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On Contact: Rise of right-wing populism in India

On the show this week, Chris Hedges talks to Siddharth Varadarajan, editor of the Wire, about the rise of right-wing populism in India and its disturbing parallels to the right-wing rise of populism in the United States.

Varadarajan is an Indian-American journalist, who was previously editor of the English language national daily with two million readers, the Hindu, before co-founding the Wire, an independent news outlet which has 3.5 million visits a month. He has reported on the NATO war against Yugoslavia, the Iraq war, the civil war and peace process in Nepal, and the crisis In Kashmir.

YouTube channel: On Contact

Follow us on Facebook: Facebook.com/OnContactRT

Podcast: https://soundcloud.com/rttv/sets/on-contact

CH: Welcome to On Contact.  Today we discuss the rise of right-wing populism in India and its disturbing parallels with the rise of right-wing populism in the United States with journalist Siddharth Varadarajan.

SV: You know, Modi is a little bit more guarded in his rhetoric, so you will find him much more careful than, say, Trump.  So most of Modi’s tweets, for example, are, you know, quite carefully structured and--but he sits at the apex of a political, you know, family where all kinds of god-awful things are said and often acted upon. 

CH: India’s secular political culture and pluralistic state for all its citizens, like our own is under threat.  Its past commitment to nonviolence and secularism espoused by leaders such as Mohandas Gandhi is being overtaken by the heavy-handed violence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu-first government.  The political and moral deterioration in India, which has seen an upsurge of right-wing populism, has triggered huge street protest and a draconian government response especially in Kashmir.  Joining me in the studio to discuss what is taking place in India and how it relates to what is taking place in the United States and much of the industrialized world is Siddharth Varadarajan, the former editor of The Hindu, the one hundred and thirty-eight year old English language newspaper in India with a circulation of nearly two million, the second-most widely circulated English newspaper in the country behind the Times of India.  In 2015, he founded The Wire, an independent news website with 3.5 million unique viewers a month designed to challenge the dominance of traditional Indian media houses now backed by corporate interest.  So we see so many parallels in India between Modi, although I think as I was saying before I began, Modi is far more intelligent and politically astute than Donald Trump.  But a consolidation of power, a rise in oligarchy, slashing of regulations with horrific human consequences, back us up because India was, at one point, far more than United States a kind of socialist state that had a commitment to pluralism, to secularism, where did it all go wrong?

SV: I think the economic changes have, you know, been underway for a long time.  They predate Mr. Modi’s arrival by over a decade, maybe longer.  You could say since the end of the Cold War, there’s been a steady rightward shift as far as the economic policymaking of…

CH: So would you say that--because you--for years, the Congress Party was dominant, did  the Congress Carty--Party go the way of the Democratic Party or the Labor Party in Britain where they essentially surrendered this commitment to the common good to corporate power?

SV: I think from the end of the Cold War probably, around the world, you’ve had a rollback of welfare economics and, you know, drive--forward drive of kind of market obsession.  The Indian economy is no exception and the Congress Party led that transformation.  And, you know, what we’ve seen over the years is the state retreat in significant ways from various kinds of economic activity, welfare-related, but at the same time, in response to popular pressures and in response to real problems on the ground, the state has also been compelled to launch new programs.  So it’s a kind of complex scenario where, on the one hand, the economy as a whole is far more market-oriented but you have welfare schemes on the ground that perhaps didn’t exist 20 years ago largely as a result of popular pressure.  So, I would say the picture is mixed, but if one were to take a broad view of left versus right, it’s clear that there has been a rightward shift in terms of the management of the economy and you have corporate, you know, companies that enjoy much greater--the economy is far more open, it’s greater for investment than there has been in the past.

CH: And this has been particularly pronounced in terms of an assault on individual stakeholders in the farming communities, which, as in the United States, have been captured by agribusinesses.  P. Sainath’s, “Everybody Loves a Good Drought,” the whole suicide rates of farmers’ quarter of a million, but there has been a reconfiguration on the ground, a power driving huge numbers of displaced in poverty into urban centers who work low wage, sweatshops.  I mean, talk about that process.

SV: Yeah, I think there--I mean, there’s no doubt that the peasantry of the--of the, you know, famer community is under significant stress.  I don’t think the displacement of farmers has been followed by massive inroads, you know, by corporate farming, not yet, but it’s clear that that’s the direction that the government would like to go, but the fact is that agriculture is not remunerative for farmers and the particularly small or medium farmers.

