Growth Without Development (Redux) in India

How does illiberalism in India intersect and relate to inequalities and the lack of wealth distribution? Svati Shah in this text highlights how in order to understand what the rise of ‘fascism in India’ means requires asking what the economic impact of this consolidation of power is, for the few and for the many.

How does illiberalism in India intersect and relate to inequalities and the lack of wealth distribution? Svati Shah in this text highlights how in order to understand what the rise of ‘fascism in India’ means requires asking what the economic impact of this consolidation of power is, for the few and for the many.

Svati Shah is an anthropologist and queer feminist scholar focusing on the questions of sexuality in relation to materialist history, racialization, caste politics, and political economy in India. Svati Shah is an Associate Professor of Women’s, Gender and Sexuality Studies  at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst and an Associate Professor II at the University of Bergen.


This text is a part of GRIP illiberalism miniseries exploring causes, manifestations and effects of illiberalism in different contexts. This miniseries include a variety of texts and event recordings and engages with wider explorations of illiberalism and inequality topic that GRIP currently focuses on.


In light of increasingly frequent declamations regarding India’s fascist turn, it would be a simple matter of focusing on the pomp and circumstance of Hindu nationalism, also known as ‘Hindutva,’ and its virulent Islamophobia and casteism. Hindutva’s macabre political theatre greeted the start of 2024 with the Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, ‘inaugurating’ a temple that was built on the site of a 16th century mosque in the north Indian town of Ayodhya. The mosque, known as the Babri Masjid, had been demolished by a violent mob of Hindu nationalists in 1992, led by a then-leader of Modi’s party, the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party, ‘Indian People’s Party,’ where the Sanskritized name for India, ‘Bharat,’ has Hindu connotations.) Modi himself was part of orchestrating that mob. Then, as now, the performance of razing a functioning mosque and installing a temple under the pretext of taking back something that was lost is part of a strategy for shoring up political power through majoritarian violence.


Understanding the rise of illiberalism 

We can see similar gestures in illiberal claims to lost cultural and religious capital in Putin’s very public association with the Eastern Orthodox Church in Russia and in US conservatives’ conflation of the American state with a militarised interpretation of ‘Christian values’ that, among other things, rationalises giving carte blanche to the American arms industry. In marking and resisting the rise of illiberalism around the world, it might be easy to miss the consolidation of wealth that these various forms of majoritarianism facilitate, by focusing instead on the eugenic majoritarianism in which they traffic. Looking away from the political economy of fascism might facilitate further elisions, such as marking each place where illiberalism manifests as a site of uniquely hateful rhetoric. For example, observers unfamiliar with Indian politics could be left with the impression Indian illiberalism is a sui generis manifestation, perhaps stemming from a sectarian conflict between social groups who have always harboured mutual enmity. This would be a mistake. The pomp and circumstance of the Hindu Right’s public facing power is concomitant with a massive wealth transfer to India’s 1%. This is part of a global consolidation of wealth that undermines any and all redistributive mechanisms, even those least confrontational to private capital. The added challenge of trying to understand what is happening in India from the vantage point of the Global North is the presence of a familiar gaze, deployed ‘from West to East,’ that often misses the forest of capital for the trees of ethnonationalism.


Growth without development

Horkheimer’s adage bears repeating, that ‘he who will not speak about capitalism should keep silent about fascism too,’ but what kind of capitalism is this? The extensive literature on the Indian economy and its autocratic turn is clear in showing how the suppression of dissent is being coupled with a rapacious consolidation of the engines of economic growth. The Indian economy began to liberalise in 1991, a year before the Babri Masjid demolition. The concomitance of the signal moment of Hindutva’s rise to power with liberalisation is part of a longer story of the ebbs and flows of the tensions between a vision for a strong private sector and a “labor-centered version of political economy.” At present, the Indian economy increasingly resembles what Amartya Sen has called ‘growth without development.’

Calculating India’s GDP is highly politicised, with the government’s figures being regularly shown to be inaccurate (or simply eliciting ‘mystification’ from a former economic advisor). However, it is clear that much of the country’s wealth is held by a few select companies and the families behind them. This is detailed in a 2023 report by Oxfam on India’s widening wealth gap, which is enhanced by a shrinking middle class in the post-Covid period. Any fruits of growth, however large or small, are going to a coterie of firms that are in close proximity to the government. The Oxfam report shows that the richest 1% owns 40% of the country’s wealth, with the bottom 50% owning a mere 13% of national income. This startling and worsening situation is facilitated by the prodigious use of anti-terrorism laws against activists and government critics, as well as a nascent trend of the BJP-led government passing laws by excluding the opposition from participation, sometimes by literally suspending MPs from opposition parties en masse, and using legislative tools to promote further disenfranchisement.

India’s widening wealth gap also means alarmingly precipitous development indicators. India was ranked 111 out of 125 countries on the Global Hunger Index for 2023. This ranking, dismissed outright by the central government, is based on measures of undernourishment, child stunting, child wasting, and child death. It is consistent with chronic unemployment and an alarming ‘jobs crisis’ amongst young people. While the government courts popular support by touting schemes like the distribution of food grains and cooking gas, these read more as band aids and PR stunts than actual social welfare programs, which are being choked into non-existence through stalled or stopped payments. The Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), for example, a program that guarantees 100 days of paid employment to extremely low-income workers in rural areas, has been facing steep cuts that portend making the project untenable. For those who can still be paid for work under the program, these funds can now only be accessed via fulfilling biometric identification requirements that are often impossible for the millions living in areas without access to bank accounts, internet, or adequate infrastructure. This “threatens to create a situation where a majority of NREGA workers cannot be paid.


For the few and for the many

In a country that is indelibly marked by syncretism, the rise of Hindu nationalism is anathema. Yet, much ink has been spilled trying to account for the mass support for Hindutva, as indicated by the parliamentary majorities that the BJP garnered twice, in 2014 and again in 2019, albeit with most of these parliamentary seats coming from a few select states. These regional differences within India are not insignificant. Every religion on earth is practiced in India, and more than 300 languages are spoken there. It is home to more than a sixth of all humanity. In light of India’s vast diversity, it could just as well be thought of as a region that is a nation, inasmuch as it is a nation within a region. India’s diversity overlays the historically uneven project of bringing everyone living within the post-partition borders of Indian territory into the official ambit of Indian national governance. Hindutva seeks to resolve this project once and for all, waging it through extreme anti-minoritarian violence, coupled with the promise of prosperity for a Hindu majority that the Hindu Right is actively consolidating, via the constant iteration of Indian Muslims as anti-national Others. Understanding what the rise of ‘fascism in India’ means requires asking what the economic impact of this consolidation of power is, for the few and for the many. This is the question being asked, and answered, by Indian civil society, which is fighting back despite the challenges outlined here. It is a question that is relevant to the rise of autocracy everywhere.