“Myths are more important,” a Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) functionary told this writer when asked about the veracity of rumours about Prime Minister Narendra Modi that are making the rounds in the national capital. One such tale is about a certain Minister who was about to board a flight clad in a T-shirt and a pair of jeans, when he received a call from Mr. Modi who apparently told him that his attire was not “proper” for a Minister on an official tour abroad. The second one is about how a Minister and his son were called for tea, and were dramatically told to back off from an underhand deal they were up to. Yet another one is about a Minister meeting an industrialist at a five-star hotel and being informed that it was “undesirable conduct.” Several such rumours about Mr. Modi cannot be verified. “It does not matter whether these stories are true or not. What matters is the fact that everyone is careful about their conduct as they think the PM may be watching,” the BJP leader said.
Association with the ‘fringe’ It is not bad if the myths about the omnipotence of Mr. Modi scare bureaucrats into reporting to work at 9 a.m. or deter a potentially corrupt minister or a bureaucrat. Myths have always been a component in the building of leaders. We have heard stories about how trains ran on time when Indira Gandhi declared internal emergency; the greatest of all mass leaders, Mahatma Gandhi, was understood as a saint with mystical powers by the people, as elaborated in “Gandhi as Mahatma,” an essay by historian Shahid Amin. If the myths about Mr. Modi get investments in the economy, deter the corrupt, prompt the lazy and enthuse the government, they aren’t particularly bad.
While the construct of Mr. Modi has been unambiguous in many ways, a particular aspect of his persona seems to have confused many observers — his association with the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and affiliated bodies.
One set of well-wishers has been cautioning him to guard against the Hindutva “fringe groups” that could challenge his good governance plank by opposing economic liberalisation and stirring up social tension. Some have gone to the extent of citing that Mr. Modi had completely banished “fringe elements” such as Praveen Togadia from Gujarat. A second group of well-wishers has been advising Mr. Modi that he must wholeheartedly embrace the Hindutva core and shun the Vajpayee model of maintaining a distance from them. Mr. Vajpayee cultivated his personality as a liberal who was resisting the Hindutva core. That distancing from the ideological core was the reason for the downfall of Mr. Vajpayee, and Mr. Modi must not do that, according to this second group. Both these suggestions assume a dichotomy between Mr. Modi and the Sangh Parivar.
Clarity and consistency Commentators may be confused, but Mr. Modi has shown enviable clarity and consistency about what he believes in. Mr. Modi had consistently talked about six crore Gujaratis earlier and 120 crore Indians later, implying that he considered them to be all equal. While many of his opponents spoke in terms of regional, religious or caste identities, Mr. Modi spoke in terms of citizenship. He continued with that theme in the Independence Day speech also.
But the clever spin that Mr. Modi has given to the concept of citizenship itself has been unmistakable. On October 18, 2013, in Chennai, while >delivering the Nani A. Palkhivala lecture , Mr. Modi had said that the person who is an Indian is defined by blood, and the rights of people of Indian origin abroad were equally his concern as of those who lived here. During the election campaign, he made a distinction between illegal migrants from Bangladesh on religious lines — Hindus as refugees to be protected and Muslims as infiltrators to be returned. This is not mere rhetoric. The Madhya Pradesh State government, led by the BJP, has already started a scheme for settling Hindu migrants from Bangladesh. Around 5,000 of them have been granted Indian citizenship in recent months. Going beyond the territorial definition of citizenship and attributing it a racial character, Mr. Modi has articulated, with substantial clarity, the idea of a Hindu nation — much like the conception of Israel as a nation of the Jews, wherever they may be.
Why ‘fringe’ The RSS and affiliated bodies were described as “fringe groups” primarily because the idea of nationhood that they represented did not gain acceptance as the mainstream of Indian politics until recently. Things have been changing gradually, as more and more Hindus have begun to subscribe to the idea of India being a Hindu nation. Combined with it, the Sangh propaganda that Muslims are a pampered lot is finding more and more takers among Hindus. The global rise of Islamism has added more impetus to the growth of Hindu nationalism.
Mr. Modi is not the sole reason, but he has been a strong catalyst in this change. He has reimagined the idea of a Hindu nation. It is not — at least not any longer — about an Indian/Hindu version of ISIS running around with guns to liquidate Muslims and Christians. The idea of a Hindu nation is about the primacy of Hindu religion and practices in India, including in state policy. In his personal practices too, he said, explaining his refusal to wear a Muslim skullcap to Smita Prakash of ANI: “I respect the customs and rituals of all, but observe only mine.”
Synergy Far from being defensive about his Hindu identity, he has made it the calling card of his popularity, and makes a spectacle of his visits to temples or ghats. Mr. Modi is genuinely religious, but has also figured out that asserting the Hindu identity is tactically a wise thing to do. For Mr. Vajpayee, constantly playing the liberal versus Hindutva fringe politics was a tactic; for Mr. Modi, showcasing his Hindu identity is both conviction and tactic. He has figured out that being demonstratively Hindu is popular.
A second reason for considering RSS bodies as “fringe” has been their resistance to liberalisation and globalisation policies — which is also changing. “It is wrong to suggest that the RSS is opposed to FDI or foreign companies per se . RSS insistence is only that the economic sovereignty of the country must be maintained and decision-making must be in Indian control,” said Ram Madhav, former RSS leader and now a general secretary of the BJP. Contrary to media interpretations, the fact is that there is considerable synergy between the Sangh and the government, i.e. Mr. Modi, on most matters economic, whether it is the Indian position at the World Trade Organization (WTO) or the foreign direct investment (FDI) cap in defence.
Therefore, those who are offering unsolicited advice to Mr. Modi that he must keep the “fringe groups” under check are missing the point completely. Though many rumours about Mr. Modi are unsubstantiated, this writer could verify one — that he has made it clear to all colleagues that they must speak sparingly and never out of turn. As a result, BJP leaders hardly and barely speak. That being so, how does one explain the speech of BJP member Yogi Adityanath in Parliament recently on communal tension in the country? “There is a conspiracy against the Hindu way of life and the people are uniting against this. Hindutva is a symbol of Indian nationalism,” Mr. Adityanath had said. Can we have a case that Mr. Modi’s myth compels everyone to behave, including in his or her appearance and attire, but fails completely when it is a question of Hindutva?
Those who are picking on Mr. Modi’s call for a moratorium on social strife for the next decade as a signal to the so-called “fringe” may be doing so to endear themselves to the new powerful Prime Minister, but it is unlikely that Mr. Modi will find it flattering. He cannot condone violence, no doubt, but he is proud of the Hindutva politics that he has championed all his life. It makes him popular and costs him nothing but the applause of the liberals and leftists, who are now the fringe in India. What we used to call the fringe is today the centre.