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“India Loses Again, and the World Loses with It”: Siddhartha Deb on Modi’s Landslide Re-election

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears set to enter a second term in a landslide victory. Election results show Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party leading in 325 of the 543 seats in Parliament. At this rate, these numbers will give him an even greater majority than in 2014, when his party claimed the first outright majority in decades. Most analysts had predicted Modi’s BJP party would lose seats in this election. Modi’s government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims. We speak to award-winning Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb.

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! I’m Amy Goodman, with Nermeen Shaikh.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: We turn now to India, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi appears set to enter a second term in a landslide victory following a six-week-long parliamentary election that was widely seen as a referendum on his leadership. Election results show Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP party leading in 300 of the 543 seats in Parliament. At this rate, these numbers will give him an even greater majority than in 2014, when his party claimed the first outright majority in decades.

Modi declared victory on Thursday, tweeting, quote, “Together we grow. Together we prosper. Together we will build a strong and inclusive India. India wins yet again!” he tweeted.

Voter turnout was a record 66%, with more than half a billion votes cast. India is the world’s largest democracy, with 900 million eligible voters.

AMY GOODMAN: Most analysts had predicted Modi’s BJP party would lose seats in this election because of some of his economic policies. Modi’s government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims. This comes as Modi’s main opponent, Congress party leader Rahul Gandhi, is fighting to keep his seat in Parliament.

To talk more about the elections, we’re joined now by award-winning Indian author and journalist Siddhartha Deb. He wrote a widely discussed piece in The New Republic in 2016 headlined “Unmasking Modi: The violence, insecurity, and rage behind the man who has replaced Gandhi as the face of India.” 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’s also the author of two books of fiction.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Siddhartha. It’s great to have you with us. Talk about the significance of these elections and who Narendra Modi is.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Well, thank you for having me here. It’s great to be back, five years later. Not so great in terms of the elections. India loses again, and the world loses with it. Yes, I mean, I think the scale of the victory is surprising. And it’s an absolute majority for a leader who is seen as incredibly authoritarian, right-wing, majoritarian, violent.

And I think the difference between Modi’s previous victory in 2014 and now was that in 2014 there was a semblance of talk about economic development, economic growth. Five years of Modi at the helm have not delivered that in any way. India is a shambles at every possible—in every possible way. And yet, the Indian majority have voted for Modi again, and clearly not based on growth or economic development, but on majoritarianism and the promise of more violence.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, what’s interesting, Siddhartha, is when we were speaking earlier, you, unlike many critics of the BJP and the Modi government, you actually anticipated that he would win.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: I did. And it is depressing. It’s depressing to have to say this, but, you know, one of the things is that, again, what I’ve seen over the last five years in India is that although the distress, the breakdown, the degradation is incredible—economically, India is a shambles. The move that Modi introduced, something called demonetization, where just a majority of banknotes, small-denomination banknotes, that are used by large sections of the Indian population for everyday transactions—people who work as day laborers, this is how they earn money; they don’t use credit cards—he canceled this without any kind of major public announcement. It created enormous distress. It created—it’s never happened in the history of Indian democracy that banknotes are suddenly nonfunctional.

But in spite of this distress, in spite of the massive growth in unemployment, in spite of the farmers, the destitution, which has led to incredible marches by farmers into major cities like Mumbai and Delhi, with bones of farmers who have killed themselves—we are talking about that kind of deprivation. In spite of that, Modi’s growth on the Indian middle class remains solid. And that is shocking, because it’s not based on infrastructure anymore. And it has to do with a kind of identification with this project of Hindu majoritarianism as the answer to whatever is complicated or confusing about the world today.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: I mean, that’s something that’s extraordinary, because the majority, you know, which people don’t necessarily know about—the majority of India’s population is still rural, 66%.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: So, and you’ve just talked about the conditions in rural areas.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So how is it that those very same people, obviously in large numbers, still voted for Modi?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: It’s true. Well, I think one of the interesting things is in the patterns, is that the only little bit of hope that we see is that the south has still held out, has resisted this sort of wave of Modi. But the north and the west, which are more conservative, which are more ridden by caste, which are more ridden by sectarian identity, which are also more unequal in terms of wealth, which are split between vast impoverished majorities and a very tiny elite which is incredibly wealthy—so, there, Modi’s hold remains solid. He has further managed to expand it into the east and the northeast, which I find particularly distressing, because that’s where I’m from.

Well, in Bengal, the disappearance of the left, or the sort of the decline of the left, has clearly allowed the rise of the BJP. But in Bengal and in Assam and in northeastern states, he has done it by raising the specter of migration from Bangladesh. This is, of course, connected to the fact of climate change, of increasing impoverishment, the decline of agriculture in the entire South Asia, across borders. But Modi has managed to turn this into a question of Hindus versus Muslims. And for him, it’s synonymous with Indians versus outsiders, because for Modi, if you’re a Muslim, and, to a lesser extent, if you’re other minorities, if you’re Christians, but particularly if you’re a Muslim, you are just not Indian. And this is true of Modi. This is true of the political party—he represents the BJP. And this is true of the paramilitary organization for which the BJP is a political front, which is the RSS, which is a right-wing, fascist paramilitary organization, dating back from the 1920s, and that takes its inspiration from Mussolini and the Nazis.

AMY GOODMAN: And, of course, Narendra Modi himself, his history is he rose to power as the head, a kind of equivalent of governor, of Gujarat, responsible for a massacre of Muslims.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. And, in fact, what people have been saying, that this is a referendum on Modi. We’ve already had the referendum on Modi. We keep having referenda on Modi, you know? Modi was the chief minister of Gujarat in 2002. Under his rule, a pogrom against Muslims was instigated, which led to mass deaths, sexual violence, displacement of people into camps. Modi famously referred to them as baby-producing factories. This is the kind of person we are talking about. The United States, in 2002, banned Modi from entering the United—

AMY GOODMAN: This was under George W. Bush.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Under George W. Bush. But—

AMY GOODMAN: Banned him from entering the United States, for years.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: He was denied a visa. He was denied a visa, under the act of, you know, basically, against—working against religious freedom, against the principle of religious freedom.

