Modi strides like a colossus across the Indian political landscape and, with his persona, his rhetoric and his drive, he has permanently changed the way India has conducted politics so far.
Let us first look at the myths that surrounded the run-up to the latest election: that Modi would lose massively in north India – in UP, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar; that the party would get about 200 seats, and would need other parties to form a coalition government; that the RSS was seriously disenchanted with him, disliking him for his self-centeredness and megalomania; that the RSS was unhappy with his ‘hard’ Hindutva, while it visualised a unified nation of all communities, and, finally, that Modi would not be the next prime minister since his ego made him incapable of forming a coalition.
All of these contentions have proven false. They had possibly emerged from wishful thinking, but are now consigned to the dustbin of history. Indian politics now has a new grammar.
Vote bank politics
For 70 years, we have been the world’s largest democracy: 900 million people were eligible to vote in this election and just over 600 million did. But the system at its heart has been founded on “vote banks” – appeals not to individual citizens but to groups. In north India, these were largely based on collective faith and caste, sub-caste and sub-sub-caste identities, while in south India, these were usually founded on sub-regional appeals.
In both instances, political parties, shaping themselves on appeals to these narrow identities emerged, so that governments formed after elections were usually uneasy coalitions of diverse interest groups, with even prime ministers emerging as compromises after the election results. There was no place here for a vision for national development or appeals for electoral support based on core values.
The main interest of these parties, with shallow ideas and shallower loyalties, was the collection of financial resources from state coffers and lucrative opportunities proffered by state contracts for development. These resources were then used for personal enrichment and purchase of temporary loyalties that enabled the cobbling together of temporary coalitions for the institutionalisation of kleptocracy, never for governance or service.
Hence the importance of dynasty – the defining feature of the Indian democratic order. This was meant to retain resources within the family, largely for personal benefit and, occasionally, to buy and retain support. Not surprisingly, this neo-feudal order often manifested ugly family feuds, the dark role of retainers and touts, maintenance of small armies of thugs as enforcers, and, quite often, beatings and murders of opponents – all very medieval, all very Indian. Most often, state officials from the police and bureaucracy were complicit in this oppression and beneficiaries from its corruption.
Modi as ‘Messiah’
Modi has challenged this politics-as-usual. He has traversed the nation with one message – himself. He is the father – solicitous carer, comforter, protector; he is the nation’s leader – the provider of its well-being and success, the sponsor of its development; he is the diplomat par excellence – using personal charm, wit and persuasion to allure foreigners as India’s partners and allies; he is the commander-in-chief – the strong and committed guardian of national security and the fierce enemy of those who raise a hand against India. Above all, he is the Messiah – the embodiment of the nation’s cherished values and heritage.
While others appeal to narrow vote banks, he appeals to the nation – complete, unified, integrated. Thus, he is not a polarising figure, as some in the media have depicted him, but in fact a unifier of the nation. Crossing into territories where national figures have not gone before, his appeal is to Indians – beyond caste or region. He does not need coalitions to obtain power: partners come to him in droves to gain from an alliance with him – he benefits them, not they him.
Only the Muslim is not included; but this exclusion is what defines Modi’s ideological moorings as he lifts Hindutva from its crude, ill-defined, ill-conceived fulminations of a century ago into the 21st century.
Exclusion of Muslims
Demonising the Muslim as the ‘other’ remains at the heart of Hindutva discourse, essential for its substance and appeal. For, without this ‘other’, Hindutva by itself has weak foundations – Muslim hegemony over the last millennium has deprived Hindutva of deep history, recognisable hero figures, or a resilient support-base to promote its own achievement. For, national success has largely been obtained during the domination of the alternative idea of India – an idea that rejected Hindutva and extolled India, an India in whose success Hindutva was not a part or partner.
But the exclusion of the Muslim from national identity is not unique to Modi, his party or his ideological mentors, the RSS. This has been the fertile ground that all political groups in India have nurtured: for all of them, the Muslim has always been a vote bank, not a group to be empowered, not a citizen to be protected or cherished.
