Modi: The cult of the great leader

The Indian Prime Minister's election victory threatens the country's secular identity
June 18, 2014

Narendra Modi's victory parade in New Delhi in May. © Reuters/Adnan Abidi

At 6pm on 26th May, Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was sworn in as the 15th Prime Minister of India. Within an hour, the official website of the Prime Minister had been updated. After announcing that a new man had taken charge, the first paragraph of the amended site continued:

“In Narendra Modi, the people of India see a dynamic, decisive and development-oriented leader who has emerged as a ray of hope for the dreams and aspirations of a billion Indians. His focus on development, eye for detail and efforts to bring a qualitative difference in the lives of the poorest of the poor have made Narendra Modi a popular and respected leader across the length and breadth of India. Narendra Modi’s life has been a journey of courage, compassion and constant hard work.”

The language was characteristic. Narendra Modi is not a modest man. All through the election campaign, he focused on what he claimed to have done in Gujarat, the western Indian state where he had been Chief Minister since 2001. His speeches continually drew attention to himself, with liberal—not to say excessive—use of Hindi or Gujarati equivalents of “I,” “Me,” “Mine,” “Myself.” He would speak in one place of how he had brought uninterrupted electricity to his farmers; in another of how he had ended bureaucratic corruption; in a third of how he had overseen a revolution in the production and distribution of milk.

Each general election in India is unique. This time, it was evident well before the actual polling that the ruling Congress Party would lose. Voters were disenchanted by rising prices and large-scale corruption in government. The Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, was increasingly seen as indecisive, unable to assert his authority over his own Cabinet colleagues.

The Congress Party had 206 seats in the last parliament. Although their tally was expected to fall, no one expected such a rout. While exit polls had given the BJP a tally of between 200 and 240 seats (out of 543), it achieved a total of 282, thus commanding a majority on its own. The Congress Party was expected to get less than 100 seats; in the event, it got a meagre 44.

For much of independent India’s history, the Congress Party has dominated parliament and government. The party was in power continuously between 1947 and 1977, and for a total of 24 years since then. It was the main party in India’s struggle for independence; for a long time afterwards, a halo of sacrifice hung around its leaders.

From the 1960s, however, the Congress Party began to face strong challenges from regional parties based on caste or linguistic affiliations. Communists came to power in Kerala and West Bengal. Then, from the 1980s, the Bharatiya Janata Party emerged as a challenger at the national level. It laid down deep roots in northern and western India, where it began to win state elections. Between 1998 and 2004 it was the main party in the ruling coalition government, the National Democratic Alliance.

Although individual leaders are important, India does not have a presidential system. As in the United Kingdom, it is the party or alliance that wins a majority of seats in parliament that forms the government. During the 1990s, the Congress Party, once accustomed to winning general elections on its own, had—like the BJP—begun to forge alliances with smaller regional parties. In 2004, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) came to power, winning re-election five years later.

The Congress Party campaign in 2004 was led by Sonia Gandhi, the party’s President and the widow of former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. When the results came in, she declined to take office as Prime Minister, instead nominating her colleague Manmohan Singh. Both moves were widely welcomed. Renunciation is a cherished value in India, while Singh was an admired public servant. He had held all the important economic posts in India: Secretary to the Ministry of Finance, Deputy Chairman of the Planning Commission, Governor of the Reserve Bank. Between 1991 and 1996 he served as Finance Minister, when he helped dismantle India’s notoriously heavy regulation of the private sector. His reforms opened up the economy to foreign investment and reduced the state’s powers to control (or stifle) domestic entrepreneurs.

Hopes were high for Singh’s first term as Prime Minister. The economic reforms of the 1990s had put India on a new trajectory. Growth rates were now 6 to 8 per cent per annum. The number of people below the “poverty line” had halved (although it still stood at more than 20 per cent of the population). It was hoped that under Singh, the momentum would be maintained, and further reforms undertaken, such as modernising labour laws and freeing up sectors like retail trade, which were still closed to foreign investment. The public’s trust in Singh was enhanced by the fact that—unlike most Indian politicians—he was a man of scrupulous personal integrity.

In his first term, growth rates continued to be robust. Yet the further economic reforms hoped for did not take place. His Cabinet appointments were disappointing. Instead of pushing for people with the necessary dynamism and domain expertise, he acquiesced in the choice of ageing party loyalists for crucial posts.

