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I have long struggled to understand Narendra Modi and what makes him tick. First, as a ruthless and cunning provincial politician, when he was Gujarat chief minister; and then as a phenomenon, when he came to straddle the national scene.
The support, adulation, and devotion that he attracts from his base (and also others) surprised me. It puzzled me no end to see a person given to fibbing, hype, and lies, as a way of life, could be so revered.
I always had an inkling that there were some deeper reasons for his phenomenal popularity – that went beyond demagoguery – and the binaries of adversarial politics. But the underlying phenomenon was elusive.
Studying the person, the persona, and the phenomenology that is entwined with what Modi stands for in popular imagination offers some insights.
Modi is the simulacrum of a deeply held, and popular, aspiration in our collective psyche – which is to restore India, or Bharat, to its past glory and honor. The path of ‘losing’ this glory is thought to have begun circa 1026 CE, when the Somnath temple was plundered and laid waste by invaders from the Northwest. Many invasions since, including 200 years under British rule are believed to have resulted in this ‘loss’. Whether this perception is based on our objective past or not, it is a theme deeply embedded in every Hindu imagination. It is widely shared among liberals, and ‘illiberals’. To deny it is to deny your very self.
To his core supporters, Modi is not merely a persona or a politician. He embodies an indestructible idea, nay a deeply held faith, that the ‘Indian civilisation’, warts and all, long denied its due, must be restored to a respectable place under the sun. You cannot view the Modi phenomenon as something distinct from this collective aspiration. In fact, Modi has become the embodiment of this popular yearning.
Modi championed the ‘Hindu civilisational project’ long before it was mainstream. He lived with ignominy of championing something deeply unpopular, and contrary to the dominant idea of India, for decades until he was able to use the propaganda resources of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh to turn the tables on his detractors within the Bharatiya Janata Party and outside.
In the popular imagination of BJP’s expanded core vote base, Modi is this ‘Hindu civilisational project’ in person. And Modi plays to this perception with consummate artistry. The shots of him meditating alone in a Kedarnath cave are of a piece of this creative folklore.
Modi has sought to create this ‘civilisational project’ riding on the success of economic reforms initiated in 1991. These reforms created the base for accelerated economic growth. The explosion of software services exports to the US, in the late 90s, announced to the world that Indians had arrived on the global stage. As in the case of Japan, South Korea and China, this initial success on the global stage generated a euphoria of “we can do it too” nationalistic pride. Modi was able to tap into this spirit of national resurgence and harness its potential as a theme for national imagination.
Very adroitly, he captured the momentum of this nationalist stirring. The reforms that initiated this resurgence were largely carried out by those who oppose him. Congress’s failure to own its own economic reforms and take visible pride in its success enabled Modi to embody this success as his own. He became the leader of this triumphalism by default. Congress intellectual ineptitude helped.
Since coming on to the national scene, Modi has used his unusually brazen chutzpah, and demagoguery, to sketch out his aspirations with a few strikingly vivid strokes.
The point is not that these are wishful myths. The point is that these are as good a set of myths as those advanced by others. It is part of the process of the Hindu civilisation laying claim to a heritage of its own. The process can tolerate a few grand lies.
The brazen chutzpah has won Modi many laurels, even if his dubious claims ring hollow. It shows his boldness in making such claims, his deep commitment to the ‘civilisational project’ that he champions, and his imagination to carry it through.
That he makes the ridicule of his ridiculous claims look ridiculous is a masterly achievement of his grasp of the idiom, a triumph of his demagoguery.
Where liberals like me see fibs, myths, and exaggerated claims, his believers see sincerity, commitment, and devotion to a cause. And commendable bravery in advancing such claims in the face of withering scorn.
We are truly in a rabbit hole where value systems invert. But the essential point to grasp is not one of value inversion, but of commitment. Modi gets full marks for trying to make up for the lost 1,000 years. Never mind the incongruity of his claims.
It is the determination to carry forward the ‘civilisational project’, in the teeth of opposition at home and abroad, that gives Modi immunity against his self-created disasters.
The economic woes of demonetisation, a flawed Goods and Services Tax, incoherent Insolvency and Bankruptcy Code, lingering choke points in the banking system, abrupt shutdown in the pandemic, delays in ordering vaccines, the floating corpses in Ganga – these are all dismissed as the floundering of a sincere man, valiantly trying to do his best, in the face of all odds. His critics at home are seen as the enemy, trying to derail the holy project.
Hence every policy disaster is stoutly defended, every blunder becomes an occasion to renew and reinforce faith in the ultimate victory of the ‘civilisational project’ and to reaffirm allegiance to the leadership of the messiah, chosen to carry it through.
In the process, his critics become insidious saboteurs of India’s manifest destiny, the enemies of his ‘civilisational state’, the Cassandras who cannot bear to see India succeed. They must be put down by any means available, fair and foul.
Modi’s success in carrying forward the ‘civilisational project’ is measured against internal parameters. Demonstration of cultural dominance through a ban on beef, political dominance by building the Ram temple, laying the foundation of claims to other temple sites, establishing the supremacy of Hindus over all others by selective application of the law, use of militias to enforce party writ, the toppling of opposition government and brazen purchase of MLAs are all part of the parameters by which progress is measured.
What liberals see as flaw is really feature. If this leaves the liberals perplexed and dazed, that is also design – the inevitable fallout of a holy mission to establish a Hindu Rashtra.
