Book Review: How Narendra Modi Wins Elections

A review of 'The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare', a collection of essays.

Narendra Modi’s policies over the next five years after his 2014 election victory brought widespread misery. Yet he was able to win overwhelmingly in 2019.

The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare, a collection of essays just published by Oxford University Press India, analyses what first brought him to national office, and, though written just before the 2019 election, helps explain how he won again.

Irfan Ahmad (who has written the widely acclaimed Religion as Critique: Islamic Critical Thinking and Islamism and Democracy in India) argues we have failed to understand the nature of the democratic process, in his essays Democracy and the Algebra of Warfare-Welfare, and Democracy as Rumour.

The Algebra of Warfare-Welfare
Edited by Irfan Ahmad and Pralay Kanungo
Oxford 2019

It can be corroded by violence. The press may often speak with one voice, threatened by the government and inhibited by its own monopoly ownership. The judiciary may be corrupt or scared. Ahmad notes that even academia, which has long celebrated Indian democracy, has not seriously analysed its specific characteristics. It often relies on superficial claims and prejudice.

Subaltern scholars have often claimed that rumour was a form of resistance of the disempowered. Yet Ahmad points out that Hindutva monopolises false rumour, employing social media to promote hatred, and Modi’s rule as Ram Rajya.

Instead, in seeking to re-think the notion of democracy in general and its Indian form in particular, Ahmad draws on Herbert Marcuse, the German-American scholar associated with the Frankfurt School, who said in 1964:

“The range of choice open to the individual is not the decisive factor in determining the degree of freedom, but what can be chosen..Free elections of masters does not abolish the masters or the slaves.”

So real political choice may often not exist; Ahmad in yet another essay in this book, Unity in Diversity, compares the BJP, Congress and AAP manifestoes of 2014, pandering to identical fears. I have argued India’s national security consensus has included all major political parties (which at the time included the CPI(M) in my long paper in Fascism in Europe and India, edited by Jairus Banaji, Three Essays Collective, 2013).

Ahmad’s central theme evidently comes from Marcuse, who argued in the same book that electoral democracy should be understood:

‘As a phenomenon of warfare and welfare, where both become intimately intertwined..’

Accordingly, Ahmad maintains that democracies often exist in warfare-welfare, where welfare arises from preparations for war since it entails massive production of matériel, which provides employment and therefore income and social benefits to many. They will, therefore, support an effective state of war. US welfare expanded during the Cold War, but was gradually withdrawn as the USSR declined, then collapsed.

Also Read: The Rise of the NaMo Cult and What Lies Ahead for ‘New India’

Modi came to office with a promise of welfare, even while referring constantly to Hindu nationalism. Yet during his five years as PM, welfare actually declined with demonetisation and other measures, even as Modi kept his wealthy patrons happy, and we have been in a state of constant mobilisation against illusory enemies. ‘Pakistan’ is often the code for Indian Muslims (the ‘outsider inside’).

Professor Paul Wallace of the University of Missouri claims that Modi has charisma, Rahul Gandhi none; but offers no definition of charisma, nor cites important scholars who have done so, such as Max Weber. Professor Ashutosh Varshney of Brown University, promoting Modi, exhibited a clear prejudice in favour of the BJP, even suggesting that Muslims overwhelmingly were unwilling to support Modi, which Ahmad suggests “makes it clear that the problems lies not with the BJP but within ‘unwilling’ Muslims”. It should be noted his views have since changed significantly.

Professor Pralay Kanungo of Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) shows in Gurus and Hindu Nationalist Politics that the ‘inclusivity’ claimed by Baba Ramdev’s (popular yoga teacher, wealthy Ayurvedic drug businessman, owner of a TV channel) patriotic mobilisation in his campaign for Modi, is directed exclusively at Hindus, not Muslims.

Professor emerita Zoya Hasan of JNU shows in The Gujarat Model and the Right-Wing Shift how this model promotes growth at the cost of welfare. For it relies on enormous subsidies to big business (eg Rs 500 billion for Tata Motors), which starve the budget of expenditure on employment, education, public health or nutritional security.

