Friday, February 3, 2023

Is Modi weakening?

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Editorial by Inderjit Badhwar

That exactly is Modi’s idea of India and how, exactly, has post-electoral Modi-ism been shaping India’s political scenario? The fashionable criticism of the new prime minister is that he is an addicted foreign junketeer traipsing from capital to capital and from one NRI audience to another in search of foreign approbation, while domestically he has laid nothing more than one big, fat egg. They ask: What’s he done?

This column is by no means a year-after report card on Modi but an attempt to understand, through my own evaluation of the man, where he seems to be headed in the context of the mood of the nation. That the country is on a tight leash and short fuse, given the Congress catastrophe, the regional parties’ flop, and the Aam Aadmi roller-coaster, is a given. That its people will no longer suffer fools gladly or, like lemmings, join a religious or ideological mass movement in a headlong rush to destruction, is also scripted quite clearly.

And herein lies a lesson for Modi’s opponents on the Right as well as the Left—not to exult in haste in the celebration of the end of the Modi honeymoon. It is far from over. Before answering what he’s done, let me tell you what he’s not done. He has NOT: Cleaned up the Ganga; restored 8 percent GDP growth; introduced judicial reform; ended the rape and subjugation of women; rebuilt our cities or renewed urban India; accelerated farm production; introduced meaningful tax reform; introduced disinvestment plans; revamped Air India; cut down the bureaucracy; shut down terrorist camps in Pakistan.

On the DONE side: He has delivered on a platter to his party the most handsome victory it has ever enjoyed; shattered the Gandhi dynasty; replaced the creaky old guard with new faces; defied the RSS strongmen in Gujarat as well as nationally; trounced the Shiv Sena (which was secretly backed by the RSS) in Maharashtra, and the traditional alliances in Har-yana; consolidated his administrative hold on more parts of India than ever before; anointed himself Maximum Leader of SAARC without alienating Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka; made the Chinese leadership sit up and pay attention to a new India; sent out a message of modernity at BRICS; encouraged a beefing up of business confidence by attracting $50 billion in less than three months from Japan, China, and the US; tightened the screws on the bureaucracy; and focused world attention as never before on India by getting Obama, the president of the most powerful country in the world, to agree to come as chief guest on Republic Day.

For the first time since independence, the world press will flock to India to cover Bharat’s Republic Day parade. No mean achievement. But in my mind, Modi’s greatest achievement so far, has been in picking up the broom and beginning to sweep India. Sure, it was a symbolic gesture and one Modi broom does not a clean India make. But you’ve got to start somewhere. You’ve got to send a message—something that Nehru should have treated on par with inaugurating the Bhakra Dam.

The important thing here is that Prime Minister Modi, in his first year, practicing the art of the possible, has given a direction. His message has been one of hope rather than blame letting or ideology. There is nothing unclear or opaque in whatever he has done.
His critics come from two directions: The Left (including Rahul Gandhi’s Congress, which has reinvented Socialism) and the Lohiaites, who pretend to stand for the oppressed masses (as against Modi, who supports the super-rich) and want Modi to pay for the sins of Gujarat 2002; and the Right—the RSS swadeshi-wallahs and virulent Hindutva fanatics who preach love jehad and ghar waapasi (reconversion to the Hindu fold), and Ram Mandir rebuilding, and Ramzada versus Haraamzada hard-Right Hindu politics; declare all Indians the children of Ram or, as Sushma Swaraj decrees, want the Bhagwad Gita dec-lared a “national book”. How many of them have read a word of the Upanishads or the ancient shastras?

Both these groups want Modi to fail in order to make a place for themselves: The Congress and various samajwadi groups because they have been wiped out by a Modi-created wave that ushered in a strong central government at the expense of family-led reg-ional, castetist parties; and the hard Right, whose slogans and ideological lines Modi (once their pet child) refused to espouse throughout his election campaign.

The test of Modi’s leadership will lie in his dexterity in sidelining the forces, including the Hindutva hardliners, which interfere with his larger vision.

