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The on-going campaigns for the upcoming 2014 Parliamentary elections in India have put Mr Narendra Modi as the National Democratic Alliance candidate (NDA) headed by the right-wing political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The coalition currently in power, the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) headed by the Indian National Congress party, has been mired in various corruption scandals, a reason for increasing favorability for the NDA. But Mr Modi has been a very controversial politician. As a four-term (and current) Chief Minister of the north-western state of Gujarat, Mr Modi has been accused of expressing discriminatory opinions against minorities, specifically, Muslims. He is a member of the right wing Hindutva group, Rashtriya Swayam Sevak. In fact, a year into his first term as the Chief Minister in 2002, Gujarat saw a period of horrific communal violence that began when Muslim groups were accused of burning a train coach in Godhra that killed Hindu activists, which spiraled into violence against Muslim communities. Mr Modi has long been dogged by allegations that he refused to prevent the post-Godhra retribution committed against the Muslim communities after the train-burning incident.

Despite such a controversial history, Mr Modi’s polls numbers are indicating an increase in popularity and favorability as the next Prime Minister of India. As Desai has argued in this article, there is an issue of middle-class voters not opposing (at least openly) the Hindutva ideology of Mr Modi and the BJP. Importantly, Mr Modi’s campaign rhetoric has touted the neoliberal economic policies that he adopted in his home state of Gujarat that has seen significant growth of its economy. He has presented this as a divide between caste and religion on the one hand and development on the other; and he is presenting himself as a candidate pro-development. Thus, neoliberalism is used to show the seeming ‘secularity’ credentials of Mr Modi. He has repeatedly argued that his ideology of ‘inclusivity’ has been central to Gujarat’s trade policies, thereby ‘leveling the playing field’ for all and transcending differences in caste and religious identities. In fact, such a notion was put forward by CNN’s Fareed Zakaria, a popular Indian-American proponent of neoliberalism, who has argued that Gujarat’s (and in fact, India’s) economic growth has transcended political, caste and religious differences. To an electorate experiencing a series of corruption scandals under the UPA government and stagnant economic growth, one can see why this rhetoric seems appealing.

However, this raises a question whether neoliberalism can be seen as a ‘secular’ ideology that transcends those identity markers in India that are often associated with ‘religion’ such as the caste system. The question of understanding economics as ‘secular’ science has been dealt with on many occasions in this Critical Religion blog. My focus here is to reflect on what understanding of neoliberalism pertaining to India one should consider. On the ‘new India’ that Zakaria sees as emerging, he wrote:

Starting in the early 1990s, New Delhi has been overturning the license-permit-quota raj and opening up the economy. The result is an India that is quite different from the one its founders might have imagined—a motley collection of communities, languages, and ethnicities living together in an open political and economic space.

This kind of narrative furthers the idea that Friedman argued in his now famous text, The World is Flat, that somehow, ‘secular’ economics would triumph and transcend the underdevelopment that exists on the ground because of ‘religion’, specifically caste and closely associated with that, class. Critiques of Mr Modi have pointed out how uneven the development brought in by neoliberalism in Gujarat has been. For instance, Desai argues that despite Mr Modi’s claims, his economic policies have benefitted the already existing middle-class Hindu communities whilst poverty and malnourishment has affected minority communities, especially the Muslim communities. Similarly, an article in First Post has argued that the Dalits continue to experience discrimination in society.

Workings of neoliberal policies are embedded in the social context. To look at these economic policies as the ‘secular’ solution towards development is problematic. Both Mr Modi and Mr Zakaria are disembedding the capitalistic benefits of these policies for their own ends. Within the context of India, neoliberal policies do not transcend caste or class identities but are shaped by them and politicians who have the power to administer and shape these policies. This is not to mean that the UPA government, as a ‘secular’ alliance, would have made these policies work better for minority communities. The ‘season of corruption scandals’ certainly did not leave the electorate reassured. But looking at neoliberalism as something that is removed from its social contexts, as Zakaria does in his essay, only lets campaigns such as Modi’s reframe the narrative to conceal the reality on the ground, that neither these policies nor Modi’s approach ensure ‘inclusivity.’ Zakaria himself says “Economic growth has created one more common element in the country—an urban middle class whose interests transcend region, caste, and religion,” which begs us to question, what about those communities that are being left behind? What is even more problematic with the Modi campaign and the BJP is that in addition to ‘lower’ class and caste communities being left behind, the BJP’s Hindutva connection reframes neoliberal development into a development of Hindu communities by a) emphasizing the superiority of the ‘Hindu’ identity; b) deliberately leaving other minority communities behind.

Hence, it is important to scrutinize (as some news outlets, such as the ones I have referenced above, have been doing) the rhetoric of the Modi campaign to ensure that development is not presented as an abstract concept that would render certain communities voiceless.