|Interpreting Narendra Modi
The Prime Minister Narendra Modi who is now on his way to complete his second year has polarized opinion in India as no politician has done since Mrs Indira Gandhi. Roughly speaking, the division is between secularists who cannot forget his doings in Gujarat as chief minister and who therefore see every act attributed to the Hindu right-wing – from the ‘ghar wapsi’ to the lynching of Akhlaque in Dadri, Uttar Pradesh because he was suspected of having consumed beef – as owing to him. The Prime Minister must take responsibility for these doings since the happenings are consistent with his party’s ideology, is the chorus. On the other hand, India Inc is enthusiastic about Modi’s efforts to get investment and unshackle the economy and is prepared to exonerate him from charges of political malfeasance. A corporate executive responded on television to the Dadri incident as a minor matter of the stray kind that happens everywhere. It is easy to take sides with either group – as most political commentators tend to – but the Prime Minister is not an easy person to characterize and some speculation would be in order to understand his game plan, what he wants and what the obstacles are. It would be helpful to speculate based on knowledge already in the public space since that would eliminate the possibility of basing our conclusions on rumours and false information.
Among the aspects generally acknowledged about the Prime Minister as an individual are these: he is ruthless in not allowing anything to stand in the way of his objectives; he is not personally tempted by lucre; his ambition is to make something monumental of himself; he is unwilling to trust his deputies and associates and he interferes in their functioning through the PMO. He won the 2014 election for the BJP not on the Hindutva but the development plank and it was the same strategy in the Bihar elections of 2015, which the BJP lost. Modi is a senior party man but has not been making invoking Hindu sentiments – as LK Advani was prone to doing – and his ‘trusted inner circle’ seems to have been instructed likewise. They will not personally take provocative communal stands but will nonetheless turn a blind eye if their associates – the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the VHP and the numerous sants and sadhvis waiting to whip up emotions – do so. Modi depends on party cadres to project his image at the retail level but the party knows that he is the vote-puller. The way he has restricted his cabinet to a handful and the determined way in which he pushed out seniors gives a clear indication that he wants full control and will not accommodate rival power centres. Where most leaders pacify rivals with plum opportunities Modi wants only unconditional obedience, and there are few he trusts.
As far as his ambitions go, Narendra Modi’s foreign trips and his frequent meetings with leaders like Putin and Obama and Xi Jinping suggests that he sees himself as a world leader, at least of the future. His vociferous wooing of NRIs in the US is a way of drawing attention to himself since the world media is virtually controlled from the US. Without uttering a word in India Modi is heard booming in every corner. Given that his speeches reiterate homilies, thrive on alliteration (‘Reform to Transform’) and rhyming and make few admissions pertaining to policy, the number of the educated who hang on to his words is incredible. But this does not mean that he cannot negotiate with peers, at which he is probably proficient. When he became Prime Minister he had virtually no experience outside the country but being inexperienced is hardly the impression he conveys today. He seems to be overbearing even among world leaders and if he has a disadvantage, it is because of the country of which he is the Prime Minister; what seems conclusive is that unlike our earlier leaders, he will not be content with only leading India as it is. He would want the country to gain more respect in the world, if only to serve him better.
Narendra Modi seems fixed firmly on his objectives but there is no possibility of his attaining global stature if India remains as minor as it has been, and he would like it to become a greater economic power. It could also be military one as well but, without being an economic power first, India cannot become a military power. Moreover, if one studies the areas where initiatives are being taken they are in the economic realm, in foreign policy and in defence. Modi is apparently not interested in an equitable India as much as an economically powerful India because that is what would pave his way to wielding influence worldwide. His economic policies only carry forward those of the Congress with alliterative rhetoric replacing the latter’s populism. To ensure equity India would need to have much stronger state machinery, a more efficient police, a better judiciary, more efficient delivery of state education, public health and subsidized food-grains to the needy without funds being misused. This would mean cracking down harshly on corruption. But that would alienate him from employees of the state – who constitute a sizeable portion of the electorate – and also ‘cool’ the economy. Corruption is a huge generator of private wealth and one could expect a crackdown on corruption to affect real estate, the automobile industry and consumer durables immediately. Making India an economic power – which would help increase consumption and create employment – would make him popular. Attempting to create a just society on the other hand – because of the stern measures involved – would make him unpopular. Since Narendra Modi plans at least two terms as Prime Minister, he is more than likely to take the route which will make him more popular. He may be expected to take the path of unhindered capitalism without seeming to do so, i.e. keep all the welfare measures/gestures nominally in place but neither add to them nor make them more efficient, get as many people as possible into consumption/employment and make them all ‘aspire’ materially, viz. get them into the ‘national mainstream’. Since schemes like NREGA could not be delivered effectively, the strategy may be to allow them to wither away. All non-economic issues such as culture, the environment etc. which are in the nature of ‘hindrances’ to India’s development into a greater power, will also be given only token acknowledgment. His action on the environment, for instance, could be to order poachers and sandalwood smugglers liquidated in encounters while giving resorts and mining more freedom in eco-sensitive zones, and Mahesh Sharma has been loquacious on where culture is headed under the BJP.
