Monday, 14 April 2014

Narendra Modi as prime minister of India: what will it mean?

Comparisons have been drawn in national and international media between Narendra Modi and Berlusconi, Putin, Abe, and a long list of other right-wing demagogues. The need for such comparisons is understandable (especially in articles in the foreign media trying to explain the significance of the Indian elections to a non-Indian audience). Often these comparisons are accompanied by comforting, but uncertain, noises to the effect that Indian democracy is strong, that even if he comes to power Modi will be "reined in" by the BJP's allies, that Modi has moderated his earlier discourse as he has come closer to national power, etc. You sense some journalists trying to convince themselves as much as anyone else. The reality is that right now we don't know what a Modi victory will mean. But Modi lies at a certain intersection which makes him fairly unique even among ultra-right demagogues.

Ethnic/religious nationalism. He is an avowed ethnic and religious nationalist. Moreover he is embedded in a "family" of chauvinist organisations, the Sangh Parivar, which is unique in itself - no country in the world boasts a comparable network of ethnic supremacist organisations. Their sheer number, the way they manage to reach different audiences from school children to the devout to urban youth, the way they converge when necessary, the way they include paramilitary and terrorist activities as a natural component of their "portfolio" - all are quite amazing. Occasionally a foot-soldier gets sacrificed to the law, but the top brass appear mostly to speak and act with impunity. They run tens of thousands of schools, have tens of thousands of "cells" (apparently 2000 new RSS shakhas have sprung up in the last three months), control tens of thousands of religious bodies, have their people in the judiciary, the police, the civil service, the military, and so forth... Having access to a pre-prepared network of organisations of this kind would make Modi the envy of many would-be dictators.

Backing of a mass movement. Modi has a huge mass movement behind him which is not necessarily affiliated directly to the BJP, or even to the Sangh Parivar. He is a charismatic leader who has shown he can control his own party by successfully sidelining elders of the BJP with little protest from the party or beyond. Many supporters who claim they are not ordinarily BJP voters support him in terms which are millenarian. A typical sentiment on social media for some not-so-light entertainment: "O son of Bhaarat,arise,awake and lead us till we achieve a India of our dreams..tis not merely d B'day of @narendramodi,tis dawn of New Era."

Political violence as a strategy. Modi is, of course, deeply implicated in the Gujarat violence of 2002. His role in encouraging this violence is well documented and commonly acknowledged even among his supporters - despite extensive work at a whitewash, which has involved subverting the (ongoing) legal process, and an intensive PR campaign. What Modi has demonstrated time and again, both directly and through his lieutenants such as Amit Shah, is that using political violence to gather votes is central to his political strategy. This is not new of course in India: several parties indulge in political violence on a large scale; but the BJP still stands among a very few whose existence in the political sphere can be traced almost entirely to violence. Never has violence as a strategy been more openly endorsed than at the present moment.

Authoritarianism and oratory. Modi is acknoweldged to be deeply authoritarian at a personal level. He never apologises, even when those he has promoted and guided such as Maya Kodnani have been convicted of serious crimes. He is open in his contempt for the judiciary, for minority rights, and for the democratic process. He speaks with contempt about liberals, about minority communities, and about people with disabilities. Again, this is part of his appeal - he is the man who speaks his mind, is not afraid to say it like it is, can by-pass regulation, cut red-tape and would retaliate appropriately to foreign aggression. His oratory is ultra-nationalist and populist. He presses the correct buttons in a skillful way: "strength", "pride", "honour", "nation" and victimhood. His political opponents are weak-kneed, dithering and indecisive, and would let India's enemies take control. After terrorist attacks in Mumbai, he suggested that as a strong leader he would have started a war with Pakistan, and this got him applause from the audience. (As we know, the BJP has indicated that if they come to power, they will review India's 'no first use' nuclear policy, and this is unlikely to meet much resistance from their allies.)

The support of big business. Modi has the support of a large section of big business who finance and back him quite openly. This has come as something of a shock even to the liberal intelligentsia, as big business has tended to hedge its bets, and has previously preferred a slightly lower profile when it comes to influencing the political process. Something is different this time round, leading naturally to comparisons with Nazi Germany where "helping to undermine democracy at important junctures produced high returns" for big business.

Middle class support. Modi has the support of a significant section of the "educated" middle class. This has been achieved via extensive and successful manipulation of the media, and also by riding on the economically rightist (anti-welfare, anti-tax, pro-business) sentiments which are widespread in this class. The myth of development in Gujarat has been very skillfully constructed, and he has managed to present himself as an economic moderniser able to bring growth and development to the country.

This list could go on, but in brief Modi is not just another right-wing demagogue. He combines support from powerful business interests and large sections of the middle class, ultra-nationalism, ethnic supremacism, the backing of a huge and diverse network of Sangh Parivar organisations, skill as an orator and great confidence. He has got away with Gujarat 2002, and successfully recreated himself as "Vikas Purush". Whether comparisons with German Nazism and Italian fascism are justified remains to be seen, but even a weak Modi-led coalition would dramatically accelerate the erosion of the fabric of democracy. Sangh Parivar members and sympathisers will be given positions of power in the judiciary, the civil service, the military, the police. We can expect an increase in the levels of political and communal violence. Liberal and secular voices in the media will face huge pressure to moderate their words, and those speaking out will do so at significant personal risk. Minority communities will be increasingly marginalised and fearful, with some being tempted to turn to their own most right-wing elements for protection.

What is still unknown is whether Modi has really managed to gain sufficient support amongst the rural and urban poor - the vast majority of India - to make his dreams come true. This question will be answered on May 16th.


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