In India, the sixth phase of voting has concluded in a highly anticipated parliamentary election that is widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in office. India is the world’s largest democracy with 900 million eligible voters. The final phase of voting will take place on May 19 and vote counting will begin on May 23. Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. His government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims. We speak with world-renowned, award-winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy. She is the author of The God of Small Things and The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. Her new book My Seditious Heart, a collection of her nonfiction writing, will be out next month.
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.
AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, Democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman.
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NERMEEN SHAIKH: And I’m Nermeen Shaikh. Welcome to our listeners and viewers around the country and around the world. In India, the sixth phase of voting has concluded in a highly anticipated parliamentary election that is widely seen as a referendum on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is seeking a second term in office.
More than 100 million people were eligible to vote in this penultimate phase. India’s election commission reported voter turnout was just over 63%. The turnout in the first five phases averaged 67%, roughly the same as in the 2014 elections that brought Modi to power. India is the world’s largest democracy with 900 million eligible voters. The final phase of voting will take place on May 19th and vote-counting will begin on the 23rd.
Modi’s Hindu nationalist BJP won a landslide victory in 2014. Modi’s main opponent in this election is Rahul Gandhi’s Congress party. Gandhi’s father, grandmother and great grandfather have all served as prime minister of India.
AMY GOODMAN: Modi’s government has been criticized for a crackdown on civil society, targeting political opponents, journalists, human rights activists, lawyers and writers. Human rights groups have also raised the alarm on attacks against vulnerable populations, especially Dalits and Muslims.
To talk more about the elections as well as other issues from Kashmir to capitalism to climate change, we are joined by world-renowned, award-winning Indian writer Arundhati Roy. She won the Booker Prize in 1997 for her first novel The God of Small Things. Her second novel, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness was long-listed for the Booker Prize in 2017. A collection of her nonfiction writing titled My Seditious Heart will be out in June.
Arundhati Roy is in New York for the PEN World Voices Festival. She delivered the Arthur Miller Freedom to Write Lecture on Sunday night at Harlem’s historic Apollo Theater. Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Arundhati. It’s great to have you here.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Thank you.
AMY GOODMAN: So yesterday as you were giving your speech, you were lamenting that you couldn’t be in India, because your city, New Delhi, was voting. Can you explain the six-week-long Indian elections and how you see them as a referendum on the current Prime Minister Narendra Modi?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the six-week-long election of course has to do with the fact that there are 900 million voters and just the logistics of that, dealing with the logistics of that, is cumbersome and difficult. Although I don’t recall elections being strung over such a long period before, so there is more esoteric stuff in that which I don’t want to get into. But there is also a lot of anxiety in India about the election voting machines, the EVMs and so on.
But yeah, it’s a referendum on Modi in a way, because oddly enough, he seems to have — in his sort of desire to project himself, he has not just burned everybody else, but even his own party. So in many places, there are people who are standing for elections who say — who people don’t even know, because they just say, “Never mind who the local person you are voting for is; it’s a vote for Modi.”
Now what does Modi stand for? Of course the core of him is the far-right, Hindu nationalist core. And that core group will remain with him. But in the 2014 elections, he had added another layer, which was the layer of “I am the development prime minister.” The slogan in Hindi was [inaudible] meaning like “development with everybody and for everybody.” So a lot of people sort of forgot about his somewhat gruesome past and voted in the hope that he was going to move India forward economically. And that never happened. He shot the tires off that moving car with demonetization and this tax that you mentioned.
So likely, he is going to lose that second layer that he had put on, the fur coat that he had put on, the business suit that he had put on for the previous elections. And now he is just campaigning brazenly on Hindu nationalism, on national security, on terrorism and all of that. So he is likely going to rally his base but lose the support that actually brought him into power last time.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: Can you explain, Arundhati, his main rival, Rahul Gandhi? Last night when you spoke at the Apollo Theater, you said that even though you had previously been very critical of the Congress party, you have been impressed with Rahul Gandhi and his campaigning in this election. So could you explain what he stands for, what the Congress party is proposing, and why you think he may actually beat Narendra Modi?