BRISBANE, NOV 16 (UNI)- Prime Minister Narendra Modi addressing after unveilling the statue of Mahatma Gandhi in Brisbane on Sunday. UNI PHOTO-50U

(Above) Prime Minister Modi addressing a gathering in Brisbane, Australia, in November

This common agenda will succeed only to the extent that Modi will be deflected from his administrative and political goals of modernizing the economy and creating jobs and loosening the nationally enervating ministerial and bureaucratic stranglehold over entrepreneurial energy and human rights. Modi’s political acumen will be tested by whether he wastes his energy in firefighting these elements or preserves it to pursue the larger vision for which he was elected and whose implementation will be his ultimate vindication as a Gen Next Leader.

Is he weakening? Some of his intellectual supporters think so. The inimitable sociologist-economist Surjit Bhalla says: “Are (HRD Minis-ter) Smriti Irani’s (decreeing compul-sory Sanskrit in schools) and Swaraj’s national book interrelated with the Hindutva elements? If so, wasn’t Modi’s appeal meant to transcend such narrow, non-national fundamentalist agendas? How will Sanskrit and the national book help provide education and/or create jobs for the poor?”

Bhalla adds that while the PM seems to grasp what is required, the same cannot be said for the members of his party, or the bureaucracy. Modi seems to have been captured by the bureaucracy, which is unfortunate and entirely unnecessary. Nor should he be beholden to the narrow agendas of Hindutva or the RSS, says Bhalla.

Our own writers elsewhere in this magazine, in a section sub-headed “new-saffronism”, also dwell at length on this issue. But there is a silver lining. Veteran journalist Farzand Ahmed, who spent the last fortnight in Ayodhya, writes that the majoritarian
celebrations planned by VHP and other Hindutva activists to celebrate December 6 to commemorate the demolition of the Babri Masjid failed to evoke any response in Ayodhya and the town continued its life peacefully and harmoniously.

Herein lies a lesson for Modi. No matter what the ground level noise, no matter how much the media and political provocation for him to get involved in the petty ground level noises from the Left and Right, he must, as the nation’s Prime Minister, rise above them, stick solidly to the Rule of Law, and keep marching ahead with his agenda of eliminating corruption, crony capitalism, joblessness. His pursuit of his dream of a fast-modernizing India, upward mobility, speedy delivery of justice, the pursuit of world excellence in technology was what made him stand apart from the crowd—including his own party—and helped put 2002 behind him during the last election. He can never afford to forget that.

Nonetheless, writers like Pankaj Mishra still believe that Modi represents Hindu revanchist and supremacist ideas which are quintessentially anti-West: He wrote recently in The New York Times:

“Narendra Modi, India’s new prime minister and main ideologue of the Hindu-nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, is stoking old Hindu rage-and-shame over what he calls more than a thousand years of slavery under Muslim and British rule. Earlier this mon-th, while India and Pakistan were engaging in their heaviest fighting in over a decade, Mr Modi claimed that the ‘enemy’ was now ‘screaming.’

WASHINGTON, OCT 1 (UNI):- Prime Minister Narendra Modi shaking hand with the with US President Barack Obama, after press statement, at the White House, in Washington DC on Tuesday .UNI PHOTO-11U

Modi with US President Barack Obama in Washington

“Since Mr Naipaul defined it, the apocalyptic Ind-ian imagination has been enriched by the exploits of Hindu nationalists, such as the destruction in 1992 of the 16th-century Babri Masjid mosque, and the nuclear tests of 1998. Celebrating the tests in speeches in the late 1990s, including one entitled ‘Ek Aur Mahabharata’ (One More Mahabharata), the then head of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (the Nat-ional Volunteers Association, or RSS), the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists, claimed that Hindus, a ‘heroic, intelligent race, had so far lacked proper weapons but were sure to prevail in the forthcoming showdown with demonic anti-Hindus, a broad category that includes Americans (who apparently best exemplify the worldwide ‘rise of inhumanity’).”

