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14 Jan 2015
What openings are there for New Zealand as recently elected Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi begins wielding his neo-liberal broom?
by PATTRICK SMELLIE
The taxi driver will not let me out of the cab in Trilokpuri, a far-flung “suburb”
of New Delhi, which began life 40 years ago as a resettlement zone for communities
cleared from slums in the 1970s. The area looks like any poor urban environment in India, but it is tense. “Danger time!” my driver says emphatically, waving away a finger-signed desire to hop out for a wander in an area hit by religiously inspired communal violence between Hindus and Muslims in previous days.
He chauffeurs me swiftly through the hot spot, where later that early November day the Muslim rituals of Muharram will be observed. News reporters will wait for lobbed stones and blood and the Indian police will mass bearing the heavy sticks they use to beat back crowds. In the event, the festival passes off peacefully enough. A good thing happens: local Hindu community leaders are asked to lead the Islamic parade.
Welcome to India 2014, both shackled to a violent sectarian past that continues to simmer and boil over nearly 70 years since independence and partition in 1947, and entering what many of its 1.3 billion citizens hope is a new age of prosperity, if not peace.
On the morning of my riot hunt, newspapers carry reports of a Pakistani suicide bomber killing more than 60 of his fellow citizens at the Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan, the epicentre of official nationalistic fervour for both countries, played out daily in militaristic national flag ceremonies. Muslim Pakistan is the home of the Pakistani Taliban who inhabit the country’s barely governable North-West Frontier Province and committed December’s atrocities in Peshawar, killing children of Pakistani soldiers at school.
At the time of partition, most of India’s Muslims moved west to create Pakistan, while Hindus moved east into India. Independent India became a non-aligned state with a socialist bent during the Cold War, and a virulent form of Hindu nationalism took hold, embodied today in the rightwing paramilitary organisation known as the RSS, to which the ruling BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) is closely connected.
Yet India, for all its tensions, is unlike many other post-independence Commonwealth colonies: it has remained a democracy. Its bureaucratic gears grind slowly and there is
widespread corruption, but it is no China. Delhi tries to rule from the “centre”, as it is known in Indian politics, but it has historically done a bad job, whereas Beijing – so
far – exerts more successful control.
In May, Indians elected by a rare, clear parliamentary majority a leader who comes
from the country’s troubled sectarian tradition and in whom great hope for economic transformation is now being placed. He is the low-born, informally educated 64-year-old workaholic Narendra Modi, who hails from that unfortunately dubbed element of Indian society known simply as the “other backward castes”, who are Hindu and make up close to half the country’s population.
Modi speaks to political audiences in Hindi, not English, which is spoken by only 130 million Indians – one in 10. He turns up all over the country wielding a broom in the company of celebrities for photo opportunities connected with his “Clean India” campaign, and used the arrival of an absurdly inexpensive Mars probe at the Red Planet earlier this year to launch his other big push: the “Make in India” campaign.
A recent scandal involved the creation of fake filth to clean up for the cameras. Foreign direct investment, on which Modi made his name as governor of the goahead state of Gujarat in India’s northwest, must also stand for “first develop India”, he says. He may be pro-free market, but India is complicated and has its own rules – a view repeated among even the most neo-liberal of the elite who are supporting Modi’s rise.
Thanks to this combination of dynamism and roots outside a self-referring Delhi politics,
Modi is seen as a circuit-breaker to end the post-colonial grip on Indian politics held
by the Congress Party and its dynastic leaders, the Gandhi and Nehru families. It was
national fatigue with more than 60 years of Congress-dominated politics that swept
him to power seven months ago as much as his own uncontested skills as a political