In­dia’s Strong Man: Naren­dra Modi Re­mains an Au­thor­i­tar­ian at Heart

Global Asia - - CONTENTS - By Pratap Bhanu Me­hta

the specter of Hindu na­tion­al­ism has emerged as a po­tent force that could threaten the coun­try’s democ­racy.

In­dia has long prided it­self on be­ing the world’s largest democ­racy, and one built on a pop­u­la­tion of remarkable re­li­gious, eth­nic, cul­tural and racial di­ver­sity. More re­cently, the coun­try has touted its grow­ing econ­omy as a sign that In­dia is poised to take its place as a ma­jor emerg­ing power.

But with the elec­tion of Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi in 2014, the specter of Hindu na­tion­al­ism has emerged as a po­tent force that could threaten the coun­try’s democ­racy. Pratap Bhanu Me­hta looks at the evolv­ing ef­fects of Modi’s lead­er­ship.

naren­dra MODI be­came prime min­is­ter of In­dia in 2014, with a con­sum­mate mas­tery of po­lit­i­cal com­mu­ni­ca­tion and a su­per­fi­cial nod to demo­cratic lan­guage. two of his fa­vorite phrases trans­lated into some­thing like this: “sum­mon the Power of 1.25 bil­lion In­di­ans,” and “ev­ery­one to­gether, ev­ery­one’s Progress.” like a napoleonic fig­ure, he rep­re­sented the peo­ple. It was a claim made more plau­si­ble by the strong sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion he pro­duced in his sup­port­ers: a self-made, self­less leader of hum­ble so­cial and eco­nomic ori­gin, with bound­less com­mit­ment, de­voted to noth­ing but the good of the na­tion and tak­ing on old cor­rupt dy­nas­ties. In 2014, this nar­ra­tive was ap­peal­ing. In­dia was fac­ing an im­pend­ing eco­nomic slow­down, ram­pant plu­toc­racy and a sense of po­lit­i­cal paral­y­sis. the then rul­ing Congress Party had no will to re­form it­self. modi po­si­tioned him­self as the ul­ti­mate sav­ior, pit­ting his per­sonal virtue against cor­rup­tion, his en­ergy against an en­er­vated old regime and the prom­ise of bet­ter days against the gloom of an eco­nomic slow­down. the con­tra­dic­tion be­tween this in­clu­sive rhetoric, and his deep po­lit­i­cal al­le­giances to Hindu na­tion­al­ism, was never far from the sur­face. But in the anx­i­etyrid­den at­mos­phere of 2014, this ten­sion be­came a source of strength for him rather than a li­a­bil­ity. He deftly com­bined hope for the fu­ture, while mo­bi­liz­ing re­sent­ments over the past; he could spin dreams of a new eco­nomic pros­per­ity, while em­bold­en­ing his Hin­dutva base.

He rewrote the rules of In­dian pol­i­tics. For the first time in three decades, In­dia’s elec­tions be­came more pres­i­den­tial in char­ac­ter, cen­tered

on his per­sona. His Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won a ma­jor­ity in the lower house of par­lia­ment, and its per­for­mance in sub­se­quent state elec­tions has made it the dom­i­nant na­tional force. such a man­date made modi one of the most pow­er­ful prime min­is­ters in re­cent mem­ory.

But for all of modi’s mas­tery of demo­cratic com­mu­ni­ca­tion, and his wish to have the peo­ple iden­tify with him, he re­mains, in essence, an au­thor­i­tar­ian fig­ure. His rem­edy for all the great chal­lenges of In­dian so­ci­ety is more con­cen­tra­tion of author­ity, more rigid con­trol from above. He likes the im­pri­matur of democ­racy be­hind him and he de­rives his power from a sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the peo­ple. But his gov­ern­ing sen­si­bil­ity is any­thing but demo­cratic. lib­eral val­ues, as we un­der­stand them — free ex­pres­sion, space for dis­sent, cher­ish­ing di­ver­sity, sus­pi­cion of cul­tural ma­jori­tar­i­an­ism, re­spect for in­sti­tu­tions, con­cern with de­cen­tral­iza­tion and the pro­mo­tion of ci­vil­ity — do not come in­stinc­tively to him.

