Understanding India under Narendra Modi

31 October 2020
Sagar Sanyal

In the period since Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Indian People’s Party (the Bharatiya Janata Party, BJP) won a second consecutive term in last year’s national elections, there has been a steady erosion of democracy and an increase in the use of military, police and street mobs to whip up hatred towards India’s 195 million Muslims. This is not the doing of just the parliamentary-oriented BJP, but also the non-parliamentary party behind it—the National Volunteer Organisation (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, RSS), a fascist movement of at least 4 million active members. It is easily the largest fascist cadre in the world, and one of the largest in history.

Indian politics is dominated by the personality of Modi, who has cultivated an image of himself as an Everyman and is the first person not belonging to the Indian National Congress, the country’s dominant party since before independence in 1947, to win consecutive national elections. But Modi, and the government he leads, cannot be understood without understanding the growth of the powerful RSS.

The RSS consolidated as part of the international fascist movement from the mid-1920s through World War Two. Its politics, known as Hindutva (Hindu-ness) cynically uses religion to define Indian nationhood and nationality. A key early figure, Moonje, toured Italy in 1931, meeting Mussolini and visiting training colleges of the fascist youth. He returned to India inspired to create ideologically hardened cadre capable of disciplining society under a dictator, to reassert conservative values and to transform India into a powerful state. Italian anti-communist texts were translated for local consumption.

The Italian and German nation-states were born out of the centralisation of distinct kingdoms, but the fascists concocted national identities based on an alleged lineage from a past civilisation—the Roman empire or the Aryans—whose greatness needed reviving. Similarly, Hindutva concocted a Hindu civilisation of unbroken culture dating back to India’s ancient civilisations, expressed in sacred texts from 2,000 years ago. In 1939 Savarkar, a foundational ideologist for Hindutva (and himself an atheist), expressed sympathy with the dominant view of the nation among fascists worldwide. “Nationality did not depend so much on a common geographical area as on unity of thought, religion, language and culture”, he told a gathering in Pune, Maharashtra. “For this reason the Germans and the Jews could not be regarded as a nation.” Just like Jews in Germany, Muslims had lived in India for many centuries, but that did not make them true sons of mother India, who expressed its Hindu culture.

Nazi ideology tied the rebirth of Germany to the elimination of an internal enemy, Jews, who were blamed for the nation’s weaknesses. For the RSS, Muslims were to India what the Jews were to Germany. “German national pride has now become the topic of the day. To keep up the purity of the nation and its culture, Germany shocked the world by her purging the country of the semitic races—the Jews”, Golwalkar, RSS chief from 1940 to 1973, observed approvingly in his 1939 book We or our nationhood defined. “National pride at its highest has been manifested here. Germany has also shown how well-nigh impossible it is for races and cultures, having differences going to the root, to be assimilated into one united whole, a good lesson for us in Hindustan [India] to learn and profit by.”

The RSS cadres are the secret to the organisation’s longevity. While it has had a parliamentary wing since the 1950s, the RSS was a negligible force until the 1980s. The group survived the intervening period because of its cadre, until the gradual erosion of Congress Party hegemony opened space for the RSS to gain more purchase in society. Congress was the dominant force in the independence struggle in the early twentieth century and won independence in 1947. It has ruled India for most of the years since and remains the second largest party in India. The erosion of its hegemony was due to several factors.

First, its nationalist project of state-led industrialisation was supposed to benefit all classes. The project held together in the decades of worldwide postwar economic boom, but became less credible as accumulation increasingly pitted capital against labour. Second, Congress was built on patronage politics. Eventually, regional and rural elites became powerful enough in their own right to set up independent parties to eat into the Congress vote share in particular states. Third, Congress led the privatisation and liberalisation assault in the 1980s and 1990s, which was deeply unpopular among workers and sections of the downwardly mobile street vendors, shopkeepers and small farmers who lost out to big capital. While there were no large social democratic alternatives in most states, many voters shifted to populist parties that stand for some cross-class alliance of ethnic, linguistic or caste identity.

But Congress’s downfall is not the whole story, as it still left a large number of small parties, of which the BJP was only one. Today there are more than 30 parties in the upper house (the Rajya Sabha, or Council of States) and lower house (Lok Sabha, or House of the People) of the Indian parliament, and sixteen different ruling parties in the state legislatures. Most of these have a presence in just one state. From being just one among the pack of minor parties, the BJP secured a larger base in the late 1980s with its Ram Janmabhoomi (“birthplace of Ram”, a Hindu deity) campaign. The RSS cadre led the campaign to cohere a much larger periphery around their right-wing Hindutva core. Thousands of RSS activists drew far larger numbers of Hindus into Hindu pride demonstrations dressed up as pilgrimages across hundreds of kilometres, to the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh, thought to be the birthplace of a Ram. These were the largest mass demonstrations since the independence movement.

