Geopolitics on the rocks

Prabhu Guptara

What game is Modi playing?

South Asia

Prime Minister Modi has long used his towering image abroad to mask India’s economic problems and the huge social unease his program to “Hindutvise” (or “saffronise”) the country is creating. Who is benefiting financially from the political entrenchment of India’s new elite?

Prime Minister Modi’s image, both in India and abroad, was highly burnished by his stunningly large electoral victories in the recent local and regional elections. Though officially an election between the various political parties, it was clearly a poll on the Prime Minister’s personal appeal even if it was inevitably based on what is called “caste arithmetic” in India[1].

Modi’s party (BJP) won in Delhi itself, as well as in four out of the five States where elections were scheduled - Goa, Manipur, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand; only Punjab was won by the Congress Party. Not just that, the quality of Modi’s victories was “powerful”[2]. In the capital, out of 270 seats, Modi won 181, while the incumbent party AAP was able to scrape together only 48 seats, and the Indian National Congress finished a distant third with merely 30 sears. Modi’s triumph was particularly notable in India’s largest state, U.P., where he won 77.4% of the seats. The state has a population of 220 million people (if it was an independent country, it would be the fifth largest country in the world).

However, Modi’s huge victory was secured on the basis of only 39.7% of the votes in the state (contrast that with the fact that the opposition Bahujan Samaj Party won 23% of the votes but managed to get just 4.7% of the seats).

So the electoral triumph of the BJP doesn’t proportionately reflect the preference of the population. Moreover, these votes were apparently won by Modi primarily because he stoked divisive and emotional religious issues[3] rather than because of the strength of his record of achievement[4] - though that can’t be wholly written out.

Relatives and friends tell me of roads being repaired, bridges being built, applications for projects moving more quickly. The country appears to have a higher pool of financial savings, no doubt partly because of the negative factor of the currency shortage created by the shocking and mishandled demonetisation drive[5], but also partly because of the neutral factor of the government’s subsequent focus on dis-incentivising cash transactions, and partly also because of the positive factor of marginally lower inflation (4.8% in 2014-16, versus 5.29% in 2004-6[6]). In any case, for the first time in many years, there is an uptick in regular savings via India’s Systematic Investment Plans (SIPs). Gross household financial savings seem to be more congruent with investments in gold and real estate. More money is going into equity based mutual funds. The upper middle class is more invested in the Indian economy than at any time since the 1980s. As a result, markets have been buoyant – indeed, some commentators argue that valuations are too high[7].

All that is to put a very positive spin on Modi’s performance: between what he promised to get elected Prime Minister, and what he’s actually delivered, there is a chasm[8].

What all that means is simple: the government’s performance may be one small factor in Modi winning this round of elections, but that doesn’t mean that all is well. No doubt some blame should be directed at the historical legacy of misgovernment since India’s independence in 1947 – i.e., over a period of some three physical generations which has now seen 14 Prime Ministers. But Modi seems to be busy creating his own challenges for the economy and for society.

The first of these is over-centralisation. No matter how intelligent, wise and hard-working any one person at the centre may be, he or she is never going to be able to manage a nation of 1.3 billion people who, between them, are divided by some thousands of castes[9], and speak, at the latest count, 780 different languages which have 86 different scripts. Clearly, such a conglomerate is going to be much more successfully run in a devolved way. That was and is the design of the country’s Constitution. But Modi has been busy centralizing more and more power, whether through the national biometric identity card system called Aadhar[10] or through the new General Sales Tax system[11]. The latter has effectively revised the country’s Constitution. In the name of efficiency, Modi has taken to the Centre a substantial amount of the power that the States had for taxation[12], making them even more dependent than they had already been made over the years by the Centre.

The second of these is subverting the checks-and-balances in the Constitution, notably the power of the judiciary[13] and the media[14].

Both the above challenges are an integral part of the third: the campaign to entrench, over other branches of Hindu thought and practice, his own minority brand of Hinduism (“Hindutva”)[15]. The campaign is both top-down and bottom-up. The top-down elements consist of the use and misuse of official power to demote the values of the Indian Constitution, which can be summed up as “liberty, equality (not only for individuals and groups but also for religions), fraternity, accountability and transparency”. By contrast, Hindutva’s chief agenda is to remake the secular democratic nation into an officially Hindutvan country[16] (similar to the way that Pakistan is an officially Muslim country, even though most Indians look down on Pakistan as being a “failed state”). Changing India from a secular country with liberal and humane values to a Hindutvan country requires changes in the Constitution, and the BJP is working with might and main to accomplish those, bit by bit[17].

