Understanding Narendra Modi
Posted on 21-December-2017
Campaigning in the Indian State of Himachal Pradesh in 2012, Narendra Modi, not yet the Prime Minister of India, in an obvious reference to the wife of Shashi Tharoor, then a minister in the Manmohan Singh government, described her as " a 50 crore rupee girlfriend''. India's media and politicians of what are considered modern, cultured, cosmopolitan sections of society, the setters of standards of civilised behaviour, expressed their shock and denounced this remark as off colour. More recently, early during this month, a politician from the Indian National Congress(Congress)--since then suspended from the party for having said Narendra Modi was a cad--organised a private dinner in honour of his friend Khurshid Kasuri, the former foreign minister of Pakistan, at which M.H.Ansari the former vice-president of India and Dr.Manmohan Singh, the former prime minister of India were present, as were a number of retired diplomats and active journalists and, expectedly, the High Commmissioner of Pakistan. Speaking on 12th December at an election rally in Gujarat, Narendra Modi described this occasion as a powwow where plans for defeating the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) were discussed. Dr. Manmohan Singh denounced Narendra Modi and asked for an apology. Other criticisms from the soi disant upholders of values such as secularism and civilised discourse in politics have followed. Critics of Narendra Modi for his remarks in 2012 as for his Pakistan remarks now seem to be oblivious of two facts. One is that these remarks did not all seem egregious to his audience; in all probability they went down well. Secondly criticism of Narendra Modi by what, for the lack of another appropriately descriptive word, can be called India's elite, has during the last three and a half years made no difference to Narendra Modi's popularity not only among his diehard supporters but also among a wider audience.
Politically, for Narendra Modi, it is important , more than anything else, to retain and increase his hold over and increase his popularity among BJP and Rashtriya Svayam Sevak Sangh (RSS) workers and among their sympathisers. In this quest he is not bound by a high regard for factual accuracy, nor notions of political correctness, nor notions of graciousness other than those acceptable to his support base. The average BJP or RSS worker or sympathiser is more at home in Hindi or one of its dialects, or a la rigueur, one of the Indian languages than in English. He has been brought up on myths about past Hindu glory, subjugation of Hindus by Muslim rulers, desecration of Hindu temples by Muslim marauders like Mahmood of Ghazni, or rulers like Aurangzeb, about people--Hindu heroes for them-- like Prithviraj Chauhan, Rana Sanga of Mewar, Rana Pratap of Mewar or Shivaji, who resisted Muslim conquest or Muslim rule. He has been brought up to think of Indian Muslims as secret sympathisers of Pakistan and of Pakistan as the quintessential enemy, to be destroyed if possible, at least to be penalised in whatever way. He looks upon activities of Christian missionaries with suspicion if not active dislike. He dislikes the idea of Hindus converting to Christianity or Islam. More often than not, he is an angry man full of hatred for enemies of Hindus: Muslims and Christians, to his way of thinking. Another group that he dislikes is the Indian brown sahib: in present day BJP/RSS discourse, members of this group are Macaulay's children. Words like secularism or expressions such as the argumentative Indian mean nothing to him; nor has he much time for sophisticated criticism of the phenomenon of nationalism. Lastly, he thirsts for the restoration of India to the glorious Hindu past of his imagination. He hankers after a modern day India, informed with muscular nationalism, equipped militarily, respected by all. In his eyes, Narendra Modi has already won for India a place of pride in the comity of nations.
The rise of the BJP to political power in India is a relatively recent phenomenon. In many ways this has been possible because of the weakness of forces opposed to whatever the BJP stands for. At independence in 1947, political power passed to a small upper slice of Indian society which was to a greater or smaller extent anglicised. They were familiar with western political idiom and many of their ideas on society, politics and economics were adopted from the west. They wanted to build a modern democratic republic based on separation of state and religion, equality before law of all citizens and freedom of speech. This project seemed to work, as long as the after glow of freedom from colonial rule lasted. But even from the early days some of this was superficial. Nehru and people around him talked of socialism without really believing in it. Though the Congress, the political vehicle of this ruling group, has always talked of secularism, the beliefs of many of its members were barely distinguishable from those of various Hindu organisations. A member of Nehru's cabinet raised money and expended great energy on the reconstruction of the temple of Somnath which according to legend had been sacked eighteen times by Mahmood of Ghazni. In spite of Nehru's advice to the contrary, the President of India participated in the ceremonies to consecrate the reconstructed temple. Nehru adopted the idea of Five Year Plans from the Soviet Union but this could not be sustained beyond the Second Plan as numerous economic difficulties overwhelmed India and he himself died in 1964. The first crack in this ruling group's hold on power appeared in the 1967 election when nine states--out of sixteen at that time--elected governments headed by people who were firmly rooted in Indian soil. They had no time for English language. Many of them talked of socialism but they were already thinking of caste divisions and caste loyalties. The Congress under Indira Gandhi's leadership retained power at the centre, and so did remnants of the old anglicised elite, though already in the early 1970's some of her closest political aides were antitheses of anglicisation.
