Narendra Modi’s authoritarian model of leadership is a threat to the BJP, the RSS and India
In our puerile preoccupation with the antics of a self-anointed corruption-buster, not enough attention has been paid to a truly disturbing development in Gujarat. That blessed State now has a new television channel named NaMO, a favourite sobriquet for the “leader,” Narendra Modi. This is perhaps the first instance of a leader outside Tamil Nadu getting a channel named after him. But the difference is that while the AIADMK, the DMK and the DMDK — whose leaders have television channels named after them — are regional outfits, Mr. Modi belongs, at least putatively, to a national party.
It is not known whether the BJP’s central leadership was consulted in the Gujarat party channel’s naamsanskaran, but we do know that the saffron party has for over three decades taken a principled stand against all manifestations of “personality cult”, a weakness its leaders so damningly attributed to the Congress during the heyday of Indira Gandhi and Sanjay Gandhi. Now there is quiet acquiescence in Mr. Modi’s insistently personalised claims.
Tip of the iceberg
The new channel is only the tip of the iceberg. Disquietingly enough, the BJP and its apologists remain untroubled over the in-your-face authoritarian formulations and posturing by the Gujarat Chief Minister. Rather, the inclination is to concede his every single demand or fancy, because he is deemed to be an “achiever”, a man who has “transformed” Gujarat and a man who “delivers” electorally. And, we are now being tempted with the relevance-of-the-Gujarat-model-for-the-entire-country thesis.
Essentially Mr. Modi and his authoritarian model of leadership are first and foremost a threat to the BJP as well as the sangh parivar. The harsh reality is that the Chief Minister has garnered sufficient electoral, monetary, political and administrative clout to declare a kind of functional independence from the national leadership and its legitimate control; rather, important central leaders are dependent on him to get into the national legislature.
It is now a matter of historical record how, after the 2002 massacre, the Gujarat Chief Minister was able to mobilise sentiments in the BJP against the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his exhortation to Mr. Modi to observe the rites of rajdharma. Since then, the party has continuously found itself trapped in Mr. Modi’s communal leadership format. And though the Chief Minister has assiduously sought to suggest that he has moved on to a “development agenda”, there can be no confusion that at the very core Mr. Modi has wilfully marketed himself as a deeply divisive personality, unafraid to summon the instruments and rhetoric of violence. This subtle but essentially authoritarian promise of violence remains the defining feature of Mr. Modi’s so-called “Gujarat model.”
The BJP central leadership finds itself in a bind. It has for long fashioned itself as the embodiment of an alternative political culture and has denounced the Congress party’s stifling “high command” style; unlike the Congress, the BJP has talked itself into encouraging “strong” regional leaders but eventually found it necessary to tame State-level satraps who grew too big for their boots — be it a Kalyan Singh in Uttar Pradesh or Yeddyurappa in Karnataka. Mr. Modi now presents a new test. The uncertain and confused leaders holding court at 11, Ashoka Road, are confronted with Mr. Modi’s “my way or the high way” choice. These mealy-mouthed leaders have already subscribed to Mr. Modi’s “Gujarat asmita” mantra, as if the State enjoyed a special status like Nagaland or Jammu and Kashmir. However, if the BJP wants to be taken seriously as a national party, with a central leadership capable of arbitrating morals and manners among its country-wide rank and file, then it would be interesting to see how it resists a hostile takeover bid from the Modi corner.
Today, the Gujarat BJP is unquestionably Mr. Modi’s pocket-borough. He brooks no challenge to his leadership, his authoritative choices and preferences prevail down to the taluka level. No party leader or activist can prosper without the Chief Minister’s blessings. His Cabinet colleagues have been reduced to the status of glorified clerks. In the so-called “development model”, the Chief Minister relies on the district level administrative machinery to collect huge crowds, which helps in manufacturing the illusion of a mass following. A leader has emerged bigger than the organisation. And that cannot be very comforting to any democratic soul.
Mr. Modi’s supreme authority has prospered not just at the expense of the BJP; the sangh parivar too should have reason to worry. The RSS brass will ponder over the fact that today all its frontal organisations — the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sangh, the Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad — have reason to feel marginalised and humiliated by an over-bearing Chief Minister.
But all this is between the CM and his party and the sangh parivar. What ought to be a cause for concern to democratic India is the effortless manner in which Mr. Modi has acquired a monopoly over political truth, a basic requisite in an incipient authoritarian show. Any individual or group that dares to question the Chief Minister and his ways has been rendered illegitimate and inimical to Gujarat. Dissent has been virtually shut out of Gujarat’s democratic marketplace.
Recently when that grand old man of the milk revolution in India, Verghese Kurien, died, newspapers recalled a January 2004 confrontation between the Amul Man and Mr. Modi. The two had shared a platform at Anand, Mr. Kurien’s karambhoomi. The Milk Man gathered the courage to tell the Chief Minister that the 2002 communal violence had brought a bad name to the State and narrated the adverse observations of a visiting Japanese dignitary. According to newspaper reports, Mr. Modi bluntly ticked Mr. Kurien off: “After years of suppression, we have got into the habit of taking certificates from foreigners. Should we be taking certificate from this lady in Japan who came here only for a few days?” It was vintage Modi, massaging Gujarati sub-nationalism. (Soon Mr. Kurien found himself at the receiving end of the Chief Minister’s anger.)
A few months ago, the same Mr. Modi was in Japan. Soon his propaganda machinery was flaunting certificates to his “visionary leadership” from obscure Japanese functionaries, just as a visit from a British envoy has been tom-tommed as a massive endorsement of the Chief Minister’s “accomplishments”.
Like an old fashioned authoritarian, Mr. Modi has seen to it that he alone has the licence to speak for Gujarat. Admittedly, he cannot be blamed for aggressively dominating the discourse in Gujarat. His political foes within and outside the BJP have failed to come up with a rival imagination, and other voices have become feeble and ineffective. And, the Chief Minister has demonstrated a remarkable capacity for politics as theatre, using government resources to stage massive spectacles like Vibrant Gujarat Investment Melas, Sadbhavana Uppvas, Vivekananada yatras, etc. Nonetheless, it remains to be seen whether under Mr. Modi’s supposedly dynamic leadership, the BJP can better the Congress record of winning more than 140 Assembly seats.
Gujarat may have nicely got used to the miasma of soft authoritarianism but must the rest of India buy into this thinly disguised “strongman” offer? Mr. Modi’s handlers and apologists can be expected to merchandise him as the perfect practitioner of noble “will power”, a decisive and seemingly incorruptible leader who will shepherd the country out of the current spell of indecision and drift. The gullible middle classes and sections of the media have already shown a remarkable appetite for the vendors of unorthodox solutions, like the handing over of Gestapo-like powers to some kind of a Lok Pal. Mercifully, there is only small hurdle that Mr. Modi may face in hawking his brand of ‘maha adhinayakvaad’, or cult of the great leader: in these last eight years, India has come to cherish its pluralistic values and democratic habits too much to fall for offers of leadership from would be “strongmen”. L.K. Advani found this out in 2009.
(Harish Khare is a veteran commentator and political analyst.)