Pankaj Mishra overstates his case. He is a master of hyperbole and tautology. Naipaul is a gifted, poetic writer but guilty as hell about his non-Indianness despite his being of Indian origin. These types have an exaggerated sense of identity with the mother country that often turns into raging hatred and bitterness. To quote Naipaul on world affairs is fine but to quote him on India and Indianness as being the Gospel is like quoting a Dixie fundamentalist preacherman on the Torah or Talmud. His India: A Wounded Civilization was no big shakes—it talked about the Ugly Indian, but so what? There was no depth to it. His House for Mr Biswas, and The Return of Eva Peron were masterpieces but had very little to do with socio-political commentary on India.

Ironically, the country Modi really admires most is the US (don’t forget who is coming for Republic Day!) because he is a fanatical believer in US-style upward mobility, entrepreneurship, and individual achievement. He also considers America to be a religious nation. He admires Ame-rica’s inventiveness, IT skills, scientific temper and business-like approach to the world. He holds out American post- and pre-Depression rags-to-riches-and-fame stories as examples of his own life. He harbors no bitterness towards the US for denying him a visa following the 2002 Gujarat riots when he was chief minister. Most Gujaratis (Modi is a diehard Gujarati) are naturally inclined to be pro-America. The Gujaratis who live in India as well as the huge Gujarati diaspora in the West and the US are the most powerful pro-American lobby to influence the Indian government. They are wealthy, influential and they drive the Indo-US commercial-business relationship. The Ambani brothers graduated from Wharton and have little time for the RSS khaki-shorts culture.

NEW DELHI, NOV 21:- Mohan Bhagwat, chief of Indian Hindu nationalist organisation Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), speaks during the World Hindu Congress 2014 conference in New Delhi November 21, 2014. REUTERS/UNI PHOTO-20R

RSS head Mohan Bhagwat at the World Hindu Congress in New Delhi in November

Modi himself traveled extensively in the US in the 1990s, imbibing and learning from the small business ethics, efficiency and work culture of the Americans and he watched with admiration how his fellow Guja-ratis who had settled in the US as businessmen and monopolized the motel industry had thrived.

Yes, Modi is undoubtedly a diehard nationalist driven by a messianic conviction in the power of Hinduism to inspire the kind of nationalism that will drive Indians towards greater nation-building and take pride in a new work ethic. In that sense, he is puritanical with a Calvinist zeal. But I doubt that he will succumb to or become beholden to the exaggerated versions of Hindu nationalism to which Mishra alludes. That kind of retrograde nationalism exists only in small pockets in India and has no influence over most Indians. Modi may pay lip service to it but he will neither practice it in his foreign policy nor adopt it as his ideology.


RSS cadres in khaki shorts

All you have to do is to watch the tapes of his four-day US visit. Twenty thousand Indians, a huge number of them Gujaratis, were waving American and Indian flags and singing both national anthems. Did Modi’s lapping that up reflect even a hint of anti-Americanism? His appearance with a rock group at New York’s Central Park the previous day, where he spoke admiringly of the US and US youth and ended his speech with “May the Force Be With You” hardly shows him as an America-phobe! In fact, Modi is more in tune with the American ethos than with that of any other country. But he will not follow American policies blindly because he is a str-ong nationalist with an overwhelming electoral majority, and will doggedly pursue India’s international interests. If retrograde Hindu nationalism sta-nds in the way of what Modi considers to be rapid economic development, smaller and better governance, more trade and exchanges with America, he will pursue the latter course.

Modi is a strong opponent of traditions such as indifference to hygiene, fatalism, caste restriction, which have been obstacles in India’s march towards greater efficiency and productivity. It is for this reason he admires China’s Deng as an innovator and is not paranoid about Chinese investment in India’s infrastructure. His nationalistic role model is post-war Japan, fiercely devoted to nation-building, clinging to many traditions, addicted to technology and innovative management.

He would be courting national disaster and historical condemnation if he were to allow anything similar to the Gujarat communal riots happen again in India during his term. The test of his leadership as a non-nonsense pragmatist will lie in his political dexterity in sidelining the forces—including retrograde “Hinduism”—which interfere with his larger development vision. The alternative is to fester in the opprobrium of 2002.

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