Bottom-up, in a culture war against liberal and humane values, the network of Hindutvan organisations[18] uses intimidation and violence to create a climate in which people are attacked or killed for even appearing to disagree with the Hindutvisation of the country, whether in relation to small issues or big[19]. The result is a breakdown in law and order[20] which the BJP hopes to use as another excuse for changing the Constitution in a Fascist direction[21].

What will the Hindutvisation of the country mean in practice? Muslims and other minorities[22] will of course become second class citizens, living at such levels and under such conditions as those thrown to them by the government. Foreseeably, those conditions will more or less match the way in which Dalits[23] have been treated through Indian history. The alternative to such suppression is either official disenfranchisement or physical elimination of this massive number of people[24]. Even though modern, humane, liberal and untraditional values were embedded in the Constitution, it took over half a century for Dalits, following centuries of suppression and slavery, to just begin to raise their heads. That is a process whose future will be challenged under Hindutva. Much of the current violence against Dalits is an upper caste reaction to the small degree of Dalit liberation which has been achieved so far[25]. But the problem is not only for them, it is also for the majority of Hindus who disagree with Hindutva, either for religious reasons[26] or for political reasons[27].

Overall, the challenge posed by Hindutva is not any of the above. Rather it is that the country is being looted in the name of Hindutva[28]. The rise and rise of the Modi-corporate combine has been prevented from being thoroughly investigated. Moreover, whatever is known, has not been allowed to be sufficiently communicated. Take just the matter of the Enayam International Container Transhipment Terminal (EICTT):

What shenanigans ensured that an ultra-mega port project, worth Rs. 27,750-crore (USD 4.3 billion), had only one bidder from around the world?
What incentives persuaded a Union Minister to abandon customary caution and objectivity, and use strong-arm tactics to beat down the Kerala Government’s opposition to the project?
Were Kochi Port, as well as the Vallarpadam International Container Terminal, both located a very few miles away, deliberately allowed to mark time and even deteriorate (running far below capacity) so as to create the conditions by which the EICTT could be created by Adani?
As in the case of Nazi Germany, attention focuses either on the mesmerising figure of Hitler himself, or on the horrors created by anti-semitism; few people ask who financed the rise of Nazism; fewer still investigate which individuals or companies benefited most from Nazism; if one asks such questions about Hindutva, one glimpses some disturbing answers[29].




[3] As one statement in the Upper House of Parliament (the Rajya Sabha) put it, the BJP may have been politically victorious, but it was not a victory of its policies, “Demonetisation has not won, but Demonisation has”:; “The BJP was nothing before it stoked communal passions by demolishing the Babri Mosque…So the BJP is built on the ruins of a mosque and Modi has been catapulted into electoral prominence … on the corpses of Godhra and Ahmedabad”

[4] “Third World corruption and poor performance in every field of human endeavor, particularly in governance, is the hallmark of India… The results of India’s chronic misgovernance face us every day, at every step.. The governments of India can no longer deliver even basic services, such as police and justice”;“If we measure Modi’s achievement against his stated objectives on areas like black money recovery, job creation, export growth, cleaning up India’s waste, ending terrorism and counterfeiting, ending cross border firing, etc… we’d reach the conclusion that he’s a complete failure”; one example is Modi’s failure with his showcase project to clean up the Ganges, considered the most holy of rivers by most Hindus, which is in reality more like an open sewer

[5] “Six Months of Demonetisation: Economy Sputtering but High Political Dividend” by Dr Arun Kumar,


[7] For example, Vivek Kaul,; see also:

[8] Initiatives are announced with huge fanfare but, on examination, turn out to be hollow. Take the case of cleaning up India’s bad loans mess in banks:; and; in terms of external policy, one can examine the case of ending cross border firing, Pakistan, China, and so on:; “In 2017, Modi may control the Indian narrative, but flounder globally: New Delhi has made a mess of relations with China, but the bigger headache could come from failure of PM's Pakistan policy”:;;;; “Armed with unparalleled communication skills, and with little time or data to enable independent impact evaluation of government policies, not to mention a listless opposition, Modi has been successful in getting votes based on intent….Perhaps one of the most intriguing statements by Narendra Modi in his victory speech after the historic wins in the Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand elections was, “We can make mistakes, but our intentions are never wrong”:; as far as can be ascertained, Modi does not believe in Naraka (the Hindu equivalent of the Christian concept of Hell) - in any case he seems never to have noticed the proverb that “the way to hell is paved with good intentions”. See also my article, “Modi’s machismo and the politics of diversion”, International Indian Yearbook 2017, ISSN 0964 8437, International Indian publishers, Frederick MD, USA.

