Siddhartha Deb, Indian author and journalist. His nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award. He teaches at the New School in New York.
Early results from the largest election in the world show India’s opposition leader Narendra Modi has won a landslide victory to become the country’s new prime minister. Modi is the leader of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party. "This is the result that the corporations in India wanted," says Siddhartha Deb, Indian author and journalist, noting that Modi "is very a pro-development politician, which basically means pro-business." Deb adds that Modi served as the chief minister of Gujarat, where anti-Muslim riots in 2002 left at least a thousand people dead. After the bloodshed, the U.S. State Department revoked Modi’s visa. Modi has never apologized for or explained his actions at the time of the riots. Deb’s recent article in The Guardian is "India’s Dynasty-Dominated Politics Has No Space for Dissent" and his nonfiction book is "The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India."
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: After more than half a billion people went to the polls in India’s five-week-long general election, the results are in: The country’s longtime ruling party has faced a crushing defeat following outrage over a string of corruption scandals and a sagging economy. This is the leader of the Indian National Congress party.
SATYAVRAT CHATURVEDI: [translated] Observing the early trends of the poll results, the Congress party and the United Progressive Alliance, too, respectfully accept defeat.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Early election results show India’s opposition leader, Narendra Modi, has won a landslide victory and is set to become the country’s new prime minister. Modi is the leader of the BJP, a Hindu nationalist party. Critics note he served as the chief minister of Gujarat, where one of India’s worst anti-Muslim riots occurred in 2002 that left at least a thousand people dead. After the bloodshed, the U.S. State Department revoked his visa, saying it would not grant a visa to any foreign government official who was, quote, "responsible for or directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom." Modi has never apologized for or explained his actions at the time of the riots.
AMY GOODMAN: Modi’s main challenger was Rahul Gandhi of the ruling Congress party. Gandhi is heir to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty that’s governed India for much of its post-independence history. Several smaller regional parties and the new anti-corruption Common Man Party were also in the running.
For more on the significance of the election, the largest in the world, we’re joined by Siddhartha Deb, Indian author and journalist. His nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, was a finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award. He teaches at the New School here in New York.
Welcome to Democracy Now!, Siddhartha. Talk about the significance of, well, what will now be Prime Minister Modi. Who is he?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, thank you for inviting me here, Juan and Amy.
I think—I think, you know, one of the things that’s being said is that this is the largest election, this is the largest democracy, voting, choosing a man to power. Obviously, that has been true for a while. Obviously, India has been the largest democracy for a long time, if you take the numbers into count. It’s also been diverse for—you know, one could argue, for centuries, actually. So this is not new.
What is significant is that Narendra Modi, a hard-line leader in a hard-right, Hindu-right party, is the person who’s been elected by a majority of Indians to be their leader—not without significant backing from corporate interests in India. And so he is not just a man who’s been chosen by the masses, but who is a man who was anointed by the corporations, by the elite media in India, well before the election results came in. This is the result that the corporations in India wanted. And the reason for that is that, you know, Mr. Modi, one of the things that’s being talked him is that he—as the chief minister of Gujarat, he led it into—he is a very pro-development politician, which basically means pro-business, not development in the sense of the large sums of people. So this is what—one aspect of the man who has been chosen to lead the nation, and it is a significant break in a certain troubled, but nevertheless, at some level, sustained, Indian tradition of plurality and diversity. This marks a significant, deliberate break on a section of the Indians from that past.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: But what about the whole issue of the Congress party being this party that has essentially ruled India now for decades and the level of corruption and dissatisfaction of the population with the governing party?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. Well, I think it’s worth remembering that the Congress party—the prime minister of the Congress party, Manmohan Singh, was the finance minister, who was very much in charge of the so-called reforms that took place in India. And "reforms" is another word for shock therapy, for, you know, market-friendly policies, very, very deliberately anti-poor. And the Congress was fine. The corporations, the elites were fine with the Congress for a while. You have to remember that the BJP was in power 'til 2004. And in the economic realm, and in many other areas, there is really no substantial difference between the BJP and the Congress. They both represent the interests of the Indian elite, which is a significant number of people, of course. And they've done very well in the last 20 years of growth and consumerism. But the BJP was voted out of power in 2004, and the Congress came to power. What has happened is that the growth that we were talking about—and the Indian media, but also the Western media, is very, very, very deliberate on this—it peaked in some time in 2010 and has been coming down since then. I think it has come down from a very significant high of 10 percent to something like 4.3. So there’s a lot of agitation. There’s a lot of anger out there.
