On the second anniversary of the Modi government I stumbled upon a book titled Making sense of Modi’s India (Harper Collins, 2016), a collection of essays by well-known academics and journalists. While I am not attempting a review of the book here, I would like to focus on the essays I found interesting.
The book opens with an essay by LSE’s Prof Meghnad Desai, who buys into Modi’s development and growth agenda but warns of his Hindutva baggage and how that could be a major stumbling block.
Shruti Kapila, a history professor at Cambridge University, analyses Modi’s ascent in an interesting essay titled: ‘Conservatism and the Cult of the Individual in a Populist Age’. During the gruelling election campaign in the summer of 2014, Modi had been compared with various world leaders, including Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Racep Tayipp Erdogan. But the one leader Modi resembles most closely is the late Indira Gandhi, says Kapila.
Her essay talks about how conservatism made a rather belated entry into Indian politics and how the 100-year old Left-liberal tradition symbolised by the Congress Party had the “stench of stasis hanging over it” in the run-up to the 2014 elections. It is this Nehruvian Left-liberal consensus that Modi is actively trying to dismantle. So, in a curious twist, Kapila argues that the “Conservatives are the new radicals of India”. And this ‘New India’ is centered around the cult of the individual, where the market plays a crucial role in the economy and entitlements are seen as shameful doles.
Image is everything
Veteran journalist R Jagannathan, in his essay talks about how Modi has defied the popular stereotypes about him. “He is neither the Ronald Reagan nor the Margaret Thatcher the economic Right hoped he would be; but he isn’t the Hindu icon that the cultural and religious Right would like him to be.” Jagannathan makes another interesting observation about how Modi seems to show more of his personal self in his foreign tours where, “he seems more willing to let his hair down”. But at home Modi likes to be seen as, “the 56-inch macho man who works 24x7 without a break for his people”.
Jagannathan observes that for Modi, “how he is seen by the public at large is really important to him”. Modi “repackaged himself continuously” from the “communal Czar of 2002 to the inclusive icon of 2014”. We saw a glimpse of that more than 10 years ago — after romping back to power in end-2002 in Gujarat, marked by a particularly strident and communally-charged rhetoric, Modi was content talking solely about ‘Bijli-Sadak-Pani’ one year later while campaigning in Assembly polls in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. So what exactly does Modi stand for, economically and politically? The essay ends with a perceptive observation, “what you see is what Modi wants you to see. The rest is conjecture”.
Faisal Devji, a historian at Oxford, in ‘The Rediscovery of India’ argues that there is far greater continuity in the coalition governments of the NDA and the UPA than we care to admit. He wonders whether the BJP’s absolute majority in Parliament will end the checks and balances of a coalition set-up.
Devji argues that the 2014 election results have thrown up interesting results, where issues of identity and caste have been reserved for the “regional arena” while “making for a newly constituted and far more limited national one in which the much invoked idea of India can be rediscovered by those who wish to do so”, so Modi could give the illusion of ushering in ‘identity-free’ politics. This has resulted in the “widening gulf between politics at the State level, whose influence has been expanded by the steady devolution in the country, and the Centre…” The spate of State election results starting from Delhi and Bihar to the recently concluded ones in Assam, Bengal, Tamil Nadu and Kerala bear testimony to this.
Modi’s engagement with the world has been dealt with by Andrew Whitehead, former BBC correspondent in New Delhi. Modi’s active involvement with social media and obsession with selfies have attracted attention the world over, with even The Wall Street Journal calling his selfie with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang outside the Temple of Heaven as “the most power-packed selfie in history”.
Narendra Modi has always been obsessed with how the world perceives him. This could be because the world at large shunned him for a long time due to the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots. He was even refused a US visa in 2005. But the world came calling when it became clear Modi was likely to become India’s Prime Minister. So Modi’s hectic foreign travel can be seen as his way of erasing the stain of the 2002 riots and making up for lost time too. Also, Modi may not be very different from most middle-class Indians who crave for acceptance and endorsement from abroad especially the West.
Modi is not the first Prime Minister to reach out to the Indian diaspora; Rajiv Gandhi beat him to that. But Modi has almost made his engagement with the diaspora the centre-piece of his foreign policy. His ‘rock star-like’ appearances in Madison Square Garden and Wembley are surely firsts of their kind for an Indian politician. But even here one needs to sift the hype from the reality.
TV images of star-struck NRIs taking selfies with Modi can be a bit misleading. When asked in an newspaper interview a few months ago about how popular Modi was among the diaspora, Devesh Kapur, an Indian academic at the University of Pennsylvania, said that he was just as popular with the NRIs as he was at home with the resident Indians.
Right turn by media
Sevanti Ninan’s essay: ‘The Media: Moving to the Right’, is about how the media has grown and changed over the last two decades, especially after the 1991 economic reforms, with a virtual explosion in the number of newspapers, both in English and Indian languages, and 24x7 news channels. Ninan sees a rightward shift among the media with, of course, a few exceptions. The media, both print and television, has also been whole-hearted in its support of economic reforms, as a booming economy would lead to more ad revenues. One suspects that this could be reason why the media bought into Modi’s Acche Din slogan so easily during his election campaign. The evidence for this is the disproportionate coverage that Modi enjoyed during his campaign, especially on TV.
Ninan rightly observes that big businesses owning media have altered the contours of coverage. Business houses with interests in natural resources such as gas, and coal-owning media houses will surely affect the way these issues are covered.
The next two years will be crucial for the Modi government as the last year of the five-year term would be largely devoted to gearing up for the 2019 elections. Whether the BJP emerges as a genuine home-grown conservative party with Modi its primary statesman remains to be seen.