[9] There is considerable controversy about how exactly to define a caste as against a sub-caste; the controversy is mainly because of the political struggle for taking advantage of educational and employment privileges reserved for lower castes under the Indian Constitution. Castes can be counted in various ways, and the resulting tally ranges from 6000 to 1200, while the sub-castes may be as many as 25,000.

[10] “The story of Aadhaar is one of coercion, rampant illegality and outrageous contempt of Supreme Court orders through which the project has built its database”, says Usha Ramanathan (; "Only 0.03% of people who enrolled in Aadhaar had no other form of identity before", admits the Unique Identification Authority of India:; “It is now entirely likely that by the time the [Supreme] Court gets around to hearing the challenge, the government will render Aadhar a fait accompli,” Suhrith Parthasarathy:; one important question is whether the fact that everything is known to the government about every citizen, while everyone needs a licence to do anything and everything, will mean that citizens will not dare to express anything critical, creative or progressive?:

[11] The Goods and Services Tax will erode state-level self-governance, and harm the country by ending incentives for states to attract businesses. But will GST will have any significant positive impact for the states? Difficult to say. What can be said is that implementation of GST will lead to increase in operating costs and working capital, due to cumbersome compliance procedures. We should also anticipate some disruption in supply chains, as some or many companies fail to cope:


[13] “Broadly speaking you have a situation where the executive branch of government is encroaching on, or making inroads in virtually every countervailing institution that this country has: the judiciary, parliament, the central bank, the media, etc.” - Siddharth Varadarajan in his interview with Professor Dr. Romila Thapar: ‘The Media Today is Not Communicating Reality But Propagating Ideology’; on the current challenges for India’s Supreme Court, see see also, and; further, Markandey Katju, retired judge of the Supreme Court of India, claimed that corruption has even seeped into the highest courts of the country; though he has since “apologised unreservedly” for his comments, his questions have not, in reality, been answered:; see also the comment by Rao Marx in response (and so published at the bottom) to the article at

[14] “The people in authority seem to have successfully mobilized a section of the media to actually assist them in the attack on university autonomy, critical thinking, differences of opinion….the media showing (selective) clips in order to incite public sentiment, is something very new and dangerous…. media proprietors are far more risk averse, far less willing to ask or have their people ask questions, and far more willing to clamp down on an interview, or a debate topic, or an op-ed. … certain kinds of questions will not be tolerated, and I think this is really what’s alarming – … important areas of enquiry are shut out and not aired….when you’re frightened of opposition and dissent, then you resort to the idea of shutting people up or not allowing people to speak”:; see also my article, “Press Freedom in India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi”

[15] The number of Hindutvans is difficult to establish, partly because of the number of organisations involved and partly because some people may be members of more than one of these organisations. However, an indication is provided by the membership of the largest organisation, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which apparently had 6 million members in 2014, presumably including members outside India: Six million is of course a large number, but the number of Hindus in India alone in 2014 was over 900 million.

[16] “The Indian Constitution….is based on ideas which are still not acceptable to the vast majority of the Indian people although they might be acceptable to the tiny minority which has received a westernised education. Those ideas are democracy, equality, secularism, human rights and, above all, the Rule of Law. All these ideas are of foreign origin and they are contrary to our traditions”

[17] Part of the programme is to stuff the top positions not only in the Executive, in the Judiciary and the bureaucracy, but also in all the most important institutions of the country with Hindutva adherents or sympathisers, regardless of their qualifications:; “universities have emerged as a frontline for official interference” S. Varadarajan in his interview with Dr Romila Thapar (already cited above); see also;;; these appointees then use their power not only to appoint other Hindutva adherents or sympathisers to the top posts, but also to use their positions to erode the secularism of these institutions; “BJP has been consistently riding rough-shod over legal, Consitutional and human considerations”; “there have been disturbing rumours of interference and the much more disquieting news is that the Chiefs of Staff have been weak enough to allow this to happen. If the rumours are true, the elected representatives of the people might get a few more votes, but the defence forces will lose the capacity to defend us and the sovereignty of our country”

[18] The network of Hindutvan organisations is referred to as the “Sangh Parivar”. “Parivar” means“family”; here referring to the several dozen organisations which have been started by members of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or have taken inspiration from its ideology.