Early iden­ti­fi­ca­tion

modi was molded by a deep iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with Hindu na­tion­al­ism. In terms of po­lit­i­cal ob­jec­tives, Hindu na­tion­al­ism seeks to con­sol­i­date the power of the Hindu ma­jor­ity. It is a mod­ern force in that it is a prod­uct of democ­racy: it wants to mo­bi­lize the nu­mer­i­cal strength of Hin­dus be­hind a set of con­sol­i­dated aims. the first aim is to en­sure that In­dia’s mi­nori­ties do not get any spe­cial priv­i­leges or ex­emp­tions, and they be­come mar­ginal to the po­lit­i­cal process. the BJP’S oft-quoted ar­gu­ment is that other po­lit­i­cal dis­pen­sa­tions had given mi­nori­ties a veto over In­dian pol­i­tics; they would like to make mi­nori­ties ir­rel­e­vant. the sec­ond is to en­sure the cul­tural hege­mony of Hindu iden­tity, by con­sol­i­dat­ing it into one po­lit­i­cal move­ment. the vis­i­ble sym­bols of this as­cen­dancy will be en­shrined in law (the ban on beef, for ex­am­ple, or the cam- paign to re­claim a ram tem­ple at ay­o­d­hya). But it is also man­i­fest in a para­noid style of think­ing, where Hin­duism is seen as un­der threat from an as­sort­ment of in­tel­lec­tual forces. Both of these anx­i­eties are ex­ag­ger­ated. It is cer­tainly true that the rul­ing Congress Party had of­ten given sym­bolic con­ces­sions to mi­nori­ties, even as the ac­tual so­cial and eco­nomic con­di­tions of mus­lims de­te­ri­o­rated. But the idea that mus­lim mi­nori­ties con­trolled In­dian pol­i­tics is pure fic­tion: their rep­re­sen­ta­tion and po­lit­i­cal power have been steadily de­clin­ing. It is also a flight of fan­tasy to sug­gest that Hin­duism is so weak that it will crum­ble at the slight­est in­tel­lec­tual cri­tique. the sig­nif­i­cance of these ob­jec­tives is not any truth they might rest on. the sig­nif­i­cance is that they com­mit Hin­dutva pol­i­tics to a para­noid sus­pi­cion of di­ver­sity and dif­fer­ence. It is a sen­si­bil­ity that says, all Hin­dus, if they are to be counted as such, must march to the same tune; it is a sen­si­bil­ity that sees en­e­mies to Hindu cul­tural pride lurk­ing ev­ery­where. more than any­thing else, modi’s sin­gu­lar ef­fect has been to em­power those who think this way. It has cre­ated an at­mos­phere of vi­o­lence and in­tim­i­da­tion where many in­tel­lec­tu­als and jour­nal­ists have been tar­geted by or­ga­ni­za­tions that loosely claim al­le­giance to the BJP.

the third ob­jec­tive of Hindu na­tion­al­ism is to en­sure that lower caste re­sis­tance to Hin­duism’s deeply hi­er­ar­chi­cal so­cial or­der is ar­tic­u­lated within a Hindu id­iom; the quest for so­cial jus­tice does not lead to a whole­sale cri­tique of Hin­duism it­self. modi’s big­gest po­lit­i­cal suc­cess was to trans­form the BJP from a dom­i­nantly up­per caste party to a party that has a di­verse so­cial base. His ex­tra­or­di­nary abil­ity to po­si­tion him­self as some­one who has risen from a back­ward caste has helped in this iden­ti­fi­ca­tion.

Un­like many strong lead­ers, modi has not launched a frontal as­sault on all val­ues and in­sti­tu­tions. rather, he has en­cour­aged some­thing far

more in­sid­i­ous: a cli­mate of fear, even as the for­mal in­sti­tu­tions of the state seem­ingly stay the same. there are two prin­ci­pal targets of this fear cam­paign. since this govern­ment came to power, there has been a marked in­crease in the lynch­ing of mus­lims, on the pre­text that they are smug­gling cows. this lynch­ing has served two po­lit­i­cal pur­poses. they are a reg­u­lar re­minder to mi­nori­ties to mind their place, and they pro­duce lo­cal com­mu­nal ten­sion be­tween Hin­dus and mus­lims. But what makes it so in­sid­i­ous is that the state is widely known to em­power, pro­tect and, in some cases, even fa­cil­i­tate the per­pe­tra­tors. this lynch­ing, where in­di­vid­u­als are picked out, are clever in that they do not rise to the level of large-scale atroc­ity, but still have a chilling ef­fect.

