Book Review: Tracing How Narendra Modi Captured the Highest Echelons of Power

In his new book, Christophe Jaffrelot suggests that Modi changed the rules of the political game.

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This ‘big book’ written by Christophe Jaffrelot runs into 639 pages in the e-version. Each page bears witness to painstaking research and meticulous documentation. The work covers practically every issue in Indian politics since the time Prime Minister Narendra Modi rose to prominence in his home state, Gujarat. The 2014 general elections offered him a national platform to try out the political and electoral strategy he had adopted in the state, and to market the much disputed ‘Gujarat model of development’.

In the first of the three parts of the book, Jaffrelot analyses the strategies Modi deployed to win power. His fiery rhetoric and provocative vocabulary, a personalised style of communication, and uninhibited criticism of rivals, particularly of Congress leaders, as dynastic, elitist, corrupt and ineffective, fetched him electoral success in the 2014 and 2019 general elections. Commentators began to speak of him as the newest populist in the game.

The only other Indian prime minister who could be called a populist was Indira Gandhi. Dismantling the famed coalitional organisation of the Congress party, she created a national constituency in 1971. Opponents acclaimed her, supporters fell at her feet, and regional elites that were at one point the USP of the Congress system were rendered irrelevant. From a coalition of diverse interests, the party was transformed into a durbar.

Something similar happened when Modi acquired prominence in Gujarat, suggests Jaffrelot. The disciplined cadre-based Hindutva organisation, the RSS, used to believe that the leader should be subordinated to the collective. Within a short period of time, the organisation accepted Modi’s style of leader-oriented politics. He created a parallel support system peopled by modern, jeans-clad young women and men, many of whom had come back after a stint in a foreign university. They manned the formidable IT apparatus of the party, kept in touch with swings of public opinion, and proscribed any sort of criticism of Modi and his politics.

Christophe Jaffrelot
Modi’s India: Hindu Nationalism and The Rise of Ethnic Democracy
Princeton University Press, 2021

The prime minister, suggests Jaffrelot, appeals to the electorate because he straddles the worlds of tradition and that of modernity. The point is worth noting. Recollect with what ease Modi presided over elaborate religious rituals on the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple and the rebuilding of Lutyens Delhi. He takes an equally keen interest in technology, from the smart phone to social media to space and the moon. He was the first politician to grasp the power of social media.  He was also the first politician to identify and reach out to aspirational but discontented ‘angry young men’ and non-Yadav OBCs as politically significant groups. Both sections had felt shortchanged because the benefits provided by a liberalised India continued to elude them.

Modi’s project was more ambitious; he sought to neutralise caste cleavages because these threatened his dream project of a unified Hindu nation. This dimension of his politics, argues Jaffrelot, added a new string to the populist bow, of ’nationalist populism’. Most populists come to power by attacking the establishment as corrupt and non-performing, by demolishing intermediary institutions such as the media and civil society organisations, and by establishing a direct relationship with the people. Above all, they mobilise majority opinion against the minorities, immigrants and sections of society that, it is held, do not ‘belong’. Modi, argues Jaffrelot, added a fourth dimension to populism, that of creating a Hindu nation. The minorities have been put in their place. Ethnic democracy has been institutionalised in the country.

Finally, the Modi government dispensed with the welfare state. Scholars term the alternative as the ‘entrepreneurial state’. People need not look to the state for employment, they have to look out for themselves, even if they have to sell pakodas to do so. The UPA-I government had enacted a number of policies granting social rights to the people. Under the current regime, the poor are handed over some benefits, such as gas connections without increasingly unaffordable gas cylinders, construction of public toilets many of which lie dormant because of water shortages, and some housing. These are given to citizens as a matter of social policy, or even as a gift from the prime minister, not as social rights. All this takes place in the name of protecting the dignity of the poor.

Also read: Rupani’s Departure is an Advertisement for the Bogus Nature of the Gujarat Model

In sum, Jaffrelot suggests that Modi changed the rules of the political game. He challenged the belief that Indian politics would always be pushed to a centrist position by electoral competition and by institutions. The capacity of the BJP to acquire a majority in the Lok Sabha on its own, we may add, also disproved the thesis that the future of India lay in coalitional politics.

Whether Modi’s capture of power has benefited the constituency of the BJP remains an unresolved question; the jury is still out on this. In 2020, millions of migrant workers began to walk to their villages after the country was locked down. They had nothing to show for their unceasing labour in the service of an ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ except the bundle of meagre belongings they carried on their head along with calloused and bleeding feet, and throats parched for want of water. The summer of 2021 brought more tragedies – people died gasping for oxygen on the streets of the oxygen-starved capital city; families could not give their loved one a decent funeral because crematoriums and burial grounds were booked for days; little babies were orphaned; entire households were wiped out; and misery stalked every street of the country. The government was spectacularly absent from the scene. Jaffrelot points out that despite grandiose self-representations of the government, millions of Indians remain mired in poverty, inequality and deprivation. They are denied access to basic necessities even though schemes for their betterment have ben inaugurated with great fanfare by the current government.

Christophe Jaffrelot. Photo: Twitter/@jaffrelotc

Jaffrelot tells us a story of a politician who succeeded in capturing and monopolising the highest echelons of power, and thus inaugurating the rule of a new Lutyens Delhi elite. And he does it very well. His study is so exhaustive that sometimes the reader misses the wood for the trees. Very often we are left wondering what the causal relationship between factor x, y or z is. But no matter; it is a good read and we can always make the connection between these factors ourselves.

Two small points before I conclude this review. One, I wish the author had consulted someone knowledgeable before translating Hindi terms. For instance, on page 43 the slogan used to stereotype Muslims is ‘hum paanch hamare pachees’. Pachees is not 50 as given in the page, it is 25. On page 60 Jaffrelot writes that Indians love the Bollywood image of a kala nayak or black hero. The proper term is khalnayak, or the villainous hero played with such aplomb by Sanjay Dutt in a 1993 movie of the same name. And on page 107 India’s celebrated journalist Karan Thapar is turned into Kiran Thapar.

Also read: Narendra Modi’s Power and Cult Endanger the BJP

Two, though Jaffrelot documents the anti-Citizenship (Amendment) Act movement, he does not give it the importance it deserves. Despite the crackdown on civil society organisations, from the middle of December 2019 to early February 2020, we witnessed an unexpected phenomenon. Across the country thousands of people, protesting against a discriminatory law, assembled and marched in the biting cold. Their only weapon was the Constitution. The Constitution and its Preamble were transformed from a legal document into a political one. From the end of 2020 till today, lakhs of farmers across the country have cornered Delhi, and challenged laws corporatising agriculture that were rushed through Parliament. These are only two instances of discontent that have been sparked off in Modi’s India.

No regime is left unquestioned, no matter how charismatic the leader might be. For charisma, as Jaffrelot points out, is morally neutral. Contemporary India gives us a story of the consolidation of Hindu nationalism. It also tells a story of how many citizens distinguish between ‘religion as faith’ and ‘religion as politics’. That is why over 62% of citizens voted against the BJP in 2019. Political history is not only a tale of power, it is also a tale of resistance to power, and of contestation of dominant meaning systems. But this is perhaps another story, for another book by Christophe Jaffrelot.

Neera Chandhoke was a professor of political science at Delhi University.