By Dr Nitasha Kaul*
As Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits South Africa and other countries in eastern Africa, “SA Welcomes Modi Committee” invokes the names of Mohandas “Mahatma” Gandhi and Nelson Mandela to refer to the shared history of Indo-Africa interactions, emphasising #SiyakwamukelaModi. NITASHA KAUL thinks it’s ironic that the legacy of these icons of peace is being used to welcome Modi, a lifelong Rashtriya Swayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) member and a Hindu nationalist political ideologue who has a record of presiding over anti-minority violence.
South-South cooperation is indeed important if the Indian Ocean region is to develop in an inclusive way and reduce neo-colonial dependencies that mark North-South relations. While the Indian government is presenting the PM’s visit as a follow-up of the recent ones by the president and vice president, and notwithstanding the rhetoric of strengthening, deepening, boosting, forging, valuing India-Africa relations, many Indian commentators see this as a competition with China which has deeper footprint in the “resource-rich continent”. The reduction of Africa to its resources and as a playground for emerging powers such as India and China does not mark a radical shift from Western notions of Africa. To what extent India and China are less patronising than European countries is a matter of debate.
Within India, Narendra Modi is Hindutva’s strongman in politics. He is admired by rightwing majoritarian Hindus and correctly seen as a threat by secularists and minorities. His leadership is marked by authoritarianism, centralisation of power, and absenteeism, leading to an administrative slowdown and paralysis. Overseas, Modi talks of Gandhi and non-violence; within India, he lets his chauvinist followers, including Hindu paramilitary RSS, marginalise, bully, brutalise and even kill secularists, minorities and dissidents (I have written about thishere). Individuals have been lynched by Hindu chauvinist mobs on the accusation that they have possessed or consumed beef even though there is no law against it. In the face of it all, Modi has maintained an enabling silence or sought to trivialise such events.
On Twitter (where Modi follows his own welcoming committee in SA), Modi expresses his excitement about following in the footstepsGandhi in South Africa: Gandhi “went to South Africa as a lawyer seeking work and returned to India as a strong voice for humanitarian values”.
What he conveniently ignores is how, only a few months ago, hundreds of lawyers marched in Delhi against a student leader who was accused of being “anti national” for criticising Hindu nationalist ideology. For an established democracy like India, it was unprecedented to see a mob of lawyers attacking student leaders in the full glare of media in the court house. As always, Modi has never stepped up to arrest such violence or vigilantism by taking a clear stance against it.
It is not only Indians who are the victims of bigotry and violence in India; Africans are not spared either. If Modi was seriously committed to improving relations with Africa, the first thing he would do is ensure the safety and dignity of African students and visitors in India. In recent times, there have been widely reported incidents of racist attacks, including lynching and public vilification of Africans. Rather than acknowledge and combat racism, the government and its apologists have denied its existence and trivialised it by calling it ordinary criminal behaviour. While racism in India is not an invention of the BJP/RSS et al, the xenophobic masculinist intolerant politics of hate peddled by them has allowed such incidents to go largely unpunished (see here). During a recent election campaign in the state of Kerala, Modi sought to mock development there by referring to it as “Somalia”. Contrary to what the government public relations machinery says, India is no safe place for Africans to visit or live with dignity.
During his visit to Africa, one can only hope that leaders and commentators will raise the issue of Afrophobia that is prevalent in India and seek recognition and redressal of racism. A meaningful India-South Africa relation has to go beyond the rhetoric of BRICS, IBSA, Gandhi-Mandela and South-South cooperation to include honest and frank reflection on how people can interact with each other and how governments can work to promote interaction with dignity. Is this possible under the controversy-ridden Jacob Zuma and Narendra Modi?
Progressives in South Africa should note that Modi is no proponent of a rainbow nation with pluralities. The development and economic growth model pursued under Modi is complicit with crony capitalism. Without strong democratic oversight and accountability, business deals between India and African countries are likely to further crony capitalism rather than sustainable and equitable growth.
Jawaharlal Nehru, the first PM of India, was serious about a politics of non-alignment and support for friendship with African states. Interestingly, at the 2015 India-Africa summit, most African leaders referred to Nehru’s legacy even as Modi and his ministers sought to erase Nehru’s name and unmake his secular legacy. As a vain leader known more for taking selfies in a choreographed politics of spectacle than for any politics of substance, Modi has encouraged an entire industry of symbolic but significant shifts in Indian historical memory. The Nehru jacket is now the Modi jacket, mentions of Nehru are erased from school history books, Nehru’s name is dropped from scholarship schemes. No wonder then that his acolytes have even sought to #RemoveMughalsFromBooks.
When in the state of Gujarat, Modi equated any criticism of him as chief minister to an attack on Gujarati pride; now as prime minister, he has again deployed a politics of synecdoche so that any criticism of him is construed as an attack on Indianness and criticism of his government policies is rejected as anti-national.
It is this Narendra Modi who, in the name of development, brings with him the Trojan Horse of poisonous ideology, dangerous silence and vile hypocrisy, that South Africans are welcoming warmly. It is not surprising that the SA Welcomes Modi Committee invites only select media to its celebratory events and stipulates, “Only active and legitimate media will be considered for credentials. Marketing / Advertising firms, Brand Content Producers, Filmmakers, etc. are not considered legitimate media”. Are individual critics, activists and documentary makers who have been instrumental in resisting Modi and his propaganda machinery likely to be excluded from welcome events?
Post-apartheid South Africa, with all its problems, offers a ray of hope to developing countries in terms of being strongly committed to building a pluralist, non-racial, non-sexist democratic society. A visit by an authoritarian, anti-secular, anti-minorities Hindu chauvinist PM, without a serious questioning of his unsavoury record, would go against Mandela’s legacy.
Dr Nitasha Kaul is a novelist, poet and academic, who writes and speaks within and outside academia, on issues of identity, political economy, justice, gender and democracy. See www.nitashakaul.com for a link to her work and publications.