. This freshly anointed leader of 200 million Indians, nearly 20 per cent of whom are Muslim, wishes to install Hindu idols in every mosque in India, and has said that “if one Hindu is killed we won’t go to the police, we’ll kill 10 Muslims.” Needless to add, he has fulsomely endorsed Donald Trump’s immigration ban on citizens from several Muslim-majority nations.
Well before Trump, the global wave of demagoguery crested in the world’s largest democracy with the 2014 election of Narendra Modi, a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a Hindu supremacist organisation. Since then, the Economist wrote last week, “Modi has done nothing to stifle a growing culture of intolerance in India, not just towards Muslims, but towards all critics of the prickly nationalism that the BJP espouses.”
Still, the decision by Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party to exalt Adityanath to high political office provoked shock and consternation. Some observers of Indian politics are mortified that the party that won the Uttar Pradesh elections last week on a promise of delivering economic development and jobs now appears to be backtracking.
Such “shocks,” it is safe to say, are felt only by the deluded, the naive and the disingenuous. Adityanath’s apotheosis is simply more evidence of what’s been obvious to anyone who has witnessed the Hindu nationalists’ ascent to power through decades of violence and hateful rhetoric.
Modi, himself accused of complicity in large-scale violence against Muslims while chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002, has never concealed his loyalty to the exclusionary ideals of Hindu nationalism. Nor has he ever downplayed his determination to do what it takes to entrench “Hindutva” (literally, “Hindu-ness”) in Indian institutions. His election promise of development and jobs is among other things a means to a higher goal: making India a strong Hindu nation.
Those who expect only development and economic reforms from Modi — and who excuse his more inflammatory statements as the price to be paid to win political support — ought to re-examine their assumptions. Increasingly, they resemble those well-intentioned but deluded commentators who thought that the Bush administration’s war in Iraq, sold on a false pretext, would bring democracy to the Middle East. They ignore a simple and eternally valid lesson: Tainted means can never bring about beneficial ends.
After noting Modi’s indifference to the assault on civil society in India, the Economist adds, “Yet he has also pressed ahead with economic reforms.” There is no hint here of how Modi’s political and economic policies are to be reconciled. Indeed, the ideological fervour implicit in such words as “yet” and “also” remind us that “more reforms” has been the battle cry of foreign investors and the financial press for nearly three decades. Russia’s former president Boris Yeltsin, for instance, was praised, by the Economist, among others, for his “reforms” even as he supervised the fire sale of his country to oligarchs. Rwanda’s despotic leader Paul Kagame repeatedly gets the benefit of the doubt because he is thought to be an economic “moderniser.”
But politicians appearing to pursue economic reforms have their own specifically political agendas, such as Modi’s Hindu nationalism, which relies on demonising a large section of the Indian population and condemning Muslims in particular to second-class citizenship. It is far from clear that the benefits of economic reforms will be available to all under such a regime.
This is why the sloganeering about reforms today inadvertently echoes the many intellectual defences of appalling regimes in the past. Many respectable businessmen and writers hailed fascists and Stalinists for making the trains run on time and the economy grow faster. For these cheerleaders of economic modernisation, a brighter future always seemed about to dawn, until the encroaching darkness became impossible to ignore.
At the best of times, the abstract projects referred to by the cliche “economic reforms” have long-term and uncertain outcomes; they cannot be used to condone the basic contempt for individual dignity that many would-be economic reformers defiantly manifest in the present. For too long, investors, op-ed pundits and journalists have legitimised and normalised unsavoury politicians by going on about “reforms” and “modernisation.” It is time to stop.
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Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”