Full Text | 'Modi Has No Vision for Indian Society Other Than To Reject Inclusion': Aakar Patel

Patel analyses government data on India's performance under Narendra Modi to conclude that the 'Modi years', which coincided with the years when India's 'demographic dividend' should have been realised, represent a huge missed opportunity.

Listen to this article:

On December 11, The Wire published an interview of Aakar Patel, author and former executive director of Amnesty International India. The interview covered Patel’s analysis of India under Modi’s governance, from the effects of sweeping moves such as demonetisation and springing the announcement of a nationwide lockdown on the country on four hours’ notice, to the BJP’s and RSS’s lack of any plan or ideology beyond communal polarisation. They also discussed Patel’s latest book, Price of the Modi Years, in which he uses government data and global indices going back to the 1950s to judge the achievements or failures of the Modi administration.

Below is a full transcript of the interview, edited lightly for style. Watch the full interview here.


Karan Thapar: Hello and welcome to a special interview for The Wire supported by Glenlivet Books. Even seven years into Narendra Modi’s dominance, there is a critical question that is still waiting for a perfect answer: What should we make of his character and his style of leadership? A recently published book address precisely this issue. It is called Price of the Modi Years and its author is well-known journalist and columnist Aakar Patel.

Aakar Patel, in the preface of the book you write that your intention is to explain the data and facts on India’s performance under Narendra Modi through character flaws in its transformational leader. It’s what you say about his character and his leadership style that I particularly want to focus on today. You write, “He is decisive, full of certitude, transparent, unlearned, energetic and charismatic. He has, in particular, a bravado that, on occasion transforms into a reluctance to acknowledge facts.”

“Unlearned” yet “decisive” and yet “energetic” and “full of bravado”.  That strikes me as a worrying combination of qualities in a Prime Minister. Am I wrong?

Aakar Patel: No you are not, I think that all of us have flaws; it is to what extent they are mitigated by our circumstances; by those who have worked and lived with us. I think when you have an individual as powerful as Modi is today, with a full majority in the Lok Sabha; with no opposition within his party; possessing of a great deal of certitude; these tend to go against that one flaw which is his desire not to get into detail and I think that for someone who is “decisive”, meaning someone who wants to take decision and break from the past, this is quite worrying and is, in fact, dangerous.

KT: In fact, the two adjectives that you used in that sentence which struck me were “decisive” but also “unlearned”. In other words, without him being “sure” and “certain” of what he is doing, he is still determined to go ahead and do it.

AP: That is what Modi has told us. There is a wonderful video interview with journalist Madhu Kishwar, where he talks at length on his manner of functioning. This was in early-2014, when he had already been chief minister (of Gujarat) for 11 years. He said that he doesn’t read files because that is academic study according to him and what he does instead is ask for two-minute briefs to be given to him on the subject and then he decides based on that. I think even that would not be particularly worrisome should it not be for the fact that he is also extremely decisive and wants to do things which he believes will change the manner of the polity’s functioning and I think these two put together have brought India to where it is, across a range of subjects.

KT: Let’s separate the two points you made and take them up one by one. Do you believe that Madhu Kishwar story; that a man who is Prime Minister; who has to frequently take critical decisions does so not on the basis of diligence, depth, detail and understanding the issues by reading the files but simply on the basis of a two-minute brief from a bureaucrat? Because that is a very cavalier and casual attitude. Do you really think a Prime Minister would behave in this way?

AP: This is not her story, these are his words. They are on video. He had spent a dozen years as the chief minister with this style, he is fairly comfortable with it, so we can only assume that he was telling the truth.

KT: In other words, this is from the horse’s mouth and he is hoisted by his own petard because he is saying it of himself.

AP: I don’t think he sees it as a bad thing and I don’t think those who support him and think he has done the right things over the last seven years – we are now in year eight – think it is a bad thing. They think that he who breaks from the past as violently as he has done and is doing is necessarily doing a good thing and I don’t think they set a great store by the fact that he doesn’t get into detail. Though I think the corpses of those bad decisions; those rashly-taken decisions have been all around us since 2014.

Aakar Patel
Price of the Modi Years
Westland, 2021

KT: I’ll come to what you call the “corpses of the badly taken decisions” in a moment’s time but first let me pick up on the second part of that very important sentence you just said a moment ago  that’s to do with how he sees himself. You write, “Modi sees himself in a heroic way. Modi has an intense desire to do something and this yearning to do something but not knowing what and not having an interest in depth or detail has resulted in his style of running India.” Do you really mean to suggest that more than anything else, he wants to make a big impression; what colloquially would be called a ‘big bang’?

