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‘Tryst with Strong Leader Populism’ review: The rise to absolute power

Literary Review

Literary Review

The objectives of the study on ‘How Modi’s hybrid regime model [is] reshaping political narratives, ecosystems and national symbols’ are ambitious. The projects of the ruling party are certainly ambitious. It wishes to spatially and ideologically remake the country by reconstructing Lutyen’s Delhi, by building a temple where once a grand mosque stood, by introducing a political language that cares two hoots for propriety, and by superciliously dismissing the contributions of Jawaharlal Nehru to democracy.

Has it succeeded? Perhaps yes. Barely 10 years ago scholars were writing on multiculturalism, secularism, and minority rights. Today we are back to where modern political theory began — the right to life and liberty in times of mob lynching and police atrocities. How did the political mood turn around so quickly? P. Raman in this detailed exposition of one man’s rise to absolute power answers the question very well.

Standing up to the RSS

The story begins on February 19, 2013, when Mohan Bhagwat assured the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) hierarchy’s full support to Modi as the prime ministerial candidate. Very soon Modi defied the fundamental presupposition of the organisation; that the individual, no matter how powerful he may be, is subordinate to the collective. He informed senior leaders that he would always be there whenever they called. There was no need to set up a coordination committee to regulate the relationship between a future government and the RSS. In any case his Mission-272, that of securing a majority in Parliament, was intended to reduce dependence on secular allies. He would institutionalise Hindutva so dear to the heart of RSS leaders. They need not worry.

Some leaders were nevertheless wary of him. His commitment to liberalisation and to the corporatisation of the economy went against Swadeshi so ardently defended by the organisation. But he was backed enthusiastically by RSS supremo Bhagwat. He was also openly supported by top corporate leaders of initially Gujarat, and then from the rest of the country. The scene was set for “the rise of a classical kind of authoritarian political boss... Like the elected dictators the world over, he communicated directly to voters and party ranks.” Modi’s political strategy was a ‘deadly mix of hard Hindutva and unadulterated neoliberal framework’.

Old vs. the new

Economic liberalisation was conjoined to political illiberalism. The former was secured by corporates. They placed their enormous funds, their media houses, PR agents, digital engineers and survey agencies at the feet of an incoming Modi regime. Political illiberalism was secured by Hindutva that relentlessly subordinates individual citizens to the nation conceived of in purely majoritarian terms, argues Raman.

Around the twin planks of his ideology gathered WhatsApp administrators, lynch mobs coordinators, those who rallied audiences, cash dispensers and alcohol distributors, says Raman. Modi rallies have rewritten the grammar of how elections are fought. His image was projected on gigantic screens, and cheer leaders outshouted other BJP leaders. He was presented as India’s new messiah, the conquering hero who would vanquish the old elite.

No visibility and voice

The BJP came to power in 2014 and we witnessed the quick degeneration of parliamentary democracy into autocratic populism. Under the Modi regime, elected ministers have been reduced to nothing. They have little visibility and even less voice. The PM chastises them as if they are schoolboys. They are not invited to meetings he holds with their bureaucrats. Civil servants are responsible directly to him. All decisions of ministries have to be cleared by the Prime Minister’s Office. RSS leaders monitored the government for the first two years. With the appointment of Amit Shah as the party president, the rules changed. The RSS was pushed to the margins.

Centralised rule seldom makes for good governance though. Badly conceptualised policies of demonetisation and GST led to chaos and intensified poverty. Schemes announced with much fanfare lapsed, and the enthusiasm of the leadership waned.

As power came to be centralised in the office of the prime minister, organisations meant to share power or check it, from the RBI to the CBI were hijacked. Yet the Modi juggernaut continued to roll. The BJP secured even more seats in the 2019 general election. This encouraged the government to unfurl the full agenda of Hindutva from Kashmir to Ayodhya and beyond.

Demise of institutions

In the last chapter, Raman surveys the literature on authoritarian populism and concludes that the concept is appropriate for India. The country has seen the personalisation of power and the demise of institutions ranging from Parliament to civil society. Enthusiastically acclaimed by a media that forgets that it is a part of civil society which keeps watch on the exercise of power, and not a PR arm of the government, Modi has succeeded in making people forget the tragedies his misconceived policies have heaped on India. We are left to ponder an unpalatable question. Have Indians become apolitical, more attracted to strong leaders rather than democratic ones?

Tryst with Strong Leader Populism; P. Raman, Aakar Publications, ₹695.

The reviewer is Distinguished Fellow, Centre for Equity Studies.

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Printable version | May 22, 2022 9:30:10 am | https://www.thehindu.com/books/books-reviews/tryst-with-strong-leader-populism-review-the-rise-to-absolute-power/article38303240.ece