The western press lavished Singh with praise when he first took office. His Cambridge Tripos and his Oxford DPhil, his stints in the World Bank and in international commissions, all attracted admiration. Yet these positive assessments overestimated the Indian Prime Minister’s political base as well as his personal courage. He was a nominated rather than elected Member of Parliament, who owed his promotion entirely to the party President, Sonia Gandhi. As a lifelong civil servant, he was accustomed to taking orders from politicians in any case. Although he was now Prime Minister, Singh still acted as a servitor of the Gandhi family, acquiescing in the party’s culture of sycophancy. He deferred in policy matters to Sonia Gandhi; and made it clear that he would vacate his post if her son Rahul ever wanted to become Prime Minister.

In 2010 and 2011 a wave of corruption scandals hit the UPA government. The Prime Minister failed to act against the guilty politicians. Singh was perceived to be weak and uncommunicative: deferential to Gandhi and unwilling to reach out to a wider audience. He rarely gave press conferences, and, unlike previous prime ministers, shied away from addressing ordinary citizens.

The economy had also begun to slow down, the growth rate dipping below 5 per cent. Manufacturing lagged, and so, therefore, did job creation. Unemployment grew. Inflation soared. A much-awaited goods and services tax, which would have created a unified national system, lay on the anvil. The Prime Minister, an Oxford-trained economist himself, increasingly allowed Gandhi to dictate the economic agenda. Welfare schemes proposed by her were accepted, regardless of their impact on an already precarious fiscal deficit. Tough questions began to be asked: how come the economy had stalled with an economist in charge? What use was personal honesty when Singh permitted gross corruption among his colleagues? And why was the leader of the “world’s largest democracy” so seldom seen or heard?

Meanwhile, in Gujarat, Narendra Modi was watching the delegitimisation of the central government with interest. He had already become a favourite of India’s business elite. At the annual “Vibrant Gujarat” investors conference, tycoons such as Mukesh Ambani and Ratan Tata had praised his ability to cut through red tape and make land available for industrial projects.

It was not just industrialists who had begun speaking of Modi as a future Prime Minister. So were younger cadres within the BJP, who believed the party had lost the 2009 elections because they had chosen the octogenarian LK Advani as their prime ministerial candidate. Next time, they had to present a younger, more dynamic alternative.

Narendra Modi was, in political terms, entirely self-made. Born into a family of small shopkeepers, he joined the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), an influential Hindu nationalist organisation, as a teenager. Many BJP leaders started life as RSS workers, where they imbibed its ideology of Hindutva, the belief that in its essence India is and must be a Hindu nation. The RSS and BJP regularly accuse the Congress Party of pandering to the Muslim minority, being soft on Islamist terrorism, and not being willing to stand up to China.

After two decades working in the RSS, Modi was deputed to the BJP. He became one of the party’s general secretaries, and, in 2001, was asked to take over as Chief Minister of his home state, Gujarat. Less than a year later, there was a pogrom against Muslims, in which more than a thousand people died and hundreds of thousands were made homeless. The police looked on as Hindu mobs torched Muslim homes and shops, and killed and brutalised Muslim women. The Chief Minister could not escape moral responsibility for the violence. In the state election that followed, Modi accused Muslims of taking many wives and having many children in order to gain demographic dominance over the Hindus. The sectarian rhetoric polarised the voters on religious lines, enabling Modi to comfortably win re-election.

In the eyes of many Indians the 2002 pogrom remains a blot on Modi’s reputation. However, in later years he has assiduously restyled himself as a “Vikash Purush”: a, or more accurately, the, Man of Development.

Early in 2013—with national elections still more than a year away—Modi began to project himself more aggressively on the national stage. On 15th August 2013, India celebrated its 67th Independence Day. The Prime Minister gave his customary address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Delhi. In a daring bid to outdo him, Modi gave his own Independence Day speech in the town of Bhuj in north Gujarat, with a mock Red Fort erected on the podium. Beginning his speech immediately after the Prime Minister had finished his, Modi targeted Singh for the failures of his government. He accused him of being soft on the old enemy, Pakistan. Singh had said that while much progress had been made, there were many miles to be traversed before India could consider itself unified and strong. Modi saw this as an admission of poor performance, painting himself as the alternative to a corrupt and corroding regime.