ARUNDHATI ROY: OK, so this is not true that Rahul Gandhi is the main rival. Rahul Gandhi is surely being — I mean, the Congress party is the only other sort of national party, but in fact what has happened is very interesting because the BJP and the Hindu nationalists have the centrifugal force that’s rallying around Modi, and the force that’s against him is actually dispersing into a kind of federalism.
So what is likely to happen is that the Congress will be the glue that holds together a whole lot of regional political parties, who are the ones — especially in let’s say UP, in the biggest, most populous state in India, Uttar Pradesh, which sends most members to Parliament, which would be crucial for any party to win, the Congress has no presence — literally no presence in UP. It will be regional political parties which will actually eventually defeat Modi and then there will be a coalition which will be held together by the Congress.
But Rahul Gandhi, of course as you said, he comes from the Gandhi family. And the Congress is a party that I myself have written against, when they were in power. Rahul Gandhi was a very sorry figure in the 2014 elections. But I have been very impressed by how — he didn’t really have power. He was not the secretary of the party at the time. Now he is the secretary of the party. And yes, he comes from a kind of entitled political dynasty, but —
AMY GOODMAN: Explain who he comes from.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, he is the grandson of Indira Gandhi, who was the daughter of Jawaharlal Nehru. So it is a long line of very — I mean, the founders of modern Indian politics in some ways. They did a lot of right and a lot of wrong. And went down. Rahul Gandhi went down. And he has had to fight his way back. In a way, his legacy has been more of a disadvantage in some ways, you know? So I admire anybody who has been able to come back in that way.
He has been able to actually drag the discourse of Hindu nationalism and this cretinized conversation about — if you look at the kind of things that the BJP are saying in campaigning — the members of Parliament, people who are standing — saying things like, “We will shave all the Muslims and force them to become Hindu.” You know, the level of the discourse there. And he, and especially through this manifesto, which is a — which has sort of rolled back what I see also as a troublesome legacy of the previous Congress party, which initially was really very pro-free market, very very pro-privatization, the privatization of education, the destruction of the environment in ways.
And here this manifesto actually talks about the right to education, the right to public education, the right — I mean, it promises a living wage to the bottom 20% of the population. Which you can argue that it’s not revolutionary. But not revolutionary — it is revolutionary for a centrist party. It surely is — that kind of welfare economics. But when you look at the fact that now you’re talking about people are just not even getting enough nutrition, not getting enough to survive, I think at this point of time, I do agree with the idea of a living wage.
The BJP has sort of crashed the earlier Rural Employment Guarantee program. People who are involved in the right to information have been killed — writers, journalists, activists. So there’s something that is dragging that whole cesspit of — pulling it out of the cesspit and at least bringing the conversation back to a sort of sane place. And so this Rahul Gandhi has done, I think, and I admire him for that.
AMY GOODMAN: And can you talk about the climate for these elections? It’s mind-blowing that they go on for six weeks. Most people in the world couldn’t understand something like that. But the climate that has been set by the Prime Minister Narendra Modi? And also describe his background.
ARUNDHATI ROY: His background is interesting in the sense that soon after the 9/11 attacks, Modi was appointed the chief minister of a state called Gujarat. Now, whether it had anything to do with the attacks or something to do with the massive earthquake that had really devastated Gujarat, but actually Modi was not a member of the legislative assembly. He was not elected to office in any way. He was just appointed, dropped in as the chief minister. And within months of that, there was what is now known as the Gujarat pogrom, in which approximately 2,000 people were slaughtered in broad daylight on the streets of Gujarat. Within months of that, he called an election and won hands-down.
So after that, there has been no looking back. And quite soon after the Gujarat massacre, the captains of industry as you call them, the big CEOs of the big corporations, had a big meeting in Gujarat, and said that — endorsed him as their future prime ministerial candidate. That was interesting because they saw a man who they could — I think they saw that authoritarian figure as being somebody who could implement the new neoliberal economic policies which were coming up against a lot of protest. And they thought, “Here is a man who can crush these troublesome people.” Not Muslims, necessarily, but everybody who is now protesting displacement and protesting privatization.
