Is the recent upsurge in religiosity and cultural nationalism a threat to the development agenda on the back of which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) supposedly rode to power? Is the ruling party’s Hindutva ideology distracting attention away from the economy? Is the ‘good’ BJP being held hostage by ‘bad’ fringe elements in the Sangh Parivar?
Nothing could be further from the truth. The ruling party has never made any secret that, for them, Hindutva and economic development go hand in hand. The prime minister has made no bones about his cultural nationalism, to the extent of asserting that India had extraordinarily skilled plastic surgeons in ancient times. His speeches on cow protection are legendary. But it’s not just that BJP leaders have spent decades imbibing the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ideology. There are other reasons why a religious and nationalist ideology could be a big help in the development of capitalism in India.
It is an enormous task to change a country of peasants and petty producers and traders into a modern capitalist one. True, many countries in East Asia have made the transition within a generation. But in none of them did the transformation take place under democracy. The task in India is made all the more difficult because it is a society riven by caste, linguistic, religious and cultural fissures.
The crucial ingredient for economic development is capital accumulation. England did it through the enclosure of common land and by exploiting its colonies. The erstwhile Soviet Union expropriated surpluses from the kulaks. Present-day China does it by financial and other types of repression. India has traditionally done it by promising the masses the moon and passing all kinds of pro-poor legislation, while taking little interest in their implementation and by providing sops, including cheap land and other resources, to the corporate sector. And in areas far removed from the cities, there has always been outright exploitation.
But, after decades of democracy and empowerment of the backward castes, the masses can no longer be taken for granted. Aspirations have gone up. Consider the ongoing agitations by the Jats and the Patels, two relatively well-off communities. And unlike in China, the government cannot use force to subdue them, although it is trying. Promising development is easy, but delivering growth with jobs is not. All the more so when government spending has to be kept in check, lest we attract the baleful gaze of the rating agencies. The Congress party tried to buy off the masses with sops, but that didn’t work simply because the rest of the economy went into a tailspin and inflation went through the roof. The contradiction between capital accumulation and social welfare burst out into the open.
Faced with this situation, what can the country’s ruling classes do? The masses are not enamoured of free markets. But nationalism is another matter and has been used to good effect. Consider the whipping up of nationalist passions and the invocation of Confucian values by the Chinese government in its awesome effort to label capitalism red in tooth and claw as communism. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always been a great admirer of the Chinese model, rather than the Western free market one.
Religion too has often been pressed into service. The Republican Party in the US has made good use of the religious right. Vladimir Putin has an alliance with the Russian Orthodox Church. These ideologies deflect attention from economic matters and paper over class conflict. In the US, workers have been so confused by the strategy that they have been content to see their share of GDP fall over decades.
In India, the ideology of Hindutva serves that purpose. It tries to paper over the cracks between the many fissures in Indian society. It tries to meld Hindu society together by pointing to a glorious past, sullied by the advent of the ‘other’, especially the Muslim and Christian ‘other’. It denies class and caste conflict. If the ruling party cannot fulfil its promises of material benefits, at least its ideology delivers psychological gains. It gives a sense of belonging to people who are seeing their traditional world fall apart and who are losing age-old moorings in society. It taps into resentment against a snooty liberal cosmopolitan elite, who have so far enjoyed the fruits of development. And if it helps the ruling party in its bid to win a majority in both houses of Parliament and in the major states, then it can overcome some of the restraints imposed by India’s democracy. The so-called ‘fringe’ is an inseparable part of this strategy.
Not that the government is neglecting the economy. That would hardly go down well with the elite, eager to plug into global circuits of accumulation. The prime minister has been giddily globetrotting to attract capital to our shores. As long as communal disturbances don’t become chronic, foreign investors will hardly be concerned—they are bothered only about profits.
But the government is unlikely to get quick results. The world economy is not in a good shape. The export engine of growth has shut down. The domestic corporate sector is in the doldrums. The banks are in a mess. A recent Credit Suisse study showed the richest 1% in India own 53% of the nation’s wealth, while the bottom half make do with a mere 4.1%. What better way to distract attention from these realities and buy time than by going in for a spot of ideological grandstanding now. And if it helps consolidate the Hindu vote in Bihar, so much the better.
Of course, whether we must pretend, as Lord Keynes put it, “that fair is foul and foul is fair; for foul is useful and fair is not”, is another debate altogether.
Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets.
Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org