Recent violence at the Sikh Golden Temple in Armritsar. Despite the importance of religion to Indian society, it remains a secular state. © Reuters/Munish Sharma

Modi had assumed increasingly important positions within the BJP over the first half of 2013. As he rose up the party ranks, his every step was opposed by party seniors, nervous of his abrasive personality and controversial past. However, he was supported by the younger cadres within the BJP, who were impressed by his energy and charisma. The RSS also decided to throw its considerable weight behind him. In September 2013, he was officially nominated the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

In 2012 and 2013, Modi had attacked Prime Minister Singh for his indecisiveness. Now, with the elections approaching, the challenger’s prime target became the leader of the Congress Party, Rahul Gandhi, who he mockingly called “shehzada,” or prince. Modi contrasted his own lowly origins with that of his rival, whose father, grandmother, and great-grandfather had all been prime ministers. Another, and equally effective contrast, played upon Gandhi’s lack of administrative experience. Gandhi had not joined the Cabinet, and had rarely spoken in parliament. On the other hand, as Modi reminded his listeners, he had run the government of one of India’s most important states.

Sometimes Modi attacked the opposition. At other times, he praised what he called the “Gujarat Model” of development, promising to extend it across the country. He presented Gujarat as a beacon of development, a Singapore or Shanghai that challenged the poorer parts of India to learn from and emulate it. In Uttar Pradesh, for example—the largest and most backward state in India—he told crowds accustomed to one hour of electricity a day that, if they elected him, they would get, as in Gujarat, uninterrupted power all day long. Elsewhere he spoke of how migrants from other states flocked to Gujarat in search of jobs and how, if they elected him, they could have their own job-generating factories in their states, too.

As Chief Minister, Modi did have some clear, identifiable achievements—among them an active search for new investment, some impressive infrastructure projects, and a brave attempt to do away with power subsidies for rich farmers. These resulted in high GDP growth rates. But his tenure also witnessed rising environmental degradation, and, more disturbingly, falling educational standards, with malnutrition among children abnormally high for a state with this level of GDP per capita. In December 2012, shortly after Modi was sworn in for his third full term as Chief Minister, I travelled through the northwestern parts of Gujarat. In the towns, water, sewage, road and transport facilities were in a pathetic state; in the countryside, the scarcity of natural resources was apparent, as livestock farmers walked miles in search of stubble for their goats.

Both hard numbers and on-the-ground reports suggest that in terms of economic and social development, Gujarat is better than average, but not among the best of India’s states. If one views “development” more broadly still, Gujarat’s record under Modi was even less impressive. Traditional hierarchies of caste and gender are more entrenched there than in Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, or Tamil Nadu, three states where economic development has been accompanied by substantial social progress as well. And Modi’s record on freedom of expression was appalling. He banned books and films he thought Gujaratis should not read or watch. His government harassed independent-minded writers, intellectuals and artists.

These failures did not hinder Modi. His election campaign was superbly orchestrated. He hired the country’s top copywriters, who gave him two simple but effective lines: Ab ki baar Modi Sarkar (“This time a Modi government”—much more resonant in Hindi, where it rhymes); and Aache Din Aane Wale Hain (“The good times are about to come”). His campaign was also extremely well funded. Money was raised from large corporations, and from Indians living abroad. By one estimate, the money spent by the BJP on advertising alone was equivalent to £500m. On television, in the newspapers, and on the internet, pro-Modi advertisements comfortably outnumbered those featuring Rahul Gandhi or the Congress Party.

Mindful of his sectarian past, during the election campaign Modi mostly stayed clear of speaking on Hindu-Muslim relations. There were exceptions, as in Assam, where he accused the state government, run by the Congress Party, of killing endangered rhinos merely to make way for Muslim immigrants from Bangladesh (in a later speech, he added that he would have had no objection if the migrants were Hindus).

In the election campaign, Modi came across as a far more credible (and willing) candidate for Prime Minister than Rahul Gandhi. Yet the Congress Party’s defects could not be attributed to a single leader alone. During its 10 years in government, the party had grown arrogant and complacent. To rise in the party, flattery of the First Family was more important than political or administrative talent. This “high command” culture had led to a decline in inner-party democracy, which made it difficult, if not impossible, to nurture vigorous district and state branches (once the party’s strength). Meanwhile, the BJP had focused on building strong provincial leaders, consolidating their base in states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, traditionally Congress strongholds.

