Ananya Vajpeyi on Modi's India

Ananya Vajpeyi, Assistant Professor at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, sits down with Foreign Affairs Editor Gideon Rose to discuss Narendra Modi and politics in India.

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This interview has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is below.

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Gideon Rose: Ananya, there's a lot of interesting stuff going on in India these days, but let's start with Narendra Modi. The Indian Prime Minister made his name as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, bringing supposedly economic growth and dynamism, but also controversy over ethnic tensions and riots, communal riots in his state. When he won election at the national level, the hope was that he would bring economic dynamism to the country at large, and the fear was that he might sponsor some sort of communal tension. Have either of the hopes or the fears been realized in the year plus that he has been in power?

Ananya Vajpeyi: I think unfortunately that the fears have been realized more than the hopes.

Gideon Rose: So you've got the tensions, but not the economic dynamism.

Ananya Vajpeyi: That's right. That's right. We haven't seen the kinds of sweeping economic reforms, the kind of turnaround that he promised. It's not necessarily a better atmosphere for investors and people wanting to flock to India with their business from all over the world and so on. On the other hand, there has been an escalation in communal tensions. There's been a lot of incidents of actual violence against minorities.

Gideon Rose: Such as what? So you have incidents of violence against minorities. Are we talking about Kashmiri Muslims, are we talking broader than that, or what?

Ananya Vajpeyi: We're talking broader than that. Kashmir has been a conflict zone for the last 25, 30 years, so that's an ongoing issue. But now it seems like ordinary Muslims and ordinary Dalits and... Just could be in any part of the country, could be not necessarily an entire region or community or even a village, it could even be just individuals getting targeted by mobs, getting lynched. The most recent sort of flashpoint was this family in a place called Dadri in Uttar Pradesh, which is the largest state in India. There was some suspicion that the Muslim family, that they had beef in their refrigerator. And the head of the household, this man called Mohammad Akhlaq, was just dragged out and lynched and just murdered by a mob in front of his young children and his wife. And it was just the most sort of frightening kind of expression of a majoritarian force.

Gideon Rose: Does Modi see himself as a Hindu nationalist, or do the Hindu nationalists see him as one of them?

Ananya Vajpeyi: Well, this is the thing. When he was winning his national election last year. He represented this new kind of rising middle class and the possibility of India getting out of a rut of being ruled by the Gandhi family, and this kind of dynastic democracy issues, corruption, and so on. And that if he brought with him a broader spectrum of the Hindu right, and that some of those people were on the extreme right. He would be able to somehow manage those internal differences But increasingly that fringe has gotten more mainstream, it has become more vocal.

And at this point, there is just an outcry for him to respond to incidents like this. So the expectation is that Prime Minister Modi will rise above being a Hindu, or being the leader of the BJP, or being a Hindu nationalist, or being any kind of, representing any one particular group, and that as Prime Minister, he will say that "This is not on. You can't be lynching members of the minority community. And I distance myself from the crazies on the right who are coming out and saying things like... "

Gideon Rose: And he hasn't done that.

Ananya Vajpeyi: No, he hasn't done that. He just doesn't... He's not easily pushed into responding to something as though it were a national emergency rather than being somebody's problem in particular some community or other.

Gideon Rose: India has an established and long in place system of affirmative action programs, reservations. They were designed to help the backward castes under the untouchables and so forth, and then expanded to some other groups. They have become quite controversial, and in fact, there was a protest in Gujarat recently. Half a million people driven by the affirmative action issue backlash you might say. What was that all about?

Ananya Vajpeyi: Yes, so... Social inequality is a big problem in India, and it can be driven by caste which is a sort of traditional way in which social hierarchy manifests itself in India. There's increasing amounts of economic inequality because the growth is also... It's making some people wealthier, but it's also making other people poorer than they were and the disparity is growing. So, the state does have a strong affirmative action mandate and a program, and it's actually a constantly expanding program. But interestingly what is happening in Gujarat, for example, is that communities that were traditionally powerful. Affirmative action doesn't include them, because they were never the targeted beneficiaries because they were already doing fine; it was the other people who were being left out...

Gideon Rose: So it came at their expense in some ways, actually?

Ananya Vajpeyi: Right, but now that we've had many decades of the state trying to help other weaker communities, people belonging to communities that were traditionally more well-off and powerful feel that somehow the only way to actually access resources and opportunities and employment and so on coming from the state is if you're covered under the affirmative action program. So, they're saying that, "We too should be recognized as qualifying for being backward. And unless we do that, we're not gonna get what are essentially freebies because left to ourselves when all these other people are basically out of the running because they have reserved jobs and seats and educations... "

Gideon Rose: We want our quotas too.

Ananya Vajpeyi: We want our quotas too, but for that, we actually have to somehow establish that we deserve them. That is to say there's a race to be more backwards than now which is the exact [chuckle] opposite of what reservationist is supposed to do...

Gideon Rose: So, everybody touting their grievances, in other words instead of actually moving past them. Do you see what's going on in some of these protests in India as having any link to the kind of populist surge that's going on in other areas of the world?

Ananya Vajpeyi: Well, it depends what you mean by populism, I mean because, last year, the theory was that Modi himself represents a kind of populism, right, because he comes personally from a non-elite background, and he's a great demagogue, he's a great speaker, he's a great campaigner, and he's personally very charismatic for most people.

And everyone says this is all like this, he represents aspirational India and the new possibilities of access to power and participation and representation which most communities have not had. But the dark side of it is such that it's tearing apart the constitutional basis and the secular foundations of the country, and the fact of the matter is underneath all the glitz, I mean it's the world's most diverse population, and for it to hang together and work as one nation, you have to have a sort of healing touch. You can't be divisive in your politics, and, I think, succeed in the long run even if you manage to attract investment, and it's not clear that... That has happened either. I think there is economic trouble brewing actually, that seems to be whatever I follow of the news on that front.

Gideon Rose: So Indian politics could become more turbulent still in years to come?

Ananya Vajpeyi: Yeah, because there's a lot of big important state elections coming up, and a lot rides on whether the BJP can win in these different states.

Gideon Rose: What happens if Modi wins, and what happens if he loses? I mean not Modi himself, but his forces, the party.

Ananya Vajpeyi: Yeah. Well, if he wins, then that's a big shot in the arm for him I think, because winning Bihar and ruling India are tightly related in all kinds of ways. If he loses, or if it's very, very close, that could really be... That could be a big setback. It would mean that even ordinary people in a very poor and backward state are taking notice of the fact that the BJP represents a certain kind of bellicose Hindu majoritarian politics, which is not really sustainable, I think, for democratic India.

Ananya Vajpeyi: Ananya Vajpeyi, a somewhat depressing update.

Gideon Rose: [laughter] I'm so sorry about that.

Ananya Vajpeyi: But thank you for bringing it to us.

Gideon Rose: Okay, thanks, Gideon. Thanks.

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