To make India a world economic power – which is the only way for Modi to gain stature – India has to take care of its law and order most of all. It cannot afford civil disturbances but the difficulty for him is that the Hindu right-wing has thrived on such disturbances. The Hindu right-wing is hardly disciplined and there are too many miscreants housed in it pulling it in their own directions. It is hence plainly impossible for India to be both a Hindu nation as well as a globally powerful one because its productive energies will then be focussed entirely on quelling disturbances. Modi’s 2014 campaign was the first one which could be called ‘inclusive’ by Hindutva standards. If anything, the old Hindu right-wing electoral methods of igniting communal passions will not serve Modi’s ambitions because it will dissipate productive energies. He might want to end it but his party has its own aims, and his doings in Gujarat see him as being from their mould. The strategy that he and Amit Shah appear to have hit on is to treat BJP-ruled states and non-BJP-ruled states differently. While law and order and development will be top priority in the BJP-ruled states Hindutva forces will be allowed a free reign outside. When the Shiv Sena tried to abort a book release in Mumbai by former Pakistan minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri the BJP chief minister Fadnavis ensured that this did not happen because India ‘was not a Banana republic’. At the same time Uttar Pradesh is the state where the worst things are allowed to happen. That is Akhilesh Yadav’s turf and he should deal with it, may be the argument. One may anticipate that if the BJP wins UP next time, the state will be better managed. But since Nitish has won Bihar, Hindutva could raise its ugly head there.
This reading may be contested but one cannot see the traditional BJP ideology as likely to take Narendra Modi far – as far as he would like to go. As an instance, one may consider what would happen if the eating of beef is banned across India and the ban is successfully implemented. Beef is the cheapest meat available and one cannot believe that the poor in any religion who are not vegetarian will abstain from eating it. Beef cannot be sold, which means that it may not be economical for anyone to keep a cow, which will have to be looked after in its old age, perhaps kept alive on life-support systems. There could be a campaign to deal with the economic benefits of dung but it may not be of much avail. Milk may also become scarce because no one keeps cows and, from being a big milk producer, India will have to import it. One cannot believe that Narendra Modi is not astute enough to understand that such an India will not serve his ambitions. He might want to succeed despite accommodating his party’s ideology but that could be much too difficult. It would seem, therefore, that while the Hindutva ideology has served him hitherto, it will not continue to do so for his planned two terms and he will, sooner or later, come into conflict with it – although for the time being it suits him to make common cause with it. For its part, Hindutva as a whole will resist centralized authority and ‘development’ because the lumpen fringe elements which have been denied authority will want to exercise informal power even within the BJP-ruled states. At the present moment Narendra Modi appears to have his task cut out for him because while he would not like his ambitions thwarted by the chaos and mayhem that the fringe elements have the propensity to create, they nonetheless represent the base of which he has constructed his career.
The charge against Modi that he is against ‘pluralism’ sticks but it may be not in the sense that he wants complete Hindu domination, but that he sees economic development as the only objective, something to which every other activity or end should be subordinated. He is hampered by two personal factors: the fact that he has not received a liberal education makes him oblivious of issues outside those that get the attention of neo-liberal pundits; his confidence in his own destiny amplifies this weakness. The BJP, it must be admitted, is not a political party rich in intellectual resources but, rather than identify politically neutral intellectuals and thinkers who might assist in creating an image for him and his party not grounded in anachronisms, he has kept everyone out – even those who helped him come to power. Instead, those encouraged and placed in positions of authority appear only those likely to be loyal to him. The current intolerance debate has focussed on religious intolerance but Narendra Modi appears intolerant of every kind of intellectual activity proliferating outside business schools – if his sidelining of the articulate few among his own former supporters is any indication.
Considering the BJP’s vote share in the Bihar elections there is little to suggest that Modi’s sway is weakening and his development agenda remains as seductive as ever – even to those who are poor. But if there are dark clouds hovering over his future, they do not rest in those who oppose him as much as within his own self. His very strength is his greatest weakness because he will not look outside himself for new ideas and possibilities. But this tendency may be consistent with the traditional notion that knowledge is to be found only within and never outside of oneself.