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Modi’s “New and Improved” India

The increasingly intolerant societal landscape and a growing economic divide challenge Narendra Modi's vision and ultimately India's democracy.

Supporters at an election campaign rally for Narendra Modi sit wearing Modi masks and saffron caps on May 7, 2014, in Kolkata, India. While India's GDP has risen and created new billionaires, inequality has risen with it. (Photo: Saikat Paul /

Since Narendra Modi’s 2014 landslide electoral win in India, the controversial nationalist prime minister has embarked on an unprecedented international charm offensive. Thousands of cheering fans, expats and immigrants attended the Modi rallies in New York, Sydney and Toronto, showcasing India’s newly built “social” order based on the chauvinistic principles of Hindutva (Hinduness), echoing 1936 Nuremberg. As the official message of India being “open for business” is amplified by its media’s propagandistic narrative, the use of Modi as the messiah collides with an increasingly grim reality on the ground.

The unquestionable rise in Indian GDP created many of the world’s richest billionaires in an economy founded on family-based cartels and crony capitalism. However, with the new wealth came great irresponsibility. The ruling elite decided to create its own version of India – a version visible in the expensive restaurants of Mumbai, Lamborghini dealerships and brand new international airports catering to a swelling middle class. Its Bollywood film industry is now in the business of spreading a false sense of hope, deflecting a mirage of prosperity to the poor. An infusion of expensive subprime financing fuels unprecedented growth in consumer credit that spurs spending on everything from daily grocery shopping to motorbikes and automobiles. Even the basic premise of racism is commercialized. Skin-lightening creams are continuously advertised to India’s darker skinned masses in a sad version of “dress for success.”

While touting its modern and ultra-competitive $1.3 billion space program, India has enormous challenges in providing access to toilets, clean water and electricity for the more than 645 million people it has traditionally left behind. It is also ironic that the standard used by worldwide media to eagerly report North Korea’s space program as a project paid for with the lives of its citizens does not apply to India. The Indian space program makes no secret that it will enhance the country’s future military capability every bit as much as any future commercial use.

The result is sham economic “progress” that empowers a growing middle class and the rich, but not the poor. They are considered road kill on the economic highway to prosperity as 258,000 suicide deaths were reported in 2012, the year for which the most recent statistics are available. While the poor are increasingly aware of being victimized by India Inc. due to wage stagnation and an ever-increasing cost of living, the seductive voice of religious chauvinism trumpeted by Modi’s own political outfit, the RSS, becomes a system of indoctrination that is a perfect element of political control.

Modi’s model of development, and continuing of the pro-business agenda set in motion by the previous Congress Party administration, is sold to the investor class as opposite to China’s statist economic model where the “vibrant” free market and not massive governmental spending is a driver of progress. India’s current plan is to exploit all resources, both natural and human, to their limits for the benefit of a very few of India’s rich and foreign investors. This model produces continuing privation and a subsistence existence for the majority of its 1.25 billion people while preserving the political status quo. To achieve this utopia, the Indian government and big business use indoctrination of belief in one’s self-worth combined with a version of individualism that is completely alien to India’s traditional social structure, which still predominates in its cities and rural hinterland. The intrinsic perversity of ruthless competition packaged as a positive value damages and divides Indian society and it already shapes the behavior of many.

“You know that during terrorist attacks in Mumbai, taxi drivers automatically started charging people three and four times the normal rate as they tried to flee the attacks,” Mumbai taxi driver Suresh told Truthout. “The more hurt you got and more you needed to get to the hospital, the higher the price went up,” Suresh said.

India’s decade-long run of success in attracting multinationals has created a schizophrenic picture of the new versus the old. Bangalore’s Tech Park represents a wet dream of extraterritorial corporate sovereignty. The gated territory has the appearance of an unnatural transplant that would not be out of place in any US suburb. Here, you find modern office buildings bearing logos such as Boeing, Mercedes-Benz, HP, GM and others. Young Indians perform office jobs that just a decade ago were guarantors of US, Canadian, European or Japanese middle-class incomes.