AMY GOODMAN: Let’s talk about how the BJP’s Narendra Modi is perceived in India. Democracy Now! recently spoke to award-winning author and journalist Arundhati Roy while she was in New York. This is some of what she had to say.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Who is Narendra Modi? I think he’s, you know, changing his—changing his idea of who he himself is, you know, because he started out as a kind of activist in this self-proclaimed fascist organization called the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the RSS, which was founded in 1925, who the heroes of the RSS were Mussolini and Hitler. Even today, you know, their—the bible of the RSS was written by a man called Golwalkar, you know, who says the Muslims of India are like the Jews of Germany. And so, they have a very clear idea of India as a Hindu nation, very much like the Hindu version of Pakistan.
AMY GOODMAN: That was Arundhati Roy, who was in our studios recently, the great writer who wrote The God of Small Things. Siddhartha Deb, talk about Modi’s history, the whole issue, very well known in India, not as well known in the United States, of the massacre that took place in Gujarat and the parties that he has been a part of.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, the BJP is the political wing of a paramilitary organization called the RSS, the National Volunteers, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which goes back to the 1920s at a time of great turmoil, taking some sense or level of, you know, inspiration from both Mussolini’s fascists and from the Nazis. So that’s the RSS. The RSS is a volunteer, very disciplined, very, very military organization. And that is the—the BJP is the political unit of that. And Narendra Modi has risen through the ranks, and that’s his claim to being a self-made man. He started in the RSS. He was an RSS preacher. He was an RSS volunteer. And it’s from those lower, hard-line ranks that he’s risen up to become this face of business-friendly India.
So, when Mr. Modi was the chief minister in Gujarat, there were tremendous riots, ghastly riots that took place—a pogrom, I mean, I would call it. Thousands of people were displaced and pushed into camps. Women were raped, babies mutilated, people murdered. There’s nothing to link Mr. Modi directly to any of this, but he was the chief minister. He hasn’t really expressed any apology. I think in a recent pre-election interview, when an journalist asked him, a Western journalist asked him, he said one feels the same sadness as when a car runs over a puppy, and which is—which, you know, he’s maintained a distance from this. The other thing you have to remember—
AMY GOODMAN: Didn’t it happen over days? I mean, he was the chief minister.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: He was.
AMY GOODMAN: Couldn’t he have called in a suppression of the massacre? Or were those who were carrying out the massacre his own people?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, again, I mean, you know, some of the people who were boasting about it, who were some of the murderers who boasted about it, did say that they were members of the RSS. But, you know, it’s claimed that, you know, the—I think the recent claims are that there was violence on both sides, and Hindus died, as well. That is—so it’s a narrative that’s been constantly being adjusted in a certain way.
But, you know, Gujarat is much more problematic in other ways. It is spoken about as being a very, very successful state in terms of development. Quite a bit of the work that shows that Gujarat was doing well, in terms of those indicators, before Mr. Modi or the BJP came to power. It’s always been, actually, a more well-to-do state within India. And in many other ways, it’s not a very, very—it’s not doing very well. There’s a great deal of suspicion about surveillance, for instance. There was a case where a minister of Mr. Modi’s was suspected of ordering surveillance on a young woman. So there is a lot of, you know—and so there’s a lot of, you know, distress within Gujarat.
But this is beyond—a question beyond Gujarat. For instance, in Assam a few days ago, in the northeast of India, which is where I come from, there was—there were these cases of violence, and about 50 people died in that violence. And the political—the RSS, which is the more—the radical, the larger part of the BJP, constantly stokes up anti-Muslim paranoia. They refer to this India as being—becoming Islamistan, from, you know, Bangladeshi refugees or Bangladeshi migrants, basically, economic migrants. They are very, very hard-line about referring to these people as outsiders.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about some of the splinter parties—
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —that have always existed. India has always had a tradition—
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: —in regional areas of very strong communist movements and left-wing movements.
