Why Care So Much About Corruption? Take a Look at India’s Recent Election.

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The biggest political story of the year is not the 2014 midterm election, not the fighting and map-redrawing in the Ukraine, and not even the political struggles in and around Anaheim.  It both culminated and kicked off a new chapter today in India, a democracy almost four times the size of the United States, where Narendra Modi — heretofore famous for (allegedly, but who are we kidding?) fomenting a massacre of Muslims at (and beyond) Ayodhya, in his home state of Gujarat in 2002 — was just elected as Prime Minister.  India has its Putin.

Modi victory superimposed over Indian Flag

New Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi shows off his inked index finger to a crowd of supporters.

I’ll be quoting and referring to coverage here from The Guardian, a real newspaper.

India’s 16th general election this month, held against a background of economic jolts and titanic corruption scandals, and tainted by the nastiest campaign yet, announces a new turbulent phase for the country – arguably, the most sinister since its independence from British rule in 1947. Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India’s highest political office.

Many of the same people who toss around words like “socialist” and “communist” with abandon strongly object to any contemporary use of the term “fascist” — wrongly identifying it as a synonym for its most famous contemporary example, the Nazi regime — but anyone who identifies Modi as anything but that is just dancing around the truth.  He’s a strongman with contempt for his enemies (some of whom, admittedly, are contemptible), a fetish for personal strength, and a distaste for Western softness as expressed in feminism and human rights.  He’s no Hitler — not yet, at least, and probably not ever — and does not likely have expansionist plans for foreign policy.  Instead, he’s likely to look inward: suppression of the nation’s huge Muslim minority and reversals of gains in women’s rights, at a minimum; but something beyond that as well — something that Americans have a hard time even completely imagining: a return to a stronger caste system.

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist movements of Europe, whose founder’s belief that Nazi Germany had manifested “race pride at its highest” by purging the Jews is by no means unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or “Hinduness”. In 1948, a former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims. The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced Muslims as “child-breeding centres”.

Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat. A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by WikiLeaks, as an “insular, distrustful person” who “reigns by fear and intimidation”; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies – “terrorists”, “jihadis”, “Pakistani agents”, “pseudo-secularists”, “sickulars”, “socialists” and “commies”. Modi’s own electoral strategy as prime ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi “infiltrators” and those who eat the holy cow.

Modi exhorts his largely young supporters – more than two-thirds of India’s population is under the age of 35 – to join a revolution that will destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of management, national security and civilisational glory.

Surely, though, at least he is a man of the people — right?  Yes — of some of the people.

His record as chief minister is predominantly distinguished by the transfer – through privatisation or outright gifts – of national resources to the country’s biggest corporations. His closest allies – India’s biggest businessmen – have accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or silenced.

Not long after India’s first full-scale pogrom in 2002, leading corporate bosses, ranging from the suave Ratan Tata to Mukesh Ambani, the owner of a 27-storey residence, began to pave Modi’s ascent to respectability and power. The stars of Bollywood fell (literally) at the feet of Modi. In recent months, liberal-minded columnists and journalists have joined their logrolling rightwing compatriots in certifying Modi as a “moderate” developmentalist.

Jagdish Bhagwati, an economist from Columbia University, takes a lot of credit for India’s recent economic success — but

the nearly double-digit economic growth of recent years that Ivy League economists like him – India’s own version of Chile’s Chicago Boys and Russia’s Harvard Boys – instigated and championed turns out to have been based primarily on extraction of natural resources, cheap labour and foreign capital inflows rather than high productivity and innovation, or indeed the brick-and-mortar ventures that fuelled China’s rise as a manufacturing powerhouse. “The bulk of India’s aggregate growth,” the World Bank’s chief economist Kaushik Basu warns, “is occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end of the income ladder.” Thus, it has left largely undisturbed the country’s shameful ratios – 43% of all Indian children below the age of five are undernourished, and 48% stunted; nearly half of Indian women of childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still defecate in the open.

(I’m sure that that last clause might capture the attention of leaders here in OC.  Half of the population defecates out in the open?  Do you realize how well that could fill our jails and our sex offender registries if it were true here?  What an investment opportunity!  What a boon for the prison guards’ union!)

That last paragraph gives you a sense, though, of why Modi won.  It’s not because the intrinsic appeal of fascism is so great in the land of Mohandas Gandhi.  It’s because the Congress Party, heirs to the traditions of Gandhi’s partner Jahawahral Nehru, whose daughter married a man named Gandhi unrelated to the Mahatma and thus ushered in a series of Congress party leaders surnamed “Gandhi” that persists through to today — has become unbearably corrupt.  Petty corruption prevents even routine activities involving the government from taking place without bribes, delay, or arbitrary rejection.  Modi’s cultural conservative and economic corporatist party was the only way to sweep such people out of office — there was a progressive liberal reform party as well, but as usual that faction tends not to make it to the final round, however large a role it may play at the beginning of a struggle (see “Arab Spring”) — and so India took a plunge and voted for the fascist in the hope that the price won’t be too awful and things will eventually turn out all right.

