India Veers Right, as Asia’s Rulers Jostle for Hegemony

Richard Abernethy

The election of the anti-Muslim Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in India is viewed in terms of the regional ascendancy of right-wing parties, and of the danger of war – Editors

Narendra_D_ModiWorld politics has taken an ominous turn. The promise of recent liberation movements – the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement, the Maidan movement in Ukraine – has receded. In Egypt, a new military strongman, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, has been elected president. Ukraine’s presidency has gone to another oligarch, Petro Poroshenko, while militias aligned with Russia have carved out enclaves in the east. Across many elections, including those in Europe, right-nationalist parties have made big gains. Greece, a country that has suffered terribly through the Great Recession, showed both a gleam of hope and a menace. Syriza, a left, anti-austerity party led the poll, but the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn also performed strongly, taking one in ten of votes cast.

Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister, is clearly a man of the Right. But which Right? Of global capitalism, free markets and multinational corporations? Or Hindutva, the doctrine that only Hindus truly represent Indian civilisation, casting India’s 15 percent Muslim minority as outsiders, repudiating the idea of India as a secular, pluralist, multi-faith country?

Modi carries both banners. Campaigning under the slogan “Good times ahead” and promising rapid capitalist development, Modi gathered the votes of young, urban, educated, middle class Indians. India’s stock exchange rose to a record high, entering the world’s top ten. Yet his core supporters remain Hindu nationalists. While leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi remains a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), an organisation that at least verges on fascism. Modi was chief minister of Gujarat state in 2002, during an outbreak of anti-Muslim pogroms. Critics have accused him of encouraging the violence, an accusation that he strongly denies. Although he has condemned “riots” in general terms, he has not shown sympathy with the victims, nor has his government done much to help the survivors. Nearly 4,000 Muslim families subsist in 86 camps in Gujarat, lacking drinking water, sanitation and electricity.

Modi’s election victory was a stunning defeat for the Congress Party, the dominant force in Indian politics since independence in 1947. Disillusion with Congress, which has come to be associated with patronage and crony capitalism, is entirely understandable – but this raises the question of why India lacks a strong, credible Left as a decent alternative. Where Modi did not win, it was mainly regional parties that held out against him.

India’s veer to the Right comes at a time when competition between state powers in Asia, hitherto mainly economic, is increasingly turning into an arms race accompanied by strident nationalist rhetoric and territorial claims and counter-claims.

An alliance is forming between India and Japan. The two countries already hold joint naval exercises and India plans to buy warplanes from Japan. Now there is also a political alliance between Narendra Modi and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. Abe has visited the Yasukuni shrine, dedicated (among others) to Japanese war criminals of the Second World War; an affront (presumably deliberate) to most countries in East Asia including China, and one of the few things that North and South Korea could agree about. Abe also wants to revise Japan’s pacifist constitution, as a legal basis and a signal to the world of Japan’s resurgence as a military power, which is already happening in fact.

Modi’s first move towards India’s historic rival Pakistan was a conciliatory gesture, inviting prime minister Nawaz Sharif to his inauguration. Whether this signals a warming of relations between the two nations remains to be seen.

Pakistan has an alliance of convenience with China, India’s chief rival for regional hegemony. Under Xi Jinpeng, China too has ambitions to project its power in the region and beyond. China has an alliance of convenience with Russia, the two countries often presenting a united front against the U.S. and the West. The relation between China and Russia is an ambivalent one. They are rivals as well as allies. Barack Obama’s policy is to shift U.S. power towards the Pacific and East Asia, mainly to contain the rising power of China. Adding to the complexity and volatility of the region, other states have military and geopolitical ambitions of their own. South Korea’s president, Park Geun-hye, is another right-wing nationalist. The Stalinist state of North Korea is heavily militarised and bristling with hostility to the outside world.

The danger that somewhere, sometime these tensions will ignite into war is obvious enough. Even without one bullet fired in anger, every rupee, yuan, rouble or yen spent on armament (all of it surplus value produced but not received by the workers) is a diversion of wealth that could have been used to feed, clothe, house, educate or provide health care for the population. The clash of nationalisms is a part of the existing world order, but an alternative is possible if working people can unite across national boundaries (and across religious and communal divides) to oppose the projects of their rulers and work together towards a new society.


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1 Comment

  1. Mansoor

    This article points to a real danger that in authoritarian nationalist states, the national forces can wreak havoc on the populous continent of Asia. Before the Islamic revolution of Iran, the dictatorial powers of the Shah and his militarization laid the foundation for an arms race and an eventual war between Iran and Saddam’s Iraq.