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Inequality, belief and elections in India

- April 17, 2014

India goes to the polls this month in the world’s largest election. Voting is staggered, with 814 million voters casting ballots on nine polling days over six weeks. The final tally will be announced on May 16, but all signs already point to a victory for the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi.

Modi, who rose to power as a member of the Hindu nationalist paramilitary organization Rashtriya Swayamsavek Sangh, achieved national notoriety when he became the chief minister of Gujarat state in late 2001. Soon after he took office, the province descended into communal violence, in which thousands, mostly Muslims, were killed.

Was Modi’s government complicit in the 2002 massacres? Human Rights Watch reported at the time that the Modi government had failed to take appropriate steps to stop the killings, and also said that some Gujarat state officials had encouraged the mob. The Indian magazine Tehelka filmed participants in the violence who believed they had state sanction. But a series of court investigations concluded there was not enough evidence to link Modi directly to the violence. Human Rights Watch maintains that this is at least in part because Gujarat officials took steps to destroy or conceal relevant material.

In his campaign, Modi has sought to distance himself and the BJP from the 2002 pogroms by focusing on his economic record. This is not simply a matter of deflection. Modi’s slogans – “With justice for all, appeasement to none,” and “Participation of all, development for all” – aim to distinguish the BJP’s free market policies from the “appeasement” of the incumbent government’s affirmative action policies for minorities and disadvantaged castes. Modi argues that economic development is itself a solution to sectarian tensions as well as evidence of their decline.

Reality suggests otherwise. For one thing, communal violence still occurs across India, even after two decades of economic transformation. The country was deeply shaken by riots in Uttar Pradesh last August. Sushil Kumar Shinde, India’s minister for home affairs, told the New York Times that the U.P. outbreak was one of 451 cases of sectarian violence in 2013, a 10 percent increase over the preceding year.

Party preference by religious identity, June 2013 (Data: National Sample Survey 66th Round June 2013/Chart: Maha Atal)

Second, the growth India has experienced in the past two decades is unevenly distributed, and may be exacerbating structural inequalities between groups.  The most recent National Sample Survey concluded that the monthly per capita household expenditures (MPCE) of Muslim families are 14 percent lower than they are for Hindu families. The gap is worst in cities: urban Muslims have an MPCE 30 percent lower than their Hindu counterparts. Given that much of India’s economic development has taken the form of urban job growth and migration, the impression is that the benefits have accrued primarily to the majority.

Just as important are divisions between Hindu castes. Of particular interest are studies that investigate the relationship between caste and social class, where the consensus is divided. Divya Vaid argues that class and caste are more congruent at the extremes of the caste system than in the middle, and that this congruence has weakened only marginally over time. By contrast, Samuel Stroope contends that class and caste are becoming more distinct from one another in urban areas. But Stroope also finds high-caste individuals are gravitating toward religious exclusivity: that might be a reaction against the erosion of high-caste economic privilege.

In rural areas, meanwhile, growth has taken the form of large-scale industrial development on land purchased under eminent domain-style legislation, with this property bundled into ‘Special Economic Zones’ offering a range of tax incentives. Lancy Lobo and Shashikant Kumar’s landmark study on land politics in Gujarat has shown that the burden of displacement has fallen disproportionately on disadvantaged castes, many of whom had customary, rather than written, rights to land and were left out of compensation schemes.

Economic growth is not eliminating the differences between religious and caste groupings. Moreover, a number of studies suggest sectarian violence may itself be a consequence of uneven development. Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph’s 1993 essay, “Modern Hate,” concluded that the perpetrators of sectarian violence in India “are the educated unemployed, not the poor and illiterate…In an India where, despite its problems, the number of persons under the poverty line has been declining and entrepreneurship expanding exponentially, their expectations have run well ahead of available opportunities.”

A more recent study by Ipsita Chatterjee looked specifically at the case of Gujarat and found that globalization has helped undergird violence in India by replacing traditional industrial bodies (where workers of different backgrounds regularly interacted) with a more segregated labor market in which excluded groups fight with each other for what remains.

The relationship between caste, religion and violence is complicated, and growth of a broad-based nature certainly has a role to play in building peace. But it is unlikely to be achieved so long as Modi and his supporters refuse to talk about the obstacles.

Maha Rafi Atal is a PhD candidate in the Department of Politics and International Studies at the University of Cambridge, researching the role of multinational corporations as governing authorities in the aftermath of land acquisition.