So when he came to power, he had the backing of the sort of crazed far right as well as a lot of corporate money. And of course, after he announced the policy of demonetization in which like overnight he just declared — nobody seemed to know, not even his finance secretary or finance minister. He just appeared on TV one night and declared 80% of India’s currency was no longer legal tender. First of all, regardless of what the economic reasons for doing it were, which turned out to be rubbish, but no one in history has ever done something like that. Like I said, it just shot the wheels off, the tires off the cars. The moving car. A moving car. And mysteriously, it completely devastated all other political parties, but the BJP has enhanced its wealth several times over after that.
NERMEEN SHAIKH: In fact, you have said the BJP has more money than all the other parties put together. So could you talk about the role of money in the election?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, that’s the thing. I mean, if you look at — now you have to be a rich person to stand for election. You have to have a lot of money. And of course, the corporate support would mean that there are certain corporations like Reliance, which is the biggest one in India, which owns, let’s say, 27 TV channels. So the combination of money, of a complete control on the media, and what used to be a complete control on the social media, which has now been shaken a little bit.
But if I were to sort of try and predict what is going to happen in the elections — the results, which will be out on the 23rd — I would say that no one is going to win. There is going to be a lot of bargaining to form a coalition government. I think it’s likely to be a non-BJP coalition government. But the fact that no one is going to win —
AMY GOODMAN: You go against the polls on that.
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, the polls might be older. But I think there’s a — yeah, I do go against the polls if those are the polls. Certainly I don’t think they’re going to win. But I just want to say that I think the fact that no one is going to win is a great victory. A great victory. Because it just looked like this juggernaut would just crash through us and stay there for years and years. So for people, other parties, people who have fought without that kind of money, without that kind of media.
And I really — I don’t know how to explain it on an American TV channel, but I want to say that everything about Indian elections, everything is about caste. Like if you came there, you wouldn’t even understand the words and the language in which the analysis is done. And it’s like in Bihar, they won’t understand Kerala. In Karnataka, they won’t understand Bangalore. Because it is all deeply caste-driven.
So what has actually moved against the Modi government — and this is very important because you too are facing a kind of white supremacist regime — the RSS, which is — so yesterday when I spoke, I said liberals and secular people have consistently played down the link between the BJP and the RSS. The RSS, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is a right-wing proto-fascist “cultural guild” as it calls itself, set up in 1925. And the BJP more or less functions as its parliamentarian department. But the RSS makes all the decisions. The prime minister belongs to the RSS. The secretary of the BJP belongs to the RSS. Most of the ministers belong to the RSS. And as I say, it was set up in 1925. Its enemies are declared Muslims, Christians, Hindus. It has always been against the Indian Constitution. It wants India declared a Hindu Republic.
Now against this RSS, which is basically controlled and run by — I mean, the politburo, if you like, of the RSS are Brahmins, a group of Brahmins. And against this, what is going to defeat them is not Rahul Gandhi. It is a different mobilization of the lower castes or the lower castes in brackets, you know. The Dalits. The what is classified as other backward castes. So it’s actually a pretty revolutionary thing, a movement much deeper than elections. But I won’t go on, because I think people won’t understand here what I’m saying.
AMY GOODMAN: And the internationalizing of what you see, the RSS, what they represent? Narendra Modi’s relationship with President Trump and what you see the comparisons are?
ARUNDHATI ROY: Well, firstly, let me say that it was not only President Trump. Even Obama came there and embraced Modi. Macron came there and embraced Modi. Trump hasn’t come there and embraced Modi, but Modi has come here and embraced Trump. All of it has got to do with business deals.
But below that, the connection between the RSS and very many “alt-right” groups here, there is an ideological convergence, because at the center of it is the idea of Aryan supremacy. And so they, like the far-right groups here, very much admire the caste system as the ancient arbiter of social hierarchy. So there is a lot of dealings and social connection between all of that. A great admiration for the caste system, a great admiration for the fact that human beings are not equal. They were never meant to be equal. So there is a convergence there.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to break and then come back to our discussion, and we’re going to talk to you about other things as well. You see Kashmir is a possible flashpoint, a nuclear flashpoint that people should be very aware of. We’re going to talk about the latest news about Julian Assange. Sweden says it is reopening an investigation against him. He is currently in jail. And we want to talk about issues like climate change and capitalism. All in this hour, Arundhati Roy, the award-winning writer, author, won the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things. Her second novel came out in the last few years, The Ministry of Utmost Happiness. This is Democracy Now! Back with Arundhati Roy in a minute.