The Bharatiya Janata Party regime in states and at the Centre is flexing its muscles again. A presumptive prime minister has returned to power in Uttar Pradesh on the power of the bulldozer, an election motif.
Chief Minister Adityanath’s tactic of razing the illegal properties of those his government sees as criminals, including righteous protestors to discriminatory laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, is being replicated enthusiastically in other places.
Another ambitious BJP chief minister ordered the bulldozer treatment for people accused of disturbing the peace during a Hindu religious procession in Khargone, Madhya Pradesh. This was repeated in Raisen and Sheopur in March; the latter as instant justice for alleged rape.
The reasoning was familiar: Muslims were accused of clashing with Hindus during a religious procession, and needed to be taught a quick and decisive lesson. The playbook was repeated in Khambhat, Gujarat, around the same time.
It was also unsuccessfully attempted in Delhi’s Shaheen Bagh, the epicentre of the protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act that were led by women in late 2019 and early 2020.
Emboldened by the ricocheting Bulldozer Raj, BJP leaders are on record, urging state authorities to identify and demolish the illegal properties of “rioters” and “Bangladeshis and Rohingyas”. The latter is a dog whistle for Muslims, who the BJP cadre is eager to classify as outsiders in their purported Hindu rashtra.
The modern state’s ‘vision’
India’s current rulers are hardly the first to uproot the Old and/or deviant order to bring in the New. Power, and the vision that drives it, has always been invested in space. Recall, for instance, the modernising states of the mid-20th century, which cleared grasslands and forests, dammed rivers, and flattened urban “squatter” settlements, all in the name of modernisation.
Colonial Britain, for instance, stripped 12,000 square km of bush in Tanganyika, East Africa, in the late 1940s to introduce “scientific” agriculture and alleviate post-war food shortages. Countries ranging from the United States to Ghana, Egypt, China and India intervened in the course of rivers to produce hydel energy, and irrigate fields that were feeding growing populations, and were increasingly dependent on water-thirsty, artificial inputs.
The planned, glass and chrome cities of today, be it Singapore, Mumbai, London or New York emerged from struggles over space between modernising, entrepreneurial states that sought to attract capital, and the working poor who have been systematically pushed to the margins in cycles of gentrification.
We may agree or disagree with the 20th century state’s modernising vision. However, it had a vision. It sought to build a new order of mass industrial production, self-sufficiency and export capacity in agriculture, and urban centres that would power its ambitions of growth and development.
Despite its many flaws, the post-independence Indian state fits this developmental mould, as evidenced in its economic achievements. India’s gross domestic product went from $37.03 billion in 1960 to $321 billion by 1990. This rose further with the embrace of market liberalisation, crossing the $2 trillion-mark in 2014.
Economic pipe dreams
With the ambition and bluster that has characterised his reign, Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared that India would become a $5 trillion-economy by 2024, i.e. in time for his third run for prime ministership.
However, even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, every indicator suggested that this assertion was a pipe dream. In 2019, the economy was valued at $2.7 trillion, with experts pronouncing the $5 trillion aspiration to be “simply out of the question”. GDP, which hit a high note of 8.5% in 2010, has been in free fall since 2016. It plunged to -7.3% in 2020.
The government and its cheerleaders are adept at shifting the goalposts. An industrialist whose personal graph has risen and risen, despite the general economic meltdown, recently proclaimed that India would be a $30 trillion economy by 2050. However, other than the consistent enrichment of the few, there is no sign of a larger, developmental model for the many.
There are many welfare schemes of course: occasional free power to distressed farmers, subsidised gas connections to women living below the poverty line, and others. However, building up from here, the worldview driving, say, agriculture or energy policy, remains unclear.
While there is palpable confusion and a lack of direction in the economic sphere, there is more clarity in politics. India is being moulded into a Hindu majoritarian state, built on the submission of religious and other minorities, dissenters and critics.
Bulldozers, laws such as the Citizenship Amendment Act, attacks on Muslim dress, food and modes of worship, and the subversion of institutions such as the courts and media that could question this lurching to Hindu rashtra, are all part of the design.
The bulldozer is an apt, but also problematic symbol of this New India. Forget about the minorities and dissenters here, as the nationalists want us to do.
Even for the 85% that this model claims to represent, the bulldozer largely symbolises hate and destruction. It can uproot, and terrorise. But where is the vision of what comes after? Along with the vision, where are the plans, policies, and people that will bring it to fruition?
Without a constructive, developmental, progressive worldview, spaces and nations forged in devastation begin to resemble petty mafias of muscle and flex.
These mafias are controlled by local bosses drunk on their power, building personal wealth, self-aggrandising, bolstered by sycophants and yes-men, and bent on destruction to show who is king. Neither a new politics, nor a vibrant economy can flourish in this morass.
Today’s bulldozer raj is mafia raj. It is as far as we can possibly be from nation building.
Nikita Sud is a Professor of the Politics of Development at Oxford University.