CH: But isn’t that because they’ve really pushed them to raise cash crops rather than…

SV: It’s a combination of things.  I think that in part having roamed around wrong crops and then you have a price, you have a kind of cyclical variations, which ruin them, they are more likely to fall into debt, you don’t have adequate levels of state investment in rural infrastructure, which would--which could provide a cushion for farmers to weather any variability in prices.  So, there are a whole bunch of factors that I would say.  If one were to identify any one, broad factor, it would be the state over a long period.  Underinvesting in agricultural, you know, infrastructure and then making matters worse by not ensuring remunerative prices, not ensuring that crop insurance works the way that it ought to, and all of this has created a situation where the number of people involved in agriculture’s falling and, clearly, they have no option but to move to, you know, urban areas where in a--in a funny sort of way, job creation in the organized sector, so the conventional model of economics, or the investments people, moving from rural to urban areas and joining the organized sector, but organized employment, which is, you know, proper unionized factory job, is not--has not been growing as fast.  So, the bulk of farmers who become workers end up working in the informal manufacturing sector as contract labor without, you know, proper guaranteed wages, weather all the benefits that come with India’s formal employment laws.  And so the kind of historical benefits that economists would say a company’s transitioning from, you know, rural to urban for a farmer has not--is not all that apparent.

CH: Well, that didn’t happen in England.  I mean, they destroyed the Commons, drove people into the Industrial Revolution.  I think it’s very similar kind of process in India.  How--and yet, among this dispossessed, certainly the Hindu, dispossessed base and we should say I think, what, is it 20% of India’s Muslim, right?  Or some…

SV: About 14%.

CH: Fourteen.  Okay.

SV: Yeah.

CH: But among this dispossessed base of certainly Hindus, Modi has a pretty strong following.

SV: You know, I would be weary of disaggregating his support in this way to say that it’s among the dispossessed.  The evidence from the last general election, which was fought--despite India being a parliamentary system, was fought largely on presidential terms and Modi and his allies won roughly 42% of the popular vote.  In parliament, he has a huge majority because of the way the first-past-the-post system works, but his popular support base is 42%, which is--which is large by Indian standards.  But if you consider that the last election was fought in presidential terms, this also means that 58% of Indians didn’t vote for him or they voted against him.  But, yes, I mean, he is undoubtedly the most popular among all political leaders by a long shot at the national level.  And he has skillfully used majoritarian politics to, in a way, negate or blunt the sense of loss, the economic dispossession, the sense of lack that, you know, poor Indians face and poor Hindu Indians would face, and somehow transcend their economic grievances, which naturally would find, you know, would lead to resentment against the government and his government.  So his politics is to kind of transform that resentment, channelize it, so it speak, into, you know, communal--what we call communal shamanist kind of politics.

CH: In that sense, it’s just like Trump.  He--he’s demonized Muslims.  I mean, we’ll talk about Kashmir in a minute.  He has gone after dissidents.  He has a nasty habit of shutting down the internet.  He’s a purveyor of fake news, you know.  He makes things up despite--just like Trump.  How do you draw parallels between the rise of a figure like Modi and not just Trump, but Orban in Hungary, and Johnson, from the Indian experience, what can you tell us about this global phenomenon?

SV: I think it’s tempting to see all of these people as being linked or springing from the same common set of impulses, and that wouldn’t be inaccurate in the sense that, you know, there is a resentment against the, you know, conventional way of doing politics or the conventional way of doing economics, even though none of these gentlemen represent a break with that kind of economic thinking.

CH: Well, they’re accelerating.

SV: Exactly.  So they somehow build on that resentment but carry on the project.  I think the difference between Modi and the rest of the sort of right-wing brethren, as it were, is that he--unlike them, he is not just an individual, he comes with an organization called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or the RSS, which is a fascist organization…

CH: It has…

SV: …which has--which has a hundred-year-old history.

CH: And open admiration for Mussolini, what is it, 1925 or something.

SV: I mean, like…

CH: And it has--doesn’t have an armed--I mean, he uses violence.

SV: So the--so the RSS has a number of front organizations, many of--many of which have been involved in violence.  The RSS as the parent party, you know, created the BJP which is the ruling party, and Mr. Modi comes from the RSS.  So that--so even if he were to withdraw from the scene, the politics of the RSS and the RSS’ project will remain and this is quite unlike Donald Trump or even Boris Johnson despite Johnson representing, you know, the Conservative Party but--so the set of kind of ideological forces that have--that Modi’s a part of, you know, has a much longer history and a much deeper presence which is what makes--I think what Modi’s doing quite dangerous.

CH: And is more radical.

