As India’s culture wars move into the economic domain, the British Prime Minister may raise the topics of pluralism and tolerance during Narendra Modi’s UK visit.
The defeat in the Bihar state assembly elections has caused dissensions within the BJP-led coalition. That is no news because a mutual blame game among the political partners always follows a setback. A bigger development is the strains developing in the coalition of communalism (sectarianism) and capitalism, the two antithetical forces that Narendra Modi miraculously yoked together to drive his chariot to victory in the national elections 18 months ago.
Before coming to that it is necessary to recall the sequence of events. The Modi Government contemptuously dismissed the writers protesting against intolerance and suppression of the freedom of speech through violence by vigilante groups. Prime Minister Narendra Modi stopped short of inquiring how many army divisions does Nayantara Sahgal (the eminent writer) have? But Finance Minister Arun Jaitley asked in disbelief where was intolerance in the country. He echoed a British politician. During Britain’s ‘winter of discontent’ the Labour Prime Minister James Callaghan said "Crisis? What crisis?”
The BJP’s top leadership believe that the pen being mightier than the sword was a myth of their own making and that the poets being the legislators of mankind is a fanciful statement. One former BJP leader pointed out that a minister had read no books for years.
However, the over-zealous lower rank BJP activists were offended by the writers’ statement against rising intolerance. They took it as a slur on their Great Leader and launched an unprecedented vitriolic campaign to discredit the intellectuals. TV studios and social media became the battlegrounds for an unprecedented cultural war.
This war over “intolerance” spilled over into the economic domain as Moody’s Analytics asked the Indian Prime Minister to rein in his party members in order to curb “ethnic tensions”. Moody’s Analytics noted the “belligerent provocation of various minorities” in India. It warned Prime Minister Modi against losing domestic and international credibility. “You too, Moody’s”, India’s Finance Minister might have grumbled on reading that investment risks research report.
In today’s India, a Moody Analytics report matters more than the entire shelf of books written by Nayantara Sahgal. Moody’s Analytics generates words that rattle or thrill the political and business leaders around the world. A Prime Minister courting international investors feels the power of its words.
Even the BJP activists had sense enough not to flood the international agency with hate mail for manufacturing dissent and interfering in India’s internal affairs”! Moody’s Analytics was not attacked for “doing politics through other means”. It was luckier than the poor protesting writers of India.
Having read the report, the British Prime Minister may raise the topics of pluralism and tolerance with his guest during the Indian Prime Minister’s visit to the UK. Earlier this year, President Obama delivered a sermon on religious tolerance as soon as he was able to release himself from the brotherly embrace of Modi. A stinging editorial in The New York Times followed. Prime Minister Modi was moved to say a few words on the importance of mutual tolerance. By a coincidence, there was a sudden stoppage of the attacks on the Christian churches and the re-conversion of Christians as part of the Ghar Wapsi movement.
The Moody’s Analytics report was not read by millions of voters of Bihar. Acting on their own, they vetoed a polarisation project designed to consolidate the Hindu votes in favour of the BJP-led coalition. The Prime Minister’s hectic polls campaign could not avert the defeat of this coalition in a crucial state election.
The Prime Minister-led BJP failure has created shock waves in the domestic financial markets. Many investment bankers and brokerage firms have developed doubts about the ability of the Modi Government to go forward with the economic reforms. An economic daily said that the equity strategists at leading brokerages, some of whom donned the mantle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s fan club till very recently, are now singing a very different tune.
This powerful community operating from New York and London fears that the Indian Government might hesitate to increase the pace of economic reforms, in the face of a growing demand for pro-poor policies.
The Government has been confronted by a legislative logjam in the Lower House of Parliament and in the Upper House the BJP and its allies do not have a majority. In Parliament, the Opposition members are paying back the BJP in its own coin. During the Manmohan Singh Government the BJP members did not allow the House to function for two years. Their top leaders then justified their obstructionist behaviour as a legitimate democratic right.
The Bihar election results have diminished the Prime Minister’s authority and emboldened the Opposition. The Opposition is seeing the war spilling into the economic domain. The Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, in a convocation address, highlighted the link between economic growth and virtues such as tolerance, free debate and mutual respect. Raghuram Rajan said that a quick resort to bans will chill all debate as everyone will be anguished by the ideas that they dislike. It is far better to improve the environment for ideas through tolerance and mutual respect, he said. He wanted alternative ideas and the right to behave differently protected, as long as it does not seriously hurt others.
For the first time a business leader has also joined the fray. Infosys founder N R Narayanamurthy spoke up on the issue of the minorities living in fear. He is the first prominent businessman to raise his voice against the current atmosphere of religious intolerance. He expressed “his concern and the concern of many others who are in touch with him about the growing resentment of the people belonging to different religions and regions”. Perhaps he saw no point in invoking the moral imperative and so he said that no economic progress can be achieved if the current situation continues.
It was brave of him because the Indian business leaders maintain a studied silence in such situations. They fear the politics of revenge and they benefit from the politics of rewards. After the organised murders in Gujarat, only a couple of business leaders dared to condemn the violence. Most of them felt it was not their business. Narendra Modi, who as Gujarat’s Chief Minister attracted criticism for his role during those riots, went on to win the admiration of big business for his pro-business policies. He was helped by the media houses owned by big business.
Businessmen everywhere have always a set pattern of behaviour in relation to the Government of the day. The role of the German business leaders during the time of Hitler has been well documented. In Iran during the revolt against the monarch, the bazarias showed their Shah-friendly conduct. The big contractors of India kept away from the freedom movement in India. Some business leaders were a notable exception.
In the battle for power in Delhi, Modi appeared as a Messiah to big business, both Indian and foreign. They were convinced that Modi as the Prime Minister would bring it good fortune. They felt mesmerised by Modi’s dynamism and his generous offers of incentives and parcels of land.
Indian business leaders generally lack a long-term vision and are thrilled by the promise of short-term gains. They paid no heed to the signs of coming confrontation and strife in Modi’s election campaigns in Gujarat and then in different parts of India. But his language, his gestures and the content of speeches were all signs that he would bring confrontation where there is harmony.
Perhaps the captains of industry thought that Modi will keep the nation on a tight leash and protect them from labour unions, environmental laws, bureaucratic delays and corruption. So they felt less bothered about Modi’s verbal violence or the provocative statements by his ministers or his party’s MP's. Social harmony was not their concern. They were seduced by the prospects of short-term gains. The poll-eve propaganda to pitch one community against the other had no impact on the share prices. The markets celebrated the emergence of Modi as the Prime Minister.
The business leaders joined the Modi bandwagon overlooking the fact that economic progress requires social harmony and a nation at peace with itself. The establishment of the London Stock Exchange, for example, contributed to ending religious strife in Britain.
Narendra Modi got on his side a coalition of capitalism and communalism (sectarianism), and it is this alliance that has now come under strain. The latest editorials in the financial journals confirm this trend.
The Modi Government has deployed its ministers to reassure the investment bankers of the world that the pace of economic reforms would not be slowed down. The sentiments of poets and painters can be trivialised. “Business sentiments” have to be taken seriously. The nerves of the minorities need not be calmed, but the markets must be reassured.
The problem is that at this stage the assurances to the markets lack credibility. Some of the “economic reforms” are not approved by the Opposition in Parliament. What is more serious, these are disapproved by BJP’s parent body RSS as well as the labour wing of the ruling party. The Prime Minister of India thus faces a challenge.
This article was republished from OpenDemocracy.net.