While most demonstrators expressed a simple Hindu religious pride with no particular malice towards Muslims, the RSS thought of themselves as a fascist vanguard giving the larger movement a certain meaning and direction. They focused the campaign on the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, which had been a point of political contestation since the late 1940s after a Hindutva fanatic placed a Hindu idol inside the mosque and claimed it as a temple. The RSS claims that the mosque was built on the exact spot where Ram was born. In 1992, the organisation ended a procession at the mosque, then demolished it brick by brick, hammering away for hours as cameras beamed the scene to audiences nationwide. Hundreds were killed in Hindu-Muslim fighting in the following days as Hindutva mobs were emboldened to target Muslim neighbourhoods, and Muslims were enraged and retaliated against the provocation. The RSS and BJP were jubilant. What a coup to recast the amorphous Hinduism of the country’s majority as somehow being in support of this anti-Muslim political project led by BJP.

This campaign could not have been pulled off by the RSS solely by dint of will. It required the proper soil to take root, and that was provided by the Congress Party, which remained the dominant political organisation shaping popular opinion. Losing poorer voters to other parties, and uninterested in the sort of economic program that could win them back, Congress increasingly appealed to religious sentiments in the 1980s.

Yet being on the political map was not enough. The BJP was still a regional party with a base in western and central India that could not hope to lead a stable national coalition or form government on its own. The move to the big leagues was tied up with Modi, who has been an RSS cadre since childhood and was a full-time missionary for the organisation before being seconded to the BJP. He made his mark on the national political scene as chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014. Gujarat, in the west of the country, is an important locus of merchant and industrialist wealth. Modi’s administration presided over a pogrom that killed 2,000 Muslims in 2002. While he denies complicity, it is understood that it was orchestrated by the RSS and abetted by the police under Modi’s control. This solidified behind him a large RSS cadre support and elevated him to BJP prime ministerial candidate ahead of more senior figures.

At the same time, Modi proved his usefulness to the big industrial houses of Gujarat: to the Ambanis, whose scion Mukesh is the world’s fifth richest person; to the Tatas, the family that owns Jaguar and Land Rover; to the Adanis, of Adani coal infamy. He displaced people to acquire land for the private sector and attracted businesses with state subsidies of various kinds. Business newspapers began swooning over Modi, treating the pogrom as either inconsequential or an act of spontaneous mobs over whom Modi and the BJP had no control. With these connections, the BJP’s 2014 and 2019 national election campaigns had a far larger budget than that of the Congress, and this helped it gain votes through advertising reach, particularly among first time voters.

In the 2014-19 term, RSS cadre increased small scale but widespread intimidation and violence campaigns against a range of enemies—from Muslims and Dalits (an oppressed group considered outcasts in Hindu religion) to journalists critical of the BJP, to prominent campuses of student activism. Yet the second term from 2019 is a further escalation, to the point that mainstream liberal commentators are writing that India is no longer a democracy.

The BJP has a commanding position in parliament, but also faces limits. In ramping up its attacks, it seems sure of its support within the state machinery, among dominant sections of capital and among voters. Yet its attacks have provoked mass protests and an upturn in strikes, which may have the potential to split off some of the BJP’s softer voter base, to drive some sections of capital away from BJP and back to Congress, or to provoke resistance from some parts of the state machinery—especially in states not ruled by the BJP.

The BJP received 38 percent of the vote in 2019, but the distortions of the first past the post electoral system give it a majority 55 percent of seats in the lower house. Its voters are largely middle class, both urban and rural. Many of them are by no means committed partisans of Hindutva ideology. They might think BJP will advance their economic position, or they might benefit from its local patronage networks, or they might be relatively apolitical people who are just proud Hindus who like BJP’s religious gilding. This portion of the party’s voters might not openly support the ruling party in terrorising Muslims but can live with a plausible deniability story that distances the BJP from the actions of the RSS. But the brazenness of RSS-BJP since 2019 means the space for plausible deniability is shrinking.

After its election win in May, it suspended any remnants of democracy in occupied Muslim-majority Kashmir, detaining political leaders, silencing the press, enforcing curfews and torturing people in jails. The central government has enacted laws to send settlers to colonise Kashmir, and has redrawn electoral jurisdictions to suit its political agenda. In December 2019, it introduced the anti-Muslim Citizenship Amendment Act. The act provides a fast-tracked path to citizenship for religious minorities who fled from persecution in some Muslim-majority countries. But it excludes Muslims who have fled persecution—the first time that religion has been made a criterion for Indian citizenship. The government also pushed forward with a National Register of Citizens, which Home Minister Amit Shah described as a mechanism to “make sure every infiltrator is thrown out of the country”.