There is bound to be opposition to such a project. Who are those opposing? Minorities, some Hindus, leftists and liberals. The Congress. They are to be ground to dust by means fair and foul. Whatever the regime can get away with is legitimate. So, there is ruthless stomping on dissent. Selective application of the law is routine. Marginalisation and delegitimisation of minorities are the new normal. Farmers are traitors. Workers are lazy good-for-nothings demanding a free lunch. The jobless are drones. Lefties are saboteurs. Communists are the enemy. Liberals are wooly headed, colonised, nay, deranged minds; witless wokes under the control of an insidious Western script.
Anyone who opposes the project can be vilified, demonised, excoriated, indeed extinguished. Any dissent that can be construed as hindering the ‘civilisational project’ is worthy of swift dissolution.
At the same time, effort is on to line up quislings from the minorities, to show the ‘civilisational project’ is not just Hindu, but truly civilisational. If it appears Hindu in character, it is only because of the preponderance of sheer numbers. Hence, the thesis that all Indians are Hindus. [And not all Hindus are Indians.] The culmination of the ‘civilisational project’ will be with the declaration of a Hindu civilisational state before the 2024 election.
The low hanging fruits of the ‘civilisational project’ have largely been plucked. Internal domination of the polity using militias, carefully built up over decades, was always easy. They are being further strengthened. The ‘civilisational state’ yields an unassailable political dominance. Institutional capture is near complete, except for a few pockets in the judiciary. The civil service and police are always with the regime. The military is seeing deep selection at every opportunity. The intellectuals are suitably cowed, and popular media has been largely tamed and domesticated.
In fact, the watchdog of democracy has recruited itself as the regime’s ludicrous chorus of voluble voices, who can do no more than amplify ruling party propaganda under a sanitised neutral label. The tycoons who own it know what is expected of them. Some exceptions soldier on, but I fear for their future.
The only things not falling in place are the economy and the external environment.
While Modi owns the ‘civilisational project’, he has few ideas of his own of what the new Rashtra will do, to lift its 1.3 billion citizens out of the Malthusian hell in which they are trapped; never mind the high wage island in which the elites live.
Modi’s understanding of how a modern economy competes in the global marketplace is deeply flawed. None of his policy measures betray the vision that powered the 90/91 reforms. None of his programmes have the capacity to lift 40 million of India’s poor above the poverty line as the reforms did. Instead, Modi’s policies have implicitly created 75 million more poor. Modi has compressed real wage growth to near zero since 2014.
We can brush away the economic failures as minor irritants in a grand project, but hunger, poverty, and destitution, have undermined civilisations before. Modi’s project is not immune to this malady. Before long, the economy will have to perform at levels significantly above current capacities. It is not clear how Modi plans to achieve that.
Meanwhile, the huge flaw in the ‘civilisational project’ has not gone unnoticed by our adversaries. You cannot be M.K. Gandhi abroad, and M.S. Golwalkar at home. You cannot champion a liberal constitutional democracy abroad, while laying the foundation of an illiberal electoral autocracy at home. You cannot switch from Mr Hyde to Dr Jekyll by merely boarding the Indian Air Force I for an overseas sortie.
You cannot demand free access to global markets, and close off your own to shelter the profits of your crony tycoons. You cannot claim to be Vishwa Guru while your small neighbours are beating you in employment generation and per capita income growth.
At some point even such a noble and grandiose project as Modi’s ‘civilisational mission’, must be subjected to a reality check. And it’s the reality check that can cause the scales to fall off, exposing the fake hologram.
Modi hopes to find solutions to our real problems as he goes along, even as he creates new intractable ones that will trap the polity.
In time, he and his fellow dreamers in Nagpur, will discover that the true way to achieve their ‘civilisational mission’ is by rediscovering the path that Nehru launched India on, with his tryst with destiny. One that carries all citizens, without distinction or discrimination, to greater wealth and prosperity. “Sab ka saath, sab ka vikas,” cannot be a slogan to obscure the real process of ghettoisation of minorities.
Realisation will dawn that there is life beyond the caste system; that liberty, equality, fraternity, are not empty slogans, but the foundations of a polity that invites every citizen to give off her best, in her own enlightened self-interest. That it is the pursuit of enlightened self-interest – by itself – that produces the greatest good and glory, for the greatest numbers; and not some karma-dharma code wired into automatons, in obscure propaganda factories.
Nehru made many blunders but none as fatal as the ones Modi is making. Congress as a party may have failed to live up to Nehru’s promise. Much went right with Nehru’s vision; a lot went wrong. But none of it called for pursuing a grand ‘civilisational project’ while dividing Indians at home and ghettoising minorities. Nor did it involve a futile attempt to shoehorn Hindu linguistic, cultural, and ethnic, diversity into a monochromatic Abrahamic conception, born of the blinkered imagination of a Brahminical priesthood in Nagpur, renowned for its myopia.
India is not China. Our minorities are not Uighur. China did not launch its grand ‘civilisational project’ before finding jobs for 80% of its population. Our employment rate is less than 40%. Or creating the economic base necessary to sustain such a project. It did not bare its global ambitions before acquiring the hard power to back them up.
Our premature foray into pretended greatness, at home and abroad, threatens our very existence. No player wins matches by playing beyond her game. Modi’s ‘civilisational project’ may yet falter again for the failings of its messiah.
Sonali Ranade is a political commentator based in the US. She tweets at @sonaliranade.