AP: I think so. I think someone who refers to himself in the third person always – or most of the time – or somebody who wears his name on a suit when meeting with the President of the US; somebody who claims to have a chest that is 56 inches around, is telling us that he is communicating a certain sort of self image that he has held on to. This is not something that is a transient. Through the years that he has been a chief minister and a PM, he has actually told us that this is the way he sees himself.

A close-up of the suit Narendra Modi wore in his meeting with US President Barack Obama, with his name emblazoned on it. Photo: PTI.

KT: So let’s just pause and see the picture that is emerging, This is a man who sees himself as the hero and wants to act in a big decisive way. Number two, this is a man who you say is “unlearned” and he doesn’t read the files; he doesn’t have depth and detail to do with critical decisions and yet acts with great certitude. Doesn’t this suggest that is he is impetuous and reckless?

AP: I would say that these are two words that accurately describe him. These are, however, loaded with a certain emotion that I have chosen not to use in the book. But I don’t see how it is that anybody who has examined his years in office – and what the performance has been and what the numbers show – would think that these words that you just used were wrong.

KT: So you agree that the image you are portraying of a man is of a reckless and impetuous person who isn’t too worried about the consequences. He wants to act and be seen as a decisive actor.

AP: That’s absolutely accurate and I think that is really well put. He doesn’t really care about the consequences of what he does, what matters to him first is how he is seen.

KT: Can you give the audience examples of things that have happened as a result of the impetuosity and recklessness and not caring about the consequences? Would demonetisation be one of them? Would declaring a nation-wide lockdown on four hours’ notice be another?

AP: They would. I think to understand what is meant, we need to look at the layer below that; the layer below the decision. The BBC filed over 200 RTIs to find out who in the government had been consulted or had been prepped before the national lockdown was called. The answer was nobody. Nobody in the government, whether disaster management or the finance ministry, knew this was going to come. So the government did not have the time to prepare for what was likely (or what was certain) to be quite a chaotic and a painful period for the entire nation. But no care was taken to ensure that this pain was, in some way, lessened.

A second example is the layer below the demonetisation decision where the cabinet ministers where called on the meeting on the same day, November 8 and told to leave their cell phones behind; they had no inkling that this was going to happen later that day. The ministers did not know, their departments didn’t know and the government did not prepare and did not think it appropriate to prepare for what was to come. I don’t know whether Modi understood what the consequences of that act would be. I think that he was quite baffled towards the end of December when he came to terms with what the country was going through, but he had not thought it through when he actually called it. I think that asking a nation to do something when the government is not prepared for it; when the government doesn’t even know about it, would certainly tell us, in both these instance, that he chooses to shoot first and aim later.

Also read: The Demonetisation Decision: Event, Impact, Narrative and Meaning

KT: You are almost suggesting – and I am putting it to you for confirmation – that this is a man who’s Prime Minister of a country with 1.38 billion people in it and he acts almost on a whim, –sometime even capriciously because the idea strikes him as good – without taking advice; without consulting his cabinet members; without preparing and without thinking through what the consequences would be.

AP: Yes and  I think what harms him further in this is that the charisma and power are coupled with his desire to work with only those people who don’t have too much power themselves, if you look at (Arun) Jaitely, (Nirmala) Sitaraman, (S) Jaishanker, (Piyush) Goel, none of whom has ever won a poll in their lives. These are not people who can say no to somebody who they know is really popular. So not having naysayers; not having somebody hold his hand and say, “pause,” has lead us to this.

KT: Let’s at this point come to another point you make about him because the image you have created of Modi; his character, his leadership, is exacerbated by what you say is his alleged lack of vision. You write and I am quoting you, “Modi has no vision for Indian society other than to reject inclusion and the constant manufacture of laws targeting minorities.” Do you really believe that a man who has won two massive elections and has ruled for seven years has no vison?

AP: If we look at the policies and manifestos of the BJP and the Jan Sangh going back to 1951, we notice that there is no real consistency and no real ideology. They stood for automation and then they didn’t want it in agriculture because the use of tractors would mean the slaughter of bullocks. They didn’t want automation in any sector except defence and aerospace. They wanted the monthly income of Indians to be capped at Rs 2,000 and that is a policy that they held on to for 20 years, till Vajpayee.

