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MOHAN JYOTI DUTTA | 31 MARCH, 2017

The Two Faces of Developmentalism and Communalism Threaten Indian Pluralism


SINGAPORE: For a large cross-section of India’s educated middle classes, trained in the enticements of the free market as a source for economic growth, and employed in the tech-finance-industries that promise to catalyze the transformation of India as a growth-hub, development as economic growth is the catchphrase that holds sway on emotions. The dogma of economic growth as development organizes both the spheres of rational engagements and heuristic affinities.

For this mostly English-educated, mall hopping, outwardly modern, middle class Indian occupying the global technology and finance industries and their service economies, the promise of development as growth obfuscates everything else, offering the powerful appeal of clean government, upward mobility through jobs, and economic opportunities for investment returns. Development, monolithically constructed in the now-debunked ideology of neoliberalism, is propped up as the enticement of an India that has arrived on the global stage.

This unbridled affection for market-driven growth, punctuated by a desire for the global ascendance of the Indian culture on the global stage, has opened up the pathway for brand saffron to enter the middle class imaginary. Indian culture, branded parochially in the symbolisms of saffron, enters into the linear pathway of modernity scripted as market-based economic growth.

Developmentalism as the promise of economic growth is intricately weaved in with cultural revivalism as the re-telling of the Indian story on the global stage.

Growth is a tool for cultural revival, enabling the nation to narrate its story of cultural superiority in the global arena. And cultural revivalism is a tool for economic growth, organizing the national aspiration around the desire for the global emergence of a strong India.

These seemingly disparate narratives of economic growth and cultural revivalism are joined together by a monoculture ideology that seeks to remake India in a monolithic image.

It is no surprise therefore that the cultural revivalism we are witnessing is entirely a Hindu cultural revivalism, equating the story of a global Indian culture as the story of a global Hindu culture. Hindu mythology becomes Indian mythology. Hindu growth makes up the story of Indian growth. Hindu cultural events and products mark the Indian cultural artefacts that are branded and sold at airports, heritage markets, and India festivals.

This monoculture image of Hindu culture as brand India erases the cultural pluralism that makes up the fabric of India. The narrow Hindutva that underlies the imagery of brand India systematically erases the pluralism, dynamism, and open-endedness that make up the syncretic and diverse traditions of Hinduisms. India’s Muslims, marked in this revivalism as the aggressors threatening Indian culture, are continually threatened. This singularly hegemonic symbolism of Hindutva as brand India serves well the branding goals of telling one monochromatic story powerfully.

The Devdutt Pattanaiks and Anand Neelakantans narrate this story of a mythologized Hindu culture on the palette of Indian/Hindutva modernity. The marriage of modernity as economic growth to cultural revival appeals powerfully to this English-educated Indian middle class as an aspiration.

This heuristic appeal of the growth story makes it acceptable to cozy up to the Hindutva communalism that in the secular past of India was considered intrinsically anti-modern. The cosmopolitan ethos of the middle class Indian, crafted in the image of Nehru, has been replaced by the monoculture imagery of a Hindu India, defined by its rabid Hindutva.

The communal past of the Prime Minister Narendra Modi is whitewashed with the image of clean government. The anti-Muslim extremist Yogi Adityanath is whitewashed as the deliverer of strong governance as the Chief Minister of India’s largest state, Uttar Pradesh, with a population of more than 200 population. Having been accused of attempted murder, criminal intimidation and rioting, the Yogi is the anti-thesis of the democratic ethos. In his campaign trail, the Yogi says ““If [Muslims] kill one Hindu man, then we will kill 100 Muslim men.”

The Indian middle class makes peace with this blatant communalism by reverting back to its ideology of economic growth as development. In Adityanath, they see the promise of strong governance, pegging their hopes to the aggressions in his discourse of hate.

The whitewashing of Narendra Modi and Yogi Adityanath as the messiahs of development obfuscate the fact that developmentalism is the antithesis of communalism. Intrinsic to the idea of development is progressive movement forward, but the rapid saffronization of India and the communalization of its public spaces is intrinsically in opposition to this forward movement. These fundamental inconsistencies however are powerfully held together by a neoliberal ideology that is far removed from empiricism.

The Yogi is the face of brand India, as an icon of its neoliberal ideology and culturalism revivalism. The Yogi is the face of the Indian middle class.

Ironically then, these twin monocultures of communalism and developmentalism, devoid of facts and reasoned conversation, threaten to erase the beautiful pluralism that makes up the cultural fabric of the Indian imagination and its lessons of syncretism.

(Mohan J. Dutta is Provost’s Chair Professor of Communications and New Media at the National University of Singapore. His most recent book “Imagining India in Discourse: Meaning, Power, Structure” examines elite discourses of imagining India.)

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