But Modi has successfully remade himself. He has turned himself into a strongman. And he’s admired in India among the elite, but he’s also admired in the West. So, Modi’s—although in Gujarat, when the riots happened, all the people who were punished got away pretty much scot-free. Those few people, among bureaucrats, police officials, activists, who managed to stand up were harassed and punished throughout. This is a clear pattern. And that is what Modi has taken across to India.

But he’s been embraced by the rest of the world. He’s been embraced by the Obama administration. He was named by Obama as a Time magazine Person of the Year. He was invited to the United States to address the joint houses of Congress. And even before the election results were declared completed in India yesterday, I believe last night there was an op-ed in The New York Times by a former treasury secretary the Obama administration talking about how India needs Modi. And so, yes, he does have support across the world for this kind of violent, majoritarian authoritarianism.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask about another issue that’s been crucial in this election and which many observers say has been critical to his victory. Corporations reportedly contributed as much as 12 times more money to the BJP than to those of the other six national parties combined, amounting to 93% of all corporate donations. Recent changes in campaign finance laws also allowed companies to conceal how much they donated and to which party. Earlier this month, we spoke to award-winning Indian author Arundhati Roy. We asked her about the role of money in these elections.

ARUNDHATI ROY: I mean, if you look at—now you have to be a rich person to stand for elections. You know, you have to have a lot of money. And, of course, the corporate support would mean that, you know, there are certain corporations like Reliance, which is the biggest one in India, which owns, let’s say, 27—24 are news channels—or 27 TV channels, sorry. Now, so the combination of money, of a complete control on the media, and what used to be a complete control on the social media, which has now been shaken a little bit.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: So that’s Arundhati Roy on Democracy Now! In fact, we spoke to her just the day after you interviewed her at the historic Apollo Theater in Harlem. So, if you could respond to what she said, both the distorted and overwhelming coverage of Modi in the media and how much money the BJP was able to raise?

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. I think, in that sense, India is following a pattern that is—you know, again, you can see in the United States, that a democracy, substantive democracy, does not really exist, even in countries where you have—no matter how impressive these elections might sound, because of the kind of distorting influence of wealth.

Yes, the corporations have been behind Modi from a long time. This happened right after the Gujarat massacres in 2002, when some of them initially felt a little bit, you know, I think, hesitant about just the scale of the brutality of the violence. But they caved in. Modi was very, very strong. Modi was very, very—Modi took them on. They caved in. The Indian Chamber of Commerce sent him a letter of apology, saying, “We are sorry that we hurt your feelings,” because this is a man who cares deeply about his feelings, clearly. So, yes, the Indian corporations—because the Indian corporations are being enriched at enormous rates. Now, India, again, as I said, it’s a basket case economically, but there is massive wealth extraction going on in terms of natural resources—companies like Reliance, another company called Adani, which is very, very close to Modi. So there is a kind of an incredible crony capitalism that is present in India. There is a kind of enrichment that is happening at the same time as the impoverishment of the masses.

The corporations pretty much—and I worked in India as a journalist from the mid-'90s. Mainstream media in India, television, is completely—I think Arundhati Roy famously called them “Fox News on acid,” which is a great phrase. That is what Indian television is. It is unwatchable, because it is an unending wave of violence and denunciation, again, against Dalits, against Muslims, against leftists, against feminists. It's this incredible—it’s a kind of 24-hour rage. This is what the corporations produce. The same thing is true of the print media. Social media is a torrent of abuse, as well. So, yes, the media plays—and this answers another question that Nermeen asked earlier about the villages: Why are people doing it? They are manipulated by the electronic media, by the print media. It’s very—the outreach is very, very successful. And so, media does manage to spin the issue, so that they don’t think about the questions of employment or impoverishment.

AMY GOODMAN: We don’t have much time, Siddhartha, but I did want to ask you about Narendra Modi, the past and now new prime minister’s relationship with Trump, the United States, with Putin, Russia, with Netanyahu, Israel.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Oh, they all love each other. They are all authoritarians. They are all majoritarians. So, in the way that Trump stands for white supremacism, white supremacy in the United States, Narendra Modi very much has a version of that in India, which is about Hindu majoritarianism. This is connected. All this is connected to climate change, to the growing impoverishment. We are basically—you know, this is the result of decades of neoliberalism. And I have to say, there is no difference—as far as I, as an Indian, am concerned, there is no difference between the Obama administration and the Trump administration, there is no difference between the Democrats and the Republicans, as far as embracing Modi and this kind of majoritarian violence is concerned.

AMY GOODMAN: And again, the kind of inequality you’re talking about in India, the Oxfam report that came out said the nine richest individuals in India have as much wealth as the bottom 50%. That’s the nine richest individuals in India have the same amount of wealth as over 600 million Indians.

SIDDHARTHA DEB: Yes. That is not a democracy; it’s an oligarchy. It’s a nation-state held hostage by an oligarchy. And Modi is the strongman who is delivering them their riches.

AMY GOODMAN: Siddhartha Deb, we want to thank you so much for being with us, award-winning Indian author and journalist. We will link to that piece you wrote in The New Republic headlined “Unmasking Modi: The violence, insecurity, and rage behind the man who has replaced Gandhi as the face of India.” His nonfiction book, The Beautiful and the Damned: A Portrait of the New India.

This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, Syria. Stay with us.

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