This has something to say about U.S. politics, you may by now recognize.  Congress is in many ways the equivalent of the Democratic Party here, heir for 48 almost interrupted years to the legacy of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  The RSS is an exaggerated (thank God) version of the Republican Party.  And when the Democratic Party is believed to be hopelessly corrupt, the population turns to the available alternative.  In 1980 it was Ronald Reagan — whose election, not long before, was considered to be as inconceivable as Rand Paul’s is today, thanks to the narrow imaginations of pundits — today it’s the fundamentalist anti-taxers.  The party of “good governance” loses the support of the public unless it is perceived as not being corrupt — and for most people it’s not the big corruption, the GardenWalk Giveaways, that offends them, but the small corruption, performed by people close enough to smell: the chiseling, the petty thievery, the claims to privilege.  Why do people take petty corruption so seriously?  Because it affronts them tangibly and directly — and unlike larger forms of corruption, it seems that it can be opposed.  Or — and this is critical — at a minimum people don’t want to be complicit in supporting it!

An anti-corruption stance — which transcends partisan bounds — is considered to be almost quaint by political insiders; it’s “OK so long as you’re not too attached to it,” like environmentalism and animal rights.  But here’s how big it really is: pervasive corruption just lost control of the nuclear-armed largest democracy on the planet, home of one of the world’s largest and greatest civilizations — and to a fascist!  Now does meticulousness about corruption, large and small, make a little more sense?  PEOPLE HATE IT!  They know that it may happen, but they don’t want their fingerprints on it!

Back to discussing India:

Absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth has led to what Amartya Sen and Jean Dreze call “islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan Africa”. The failure to generate stable employment – 1m new jobs are required every month – for an increasingly urban and atomised population, or to allay the severe inequalities of opportunity as well as income, created, well before the recent economic setbacks, a large simmering reservoir of rage and frustration. Many Indians, neglected by the state, which spends less proportionately on health and education than Malawi, and spurned by private industry, which prefers cheap contract labour, invest their hopes in notions of free enterprise and individual initiative. However, old and new hierarchies of class, caste and education restrict most of them to the ranks of the unwashed.

Oddly enough, the bad news in India could be good economic news for California, because while the entrepreneurs who don’t give a damn about human rights and such will be happier than ever in Bangalore and elsewhere, others will take this election as a sign to get the hell out of there — and, along with London, California is probably their most likely destination.  (We’ve seen a similar exodus of progressives from once-actually-socialist Israel since the advent of the Likud Party.)  The problem, of course, is that once such people move out the remaining electorate is that much more harsh.   So when, inevitably, the petty officials of the new government turn out to be just as corrupt as their predecessors — both the Iranian revolutionary government in 1979 and Afghanistan’s Taliban had the “well, at least they’re honest” reputation when they started, until it turned out that they weren’t — their corruption may make them less likely to be removed, because it’s easier to distract people from corruption if you give them minorities and poor to hate.

About Greg Diamond

Somewhat verbose worker's rights and government accountability attorney, residing in northwest Brea. General Counsel of CATER, the Coalition of Anaheim Taxpayers for Economic Responsibility, a non-partisan group of people sick of local corruption. Deposed as Northern Vice Chair of DPOC in April 2014 when his anti-corruption and pro-consumer work in Anaheim infuriated the Building Trades and Teamsters in spring 2014, who then worked with the lawless and power-mad DPOC Chair to eliminate his internal oversight. Occasionally runs for office to challenge some nasty incumbent who would otherwise run unopposed. (Someday he might pick a fight with the intent to win rather than just dent someone. You'll know it when you see it.) He got 45% of the vote against Bob Huff for State Senate in 2012 and in 2014 became the first attorney to challenge OCDA Tony Rackauckas since 2002. None of his pre-putsch writings ever spoke for the Democratic Party at the local, county, state, national, or galactic level, nor do they now. A family member co-owns a business offering campaign treasurer services to Democratic candidates and the odd independent. He is very proud of her. He doesn't directly profit from her work and it doesn't affect his coverage. (He does not always favor her clients, though she might hesitate to take one that he truly hated.) He does advise some local campaigns informally and (so far) without compensation. (If that last bit changes, he will declare the interest.)