This anglicised elite which remained off and on and more or less in power till the end of the last century has several weaknesses. Its first weakness has all along been that it transacts its business in English which, contrary to its own self-image, it handles not always very well, and which is alien to Indian masses. This itself creates a barrier of understanding. The second is that in all the years that it retained power it did little to transform Indian society. Perhaps it did not have the capacity to do so. It failed to formulate coherent policies on poverty elimination or on education. Under its watch, public health declined. Malnutrition and diseases such as malaria and tuberculosis continued to kill. Abject poverty--jugglery with statistics notwithstanding--is still a visible part of the Indian scene. Its third weakness is that most of its members lack deep convictions. As against BJP's belief in a glorious Indian Hindu past, this elite has its own version of a glorious Indian past which it wallows in as much as any BJP or RSS man does in his version. Then though the Congress talks of keeping religion out of politics, it has not shied away from using religion for political gain when it has suited it. Or it has closed its eyes when others have played with religion. In 1949 the Congress was in power both in Uttar Pradesh and in Delhi when a local sadhu stealthily placed an idol of Rama in the Babri mosque at Ayodhya, starting a dispute between Hindus and Muslims that remains unresolved till today. Again in 1992, the Congress was in power in Delhi when the Babri mosque was destroyed by a Hindu mob. For it as for the BJP, Pakistan is the most important enemy and for scores of members of the Congress the loyalty of Indian Muslims is suspect. It is not difficult to start anti-Muslim harangues in polite, cultivated, English spluttering middle class society in, for example, Delhi.
In 1984, the BJP had only 2 members in the lower house of the Indian Parliament. After the 1989 election when V.P.Singh, who wore socialism and secularism on his sleeve, fashioned an electoral arrangement with the BJP, the party had 84 members there. After the 1996 election lost by the Congress, mired in stories of sleaze, the BJP had a first, unsuccessful, stab at forming a government at the centre. After the collapse of two short lived united front governments the BJP for the first time formed a government in Delhi in 1998 in coalition with a variety of parties which professed beliefs opposed to those of the BJP. The Congress led coalition that came to power in Delhi 2004 had by 2013 lost its credibilty not only because of the many stories of corruption that it got smeared with but also because of the feeling among the masses--not without reason--that real political power was exercised not by the prime minister but by the President of of the Congress. In 2014 the Congress lost the election to the Indian Parliament badly and the BJP won a majority on its own. Since then more and more states of India have passed under BJP rule.
Notwithstanding all the criticism hurled at him by the Congress, by newsmen, professors and a motley crowed of chattering heads, the BJP's belief in Narendra Modi continues undiminished--and for every card carrying member of the BJP/RSS there may be ten sympathisers. They look upon him, rightly, as a true soldier of Hindutva. He sells them dreams of a better India and they believe him. They are from strata of society which they feel had been denied power by the anglicised elite, the pseudo secularists. With Narendra Modi as prime minister they feel they now have power. Narendra Modi skilfully plays on all their prejudices and all their fantasies, including the most nativist ones. Besides, BJP and RSS people are persons of strong convictions. A semi-anglicised, semi-westernised intelligentsia with tepid convictions cannot shake the bond that unites the BJP/RSS, nor can it dent Narendra Modi's hold on power on the basis of discourse about tolerance, inclusiveness, freedom of expression or dangers of ultra nationalism. The Congress with all its weaknesses is at present in no position to dislodge the BJP. No matter what spin the Congress puts on it the recent succession in the Congress was from mother to son and when the BJP points this out people will believe it. When Rahul Gandhi demonstratively visits Hindu temples, and if the BJP says he is faking, people will believe it. The Communist parties of India which could never establish themselves outside three states are in disarray. Other non-BJP political formations in India are confined to single states. On present reckoning the BJP under Narendra Modi's leadership will continue to rule India till 2024 for better or for worse.