The RSS, a political force in India, has never had a specific ideology that we can point to. It has retained it’s anti-minority and, specifically it’s anti-Muslim thrust and we can see that in its legislation of laws post 2015 and then post 2018.

A young Narendra Modi at an RSS event. Photo: narendramodi.in

KT: So you are saying that the party and the political tradition from which Modi has emerged – the Jan Sangh and the BJP – have struck postures and taken positions, but they don’t have an ideological coherence behind them and, frequently, they actually contradict themselves and change their positions; or their positions are illogical such as capping salaries at Rs 2,000 per month.  Is that the background from which his lack of vision emerges?

AP: Yes, there is no core. It’s not just salaries, it is any sort of income is to be capped at Rs 2000. And effortlessly, that same party gets into privatisation, talks about laissez-faire economics under Modi. That same party, a few months down the road goes Atmanirbhar where it’s own advisors, including (Arvind) Panagariya say that it is muddled and so on. There is no real clarity of thought. There is one consistency which is: let’s go after the Muslims of India, exclude them politically – which they have quite successfully done – and harass them and torture them constantly through law – which they are doing also extremely successfully.

Also read: Book Excerpt: The Many Anti-Muslim Laws Brought in By the Modi Government

KT: I take the point you are making about the parties from which Modi has emerged being parties that posture rather than think ideologically but what about Modi’s behaviour and performance over the last seven years? Does that also suggest a lack of vision? Because people will say that the Jan Dhan Yojana, Swachh Bharat Abhiyan and Ayushman Bharat represent a clear vision to help people at the poorest level in society – and that is on the economic front. And if you look at the way he has very dramatically changed by giving greater depth to the relationship India has with the United States. the United Kingdom, the UAE Saudi Arabia, there has also been a vision on the foreign affairs front. How would counter those arguments?

AP: On the schemes, he has done reasonably well on several fronts – or tried  to anyway – but these are schemes that were inherited by him; all the ones you mentioned, including Jan Dhan: a direct benefits transfer; Swachh Bharat Abhiyan was the continuation of a scheme called Nirmal Bharat. Nirmal means the same thing as Swachh, I don’t know why it was renamed. So on this side of what the state does, there is some element of continuity. You could argue that it has been done with less competence than it had been done in the past and it hasn’t produced the sort of result that it should have – and I think I have documented some of that in the data.

On the side of foreign policy, what he has done is change the course of the way India engaged with the world and I would say that it is quite negative; that there is an idea of the country that the world held, for the most part, of being chaotic but benign. I think it is transformed and I think the world feels the need to be able to interfere in what is going on with India, as has happened several times over the last few years.

From the United States to Europe, there are independent government bodies which have cautioned India; put India on lists; which have threatened to sanction India; which have tabled condemnatory motions against the laws that we have passed. This is new. This is not something we have seen in our engagement with the world –especially the Western world – over the last 75 years.  I think what Modi has done with his targeting of minorities, whether through central legislation or through the BJP states, is to bring to the world a sense of alarm about what is going on in India and I don’t think that will just vanish, given what has been happening and will continuously happen.

A campaign in Amsterdam condemning attacks on human rights defenders in India. Photo: INSAF

KT: In a nutshell you are saying is that, if there is vision on the economic front, it is someone else’s vision; the vision he has inherited. His contribution is to continue, not create that vision. And on foreign affairs front, you are saying he may have brought greater depth to the relationships, but has also created a sense of alarm about what is happening in India and also increased criticism about what he is doing to India’s democracy. It is more negative than positive, in your eyes.

AP: I think the word “economic”, I would not use. I would ask: what are the elements and things that are done by the state? On the side of the economy, he has broken from the past. I think we see before ourselves a fairly devastated landscape where five crore fewer people are working today than there were in 2013 – and this is the government data, if you look at the labour force participation rate from the two government surveys of 2013 and 2020. On the other things like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, I think that is a continuation.

KT: Okay, in your book, writing about the impact on the country after seven years of Narendra Modi’s leadership, you write, “Modi has taken India to a place where political parties do not speak of secularism and pluralism, though it is the basic structure of our constitution. What was once communal is now legitimate; what was secular has been made inauthentic. We can legitimately call it the ‘Modi Effect’.” You are acknowledging there, aren’t you, that India seven years after Modi took over as Prime Minister is a radically different country to what it was in 2014?

AP: Yes I am and I don’t think that the shift back will be easy and I don’t think the shift back will be automatic, even after the BJP goes. The reason why I am saying this is that society has become infected.

