And why they wanted Modi as prime minister
CHARLIE ‑ SMITH
“Wealth has been concentrated in fewer and fewer hands,” Roy tells the Georgia Straight by phone from New York. “And these few corporations now run the country and, in some ways, run the political parties. They run the media.” The Delhi-based novelist and non- fiction writer argues that this is hav- ing devastating consequences for hun- dreds of millions of the poorest people in India, not to mention the middle class. Roy spoke to the Straight in advance of a public lecture on Tuesday (April 1) at 8 p.m. at St. Andrew’s–Wesley Unit- ed Church at the corner of Burrard and Nelson streets. She says it will be her first visit to Vancouver. In recent years, she has researched how the richest Indian corporations— such as Reliance, Tata, Essar, and In- fosys—are employing similar tactics as those of the U.S.-based Rockefeller and Ford foundations.
She points out that the Rockefeller and Ford foundations have worked closely in the past with the State De- partment and Central Intelligence Agency to further U.S. government and corporate objectives. Now, she maintains that Indian companies are distributing money through charitable foundations as a means of controlling the public agen- da through what she calls “perception management”. This includes channelling funds to nongovernmental organizations, film and literary festivals, and universities. She acknowledges that the Tata Group has been doing this for decades, but says that more recently, other large corporations have begun copying this approach.
Private money replaces public funding
According to her, the overall objective is to blunt criticism of neoliberal policies that promote inequality. “Slowly, they decide the curricu- lum,” Roy maintains. “They control the public imagination. As public money gets pulled out of health care and education and all of this, NGOs funded by these major financial cor- porations and other kinds of financial instruments move in, doing the work that missionaries used to do during colonialism—giving the impression of being charitable organizations, but ac- tually preparing the world for the free markets of corporate capital.” She was awarded the Booker Prize in 1997 for The God of Small Things.
Since then, she has gone on to become one of India’s leading social critics, railing against mining and power proj- ects that displace the poor. She’s also written about poverty- stricken villagers in the Naxalite movement who are taking up arms across several Indian states to defend their traditional way of life. “I’m a great admirer of the wisdom and the courage that people in the re- sistance movement show,” she says. “And they are where my own under- standing comes from.” One of her greatest concerns is how foundation-funded NGOs “defuse peo- ple’s movements and…vacuum politi- cal anger and send them down a blind alley”. “It’s very important to keep the op- pressed divided,” she says. “That’s the whole colonial game, and it’s very easy in India because of the diversity.”
Roy writes a book on capitalism
In 2010, there was an attempt to lay a charge of sedition against her after she suggested that Kashmir is not integral to India’s existence. This northern state has been at the centre of a long-running territorial dispute between India and Pakistan. “There’s supposed to be some po- lice inquiry, which hasn’t really hap- pened,” Roy tells the Straight. “That’s how it is in India. They…hope that the idea of it hanging over your head is go- ing to work its magic, and you’re going to be more cautious.” Clearly, it’s had little effect in silenc- ing her. In her upcoming new book Capitalism: A Ghost Story, Roy ex- plores how the 100 richest people in India ended up controlling a quarter of the country’s gross-domestic product. The book is inspired by a lengthy 2012 article with the same title, which appeared in India’s Outlook magazine.
In the essay, she wrote that the “ghosts” are the 250,000 debt-ridden farmers who’ve committed suicide, as well as “800 million who have been impoverished and dispossessed to make way for us”. Many live on less than 40 Canadian cents per day. “In India, the 300 million of us who belong to the post-IMF ‘reforms’ mid- dle class—the market—live side by side with spirits of the nether world, the poltergeists of dead rivers, dry wells, bald mountains and denuded forests,” Roy wrote. The essay examined how founda- tions rein in Indian feminist organiza- tions, nourish right-wing think tanks, and co-opt scholars from the commu- nity of Dalits, often referred to in the West as the “untouchables”. For example, she pointed out that the Reliance Group’s Observer Re- search Foundation has a stated goal of achieving consensus in favour of eco- nomic reforms. Roy noted that the ORF promotes “strategies to counter nuclear, biologi- cal and chemical threats”. She also re- vealed that the ORF’s partners include weapons makers Raytheon and Lock- heed Martin.
Anna Hazare called a corporate mascot
In her interview with the Straight, Roy claims that the high-profileIndia Against Corruption campaign is an- other example of corporate meddling. According to Roy, the movement’s leader, Anna Hazare, serves as a front for international capital to gain great- er access to India’s resources by clear- ing away any local obstacles. With his white cap and traditional white Indian attire, Hazare has re- ceived global acclaim by acting as a modern-day Mahatma Gandhi, but Roy characterizes both of them as “deeply disturbing”. She also describes Hazare as a “sort of mascot” to his cor- porate backers. In her view, “transparency” and “rule of law” are code words for al- lowing corporations to supplant “lo- cal crony capital”. This can be accom- plished by passing laws that advance corporate interests.