SV: In many ways much more radical because the--you know, you have the kind of things which are publically said by, you know--Modi is a little bit more guarded in his rhetoric so you will find him much more careful than, say, Trump.  So most of Modi’s tweets, for example, are you know, quite carefully structured and--but he sits at the apex of a political, you know, family where all kinds of god-awful things are said and often acted upon.  And I think that’s what makes it…

CH: We’ll come back to that.  When we come back, we’ll continue our conversation about the rise of right-wing populism in India.  Welcome back to On Contact.  We continue our discussion about the rise of right-wing populism with Siddharth Varadarajan.  So let’s talk about Kashmir, which I think you could argue next to Palestine, has become one of the most repressive areas in the world.  Huge Muslim population.  Explain what’s happened.

SV: Well, I think the issue right now is that the government, Modi’s government, in August last year, reversed 70, 72 years of Indian state craft in Kashmir by upending and getting rid of a constitutional provision that provided autonomy, significant autonomy for Jammu and Kashmir within the Indian Union and within the Indian, you know, constitutional scheme of things.  That autonomy was part of a compromise under which Jammu and Kashmir, which was governed outside of British India in a way, became--formally became part of India and exceeded to the Indian Union after independence on the condition that it would, you know, enjoy this kind of autonomy.  It’s long been a belief of the BJP and RSS that this autonomy was the reason why you’ve had popular sentiment in favor of independence in Kashmir, and you’ve had an insurgency.  And the BJP’s belief for the RSS’s belief is that if you get rid of that provision, then somehow the problems will magically go away and that popular sentiment in the valley will, you know, no longer espouse separatism as it were.  The fact is that this calculation of Mr. Modi, which was never a very clever one, has been shown over the last six months to be completely misplaced.  And the only answer that the government has is to engage in the kind of repression of popular, you know, of former elected politicians, of students, and the mass of people there, a kind that we will never see in India.

CH: Well, let’s--well, let’s detail that because they’ve been firing on crowds.  They have carried out brutal assaults on university campuses, which enjoyed, in themselves, a kind of autonomy, you know, going in through beatings with students.  They shut off the internet.  I mean, the--it’s been quite draconian.

SV: Right.  So I think--I mean the assault on universities is happening in Delhi.  In Kashmir itself, you have this internet ban, which has--is now in its sixth month, right?  So I think you would need to sort of, you know, look at what this would mean if you don’t have broadband access for six months.  And now you have the limited restoration of data services on mobile telephones but at very low speeds and where people are--in Kashmir are only able to access so-called whitelisted sites or sites that the government approves, which is really, you know, not something that you would expect in democracy…

CH: And we’re talking about how large a population?

SV: Something like--I think--if I’m not mistaken, maybe 12 million people, which is the population of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir and all that.  I’ll have to double check that but, you know, it’s a significant number of people and, you know, so you have the internet banned there.  You have former elected officials, former elected chief ministers whose presence in the past would be cited by the government of India as proof that everything is fine in Kashmir because you have elected officials and this means that they have popular support.  Those leaders are all in prison without trial for the last six months and mid-level leaders who have been in jail and who have been released are being made to sign a bond, a release bond, where they commit legally to not speak or comment on the situation in Kashmir for up to a year as a condition for their release.  So, you know, how do you square any of this with India’s democratic credentials?  You can’t.  And it’s unfortunate that this blatant violation of the constitutionally guaranteed rights that Indians enjoy is not being called out by the Indian judiciary, by the Supreme Court.  You have cases that have been filed, but the court seems to be taking its own sweet time and on the ground violations of the rule of law continue.

CH: Okay.  Do you look at what happening in Kashmir as a kind of warning signal for repressive measures that the Modi Government would like to carry out elsewhere?

SV: You know, that’s an excellent question because when the Modi Government abolished Kashmir’s constitutional status, they said we will make Kashmir now like the rest of India.  This was their mythology, that Kashmir was somehow unique and had separate disinclinations.  And what many people felt at the time was that what is actually going to happen is that the kind of repression and violation of the rule of law, that Kashmiris have been putting up for for decades, would now become standard practices.  And you can see with the internet ban, right?  Kashmir has, of course, continuous ban of six months now but it’s become increasingly the preferred tactic of the government and not just the Modi Government of the center, but state governments that whenever you’re faced with the possibility of popular protest…

CH: And we should say that there have been a series--hundreds and thousands of people have been protesting.

SV: Exactly, over the amendments to the Citizenship Act.

CH: Right.  We should mention the Citizen Amendment Act, the National Population Register and the National Register of Citizens.

SV: Exactly.

CH: You can explain what those are, but this has brought hundreds of thousands of people for, you know, weeks in the streets in India.

SV: Exactly.  Exactly.  And in some--in Delhi, they haven’t--except briefly, tinkered with the internet but in other states, in order to somehow stop people from gathering, you’ve had internet bans.  You’ve had the illegal use of laws that allow for temporary preventive detention or for preventing gatherings of people in case there’s the danger of variety.  You’ve had these laws being invoked in ways that are really quite illegal, all because the government was quite unprepared for the--for the rise of protest against its new citizenship law.