The Congress Party also seriously misread the mood of a large section of the voters. In power, the UPA had promoted a whole range of welfare schemes: providing food at subsidised rates, offering 100 days a year of guaranteed employment (on public work schemes) to poor families, reserving 25 per cent of seats in private schools for students from disadvantaged backgrounds. The Congress campaign promised more such schemes. But many voters wanted jobs, not handouts. They were more attracted to Modi’s promise of economic growth, than to yet another scheme named after a member of the Nehru-Gandhi political dynasty.

As the campaign proceeded and the signs became clearer, the Congress Party became desperate to minimise its losses. It began stoking the fears of the minorities. Sonia Gandhi personally visited a prominent but very conservative cleric, the Imam of the Jama Masjid, to seek his support. This disgusted many Hindus, now strengthened in their resolve to vote the Congress out. Younger Muslims were also unimpressed, seeing it as cynical tokenism.

The BJP’s most stunning victory was in Uttar Pradesh, India’s largest state. Here, it won 71 seats out of 80, prevailing over the Congress as well as locally powerful caste-based parties. (In the 2009 elections the BJP had won a mere 10 seats in the state). The BJP fared less well in the states of West Bengal and Orissa, in the east, and of Tamil Nadu and Kerala, in the south—the winner in the first three cases being a regional party, in the fourth, the Congress. In these states, a majority of the population do not speak or understand Hindi, and were not so easily swayed by the seductive powers of Modi’s oratory.

The election was not won by Modi alone. Even so, there have been few instances in the past where a single individual has had such an impact on an Indian election. In 1952, Jawaharlal Nehru was the Congress Party’s chief campaigner; travelling tirelessly across India (often by rail and road rather than private plane), promoting his message of communal harmony, gender equality and economic progress. In 1971, Indira Gandhi played a comparable role, partly because the opposition parties united to oppose her, attacking her with the slogan Indira hatao (“Indira out”).

Modi’s website says that his is a “story of grit, determination and Strong Leadership in the face of grave adversity.” A little later we read, again, that “if there is one constant trait of Narendra Modi that has stood out it is his Strong Leadership in the face of grave adversity.” This image of a strong and assertive leader heartens his admirers, who see in him an Indian Lee Kuan Yew or Deng Xiaoping. But it alarms his critics, who see in him an Indian Putin, an Indian Erdogan, even an Indian Hitler.

Are there any specifically Indian parallels to Modi’s style of politics? Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first and longest serving Prime Minister, was not a modest man either. Yet as a keen student of history, he was wary of the adoration of the masses. Unlike Nehru, his daughter Indira Gandhi had no ambivalence about being admired. In the years 1970 to 1977 she styled herself as embodying the spirit of the nation. Because she had abolished the princely order and nationalised the banks, and because she had led India to military victory against Pakistan, she demanded that citizens venerate her. And many of them did. The artist MF Hussain portrayed her as Durga, the goddess who slayed demons. Deva Kanta Barooah, a poet of considerable distinction in his native Assamese, famously said that “India is Indira and Indira is Indira.”

Indira Gandhi’s was the first great personality cult in Indian politics. Narendra Modi’s may be the second. In the run-up to the general elections, his PR machine steadily built him up as the saviour of his party, and then the saviour of the nation itself. The cult of the One Great Leader has been nurtured and promoted by fawning writers and journalists, competing with one another to be to Modi what Deva Kanta Barooah once was to Mrs Gandhi.

Now that Modi is in office, what kind of policies might his government promote? His backers in the business world, as well as the impatient young, would like to see some big-ticket schemes: infrastructure projects, for example, or aggressive promotion of foreign investment. The final inking in of a nationwide goods and service tax would be a progressive measure, adding significantly to government revenues. Improved targeting of food and fuel subsidies, away from the middle-class and towards the genuinely poor, would also be welcome.