Gujarat has, since the first textile mill was set up in 1861, been a rapidly developing state with high growth. Yet Modi took credit for its entire past and present, and, appealing to Hindu nationalism, said he would do for India what he had done for his state. Yet Gujarati growth under him was essentially jobless: this state’s human development index ranks abysmally among Indian states.

Yet even as the media tom-tommed this ‘Gujarat Model’, it avoided publicising the Congress-led (and Sonia Gandhi-promoted) government’s Rural Employment Guarantee Act, Food Security Act and other measures. The authoritative Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (2018) says between 2005 and 2015 (almost entirely Congress-UPA years) 271 million Indians came out of extreme poverty, rivalling China.

But big business did not like this effort. Speaking for it, Naina Lal Kidwai, chairman of HSBC Asset Management (India) and and former president of the Federation of Chambers of Commerce of India (FICCI), in an interview with Frédéric Bobin employing, he noted, ‘the subtle rhetoric at which she excels, to regret the food subsidies’, and ‘warned against the aggressive speech of the populists of the Congress Party’ (my translation).

The corporate media took the cue. The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India’s report for 2012-2013 that the Gujarat government ran a loss of Rs 5.8 billion by its undue favours to Modi’s business friends, received almost no coverage.

Also Read: In 2019, Is BJP Riding a Modi Wave or a Money Wave?

By contrast, the eventually discredited 2010 CAG report on the UPA sale of 2G Spectrum was given enormous press and TV publicity. This supposed scandal helped lead to the UPA defeat.

Unsurprisingly, big businessmen such as Ratan Tata, Mukesh Ambani, Anand Mahindra, Sunil Mittal and others endorsed Modi strongly and were very generous contributors to both BJP campaigns.

Even in 2014, such contributions among others enabled the BJP to spend sums on publicity comparable to Barack Obama’s presidential campaign just two years earlier, though their per capita income is 30 times India’s. Preparing for the 2019 election by 2018, Modi had raised Rs 10.273 billion, all exempt from income tax, more than 50% from large anonymous donations from around the world, more than the next seven parties combined. Just in the first two weeks of March 2019, anonymous donors contributed Rs 13.66 million. Moreover, 99.8% of all such secret money was in amounts exceeding Rs 10 million, meaning this was from very rich people and possibly laundered.

Electoral bonds and political funding. Credit: PTI

The BJP received several times more money in political funding than other parties. Photo: PTI

Professor R.Thirunavukkarasu of the University of Hyderabad demonstrates in his essay Caste and Cultural Icons how Dravidian politics and welfare programmes have trumped Brahminism (and the Hindu nationalism which Modi promoted) in Tamil Nadu. I might add there is also a Tamil religious tradition which challenges varna and much else. Culture is diverse, with a rich Islamic tradition (represented in Umaru Pulavar’s 18th century epic Seerupuranam), continuing today. Yet Hindutva activists have long been at work, adopting vernacular expressions of faith and politics, stirring up communal grievance.

Sudhir Pattnaik, eminent Oriya journalist and founder of Samadrusti, points out in his essay Media, Corporates and Democracy how Naveen Patnaik’s repeated success in Orissa has been enabled by a corporate and media alliance, which performed the same service for Modi’s campaigns here. Thereafter the state has been so plundered by many businesses, such as Vedanta, that people are reduced to ‘helpless spectators in elections’.

By early 2019, there was general distress following demonetisation and other measures, and an employment crisis. It was widely believed that the government’s failure to deliver would result in a poor performance in the coming Election.

Yet — as no one had expected — the Pulwama terrorist attack (that Prem Shankar Jha claimed was allowed to happen), enabled Modi to switch on the patriotic mobilisation that had run as an undercurrent through all his policies. The cry was ‘The Nation is in danger!’ It was a chilling echo of V.D. Savarkar’s claim exactly 100 years ago, of Hindu India threatened by a Muslim invasion. Modi promoted himself as the strong man who alone could protect India. He won resoundingly. This important book provides a sense of where we are headed.

Kannan Srinivasan is a journalist and writer based in New York.