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Monday, December 16, 2013

Dimensions of potential Modi-rule in India

(Published by Asia Times Online on Dec 13,  2013 as 'Implications of Modi's rapid rise')

With the incumbent Congress' rout in provincial polls dubbed as 'Semifinals to 2014', the right-wing opposition in India is more effusively focused at propelling Narendra Modi, a controversial figure, to the post of PM. Beyond the fog of whims and rhetoric propagated by the corporate media, there are genuine concerns as to how a militantly communal state leader could lead a country as diverse as India.

Anti-incumbency is often a determining factor in any election and fall of the incumbents in more or less fair elections is thus not unusual. It often so happens that the party or coalition which rides on the tide of anti-incumbency now is overwhelmed by the very tide in the opposite direction the next time around, after second term if not first. As a consequence, it is often noted in history--short term if not long term--when one party or coalition retains power for long enough without overtly authoritarian means.

When the exceptional circumstances and exceptional rulers of states like Srilanka and Afghanistan and nascent democratic exercises in Bhutan and Maldives are exempted, South Asia with nearly a fourth of world population has been reproducing this trend for fairly long period of time in Bangladesh, India, Nepal a asnd Pakistan.

While the elections in Pakistan and Nepal over the past year have seen the spectacular defeat of the incumbents, the Awami League in Bangladesh appears to be in a self-defeating mood after choosing a violent confrontation with the political opposition resulting in chaos rather than an uneventful election through negotiated settlement.

All this is, however, a mere trailer as the big real life drama is about to display itself in India, the world's most populous and South Asia's most powerful democratic state, with the imminent general elections. Most analysts now think it is a lost case for the ruling Congress-led coalition thoroughly battered by financial scams at the end of two terms. This feeling has now been strongly reinforced by the comprehensive rout of the ruling coalition in the assembly polls in four important states.

How much of the Congress' loss across the country will translate into gain for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is however, debatable thereby making it rather tricky to predict the outcomes of the 2014 polls; many think a fractured verdict as seen in Delhi assembly polls is as likely as a solid victory for the BJP-led opposition coalition.

India's disconnect with the electoral past

Even as a country that is well accustomed to electoral democracy for more than six decades, the imminent polls in India are not business-as-usual. For the analysts as well as the prospective voters, the differences between the elections of the past two decades and this one are profoundly perceptible.

Indeed, when one focuses on the fate of the incumbent Congress alone, an eerie parallel can be noted between the party's approach to the polls in 1977 after Indira Gandhi's disastrous emergency rule and the same of the scam-ridden Congress leadership now in 2014.

But there are other differences too between the past and the imminent polls in India. The tactics of the main opposition party, the BJP, has seen a profound transformation since the earlier polls. From choosing Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the soothing coalition builder in the 1998 polls, BJP in 2014 has chosen the opposite extreme of projecting Narendra Modi, a highly polarizing figure, as the prospective PM candidate for the polls. As many in the media have noted, BJP's Modi-centered election campaign resembles more with the one in presidential system rather than in a parliamentary system.

While clean governance is nearly always pledged by any party fighting elections anywhere, the BJP is now playing its apparent strength from the track record of 'good' governance in Modi-ruled Gujarat with the most sensitive weakness of the incumbent Congress party. As can be expected, they have portrayed the 2014 fight for power in Delhi as the one between a distinctly corrupt and inefficient incumbents and an incorruptible and clinically efficient alternative.

With a large section of media in India knowingly or unknowingly reinforcing this dichotomy between the apparently 'good' and the 'bad' choices for the upcoming polls, Modi is now projected as the likeliest of the contenders for the post of PM after the polls. With BJP's impressive show in the recent provincial polls, some analysts have been tempted into concluding that the BJP's electoral gamble of placing all the eggs in one basket by projecting Modi as the future PM to turn the tide in 2014 is finally paying off well.

Others are not as sure and have been pointing out that the pattern is unlikely to replicate in majority of other states where regional parties are better placed to harvest the anti-Congress sentiment than the BJP.

Modi's iconic rise: convergence of destiny with BJP

Narendra Modi's past is no longer a mystery, not the least because he has often grabbed the media limelight for the wrong reason. Ever since the 2002 Gujarat pogroms that he presided, the apparently astonishing growth that he has achieved in Gujarat has been unable to avoid the situation in which a series of fake encounters had to be instigated leaving a bloody and gruesome trail along the track record of his governance. Modi's image is also shaped by his unusually blunt rhetoric--unlike most of his counterparts in politics--exemplified by the one in which he compared the Muslim victims of 2002 carnage with a dog that is run over by a car.

