#RightSideUp: Narendra Modi, 'India's Bernie Sanders'?

A weekly round-up of voices from the right.

New Delhi: As India bates its breath and braces for May 23, when the outcome of the Lok Sabha elections will be revealed, you could cut the tension with a knife.

This week, exit polls predicted a thumping win for the BJP and Prime Minister Narendra Modi, with some pollsters prophesying well over 360 seats for the NDA.

The BJP stirred the hornet’s nest in West Bengal when several of it workers allegedly defaced the statue of social reformer Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar during a rally held by BJP national president Amit Shah. This led to condemnation from both sides of great divide, with the right blaming the left for the ruckus and vice versa.

BJP candidate from Bhopal, ‘Sadhvi’ Pragya Thakur also triggered a political storm by describing Mahatma Gandhi’s assassin Nathuram Godse as a “deshbhakt” (patriot).

But the highlight of the week was the Amit Shah press conference that Modi attended, but refused to answer a single question and instead delivered a monologue. For the most part, the prime minister sat by almost deferentially as Shah fielded questions from reporters.

It was anti-climactic to say the least, but Modi’s reputation of never having truly participated in a press conference during the five years of his tumultuous tenure still stands.

Also Read: Narendra Modi ‘Attends’ First-Ever Press Conference as PM, but Takes No Questions

May 18 also brought with it image after image of the prime minister ‘meditating’ at the holy shrine of Kedarnath in Uttarakhand as ANI cameras captured his every move from the special red carpet to the ‘meditation cave’ Modi reportedly spent the night in. This was despite the fact that this was a no-campaigning day. Expectedly, the Election Commission felt no need to intervene, in fact, the prime minister had taken the constitutional body’s blessing for the trip.

All the same, barring some jubilation over the exit polls, right-wing websites were eerily quiet. Here’s a collection of a few of the right of left opinions published this past week:

Modi, India’s Bernie Sanders?

In an article published in the New York Times that has confused readers across the spectrum, be they right or left, Ruchir Sharma, chief global strategist at Morgan Stanley Investment Management and author of The Rise and Fall of Nations: Forces of Change in the Post-Crisis World, tries to break down why he expected Prime Minister Narendra Modi to be a Ronald Reagan and how he believes India is being helmed by a Bernie Sanders instead.

Starting with how he grew up in an India that was the very reflection of a ‘broken state’, he speaks of he he always dreamt that “India would one day elect a free-market reformer like Ronald Reagan, who would begin to shrink the dysfunctional bureaucracy and free the economy to grow faster”.

I kept hoping for Reagan, and India kept electing Bernie Sanders. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is no exception.

Though Modi may have come to power with a “Reaganesque promise of minimum government”, he says, the prime minister has now gone “toe to toe with rivals, vying to see who could offer the most generous welfare programmes, and it appears to have worked”. Interestingly, Morgan Stanley, where Sharma works, was among the first to line up for one of the biggest government payouts after the financial crisis in 2008.

This is why, Sharma says, it isn’t surprising that the BJP and its allies appear to have a commanding lead in the exit polls.

This should surprise no one. India’s political DNA is fundamentally socialist. After independence in 1947, India established a parliamentary democracy and a deeply meddlesome government to spread the wealth to its impoverished masses.

Sharma moves on to how in the early 2000s, he hoped that the “Congress would find its worldly reformer in Sonia Gandhi”. In 2019, he saw that hope in Rahul Gandhi as “a Cambridge graduate who had worked at a London consulting company”.

Narrating a meeting he had with the Gandhis in 2002, which he described as a “quasi-feudal scene” where he purportedly made a case for “modernising India”, he says he was met with “skeptical questions”.

Still, my contact in the Gandhi camp gave me reason to think they would follow up. But they never did.

Sharma says he transferred his hope “for a big-bang Indian reformer” to Modi, whom he credits for the Gujarat’s “stunning boom”, so much so that “Modi’s record in Gujarat helped lift him into the prime minister’s office” in 2014.

In retrospect this reading ignored how Modi delivered “maximum governance” in Gujarat: by force of personality, cutting foreign investment deals himself and intimidating bureaucrats into building roads on time without demanding bribes…This was economic development by executive order, not economic reform by systematically expanding freedom.

Citing how demonetisation is still affecting the economy, he says:

In some ways Mr. Modi has proved more statist than the Gandhis. Before he took power he criticised Congress welfare programs as insulting to the poor, who “do not want things for free” and really want “to work and earn a living.” As prime minister, Mr. Modi doubled down on the same programs, expanding the landmark 2006 act that guaranteed 100 days of pay to all rural workers, whether they worked or not.

This year the BJP has been announcing new government programs that would make Mr. Modi feel right at home in a Bernie Sanders town hall meeting, including cash transfers for farmers, wage supports, free health care and a pucca (concrete) home with gas and electricity for every Indian family.

Sharma then makes some absurd leaps of logic, clearly as an outsider who hasn’t followed developments in India over the last five years closely:

This is not the Mr. Modi portrayed by the foreign press, which casts him as an extreme right-wing nationalist. His campaign may well have stirred up India’s Hindu majority against the Muslim minority. But on the economic front, Mr. Modi is as far left as any Indian leader in memory. And if he does win a second term, he is much less likely to govern like a Reagan than a Sanders.