The more difficult challenges lie in the realm of institutional reform. The criminal justice system is a shambles. Courts are over-burdened, a vast number of judges corrupt. Public schooling is poor and access to decent health care is even more limited. The police are under-trained and often brutal. Promotion in the civil services depends more on proximity to individual politicians than on merit. These third-rate public institutions undermine both India’s democratic credentials as well as the possibility of steady, sustained, economic growth.

What of the new government’s foreign policies? Modi is an admirer of Japanese technology and Chinese infrastructure. He has visited both countries several times, and now plans to send teams of officials to see how India can learn to do at least some things the Chinese or Japanese way. The BJP, rather than Modi in particular, also advocates closer ties with the United States—where there is a large Indian diaspora—and with Israel, which has developed close ties with India’s security establishment.

Within India, Modi is likely to remain a polarising figure. He is a man of enormous intelligence and political ambition, albeit with a vicious and vindictive streak. Although he is an economic moderniser, in cultural terms he remains a prisoner of the reactionary (not to say medievalist) mindset of the Hindu nationalists.

Some of Modi’s political opponents, as well as some prominent intellectuals on the left, see him as a “fascist.” The cult of personality around him is certainly distasteful. In his native Gujarat dissent was rigorously suppressed. However, now that he has moved from his State to the central government, Modi’s authoritarian impulses may be checked by the nature of India’s political system. Back in 1975, when Indira Gandhi notoriously imposed a state of emergency, the Congress Party was in power at the national level and in all but one state. Now, the BJP only runs nine out of India’s 29 States. Modi’s actions as Prime Minister will also be scrutinised by independent journalists and commentators, and by citizens using social media.

Nonetheless, Indians (and democrats) should not be excessively sanguine. The danger the country now faces is not of domination by one man, but a dilution of its national identity. India stands out in the region for not being a denominational state. Although Hindus are comfortably in the majority, India is not a Hindu Republic. Its secular and plural character was assured by the foundational work of such leaders as Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru. In the Islamic Republics of Pakistan and Bangladesh, Hindus and Christians are, in a strict legal sense, second-class citizens, with many jobs denied to them. In Sri Lanka, Hindus and Tamil-speakers have been consistently subordinated to the will of the Buddhist, Sinhala-speaking majority.

To be sure, the history of independent India has been marked by periodic bouts of rioting between Hindus and Muslims. Many Muslims remain poor, while the community is under-represented in the professional and entrepreneurial elite. Yet in a legal, and more importantly, discursive, sense, Muslims (and Christians and Buddhists and Sikhs) are as much part of the Indian nation as are Hindus. When, in 2004, India found itself with a Muslim President, a Sikh Prime Minister and a Catholic head of the ruling party, this was seen not as an aberration, but as a natural manifestation of our democratic experiment.

There are some 170m Muslims in India. However, of the 282 BJP members who recently won election to parliament, not one is a Muslim. A majority of the ministers (17 out of 22, according to one estimate) in the new Cabinet cut their political teeth, like Modi, in the RSS, which remains committed to the idea of a Hindu Rashtra, a state run on Hindu principles. The influence of the RSS, and the composition of the BJP’s parliamentary party itself, points to a distinct majoritarian impulse in the central government. Already, RSS activists have begun demanding that Hindu texts be made a core component of the school curriculum.

The BJP was last in power between 1998 and 2004. At the time, it had to forge alliances with smaller parties to obtain a majority in parliament. This, and the accommodating style of the then Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, diluted the government’s “Hindu-ness.” The ruling National Democratic Alliance was convened not by a BJP man, but by George Fernandes of the Samata Party, a Christian and secular socialist to boot. Vajpayee’s government had several Muslim ministers, with Fernandes himself holding the key defence portfolio.

It is, of course, too early to be sure, but Modi’s emphatic victory may presage a steady rightward shift of the Indian polity. It is hard to see how the Congress Party can recover. The first post-mortem the party held after the elections exonerated the Gandhis from blame. One Congressman did criticise Rahul Gandhi—and then asked for his sister Priyanka Gandhi to replace him. The Gandhi family cannot revive the Congress; but perhaps no one else can either. The Congress may go the way of the Whigs, a once dominant party that shrinks smaller and smaller. Perhaps the space it vacates may be taken, in the long run, by a new left-of-centre, non-denominational

party. At the moment, the BJP has no national challenger. The prospect of a brutal, in-your-face fascism is remote; that of a slow, creeping, majoritarianism remains.