[19] School textbooks are now doctored to give a Hindutvan spin in their content:; Jaipur’s Meat Sellers Living in Fear After Intimidation, Licence Crackdown:; Dhirendra K. Jha, Shadow Armies: Fringe Organisations and Foot Soldiers of Hindutva (Juggernaut Books, Delhi, 2017)

[20] For example, see;;;

[21] “Historically, fascism has three aspects to it, viz., ideas, movements and regimes…. “fascism/fascist” refer(s) to right-wing populist dictatorships marked by ultra-nationalist ideologies, the abolition of the rule of law (or its subjugation to ideology and/or the will of a supreme leader), and the destruction of democratic institutions…. (it) also refer(s) to movements that aspire to such regimes, and the ideologies that propel and accompany such movements”: Dileep Simeon, in Fascism: Essays on Europe and India, Edited by Jairus Banaji (Three Essays Collective, Gurgaon, 2013)

[22] The population of India was 14% Muslim (184 million adherents) in 2016; Christians, the next largest religious group in India, are 2.3% of the population (28 million adherents); other minorities include the Sikhs, Buddhists, and so on (each roughly 1% or less). Attacks on Muslims are widely reported, attacks on Christians less so; Buddhists in India are of two sorts: first, the armchair variety (mostly those who are highly educated and from Hindu backgrounds but don’t like the medievalism of Hindu practices, and so prefer to think of themselves as Buddhists); second, active Buddhists, who are almost all Dalits (regarding them, see the note below).

[23] Dalits and associated tribals and OBCs constitute certainly more than 50% of India’s population (Wikipedia’s entry says the correct figure is 85% of the country:



[26] Just as it is the average Muslim who suffers from the actions of fundamentalist Muslims (whether through terrorist bombings in general, through the failings of the state as in Pakistan, or through the constriction of freedom and prosperity as in Iran), so it is the average Hindu who is suffering, and will continue to suffer, from the ascendance of Hindutvans. See also Ashis Nandy, “Hinduism versus Hindutva: The inevitability of a confrontation”,

[27] Kapil Sibal, “A war of opposites“:

[28] On the alliance of big business with political gangsterism that has made India not so much a 'free economy' as a ‘free-booting economy’, see Josy Joseph, A Feast of Vultures: The Hidden Business of Democracy in India (Harper Collins India, 2017). Further, Rupees 1500 crores (just over US dollars 230 million) spent for the purpose of skilling over 1.8 million people, have recently been judged by a government committee to have failed to achieve key objectives while monetarily benefiting a great number of privately-owned training institutes; in fact, the government committee uses the terms “crony capitalism” to describe the attempts of these private companies to “extract maximum benefit” from public funds: The award-winning Indian film-maker, Anand Patwardhan opines that the BJP-corporate alliance will “rapidly subsume any and all citizen’s rights…. Assurances of rapid environmental clearances for mega-projects, weakening safeguards in the Land Acquisition Act, withdrawal of Gram Sabhas’ rights to decide the fate of mega-projects…, handing over large tracts of reserved forest land to corporates like Adani, amending the Coastal Regulation Zone to allow (these) lands to fall into the hands of builders, promoting the production of petrol and diesel driven consumer cars, and expanding the already vast network of expensive highways and flyovers, increasing Foreign Direct Investment in Defence and Retail” are, for him, dangerous portents: Moreover, crony capitalism is closely allied to the distortion of the justice system to protect “one’s own” and persecute those of other parties:

[29];;;;; so do the deals have more to do with “special” deals with US equipment suppliers than with the needs of India's electricity consumers?:; to have a historical perspective, see some older material at and at; see also Gas Wars: Crony Capitalism And The Ambanisby Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, Subir Ghosh, and Jyotirmoy Chaudhuri (available from From 2014, India has ranked ninth in the Crony Capitalism Index published by The Economist:, and the contemporary question is: has Modi’s Finance Bill 2017 legalised crony capitalism?: