Political Theology Today A forum for interdisciplinary and interreligious dialogue

“Exclusive” Growth: Fundamentalism in the service of Liberalism, and vice versa

india parliament gate

Federal elections in the world’s largest democracy have recently led to a significant change of leadership in India. There are two crucial domains of concern for anyone looking at the future of India after these elections: on the one hand, concerns about the rights and dignity of minority communities, which is saturated with an ideological component, taking form as a Hindu fundamentalism that excludes both religious minorities and the lowest castes from the nationalist agenda; on the other hand, the project of growth and development, which is the language Prime Minister Modi now speaks, to the exclusion of the communal and ideological techniques that have been so characteristic of him in the past and his victorious party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), even in the present.

The relation between these two discrete domains, the communal/ideological and the developmental/economic, is nebulous and undefined. This is so partly because both domains have their own logic as well as their own vocabulary. But we do see a certain overlap of both of these apparently separate realms captured within the concept of exclusion: on the one hand, the idea of socially exclusive (i.e. non-inclusive) systems or practices, such as caste or community-based discrimination – what we may euphemistically call religious intolerance; and on the other hand, the development economic idea of “exclusive growth” (versus the more equitable idea of inclusive growth, or taking the poor and least advantaged up along with the middle and upper classes).

Prime Minister Modi is championing exclusively for growth, and in the process excluding the rightist/nationalist ideology of the exclusion of religious minorities that fuels the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the mass-based socio-cultural organization that forms the spine of the BJP. At the same time, many economists have cautioned us about the potentially exclusive nature of that growth, as we have indeed witnessed in the very Gujarat model of development that was projected as the cure-all for the Indian Union. As Shaji George Kochuthara has pointed out in his insightful blog post of 06 June (“Reflections on the National Elections of India, April-May 2014”), the victory of the BJP owes a lot to the hope invested into the Gujarat model of development. But there are grave reasons for being cautious:

 …there are apprehensions about the claims of development in Gujrat. Industries and multinationals have grown there. At the same time, many studies have revealed that the rates of poverty, malnutrition, infant mortality, [and other human development indicators] have remained the same, or the condition has even worsened.  (Find the blog entry here.)

Development that does not include the poor is no improvement upon the previous government’s perceived “hand-out” regime. The challenge of the new government is thus not exclusively development, but very specifically inclusive development.

But what claims do the socially excluded caste or religious minorities have upon a government that would seem to pursue a model of growth that is itself potentially exclusive? The cunning here seems to be that silencing the rhetoric of exclusivity at the ideological level, as Prime Minister Modi has fortunately done over the past several weeks since he came to power, may be exactly the most opportune precondition for reinforcing a deeper and even more profound exclusivity affecting precisely those same populations. By echoing Trans-Atlantic rightest slogans, such as “maximum governance with minimum government,” the BJP may have found the most clever formula for sublating religious and caste prejudice into liberal economics.

In this respect, the anti-incumbancy thesis when discussing the election results is not as convincing as many political commentators try to make out. Due to the low overall electoral votes won by the BJP, only 31%, we are often told that it is not clear whether people voted in favour of the ideology that BJP and its allies propose, or they voted against the ruling party that was in power for ten years, so simply opting for a change rather than for an ideology (see, for example, the previously cited blogpost). The problem with the calming sensation that we are supposed to receive from this interpretation is visible in the double-significance of the concept of exclusion: once again, we do not require an ideological or Hindu fundamentalist commitment of any sort to functionally fulfill its very same exclusivist agenda. Without inclusive growth, what we lose rhetorically by silencing the RSS elements we regain systemically by championing a liberal development model.

In this respect, I think it is ironic, to be sure, that several of the progressive Congress-led UPA legislations are heavily critiqued by liberal-minded organizations, political philosophers and economists, especially from the Trans-Atlantic world.

For example, as we all know, the previous government led by the Indian National Congress Party (a coalition referred to as the United Progressive Alliance, or UPA) did enact a number of unique initiatives on the side of inclusion: the Right to Information Act, the Food Security Bill, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGS) 2005, the IGMSY programme in 2010, and so on. The Food Security scheme is described as the “biggest ever experiment in the world for distributing highly subsidized food by any government through a ‘rights based’ approach.” Similarly, the MGNREGS reflects the constitutional right to work. These schemes and acts are criticized as unwieldy, opportunistic ahead of elections, or as we hear mostly from the Trans-Atlantic critics, they are disturbingly grounded in a conception of very red/green generation rights, as opposed to the West’s heavy priority toward blue rights (strictly civil/political, and grounded in the abstract autonomy of the individual).

But if it’s the case that exclusive talk of development supersedes the constant specter of ideological exclusion, then it might be exactly the red/green kind of rights-based approach that India needs to continue to pioneer, even if it runs the unfashionable risk – unfashionable both in terms of BJP slogans and Western rightist rhetoric – of reintroducing government into governance.


(2) Comments

  1. Thanks, Aakash, for this very helpful post. I wonder if you might say a bit more about how supposed opposites — liberalism and fundamentalism — work “together” — if that’s the right word. Thanks again!

  2. Illuminating piece. And it made me think of the US history in the last hundred years. In the first half of twentieth century, minorities (mainly racial) were fighting for their rights but the majority Caucasians were fighting back. The majority was following a policy of exclusion based on racial ideology. Gradually, this ideology became completely untenable as its moral bankruptcy and pseudo-scientific evidence was exposed, So, majority had to find another ideology to base their policy of exclusion on. ‘Barbarians’ had to be kept out. So, neo-liberal economics ideology was propagated/popularized/adopted as the basis of policy of exclusion. It does the same job (i.e. keeps the minorities out of power, even when they are now close to becoming a majority) but in a much more acceptable and respectable way. Modi might have learned something from the US.

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