Why did 75 mainly Indian, Hindu-origin academics in the UK readily sign a letter that expressed serious concerns about a Modi-led BJP government— a letter that joined another by Anish Kapoor, Salman Rushdie and other intellectuals? Writing in 1995 on ‘Ur-fascism’, the Italian philosopher Umberto Eco wrote of ‘a way of thinking and feeling, a group of cultural habits, of obscure instincts and unfathomable drives’ that animate different fascist movements. I suggest that Narendra Modi and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh embody the same instincts.
Several extreme religious and nationalist political movements exist today that have an unmistakable political orientation, with a language of permanent aggression and revenge, the world divided into two main global armies. These orientations exist in the American Christian Right and fuel its Taliban-like dominionist agenda. They are there in salafi-jihadi militia like Al Qaeda and Lashkar-e Tayyaba. And the same orientation towards the world has been definitive of the ideology of the RSS and its parivar.
This is one of the reasons why human rights and democratic groups are concerned. It is a worry about a global rightward shift, often dominated by the most extreme movements, as well as the rise of a divisive, extremist figure in Indian national and international politics, a figure who perhaps represents India’s ‘Berlusconi moment’.
Narendra Modi has managed to convert a few modest achievements in Gujarat into a shiny spectacle. A recent, gruesome history is erased by a fanatical cult of personality; in speaking about himself in the third person, Modi appears to be his most loyal fan. Chillingly, some Gujaratis in the UK and India are consciously indifferent to the deaths, rapes and brutalities in 2002. For them, they are a necessary outcome of the Hindutva revenge against history that Amit Shah, Pravin Togadia, Giriraj Singh and others have invoked recently— and the fact that they have, shows a characteristic division of labour with Modi speaking about something he calls ‘development’ while the hate speech is left to others.
Many liberals have concerns about Modi’s political discourse and style, since he knows no other world than that of the RSS and its parivar (indeed, one wonders what he might say in a discussion about the US debt ceiling, the Syria conflict or the Ukraine crisis.) How does one fully capture the callousness of a sensibility for whom an endless life of manual scavenging is simply a spiritual choice, refugee camps are Muslim baby-making factories, Hindu terrorism if born would wipe Pakistan off the map, severe malnutrition among girls is a consequence of dieting, that those killed in 2002 are like puppies under a wheel?
Modi has treated legal and democratic institutions in Gujarat with contempt. He has acted with tenacious vindictiveness against journalists, human rights activists and police officers who have crossed him. Modi’s choice of close aides— Maya Kodnani, Amit Shah, among others— are not examples of poor political judgment but egregious moral failures that are visible internationally. There remain the unsolved murders of BJP MLA Haren Pandya and environmental activist Amit Jethwa. With Modi in power, which investigations are likely to be sabotaged? Which human rights activists and lawyers are going to be targeted further?
In addition to attacks on minorities, we see an emboldened Hindutva assault on other basic freedoms and liberties in civil society that are a source of international concern— from the policing of women and romantic love on streets and campuses by self-appointed Hindutva mutaween to the attacks on university curricula, the pulping of books, and attacks on artists, filmmakers, journalists and writers. Many of Modi’s BJP/RSS supporters distinguish themselves by their sheer vitriol, disruptiveness and obtuse style of argument— typically ‘whataboutery’. Observers in the UK and US experience this and it makes them wonder: if the supporters behave like this now, what will they be like in power?
Two further global dynamics are important in understanding why Modi causes such concern: the global drift towards authoritarian religious extremism; and international corporate greed that is reliant on states allowing the private theft of public property, natural resources and peopled lands. This coupling of extreme religious nationalisms with private theft of the commons is potent politically. In some of those nationalisms, in their symbols and words, their visions and hatreds, in the ideas they use, they remain sufficiently close to fascism that they demand international vigilance— not by those who ‘hate Hindus’, but by those who might care deeply about India.
Professor Chetan Bhatt teaches at the London School of Economics. This piece did not appear in print.