She says it’s not surprising that the most influential Indian capitalists would want to shift public attention to political corruption just as average In- dians were beginning to panic over the slowing Indian economy. In fact, Roy adds, this panic turned into rage as the middle class began to realize that “gal- loping economic growth has frozen”. “For the first time, the middle class- es were looking at corporations and realizing that they were a source of incredible corruption, whereas ear- lier, there was this adoration of them,” she says. “Just then, the India Against Corruption movement started. And the spotlight turned right back onto the favourite punching bag—the poli- ticians—and the corporations and the corporate media and everyone else jumped onto this, and gave them hour coverage.” Her essay in Outlook pointed out that Hazare’s high-profile allies, Ar- vind Kerjiwal and Kiran Bedi, both operate NGOs funded by U.S. founda- tions. “Unlike the Occupy Wall Street movement in the US, the Hazare movement did not breathe a word against privatisation, corporate power or economic ‘reforms’,” she wrote in Outlook.
Narendra Modi seen as right-wing saviour
Meanwhile, Roy tells the Straight that corporate India backed Narendra Modi as the country’s next prime minister because the ruling Congress party hasn’t been sufficiently ruthless against the growing resistance move- ment. “I think the coming elections are all about who is going to crank up the mil- itary assault on troublesome people,” she predicted. In several states, armed rebels have prevented massive mining and infra- structure projects that would have dis- placed massive numbers of people. Many of these industrial develop- ments were the subject of memoranda of understanding signed in 2004. Modi, head of the Hindu national- ist BJP coalition, became infamous in 2002 when Muslims were mas- sacred in the Indian state of Gujarat, where he was the chief minister.
The official death toll exceeded 1,000, though some say the figures are higher. Police reportedly stood by as Hin- du mobs went on a killing spree. Many years later, a senior police of- ficer alleged that Modi deliberately allowed the slaughter, though Modi has repeatedly denied this. The atrocities were so appalling that the American government re- fused to grant Modi a visitor’s visa to travel to the United States. “The corporations are all backing Modi because they think that [Prime Minister] Manmohan [Singh] and the Congress government hasn’t shown the nerve it requires to actually send in the army into places like Chhattis- garh and Orissa,” Roy had said. She also labeled Modi as a politi- cian who’s capable of “mutating”, de- pending on the circumstances. “From being this openly sort of communal hatred-spewing saccharine person, he then put on the suit of a cor- porate man, and, you know, is now try- ing to play the role of the statesmen, which he’s not managing to do really,” Roy had said.
Roy sees parallels between Congress and BJP
India’s national politics are domi- nated by two parties, the Congress and the BJP. The Congress maintains a more sec- ular stance and is often favoured by those who want more accommodation for minorities, be they Muslim, Sikh, or Christian. In American terms, the Congress is the equivalent of the Dem- ocratic Party. The BJP is actually a coalition of right-wing parties and more force- fully advances the notion that India is a Hindu nation. It often calls for a harder line against Pakistan. In this regard, the BJP could be seen as the Republicans of India. But just as left-wing U.S. critics such as Ralph Nader and Noam Chomsky see little difference between the Dem- ocrats and Republicans in office, Roy says there is not a great deal distin- guishing the Congress from the BJP. “I’ve said quite often, the Congress has done by night what the BJP does by day,” she declares.
“There isn’t any real difference in their economic pol- icy.” Whereas senior BJP leaders encour- aged wholesale mob violence against Muslims in Gujarat, she notes that Congress leaders played a similar role in attacks on Sikhs in Delhi following the 1984 assassination of then–prime minister Indira Gandhi. “It was genocidal violence and even today, nobody has been punished,” Roy says. As a result, each party can accuse the other of fomenting communal vio- lence. In the meantime, there are no seri- ous efforts at reconciliation for the victims.
“The guilty should be punished,” she adds. “Everyone knows who they are, but that will not happen. That is the thing about India. You may go to prison for assaulting a woman in a lift or killing one person, but if you are part of a massacre, then the chances of your not being punished are very high.” However, she acknowledges that there is “some difference” in the two major parties’ stated idea of India. The BJP, for example, is “quite open about its belief in the Hindu India… where everybody else lives as, you know, second-class citizens”. “Hindu is also a very big and baggy