One of the things Modi has done, which he also did in Gujarat, is devolve the use of force from the state, where it sits legitimately, to a society, so you can have a mob shut down Muslim prayer in spaces that the state has actually allocated to them and the states will not be able to resist that. You can have mobs in the street of Gujarat taking hawkers down while the BJP in the state said that they have nothing against the sale of eggs.  So it’s the mob that is actually taking a decision that the BJP has told us that it wants to take and it no longer needs  the state to be able to do these things. So it will be tough for us to go back to where we were before 2014 and I think it will take a long time.

Also read: The ‘Hindutva Ecosystem’ Has A New Anti-Muslim Narrative. This Time Street Vendors Are The Target.

KT: In other words, he has legitimised vigilantes, he has legitimised some form of mob rule. Society is no longer policed and in order; the majority does what it wants.

Shredded social cohesion is the first symptom of fragility. Credit: PTI

Hindutva groups. Representative image. Photo: PTI

AP: Indeed and this is, in some sense also legitimate in that there are laws in this regard, including one in the state where I live in: Karnataka, which says that if a vigilante who accosts a person accused of carrying beef is acting in “good faith”, it is not a crime.

KT: All of this, you say, Modi has done through his person, not through the BJP, like a giant colossus; one man, almost singlehandedly, has changed the character of our country.

AP: I think so. I think that his personality, his thinking, is writ large on the party today, not the other way round. I think it is impossible for the RSS or the RSS’s head to be able to order Modi around; I think the cadre would laugh at them. I think that he is the most popular leader we have in the country, he controls a very large part of the population that loves him. I think that he is adored in away that I have not, in my 52 years, seen a leader be adored and I don’t think we have had anybody of this charisma, this likeability, this popularity and this much power.

Also read: Narendra Modi’s Personality Has No Place for Compromise or Repentance

KT: Now let’s come to the compilation of facts about India’s performance under Narendra Modi which, to be honest, is the main body of your work. You cite 53 indices to measure India’s performance and point out that on 49 of them, India has declined; its performance has only improved on four. This I think is your conclusion: “…the record leaves little room for debate or dispute. The scale and rapidity of decline in governance after 2014 is manifest. India was struggling to keep up with the world and sinking on several fronts. India deteriorated under Modi  across a spectrum of governance, in ways that are noticeable and objectively measurable.” What you are saying is Modi as Prime Minister is a failure if performance is to be the criteria of judgement?

AP: Absolutely. I think there is no dispute over this and the indices that I referred to also come from fairly conservative bodies, like the World Bank, the World of Economic Forum, the Economist Intelligence Unit. These are not what we would see as being ‘liberal left-type’ institutions. I think that across a range of things, we have declined in a way that is noticeable. I think we have declined in a way that’s alarming in many ways. We have not been able to make this a subject of a political debate. The facts are not in dispute. I think the government can try to say what it does when things like the World Hunger Index come out. But what is true and what the numbers show is that we are in a difficult space and I don’t think it will be easy for us to get out.

KT: When Modi makes speeches lauding his achievements, applauding his government, you actually say this is just “babbling” That’s the precise word you use.

AP: We should look at the numbers his own government has put up. Our GDP growth fell into sequential decline for 13 quarters from January, 2018. Why? We don’t know because we haven’t debated this. We can say that we are moving towards a $5 trillion economy or 5 million ton economy, which is what Shah said. How will we get there and by when?

I think these are not questions that are asked. There is empty rhetoric which, to my mind, is actually “babbling”; it is not based on anything. We have a lower work participation rate than Pakistan. GDP per capita has gone behind Bangladesh, which was 50% behind us in 2014. Not only have they caught up, they’ve passed us. With this kind of performance, to be able to still thump your chest and say that “I am doing something good” means that your words are totally dislocated from your actual delivery.

Also read: Support for Modi as ‘Best Choice for PM’ Falls from 66% to 24% in a Year, India Today Poll Finds

KT: In fact, the paradox is that despite this dark, dismal and damning verdict, Modi remains incredibly popular. And you explain that popularity on the grounds that either what he did or what he didn’t do in 2002 has forever validated him. You write, “Even if people acknowledge arguable failure on the side of governance, Modi is delivering what they want on the side of identity and passion.”  So they are prepared to forgive, forget and overlook the entire collapse of governance over seven years because he’s giving them that Hindu identity and reassurance that they have been craving and that’s why they champion him.