When this provoked the most widespread protests in decades, the government used police and RSS-affiliated activists to attack Muslim neighbourhoods and to bash and kill dozens of protesters. Videos circulate on social media of the police attacks, and of BJP politicians whipping crowds into a frenzy with slogans such as, “Those traitors of the nation—shoot the bastards” and “Delhi police we are with you” (in your use of repression). The anti-CAA protests wound up only when a national coronavirus lockdown was imposed in late March.

The nation’s capital, New Delhi, was one of the focal points of repression. Predictably, Delhi police pursued no charges against BJP politicians, and refused to investigate the police. Instead, they concocted a “conspiracy to riot” by anti-CAA protest organisers. In their reporting, BJP-friendly media, the equivalent of Fox News in the US, omit the repressive role of police and RSS cadre, as if the anti-CAA protesters killed the Muslims on their own side! Police have arrested leading student activists and harassed as co-conspirators prominent opposition politicians and left academics.


The Modi administration is courting industrial and agricultural capital. It has attacked wages and conditions of workers, lengthening the working day from eight hours to twelve and the working week to 72 hours in several large states. It has suspended dozens of labour regulations on working conditions and organising rights, some for three years, others indefinitely. It has enacted privatisation in key sectors such as rail, air travel, coal, ports and banking.

In rural areas (where 65 percent of India’s population reside), the BJP passed farm acts in mid-September that will weaken the position of small farmers and create conditions for the takeover of their land by large farmers or agribusiness, or their subjugation as contract farmers to big grain companies. One act dismantles the system of local markets whose prices are controlled by guilds of bigger farmers and local grain traders. These markets give some price certainty to small farmers and potentially help them maintain higher prices than they could under free competition. This middle-class guild layer of local small traders and farmers is being brushed aside for the sake of owners of bigger farms and grain traders who operate regionally or nationally. Meanwhile, the small farmers with less productive tools and who can sell only at local markets will find lower prices as prices fall towards the lower production costs of more mechanised production at big farms.

These moves faced mass opposition. Industrial strikes and farmers’ demonstrations took over the baton of resistance to Modi just when it had seemed that the energy of anti-CAA protests, often student-led, had been dissipated by lockdown and arrests. The anti-labour laws and privatisation plans passed during lockdown have, since June, provoked strikes in the coal sector, railways, cement production, among sanitation workers and childcare workers. These were led by a coalition of regional and national trade union federations, most of them attached to political parties that form part of the parliamentary opposition to the BJP coalition.

The farm bills provoked parliamentary opposition and, from late September and into October, a spate of demonstrations by “farmers’ unions”. Thousands of farmers blocked roads and rail lines in many towns in Punjab and Haryana states—heartlands of Indian agriculture. The farmer unions have a mixed class membership, and their corresponding parliamentary parties include Congress, the left parties and regional farmer parties. This mix of classes includes fairly well-to-do medium-sized farmer households with electrification, irrigation and tractors—similar to Australian farmer households in terms of relative economic position, but with lower living standards. Then there are poor farming families who own their land but work it with an ox plough or even manual tools, with no electricity and manually dug irrigation canals.

To give a sense of the predominance of labour-intensive farming with low productivity tools, agriculture accounts for well over half the country’s workforce, yet its share of GDP is less than 15 percent. Then there are tenant farmers who do not own their land. There are also farm labourers. As wage workers, they are not farmers at all, but many are members of small-farmer households that cannot survive on their own crops. The BJP’s farm acts will affect these classes differently, and that may determine the seriousness of the fight we will see from farmer unions and parties.

Opposition to the farm acts may also have longer-term implications for BJP support in elections. The BJP’s regional coalition partners include parties that do not have a Hindutva agenda, but whose leaderships and voter bases align with the rural middle-class appeal of Modi’s campaign rhetoric. The trade union and farmer agitations have restored confidence to protesters who are returning to the streets on anti-BJP issues. A recent focus of protest (and repression) is a BJP cover-up and misinformation campaign about a brutal gang rape and killing of a Dalit woman by upper caste men. Rapes and beatings of Dalits by upper caste men, and the abetting actions of police and judges, are unfortunately routine in the countryside. This kind of political terror is how the rural ruling classes maintain the subjugation of Dalits (who are mostly labourers).


The BJP’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis has not only worsened the health impact but also strengthened capital and weakened labour. India is one of the pandemic’s hot spots, official counts putting the number of deaths at more than 120,000 and confirmed infections at more than 8 million. This is likely an understatement, and the degree of understatement will increase over time as the virus moves from bigger cities to the countryside, where health centres are few and the recording of infections and causes of death is likely to be very patchy.

