Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently inaugurated a new hospital and medical research center in Mumbai, one of numerous state-of-the-art private facilities providing world-class medical care to Indians who can afford it. This one, run by one of India’s largest corporate conglomerates, Reliance Industries Limited, will keep some free and some subsidized beds for the “underprivileged,” whose well-being is rhetorically invoked during such privateering initiatives, even as India’s public services themselves are famously underfunded and increasingly vitiated. During his speech, Mr. Modi, who comes from a majoritarian Hindu nationalist milieu known as the “Sangh Parivar” that identifies “real India” with resurgent Hinduism, asserted that ancient Hindus had demonstrated “great strengths in space science” and that there was evidence for the existence of both genetics and plastic surgery in India, the latter evidenced by the Hindu god, Ganesha, who has an elephant’s head on a human body. The gathering, attended by a dazzling array of Bollywood stars, was hosted by Nita Ambani, the wife of India’s richest man, Mukesh Ambani, who owns vast swaths of the Indian media. Any politician who hopes to run this large nation must have Mr. Ambani—whose estranged brother Anil runs the other half of the multibillion-dollar petrochemical empire left by their father—onside. In her speech, Ms. Ambani paid due homage to worthy ideals such as the non-negotiability of good healthcare for all and praised Mr. Modi for his apparent devotion to this principle. The event was described admiringly by India journalists, but few reported the astonishing claims made for ancient Indians, never mind taking them on critically.
This cocktail of religious nationalism, buccaneering capitalism, a profoundly compromised corporate media and the soft power of philanthropy is the topic of the first half of Arundhati’s Roy collection of essays, Capitalism: a Ghost Story, a highly readable and characteristically trenchant mapping of early-twenty-first-century India’s impassioned love affair with money, technology, weaponry and the “privatization of everything,” and—because these must not be impeded no matter what—generous doses of state violence. After a short preface, the book opens with an image of “Antilla,” Mukesh Ambani’s billion-dollar family home, the “most expensive dwelling ever built,” rising into the sky like either a “temple to the new India or a warehouse for its ghosts” with twenty-seven floors, ballrooms, three helipads, six floors of parking and 600 servants. Yet it may not be inhabited, rumors suggest, because it fails to comply with ancient Hindu architectural codes known as vaastu-shastra, increasingly fashionable among India’s Hindu upper and middle-classes in an atmosphere of Hindu revivalism. It continues to fulfil its main function—announcing Ambani’s arrival into the billionaires club, while towering well over the city that also houses Asia’s largest slums, sweating, squatting and shitting at its feet. It is the monument that reminds us that corporations and the mega-rich call the shots in contemporary India.
Roy’s great strength—and occasionally it is her weakness—is to put things in stark, simple terms that could be understood by an intelligent child, drawing out the wider resonances of events. This ability stands her in good stead as she delineates the fundamental crudity of big capital’s machinations and maneuvers in a country where, as she reminds us, a hundred people own assets equivalent to a quarter of the nation’s GDP. The poor, meanwhile, face ruthless expulsion from lands by the government. Some of that land is turned over to corporate mining or deregulated “Special Economic Zones.” Slums are cleared for “beautification”—Roy notes correctly that the sanctity of private property never applies to the poor. They remain a deeply impoverished labor force, 90 percent working in the unorganized sector. Resistance can be met with arrest or imprisonment using draconian anti-terror legislation or, at times, extra-judicial executions and rape using illegal militias like the notorious Salwa Judum, which killed, burned and raped indigenous resisters in central India. Journalists are not exempt: Roy discusses the egregious cases of the deported American journalist David Barsamian, and the adivasis Lingaram Kodopi, Soni Sori and Kopa Kunjam, though there are, of course, “untold numbers of nameless people in jail” charged with waging war on the state whether or not they are, in fact, “Maoists.”