In her speech accepting the 45th European Essay Prize on September 12, reproduced by Scroll, author Arundati Roy spoke fervently of India’s descent into “fascist majoritarianism’” In doing so, she echoed the concerns of many in this vast country who fear the overturning of the secular values around which independent India was shaped.
As a writer-scholar who has studied and written books on post-liberalisation India and Gujarat under Narendra Modi as chief minister, I find that the secular Indian intelligentsia’s understanding of the predicament the country faces today is partial and erroneous. Its instinctive response within this flawed perspective has contributed to the very consequences it opposes.
I will attempt to present a different way of understanding the juncture at which India finds itself.
Since 1991, when India committed to capitalist reforms, Indians have been dreaming of living in a country that offers the efficiency and aesthetics of a lifestyle in a developed western country and the opportunities for unlimited and fast economic growth associated with a capitalist economy.
Leading up to the 2014 general elections, television anchors gushed about a miracle of fast growth, smooth roads, highways, flyovers, gleaming special economic zones that had reportedly been wrought by Chief Minister Narendra Modi in Gujarat. Modi, it seemed, was the leader to propel India into this shining future – and this expectation played a pivotal role in elevating him to the prime ministership.
Yet, nobody quite knew how Modi had done it in Gujarat or how he was going to replicate his magic formula at a national level. How did one push through a major and extensive restructuring exercise in a short time without confronting resistance? Change is not easy at the best of times but this was a project which, even its most ardent votaries admit, causes widespread distress and economic insecurity before the promised gains are realised. How could one impose intense and dramatic change and suffering on people in a democracy without being voted out?
Two ways come to mind:
One, by causing a distraction.
Two, by behaving in an authoritarian manner, appropriating powers not enjoyed by leaders in the ordinary course of events.
Anti-minority sentiment coupled with jingoism is a distraction. By this, I do not mean to diminish the commitment of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party to majoritarianism. Indeed, I anticipate that anti-minority sentiment will be encoded in a far more lasting way in the architecture of new India. But the mix of frivolous controversies, random acts of brutal violence and significant moves such as the scrapping of Kashmir’s special status under Article 370 and the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019, rolled out at a breathless pace by the ruling dispensation and its ideological allies have kept the secular intelligentsia in a state of rage, a paroxysm from which it can barely emerge to see, let alone comment, on the effects of restructuring.
If this hypothesis is unconvincing, consider how much has been said and written about violence against minorities in recent years and how little on the casualisation of labour, precarity, inflation, rural distress, migration and other effects of restructuring. I do not suggest that violence against minorities is not an issue of extreme gravity but merely that outrage while doing nothing to ameliorate threats against minorities has also blinded the intelligentsia to other forms of vulnerability.
Another thing it has done is to magnify the mythology around Modi. Today, he looms large in the imagination of many Indians as an all-powerful leader, allegedly suffering from an uncontrollable megalomania, prone to taking startling unilateral decisions (such as demonetisation in 2016 when old Rs 500 and Rs 1,000 notes were scrapped) without any apparent thought for the millions of lives they affect.
Much of this is true. Modi does act on his own and punitive moves against his critics (through arrests and tax raids) have created an atmosphere of fear and self-censorship. At the same time, the sputtering outrage his illiberalism provokes actually works for him. Instead of embarrassing him, outrage enlarges his persona, like clothes piled on to a scarecrow to make him appear larger and scarier. The more anger Modi provokes, the more he is feared and the more power he has to drive change.
Every few days, a fresh burst of outrage fills social media and drawing room conversations. Meanwhile, India changes. In Mumbai, where I live, a great deal of fuss is being made about the discontinuation of the old double-decker bus: photographs of a balloon-bedecked bus in the newspapers and nostalgic reveries in WhatsApp groups and on social media.
I am surprised by the effusiveness and wonder if it is really about the fading away of a familiar and affordable form of transportation or the awareness that we are in the midst of an even-more extreme transformation?
The fact is that the sea, the grey-blue expanse that surrounds Mumbai and gifts the city its moist, refreshing breeze has disappeared behind tall walls, pylons and machinery. The pearly Haji Ali Mosque, which for years signified Mumbai on postcards, is hidden from sight. The parks and promenades where people walk, the beaches where children play, the spaces where fisherfolk lay their haul out to dry are about to lose their open view of the sea.
The Rs 12,000-crore coastal road, expected to serve less than 2% of the city’s population, grows day by day and the citizens of, the most well-informed, enterprising and resourceful in the country have little to say.
Amrita Shah is the author of Ahmedabad: A City in the World (Bloomsbury, 2015)