The BJP’s handling of a nationwide lockdown prompted large-scale migration (at least 10 million by government figures—again, likely an underestimate) from what were then the urban infection hot spots to rural areas. Most of these urban poor had migrated in search of work from economically depressed parts of the country to the cities in the first place, and they now returned to their extended families. In imposing lockdown, the government made inadequate provisions for food and income for the urban poor—much of the economy stopped overnight with just several hours’ notice. Waged workers in workshops or the service sector, daily wage construction workers, petty vendors and the like had savings that might last a few days. After that, beggary and starvation beckoned. So many chose to return to the countryside. As the government had arranged no public transport for them, perhaps a quarter of the fleeing migrants had to walk, sometimes hundreds of miles, to their home village: bindles on heads, infants in arms, the infirm on stretchers.

The pandemic’s impact in the countryside will far exceed direct effects of COVID-19. Famine is a real prospect. Rural wages and small-farmer incomes had been falling for several years. On top of this, the return of migrants from the cities has consequences for rural labourers, whose wages will be undercut by the new arrivals desperate for immediate income. Farmer households will also have to support returning extended family. There is likely to be a spike in bonded labour in those rural regions. India already hosted more than a third of the world’s unfree labour, about 18 million people, before the pandemic. In August, a large survey by social research institute CSDS found that 78 percent of respondents in the rural economy said it was “quite difficult” or “very difficult” to feed themselves during the lockdown. Among the recent migrants from the city, 60 percent can’t scratch together two meals a day.

The central government maintains large grain stocks to control prices, and while it extended grain rations to some (not all) of the migrants as an emergency measure, that source is being turned off. This has raised the possibility of hunger and famine in coming months, compounding the effects of the pandemic. Meanwhile, one of the recent farm acts allows private hoarding of farm commodities (that is, speculation in commodity prices)—a dangerous power when hunger stalks the land.

The BJP wants to make India a bigger player militarily and economically in its regional periphery. This is part of its attraction both to the capitalist class that hopes to benefit directly and the aspiring middle class which expects a trickle down from this. China’s Xinjiang province meets Indian and Pakistani occupied portions of Kashmir in a region that has seen several wars between the three states since the 1940s. The Indian military considers itself superior to Pakistan’s and inferior to China’s. However, India’s economic relations with China are significant, and counterbalance facile narratives of rivalry. Nonetheless, tensions began to rise again under the more assertive nationalisms of Modi and Chinese President Xi Jinping, and as India and the US strengthened their military alliance.

As part of China’s Belt and Road initiative beginning in 2013, China and Pakistan have initiated an economic corridor from Xinjiang through Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. Since 2014, Modi has carried out military-related infrastructure development in a region that borders that corridor. Since 2017, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue has deepened India’s military agreements with the US, Japan and Australia, as the US marshals allies against China. After the BJP won its second term in 2019, senior party figures made belligerent remarks about reclaiming territory ceded to China in past wars.

Against this backdrop, there have been skirmishes and mutual incursions along a border that has never been politically agreed and is maintained by de facto military control. In a mid-June incident, twenty Indian soldiers were killed, along with an unknown number of Chinese troops. While negotiations have avoided escalating battles, a stand-off remains as both sides continue construction of militarily strategic transport infrastructure close to the border.

A nationalist mood has also been fanned by much Indian media. A few months ago, when anti-CAA protests dominated the news, liberal pundits tailed along to criticise the Modi regime from the left, for its bigotry. With the protests pushed back under lockdown, the same liberal voices are criticising Modi from the right for not being aggressive enough against China. State cancellations of contracts with Chinese firms, state bans on various Chinese products and online services, corporate cutting of ties with Chinese investment and consumer boycotts of Chinese products have seemingly taken on a momentum of their own.

In short, India is a powder keg. Social pressures are building, and there is much combustible material. The pressure is pushing along the plane of parliamentary parties, along class planes and along the jingoist plane of rousing anti-China sentiment to unite a national support base behind the BJP, both among citizens and within parliament. The BJP is flexing its muscles to draw behind it a dominant section of the national capitalist class by attacking industrial labour, initiating a program to help agricultural capital displace a section of small farmers and lowering the wages of farm labour. It has demonstrated that it has the street thugs, and loyalty among police and judges, in many important cities in north, west and central India. It has demonstrated that its nationalist ideology, and Hindutva ideology more specifically, has enough momentum and enough pushers among right-wing media personalities that a large section of “respectable opinion” will go along with whatever Modi does.

Yet there is hope. From uncowed activists for Muslim equality and against caste and women’s oppression, to the union strikes and farmer demonstrations, we can see that, while Indian fascism may have sustained significant victories, it has not managed to bulldoze the resistance.

Read More

Red Flag
Red Flag is published by Socialist Alternative, a revolutionary socialist group with branches across Australia.
Find out more about us, get involved, or subscribe.

Original Red Flag content is subject to a Creative Commons licence and may be republished under the terms listed here.