As the Gujarat Assembly elections approach, the Indian voter is deluged with two conflicting images of Narendra Modi. The battle lines appear to be drawn between those who glorify the achievements of Modi the administrator, and those who view the Gujarat Chief Minister through the prism of the 2002 carnage. In a climate rife with recurrent scams, lack of governance, economic slowdown and political instability, the first of the two images is a persuasive one. Without dwelling long and hard on the administrative prowess of Modi — for that entails a debate different from this one — it is not too difficult to see that Modi presents to the urban Indian electorate, an alternative leadership capable of leading the country out of its morass.
Global examples of development
However, are the two faces of Narendra Modi mutually exclusive? Does a rejection of Modi automatically signal our preference for a politics of corruption and malfeasance? Alternately, do the sympathisers of Modi believe that his politics of development will trump the politics of communal hate, once he is voted to power?
The flaw in both of these propositions lies in the assumption that the two faces of Modi are orthogonal to one another. In fact, not only do they share a close relationship, but also constitute the core of a politics where religious chauvinism or other forms of social authoritarianism become pre-requisites for economic development.
There are many examples of rapid economic development under authoritarian regimes. South Korea recorded miraculous growth under a military regime, until democracy was established in 1987. Singapore too emerged as an example of a shining economy under authoritarian rule.
There are also cases of democratic establishments sliding into authoritarianism in times of adversity. There is perhaps no example better than Germany of the 1920s. Reeling from the adverse economic clauses in the Treaty of Versailles, particularly in the years of the Great Depression, the Germans elected Hitler on planks of anti-Semitism and Pan-Germanism.
Coalition vs. a majority
In a multi-cultural democracy such as India, the presence of a wide array of cross-cutting cleavages means that it is almost impossible to garner majorities along a single axis. The ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) is a classic example of such a government comprising political parties with widely varying casteist, communitarian and regional agendas. As a result, it functions at a low level of efficiency, and frequently degenerates into chaos. The lack of political stability also engenders corruption, as politicians pursue self-serving agendas in their limited time in office. The severe maladministration under UPA rule is then a symptom, at least partly, of the fragile political equilibrium in our country.
Conversely, Narendra Modi’s success as an administrator has much to do with the political majority he enjoys in the Gujarat Assembly. Taking over from Keshubhai Patel in 2001, Narendra Modi reversed the sliding fortunes of the Bharatiya Janata Party in the State, and did so in a lasting manner. It is also a well-known fact that the religious polarisation following the carnage of 2002 was central to Modi’s electoral fortunes a few months later. Ever since then, he has steadily consolidated his reputation as an able administrator, albeit authoritarian in his approach.
Is there fertile ground for Narendra Modi to replicate the Gujarat story on a nationwide scale? Viewed objectively, the answer would be, no. The sheer heterogeneity of identities and interests in national politics will probably ensure that polarisation along the axis of religion will be difficult, if not impossible to accomplish. In particular, the upsurge of regional parties in national politics, as well as the emergence of States as the centres of political decision-making, will pose considerable challenges to the unbridled exercise of authority by Narendra Modi.
In that case, what promise does a government led by Narendra Modi hold for India? Which of his two faces can we expect to see, should he assume the office of Prime Minister? Given the widespread consensus on Modi’s authoritarian attitudes, it is not premature to assume that he will pull out on all stops to acquire the mandate necessary to implement his ideals. The manner in which such a politics will pan out may not be crystal clear immediately; however, if history is an indicator of things to come, the two faces of Narendra Modi will almost certainly parade side-by-side.
(Simantini Mukherjee has completed her PhD in political science from Rutgers University, U.S. and is now based in London.)