CH: Which have been non-violent?

SV: Absolutely.  These protests--I mean, in some places, they have broken out into violence, but there’s contestation about the sequencing.  But I would say that the overwhelming protests have been--have been peaceful.  They’ve been Gandhian.

CH: Let’s just quickly run through the Citizenship Amendment Act, the National Population Register, and the National Register of Citizens because these are really legal efforts to rip down India’s identity as a secular state.

SV: You know, for the first time in India’s history, the Citizenship Amendment Act now has introduced religion as a criterion for the acquisition of citizen--citizenship.  Admittedly just for refugees, but never has this happened in the past that a refugee or a migrant has been given access--has been allowed to become an Indian citizen.

CH: As long as they’re not Muslim?

SV: Well, this is what the new law says, that refugees or migrants from Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Bangladesh who are non-Muslim will be fast-tracked.  And, you know, so this is something that’s really quite incomprehensible because if the purpose is to provide shelter to refugees, that can be done without this kind of, you know, religious--the introduction of religious criterion and what has made people angry and suspicious is that the Citizenship Amendment Act comes as part of a bundle of measures, the most nasty of which is the creation of a National Register of Citizens where the idea is that you would have enumerators essentially try to count each and every resident in India.  And then the government would then look at this data and then figure out, okay, who among these people that we’ve enumerated are actually Indian and who are doubtful citizens.  This is the category.  And if you don’t have adequate papers and the bulk of poor people in India will not have adequate papers, most people don’t have a birth certificate even, if you’re--if you’re poor and in rural areas, then you get, you know, temporarily classified as a doubtful citizen and God knows what consequences that will involve.  So people have seen through the nature of this project that it’s essentially one aimed at polarizing the country on largely religious grounds and one that perhaps might probably envisages disenfranchising poorer Indians who can’t come up with this kind of documentation and coincidentally, poorer Indians tend not to vote for the BJP, so I think that this is really what has angered people and led to protest, the scale of which and the extent of which is growing in India.

CH: I want to talk a little bit about the breakdown of the social fabric.  In the United States, we certainly lead the world in nihilistic mass shootings in schools and concert venues, churches.  But in India, you’ve seen very disturbing acts of mob lynchings, gang rapes, along with assassinations of dissidents including I think some 40 journalists have been killed.

SV: Over a long period of time.

CH: Yeah, yeah.  So there’s been a gagging and obstructing of organizations like Lawyers Collective that deal with issues of civil rights.  On that--on that--on that kind of street level, how do you explain that kind of pathology which I think very much is mirrored in the kind of violence we see in the United States?

SV: I think the Modi Government has set--created a climate, a sort of permissive climate in which, you know, mob violence has become easier and so we’ve seen certain kinds of incidents that never used to happen in the past.  It’s not that mob violence never occurred. We’ve had horrific incidents of mob violence, including when the Congress Party was in par in 1984.

CH: Well, you had the partition.

SV: Well, yeah, when the British kind of left us that, but in 1984, you know, members of the Sikh community in Delhi were massacred on the Congress Party’s watch.  So there is a history of that kind of, you know, pogrom kind of violence.  What’s new right now is the targeting, you know, of whether it’s dissidents or, you know, random Muslims on one pretext or the other.  So even though the number--the scale of the violence and the number of victims may be in single digits in many cases, but it’s created a kind of climate of fear and insecurity where people feel vulnerable.  And as I said, it’s the climate of, you know, the idea that they have some kind of sanctioning or some of these guys who have been involved in the killing of one Muslim on suspicion of the Muslim guy being, you know, transporting cows or whatever, these guys, when they get released from jail, you know, a minister goes and gallons them, so there, you know, so there’s a sense that they enjoy some kind of sanction from the government and you don’t have the kind of critical comments from the highest quarters.  You know, Modi should be speaking out more often when these incidents happen if he really wants to put some distance between himself and there and put an end to this.  You don’t have that.  So this is something which is--which is new and worrying and, you know, I would say that it’s, you know, when you consider how it is accompanied by rising intolerance, you know, there’s--you know, artists for example feel, you know, because of the use of social media, by people connected with the ruling party, artists who speak out would get trolled viciously, women artists would be particularly nastily targeted online.  So, there is a sense in which people increasingly, you know, prefer to speak in subdued tones or not speak at all and be careful and quite guarded over what they say and this is new.  This is not something that was part of the Indian public sphere even five years back.

CH: Right.  Thank you.  That was editor and journalist, Siddharth Varadarajan, founder of The Wire.

SV: Thank you.

CH: Thanks for coming.

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