In reality, Sharma appears to have completely sidestepped the fact that India elected more of a Donald Trump in Modi, with a clear nationalistic agenda, than a Bernie Sanders.

Growing space for consent, not shrinking space for dissent

In her most recent offering on the Republic website, regular columnist Chitra Subramaniam waxes eloquent about how proud she is of India “consenting to itself, liking itself and growing up”.

That’s driving the “beautiful people” and their allies around the bend. For them, one side is an abyss and on the other a push back by young India asking questions and seeking answers. They are armed not with stones and swords, but with the power of their vote.

Describing the arrest and subsequent release of BJP’s Priyanka Sharma over a meme of Trinamool Congress chief Mamata Banerjee in Bengal as “the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back”, she says what “India’s pushback” after the incident was revelatory.

Blocking, arresting and firing people from their posts is no way to engage with India’s young who want to know so they can live and assume the change they seek.

Admitting how even most pundits, even if they hold opposing views on the Narendra Modi government, agree on one thing: that “free speech is in danger and there is no space for dissent”.

Free speech and dissent is not in danger – if it was, we wouldn’t hear about it. That’s what the Emergency was all about. Let that sink in. What is, however, in real danger are “pretty” perches constructed over generations by a handful whose only interest is self-preservation.

What the “beautiful” free-speech-is-in-danger people do not want to accept is this – millions of Indians are speaking in a million tongues and methods… They are ambitious for themselves and for the country and I am sure they will not allow nonsense to block their march. Yes, India is marching.

In an example of how “India is talking to itself and India is listening, arguing, agreeing, discarding and growing”, she ask when was the last time India had had an election where issues such as “GST and demonetisation, development, national security, health, roads, schools” were discussed.

Despite India’s ranking slipping in the press freedom index over the past few years (136 a year earlier and 105 in 2009), Subramaniam outrightly declares:

India is the world’s largest democracy with a media that is amongst the freest in the world.

Education levels are going up and people are not dumb. They no longer want to live the life of permanent beggars looking out for doles and compensations that keeps people frozen permanently at lower scales of growth as ordained by a few. They are willing to work hard and thrive. They are tolerant and law-abiding – don’t push them by arresting them for a meme or a cartoon. This is the new normal and our tired politicians, babus and mostly illegally rich people will have to cope with it if they want to remain relevant. The choice is theirs.

India has chosen. It will claim more and more space in every way as it grows. It wants accountability, responsibility, positivity and growth. It is consenting with itself.

The beginning of the end for Mamata Banerjee?

West Bengal CM and TMC chief Mamata Banerjee. Credit: Reuters

Jaideep Mazumdar, an associate editor at Swarajya, has had his eye on Bengal these past few weeks. In his most recent article disparaging the Trinamool Congress and its chief Mamata Banerjee, he laments how Mamata wasted a “golden opportunity” she was gifted in 2011 “transform Bengal”.

But sadly, this ‘poriborton’ has been bereft of light. Under her tenure, Bengal’s debt burden doubled to what it was in 2011.

Pointing to how the exit polls have set up the BJP to win between 11 to 23 Lok Sabha seats, he says that the “BJP’s predicted win is, of course, the Trinamool’s loss”.

But the bigger question is: What happens to the Trinamool two years hence, when Assembly elections are due? Will the BJP be able to unseat Mamata Banerjee from power in 2021? The answer, in all likelihood, is ‘yes’ and there are many reasons for that. The primary one is that there is limited room for a course-correction by Trinamool to recoup the losses it is likely to suffer this time.

Mazumdar recounts the “irreversible choices Mamata Banerjee has made since assuming office in 2011”. Recapping the Singur protests, he says the way Mamata “drove the Tatas out of Singur” has “left a permanent black mark on Bengal as an investment destination and made all potential investors wary of Bengal under Banerjee”.

This single and significant act provided a firm indication of her politics and priorities. That she was more communist than the communists themselves became a legitimate apprehension among the people.

Soon after assuming office, she realised that whatever be her efforts, investments, especially big-ticket ones, would not flow into Bengal after her stand on Singur. With jobs not being created in the state, she took to handing out doles and sops to the people.

He also cites the chief minister’s refusal to allow Bengal to join the Ayushman Bharat scheme “owing to strained state-centre relations”. Mamata had, in fact, asked why the state was expected to contribute 40% to the programme for which Modi was allegedly taking all the credit.

Mazumdar blames the recent violence in Bengal in the “panic-stricken” leadership of Trinamool Congress, a panic caused by the BJP “posing a serious challenge to the ruling party, and possibly even an existential threat”.

Another major issue driving the average Bengali Hindu voter away from the Trinamool is the party’s blatant appeasement of minorities.

Mamata realised that the community was now critical for the party as it mostly votes en masse. With the illegal influx and settlement of Bangladeshi refugees in Bengal, widely believed to have been engineered to add meat to the Trinamool vote bank, the alienation of the otherwise secular Hindu has begun.