Among long lines of workers leaving their night shifts at 6:30 am, one call center worker was visibly exhausted. “I had some hard customers today and sometimes people get very angry with us as we cannot understand what is being said to us,” Rina Patel told Truthout. “Unfortunately, we have to talk from the script and many times we don’t have answers or authority to deal with issues that are brought to us. It is like being a car bumper; there is nothing we can do, but we just have to take it,” Patel added. “For this job, they pay me 18,000 rupees per month (US $281), which is not too much considering the city is very expensive by Indian standards.”

Inhuman competitiveness and opportunism are also embraced by Indian outsourcing companies and foreign employers who are looking to tap new and fresh Indian talent. Swaying to the tune of US H1B visas and their counterparts around the developed world, come 21st century day laborers. For business, this arrangement not only creates a cheaper and more pliant alternative to domestic labor, but a virtual IT/customer service sugar/cotton plantation where employees serve at the pleasure of a visa overseer, also known as “the sponsor.”

Employment relationships can be terminated at any time and for any reason, as there are many people willing to step in as replacements at a moment’s notice. After work or assignment completion, the ones who decide not to return to their countries are then automatically transferred into a two-week legal limbo. Frequently, this period results in the worker’s visa expiring, producing a new batch of undocumented immigrants subject to deportation.

India has to create 1 million jobs domestically per month just to keep unemployment stable while writhing tides of young people keep coming into the pressurized labor force market. The biggest issue facing employers is the utterly abysmal performance of public education. With the exception of a few top schools, public sector education produces graduates who do not have a basic labor skill set. According to the January 2014 edition of the Indian Journal of Industrial Relations, “Concerns are raised on the ‘sustainability of competitiveness’ of India’s highly remunerative IT sector owing to the abysmally low-skilled manpower in comparison with its ever growing need.”

According to many reports, almost half of the population entering the workforce has no marketable skills and 29 percent are not even literate. Therefore, Modi’s idea of Indian growth on value-added undertakings in complex IT or sophisticated manufacturing is a pipe dream. Additionally, the wobbly energy infrastructure’s inability to facilitate GDP growth is also a major hurdle. India has put its hopes on nuclear energy and fossil fuels while the rest of the world slowly but surely turns its attention to renewables. For many years, India has been banned from purchasing components and materials for its nuclear program, so it clandestinely used Canadian technology to build its bomb in the 1970s. Modi’s first major success on the international stage was concluding a uranium supply deal with Canada, which overturned the ban put in place since India’s 1974 nuclear test.

India’s monumental social challenges and the Modi administration’s dishonest handling of them set the country on the ultimate collision course. Its inequitable and ham-fisted approach will most likely result in societal scapegoating for unfulfilled dreams and aspirations. Anti-Muslim strife has long been a hallmark of the Indian political landscape and ethno-religious intolerance has now been widened to include the country’s minuscule 2 percent Christian minority. The Bharatiya Janata Party and Modi’s ascent to power have encouraged, and in some cases instigated, a narrative of intolerance that has resulted in violent attacks on at least 10 churches in the New Delhi area alone.

In addition to shrinking the sphere of social tolerance, the Modi administration is also replicating its modus operandi from the time it ran the state of Gujarat. Tapping the phones of politicians, judges, officers and business leaders allowed Modi to consolidate power in his home state and this pattern has been replicated on the national level as well. As a result, it becomes increasingly difficult for a constructive and credible opposition to squeeze out from between the fingers of the closing Modi fist.

The cynical ploy to portray India as a strong bastion of democracy to the outside world while undermining it from within is the biggest characteristic of Modi’s first year in power. Modi’s new era of prosperity is a shabby sham sagging under the weight of unmet expectations, broken promises, corruption and political inertia. In the end, its collapse can result in a rerun of 1980s instability, costing thousands of lives and ending India’s democratic experiment.

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