the sec­ond tar­get is dis­senters. again, su­per­fi­cially there is a lot of crit­i­cism of govern­ment. But modi’s ide­ol­ogy thrives on the need to in­vent en­e­mies, against whom he can po­si­tion him­self as a sav­ior. these en­e­mies could be left-lean­ing stu­dents de­clared anti-na­tional; in­tel­lec­tu­als or me­dia chal­leng­ing Hin­dutva or protest­ing state op­pres­sion. sim­i­larly, tele­vi­sion me­dia have been con­trolled by grant­ing new li­censes only to chan­nels that march to the govern­ment’s rab­bler­ous­ing tune on be­half of na­tion­al­ism. elec­tronic me­dia have been ef­fec­tively turned into the ide­o­log­i­cal van­guard of the state. the modus operandi is sim­i­lar: not a mass clam­p­down or ar­rests, but care­ful tar­get­ing of in­di­vid­u­als to send out the mes­sage that the govern­ment can act against in­di­vid­u­als if it wants to. If the mark of au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism is how much fear it pro­duces, modi gets high marks.

democ­racy? hardly.

modi does not be­lieve in democ­racy but he does be­lieve in the power of govern­ment. He has brought that sen­si­bil­ity to eco­nomic gover­nance

as well. In some cases, this power has served him well. He in­her­ited a bro­ken econ­omy: cor­rup­tion was ram­pant, the public sec­tor banks were in deep cri­sis and in­vest­ment was slow­ing down. But modi’s first eco­nomic act was an act of colos­sal hubris. In novem­ber 2016, the govern­ment de­mon­e­tized large denom­i­na­tion cur­rency notes. the os­ten­si­ble pur­pose was to flush out black money by bring­ing all the cash in the econ­omy into the for­mal sys­tem. But the pol­icy it­self was a symp­tom of modi’s style of lead­er­ship. It was, in minia­ture, a win­dow onto his self-be­lief and power. at one level, there was an as­ton­ish­ing au­dac­ity to this move. It was the largest ex­er­cise of its kind in his­tory; mil­lions of peo­ple had to stand in queues for ra­tioned cash; small, in­for­mal busi­nesses that re­lied on cash were badly af­fected. But peo­ple iden­ti­fied with his prom­ises sim­ply be­cause he spoke the lan­guage of sac­ri­fice. He di­rectly asked them to sac­ri­fice on be­half of the na­tion. the long-term ef­fects of the pol­icy are still be­ing de­bated: there is lit­tle ev­i­dence that it has re­duced the us­age of cash; its ef­fect on black money has been neg­li­gi­ble. It might have ac­cel­er­ated the for­mal­iza­tion of the econ­omy, but at an in­or­di­nate cost. Growth slowed down by two per­cent­age points as a re­sult. But it was a demon­stra­tion of the power he could mo­bi­lize, even if the ac­tual eco­nomic rea­son­ing be­hind what he did was quite faulty.

Modi’s rem­edy for all the great chal­lenges of In­dian so­ci­ety is more con­cen­tra­tion of author­ity, more rigid con­trol from above. He likes the im­pri­matur of democ­racy be­hind him and he de­rives his power from a sense of iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the peo­ple. But his gov­ern­ing sen­si­bil­ity is any­thing but demo­cratic.

Mid­dling ECO­NOMIC grade

Has modi’s con­cen­tra­tion of power re­stored eco­nomic dy­namism? the an­swer is mixed at best. In the last quar­ter, In­dia’s growth once again touched 8.2 per­cent, al­though the five years of the modi govern­ment de­liv­ered weaker growth per­for­mance than the first term of the United Pro­gres­sive al­liance govern­ment. He has some ma­jor re­forms to his credit. Un­like many au­thor­i­tar­ian pop­ulist lead­ers, modi is not reck­less when it come to the macro econ­omy: he has not let the fis­cal deficit bal­loon be­yond a man­age­able 3.3 per­cent. In­fla­tion has been low, and the govern­ment de­serves some credit for keep­ing food prices low, even though the terms of trade for agri­cul­ture are now hav­ing ad­verse ef­fects on farm­ers. the Goods and ser­vices tax, which cre­ates an in­te­grated mar­ket, was a ma­jor re­form even though its im­ple­men­ta­tion was made need­lessly com­pli­cated by bu­reau­cratic hubris. the sec­ond sig­nif­i­cant re­form was the en­act­ment of a Bank­ruptcy Code. For the first time, In­dia at least has an in­stru­ment where loan de­fault­ers can be dis­pos­sessed of their com­pa­nies. this is still a work in progress, but if en­acted, it will in­crease the pro­duc­tive ef­fi­ciency of cap­i­tal. But the govern­ment was a bit slow in re­spond­ing to the sin­gle big­gest chal­lenge for this govern­ment: fix­ing the public sec­tor banks that are bur­dened