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes, yes.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: What’s been the fate of those parties in this election and the prospects for growth among more people-oriented political parties?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, among the most interesting parties was—well, not something that’s traditionally left, but really the anti—the Aam Aadmi Party, which came out of an anti-corruption movement, which was, you know, both conservative in some of its aspects, libertarian in some of its aspects, but also radical, led by a former civil servant called Arvind Kejriwal, who served for a short time as the chief minister of Delhi. They won the elections, but then resigned. And they have been interesting in terms of the people, but they—I don’t think they have done very well. We’re still waiting for the details to come in.
There is a great deal of—I mean, one has to understand that Indian democracy is not just a one-in-five-year thing. It is something that happens every day and on everyday level. There are a large number of people on the ground who are actually not sectarian, who are not, you know, communal, in the—to use the Indian phrase, but who are—actually believe in a plural, sustainable, more equitable society. And there are—there’s a large range of protest. And we will—I think we’ll see that happening.
AMY GOODMAN: The significance of the U.S. State Department revoking Modi’s visa after the massacre and what this will mean now that he is prime minister?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, I think the United States has obviously come around to, you know, accepting Mr. Modi as the prime minister of India, well before the election results came in. The address by—you know, the statement from the White House that, you know, they greet India on this significant occasion, I think very clearly shows that business interests in the United States, and particularly in the U.K., which has actually led, which is ahead of the curve—I think David Cameron tweeted this morning about, you know, congratulating Narendra Modi on becoming the leader. So I think the business interests in the West have already accepted this, that he is going to be the leader of India. And it’s an important nation in business and strategic terms.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I wanted to ask you about the issue of climate change and how it figured in these elections. Democracy Now! covered the U.N. climate summit in Warsaw, Poland, last November, and this is what Indian Environment Minister Jayanthi Natarajan had to say.
JAYANTHI NATARAJAN: We’ve already seen a huge ambition gap between what developed country parties have pledged and what is required by science and their historical responsibilities. The irony is that developing countries have pledged much more than developed countries in the pre-2020 period. And therefore, in keeping with Article 3.1, developed countries should take the lead in bridging the ambition gap. Equity is the route to higher ambition, and therefore I call on developed countries, fill the gap now. Fill the gap this year at Warsaw, here and now.
JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Your response to how climate change factored into these elections?
SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, I think it had a very, very, very minuscule sort of, you know—I think that it hardly figured. I believe Mr. Modi talked about cleaning up the Ganges, because it is a sacred river to the Hindus. I don’t know what he plans to do about the less sacred rivers; whether he plans to clean them up or not, I’m not sure.
But by and large, on the one hand, you know, I have to say that I have some sympathy with the minister’s critique of the developed nations. There’s no doubt that—you know, there’s no doubt that there is a big lag between what the—you know, the Europe and the United States, in terms of climate change, what their responsibilities are. But I don’t think, as Indians, we have no responsibility, just because we weren’t in the party earlier. And what you will see is, at the level of everyday people within the towns and the villages, people are very concerned, because it directly affects their lives.
When I spoke to my mother about the elections—and my mother, unlike me, is quite religious, and she talked about Krishna, the Hindu god. And she moved from that to say, "How can I vote for the BJP, because they are so sectarian?" because I asked her who she was going to vote for. She didn’t tell me who she was going to vote for. But she talked about—I said, "What’s the most important thing?" And she said, "The rising prices of food." And this is something that you do not—I mean, it’s there, but it was—you know, it’s connected to the lower level of groundwater, that agriculture is in crisis, that farmers have been killing themselves over the last 20 years of growth, over the same period of time. And even the Bangladeshi illegal—so-called illegal, there are no such things as illegal immigrants or migrants; you know, they are undocumented migrant labor—the people that the RSS vents about, are a result of the climate change that is happening, the rivers drying up, the dams being put on them. And yet, it has not figured, because the Indian elite cannot see any other ways of growth. All they can dream of is new [inaudible] and parking lots.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Siddhartha Deb, thanks so much for being with us, Indian author and journalist. His book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India, finalist for the Orwell Prize and the winner of the PEN Open award. Thanks so much for being with us. He teaches at the New School here in New York.
This is Democracy Now! When we come back, the first female executive editor of The New York Times is ousted, the first female executive editor in the 160-year history of The New York Times. Did it have to do with her request for equal compensation for work with her male predecessors? Stay with us.
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