AP: I think so. There are two points to be made here. One is that all of South Asia is majoritarian; we thrive on bullying our minorities and this is true of all the nations of our region which once used to be one large space run by the British. The other point is that if you look at the decades that Nehru and (Indira) Gandhi were Prime Ministers in, economic performance it was quiet poor but they remained popular. So we need to ask ourselves why it is that democratic and popular politics in India dissociates, in some sense, performance from popularity

KT: The people, because of emotional identification with their rulers, forgive and forget poor economic performance?

AP: Or they do not hold them to account for what is going on in their lives.

KT: Right at the end of your book, there is a very clear hint that the seven years of Modi represent a terrible missed opportunity for India. You write, “Narendra Modi had the capital, the adoration of crores and no opposition. He could, if he had a plan and wanted to, sell and push through transformational change. That failure to do it is the opportunity India has lost. No one else has the power to do it, he simply didn’t have the vision or the will.”

AP: I don’t think that we will have somebody of this level of popularity, this level of acceptance, this level of lack of opposition for some time and I think he has not only squandered his legacy – which I think is a minor thing – but has ruined it for this country and for hundred and millions of poor that we have who will not have a chance to come into a middle income and I think that is a disaster.

KT: As a result of this missed opportunity, would you say you see a pretty dim future for India? You write, “India has likely forever missed the opportunity to join the ranks of the developed countries.” Now this because the failure of the Modi years coincided with what you said should have been “years of demographic growth for India.” Consequently you write, “India will likely remain at the low end of the middle income trap.” That’s a damning verdict for the country.

AP: It is and it is quite sad but the facts are these: India entered the period of what ought to have been its demographic dividend, when the larger part of the population was old enough to work in 2018. But what has happened post 2014 is that the labour force participation rate – those in the country who are either working or looking for work – has shrunk by a fifth. So Modi shrank the size of the workforce from 52%, which it was when he took over – and this is government data – to 40%, which is amongst the lowest in the world; lower than Pakistan.  It’s in the lowest 16 nations of the world.

KT: So the conclusion we are coming to, both of his character traits and flaws as well as his performance as Prime Minister is the following: he saw himself as a hero but he didn’t think through what he was doing. He was divisive but he was unlearned. He therefore was reckless and impetuous and he imposed on India decisions like demonetisation; like the lockdown at four hours’ notice, that were disastrous for the people.

But there is the other side which emerges from his performance. He had enormous power, he could have changed the country, he could have transformed it and that opportunity  to do so has been missed and, as you say, the consequences will be that we will be at low end of the middle income trap hereafter. In other words, he sold India’s future down the river.

AP: He has. I think he has been very successful in dividing us; in introducing levels of hatred and division which will be very hard and will take decades for us to be rid of. But he has been unsuccessful in making sure India joins the ranks of the developed nations or at least starts to plan its route there. We have no plan and we are in worse shape as an economy than we have ever been in the past and I don’t think that we are going to get out of this easily.

KT: In which case, one last question Aakar Patel: do you see any possibility of political change on the horizon or at least in the foreseeable future or do Modi’s undiminished popularity and, I supposes, the irreversible weakness of the opposition together ensure that the Modi era will continue for years and years?

AP: I think it will actually continue. There are structural advantages that the BJP has in many parts of the country; it has a lot of money and the opposition has almost no resource at the moment and this is due primarily to a law Modi passed on (electoral) bonds. I think because of these structural differences, even though there might be a dip in his popularity which might come at some time, it will be difficult to dislodge the BJP as the primary force in the political sphere. With that, we will also have the accompaniment of the sort of laws that they are focused on which are aimed primarily at a minority groups within the country.

Also read: Electoral Bonds Are a Threat to Indian Democracy

KT: One day, Modi will have to cease to be Prime Minister; age will inevitably ensure that. At that point, if the BJP continues, how do you see the future of the country under Amit Shah, who many believe would be Modi’s successor?

AP: They don’t have any specific ideology to offer outside of their majoritarianism. As I said, what they have said over decades over national security, over the economy has no consistency. They have no roadmap to anywhere except the brutalisation of fellow Indian citizens and that is what will continue to happen under any successor that comes after Modi.

KT: That’s a very depressing prospect. Thank you very much for opening our eyes but I think there will be many in the audience who wish that what you have shown them had never been seen.  Take care Aakar Patel. Stay safe.

AP: Thank you very much Mr Thapar.