The consensus among all parties in India has been to defang the Muslim by denying him the influence that comes from his numbers – through re-organising constituencies, not putting up Muslim candidates, getting Muslim votes split with multiple candidates, and, above all, never going beyond tokenism in the distribution of state support and benefits which are otherwise freely available to other deprived and backward sections of national life.
Modi then is himself the narrator of the national narrative – created, shaped and spread by him personally. He has no partner in this endeavour: his ministers, his party, the RSS, they are subordinate sources of support for his projects, from whose success they benefit. He is the source of largesse and advantage for them, not the other way around.
Modi is not just the narrator of his own story, he is also its living image. For voters, he epitomises cleanliness, in sharp contrast to the pervasive and perceived venality and vice that has been an integral part of national politics-as-usual. He was not just clean, he was even ascetic: recall here the image of that robed monk who, after the din and fury of elections, retired to a cave at Kedarnath for reflection and introspection.
But he is also strong – violence against the motherland by Muslim marauders (Pakistani or Indian, there is little difference) will no longer have the impunity it has enjoyed over several centuries, most recently during years of ‘weak’ Congress rule; now Modi is there to give a sharp, painful riposte so that Mother India is not befouled again.
But, when national interests beckon, he is also the consummate diplomat – world leaders rush into his embrace, with Muslim leaders at their head. No one cares that he is hard on Muslims. Foreign leaders love him for his strength, his conviction, his charisma, his leadership.
Voters, who had rejected his party at state elections a few months earlier, flocked to make him national leader again, for he gave them a vision of hope, national resurgence and imminent national greatness.
Contrary to popular impression, Modi is not without vulnerabilities; these were assiduously camouflaged during the campaign, largely due to a subservient media and intimidated national watchdog institutions. Not only were several unsavoury deals linked with him not investigated thoroughly, he could also during the campaign point to no significant achievement in terms of national development. Most of his much-flaunted schemes remain unrealised, while some pet projects were so ill-conceived or poorly implemented as to have caused harm to the weak and vulnerable.
Clearly, he has no head for economic policy, no understanding of foreign affairs, no capacity for national development initiatives. It is rare to see such a gap between reality and the popular image.
What is to be done?
Obviously, you cannot fool all the people all the time. And, democracy always provides opportunities for correction. In time, Modi’s shallow intellectual discourse, the triumph of image over delivery, and inadequate fulfilment of promises will get exposed.
But he cannot be combatted through politics-as-usual. If an effective challenge is to be mounted, there has to be a comprehensive overhaul of the national order.
There are some useful precedents that could guide us. John McTernan, Tony Blair’s political secretary, while reviewing some books in the latest Financial Times Weekend, recalled that the focus then in the Blair coterie was on “new faces, new ideas, new voices, and new channels of communication”.
In India, this means a sweeping rejection of vote-bank politics and, in its place, appeals that are truly inclusive and directed at citizens, not groups. This will challenge Modi’s right-wing agenda with an alternative discourse that comes from a grassroots presence and shaped by cadres that “think hard and think big”.
The opportunity to shape an alternative discourse comes from the near-total absence of a grand vision and supportive ideas from Modi, whose megalomania has distanced him from the cares and concerns of the deprived, the marginalised, the oppressed. These groups constitute the majority of the national population, but their aspirations remain unnoticed and their ideals ignored.
Modi has ventured to address them, but he has showered them with rhetoric and slogans that have done nothing to re-shape their lives. They want to see and even shape a great India, but not one founded on hate and violence, which are the central forces now driving ‘Moditva’. They desperately want to be part of the new grammar of politics, led not by a self-absorbed messiah or old-style corrupt politicians, but by those who can make the hard national soil yield flowers of optimism and idealism.
Tarun Anand is the pseudonym of a well-known writer on national and foreign affairs. He is using a pseudonym to focus the readers’ attention on the message, not the messenger.