by a moun­tain of non-per­form­ing as­sets. In­dia looks well po­si­tioned com­pared to many other emerg­ing mar­ket economies. But with ris­ing oil prices, no ex­port growth and no se­ri­ous ac­cel­er­a­tion in gross cap­i­tal for­ma­tion, it is still far from be­ing in a zone where one can be euphoric about its prospects.

But for all modi’s power, the strik­ing thing has been how con­ven­tional his eco­nomic think­ing has been. He has also, as an elec­toral strat­egy, con­cen­trated largely on pro­ject­ing the idea that he, like an om­ni­scient fa­ther fig­ure, can take care of all ba­sic needs. some of this is for the good. the modi govern­ment rolled out a much needed scheme to make cook­ing gas avail­able to the poor­est house­holds, who of­ten had to rely on very pol­lut­ing fu­els such as wood and kerosene. the govern­ment has just rolled out an am­bi­tious health care in­sur­ance pro­gram for the poor­est house­holds. It also has promised hous­ing for all. to his credit, he has tried to use the prime min­is­ter’s of­fice as a bully pul­pit to put a fo­cus on san­i­ta­tion. these schemes come with a po­lit­i­cal aes­thetic: the ubiq­ui­tous pres­ence of modi as a provider of all things. But it would be dif­fi­cult to ar­gue that the over­all per­for­mance in the de­liv­ery of ser­vices has been trans­for­ma­tive un­der modi. It has, like pre­vi­ous gov­ern­ments, been a mix of suc­cesses and fail­ures.

But modi has not, de­spite ex­tra­or­di­nary cen­tral­iza­tion of power, se­ri­ously re­formed the In­dian state. He still re­lies on his per­sonal en­ergy and su­per­in­ten­dence to de­liver on his poli­cies. But this is not a sus­tain­able propo­si­tion for a com­plex coun­try like In­dia. so it is not an ac­ci­dent that many of his flag­ship schemes, such as “make in In­dia,” which was meant to in­crease ex­ports, or “Clean Ganga,” meant to re­store the health of In­dia’s premier river, have largely been fail­ures. en­vi­ron­men­tal reg­u­la­tion and the ju­di­cial sys­tem all lan­guish in ne­glect. the one ob­ject les­son is that cen­tral­iza­tion of power and strong lead­ers are no guar­an­tee that a more ef­fi­cient state will be cre­ated.

modi’s au­thor­i­tar­i­an­ism seems less of a dan­ger com­pared to his global com­peti­tors. In­dia’s ca­pac­ity for sur­veil­lance, re­pres­sion and con­trol can­not match China’s; it is not an ad­ven­tur­ous klep­toc­racy like rus­sia; its di­ver­sity makes it dif­fi­cult to mold the coun­try into the kind of state turkey is as­pir­ing to be. In­dia’s ro­mance with elec­toral democ­racy, the so­cial com­plex­ity of its pop­u­la­tion and the in­tri­cate maze of its in­sti­tu­tions, make In­dia hard to cen­tral­ize. modi is fac­ing dis­con­tent. But the op­po­si­tion is still not en­er­gized. the sen­ti­ment that au­thor­i­tar­i­ans so of­ten tap into, the yearn­ing for a sin­gu­lar fig­ure who can pro­vide de­liv­er­ance from the pangs of ex­is­tence, still re­mains high.

the fee­ble­ness of the chal­lenge to modi could still en­sure that he re­turns to power. But what should have been a mo­ment where In­dia cred­i­bly pro­jected its lead­er­ship of the free world, is turn­ing out to be a mo­ment where anx­i­eties over the qual­ity of In­dia’s democ­racy still re­main deep and pro­nounced.

pratap bhanu Me­hta is vice-chan­cel­lor of ashok uni­ver­sity in in­dia and former pres­i­dent of the Cen­tre for pol­icy re­search in New delhi, one of in­dia’s lead­ing think tanks.

Photo: Alexei Nikol­sky/rus­sian Pres­i­den­tial Press and In­for­ma­tion Of­fice

Hard at heart: Naren­dra Modi at a BRICS sum­mit meet­ing in July.

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