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Modi, the man and the message

Harish Khare
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During a recent three-week stay in the United States, I was often asked to explain the Indian media’s current obsession with Narendra Modi. The only reasonably cogent answer to give was the convergence between the corporate ownership of the electronic media and Mr. Modi’s corporate bank-rollers. The Gujarat Chief Minister’s induction in the Bharatiya Janata Party central set-up has been celebrated as if he has already been invited by the Rashtrapati to form the next government at the Centre.

Like most Indian political leaders, Mr. Modi is a non-biodegradable entity. He will not disappear. Machinations by the BJP central leadership may delay his storming the party headquarters, but he is not going to be talked out of his national ambitions. It is only the voters who can knock the stuffing out of him and his outsized pretensions.

Mr. Modi promises to do things differently and better than what is being done in New Delhi or even in the other BJP ruled States. Not only is he contemptuous of the Manmohan Singh style of consensus approach to resolving contentious issues, he is also derisive of his own party and its leadership. He believes the BJP has become too flabby as an organisation and that most of its impresarios are compromised and tired.

That is between him and the BJP. It is another year before the country goes to the national polls, and 12 months is a long enough a time to smoke Mr. Modi out of the comfort zone of the so-called Gujarat model. Democratic India is now obliged to look beyond and beneath the veneer of the Gujarat model.

Leaders like Nitish Kumar may or may not be able to reconcile to the Narenda Modi-Amit Shah approach to the fundamental secular nature of our constitutional and political design. The vast majority of the decent majority will find it difficult to put aside the Gujarat Chief Minister’s unreconstructed stance to what happened to the minorities under his watch in 2002. What is more, Mr. Modi remains unapologetic and unrepentant, even as a gaggle of public relations experts has been deployed to put a gloss over the massacre and its narrative of cultivated intolerance. Just as Mr. Modi remains unbent, Decent India will remain unimpressed and unconvinced.

But the 2002 violence is only a small part of the Modi offer. Apart from a tough, designedly anti-Muslim line, the country would want to know what he stands for. So far the Gujarat Chief Minister has trafficked in the “development” slogan. He has half-heartedly sought to revive Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s shout of “Indian century”.

Heady proposition

The bottom line is that Mr. Modi is supposed to be endowed with such outstanding leadership qualities that he would transform India in the same decisive manner as Gujarat presumably stands transformed. A heady proposition, especially for the upper middle class consumers of the “national” media discourse.

Two key ingredients in this Gujarat leadership business need to be underlined. First, the Chief Minister has enthralled the Gujarat voters as the mascot of “Gujarati asmita .” In other words, a gentle stoking of Gujarati sub-nationalism. This foray into parochialism is a perfect fit for a parochial leader. But the rest of India is not entirely without its pride; and, it remains to be seen whether the Modi project has the capacity to plough the asmita message in the vastness of a plural and diverse India. It is a minor detail but a significant one: for all his alleged charismatic gifts, outside of Gujarat Mr. Modi has not been able to make any difference to the BJP’s electoral fortunes.

So far Mr. Modi has marketed himself as the uncompromising custodian of an uncompromising Gujarati pride, but now he is being advised to reposition himself as an “India First” salesman. Perhaps his media consultants mistakenly believe that the India of 2013 suffers from some kind of national identity crisis and that slogan would help position Mr. Modi as the new national shaman. Unless the country finds itself in a catastrophic situation before the next general election, it is difficult to appreciate what vulnerabilities and fears Mr. Modi can be made to be seen as addressing. No doubt, there is anger and anxiety which manifest spectacularly from time to time but India is also strangely at peace with itself; there is no sense of national fragility, no sense of national ignominy whereas the rest of our neighbourhood continues to flirt with anarchy and instability.

Personality cult

The second element of the Modi leadership is the unmistaken personality cult. Admittedly, all Chief Ministers get to dominate their State governments. Strong personalities like Jayalalithaa in Tamil Nadu, Mamata Banerjee in West Bengal, Navin Patnaik in Orissa or, earlier, Ms Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh define the tone and tenor of the State government and its working habits and practices.

Authoritarianism in different shades and colours can be felt in all State capitals. But Mr. Modi is the first Chief Minister to make a virtue out of it. Now that Mr. Modi and his cheer-leaders have decided to field him in the national arena, questions would need to be asked about his commitment to democratic values. The Chief Minister has given sufficient indications that his model of leadership means absence of institutional restraints and accountability. The new edition of the Lok Ayukta passed in Gujarat is only a curtain-raiser. A “strong” leader will not countenance any checks on his powers.

Politically, he has already made his friends and rivals irrelevant in Gujarat. What is amusing is that the BJP’s assorted spokespersons, who otherwise very articulately and passionately demand accountability, transparency and answers from all and sundry, find themselves having to rationalise the Gujarat Chief Minister’s authoritarian proclivities and record. The other day, Uma Bharti, the newly anointed general-secretary in the BJP, allowed herself to recall on a Hindi television channel that even Subhash Chandra Bose had said that after Independence India could do with a spot of dictatorship. These are early days but the Modi group-think is already performing its tricks.

Self-styled autocrat

A party that has for the last three decades — from the time of the Emergency in 1975 — taken pride in its opposition to anti-democratic manifestations and claims is now saddled with a self-styled petty autocrat. Mr. Modi has cultivated for himself an image of a leader who does not believe in routine civilities. Nor is he averse to taking offence or giving offence. Very much like Nana Patekar, the comic criminal in the movie, Welcome , telling a frightened Anil Kapoor that his men could “shed blood, as well as spill blood.”

And, lastly, Mr. Modi’s leadership model simply means an unalloyed corporate raj. The “economic miracle” that Mr. Modi has performed in Gujarat is predicated on the working assumption that it is the primary duty of the administration to make it possible for the corporate houses to make profit, whatever the social dislocation or cost. And much to the delight of all his corporate admirers, he has done an admirable job of silencing all dissent.

The message is clear: he will encounter no trade unionism, no adivasis’ protest, no civil society voice. The vast majority of the Indian electorate will want to know which elements of the social welfare architecture, put in place by the UPA regime, he would dismantle.

Let us make no mistake. The much-touted Modi leadership is a maximalist proposition, uncompromising in the pursuit of what he believes is to be done in order to achieve India’s destiny. The middle classes, which have suffered because of the recent economic down-turn, are prepared to lend a particularly attentive ear to this meretricious blunt straight-forwardness. It is the task of democratic, progressive, liberal and secular voices across the political spectrum to make Mr. Modi spell out the essentials of his leadership offer in all its un-pretty details.

(Harish Khare is a senior journalist, a former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, and currently a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow)

Democratic voices have so far allowed the Gujarat Chief Minister to get away with the invocation of his “development” mantra. India needs to know more about him


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