What is less often discussed and hence easily missed in the whole Modi success story, however, is his rise in prominence within the party and the imperatives and implications of such a rapid rise. As late as a year ago when Modi was sworn in as the Chief Minister of Gujarat for the fourth time, the talks of his aspiration for high throne in Delhi were mere speculations. Fast forward one year and whole nation is looking at this man with either awe and reverence or with dread and disgust as the potential PM of the country.

In his way to the top, Modi has tackled some of the most formidable obstacles like the steadfast opposition of his anointment as the chief election campaigner in June this year by party patriarch L K Advani. That anointment also saw JD(U), one of the most dependable BJP ally in Bihar to part ways with the ally of 17 years. Even then some knowledgeable people told that making him campaign chief was no guarantee of making him the prospective PM candidate. But when the moment came in September, he was the only reasonable choice of the party for the position and he was duly announced the PM candidate.

Looking a step back, when BJP last came to power in 1999, stability was the priority of everyone in a nation where people had voted for five general elections in a decade and projecting mild-mannered Vajpayee as the coalition-building PM made perfect sense. This time around, the paradigm has shifted: most of the voters are fixated at the governance issue and the incumbents are clearly at the receiving end on the issue. Moreover, as the 2002 Gujarat pogroms recede further away in the public memory, whole of the political right in India has consolidated its effort on projecting Modi as the messiah of good governance and not as the viciously communal leader as depicted by his critics. This phenomenon also fits with the on and off use of 'Hindutva' by the BJP as the political tool.

The implications with Modi as PM

First of all, while the electorate in India at this point of time is justifiably worried about the issue of governance, good governance is only one among many priorities of a politician ruling a diverse country like India. Even in the governance issue, as I have often argued, the real solution to the plague of misgovernance lies somewhere beyond the fog of whims and rhetoric. Without accountability from the highest level to the grassroots, a fight against corruption, poverty and slavery is a mere farce. Unfortunately, accountability is not something Modi is known for in India.

As the impressive electoral gains for the BJP (and the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi) in provincial polls are being widely portrayed as the outcomes of people's disgust towards the brazen corruption and political inertia of the entirely hollowed out Congress, creating a positive track record of good governance in BJP-ruled states now will be an uphill task as things stand.

Second, the bulk of today's Modi wave in India (note that many respectable commentators doubt there exists any such significant wave, let alone of the magnitude portrayed in corporate media) is composed of a significant proportion of traditionally non-BJP voters who have chosen Modi as either a better option or a less evil option in an environment of profound gloom and desperation resulting from egregious corruption and mismanagement. Most of his young and educated supporters feel that so long as Modi can deliver good governance and robust growth in India, the issues like his role in 2002 Gujarat pogroms remain immaterial, mere nuisances at worst.

But given that India is a functioning democracy and with an extreme diversity with many faultlines (contrasted to China where an authoritarian government has been able to deliver impressive growth for decades), the trajectory of such a delivery in India is likely to be very much different from the same in China and host of other East Asian countries.

Moreover, what is conveniently forgotten about the 2002 Gujarat violence in discourses today is that, for Modi's brand of politics, 2002 was not a point of time when things went out of hand but it was beginning of an era of a massive social engineering that moulded the entire population into a particular shape, dismantling the tolerant and pluralistic fabric of the society. The rest of the electoral politics in Gujarat is now history.

If anything goes awry along the line in future and Modi-led BJP exchanges the apparently harmless developmental agenda with a less wholesome but potentially efficient alternative of another such social engineering at a massive level in India, (as evidenced by the BJP's temptation to harvest the polarization and radicalization of people through communal riots during recent violence in Uttar Pradesh into political gains) that is likely to threaten the fabric itself of India as a pluralist and secular state.

Third, while the glittering cities and rapid GDP growth are understandably the ultimate desire of highly vocal and socially networked middle class and the omnipotent media in India and their steadfast and often hysteric endorsement of Modi's agenda has now drowned everything else, a large portion of popular discontent towards the incumbents in today's India is a result of increasing inequality. And there is little to believe that Modi will ever prioritize bridging this gap by any way other than waiting for the elusive 'trickle down' to happen some time in future.

Though Modi as the PM does have a higher likelihood of delivering a more robust growth than any of his alternatives, the rather bloated expectations that he will replicate Gujarat's growth story in larger India are unrealistic. This is not the least because a significant part of the flood of money in the form of private investment in Gujarat has come at the cost to other states as exemplified by the shift of Tata Motor's car factory from West Bengal to Gujarat following the rebellion of the evicted farmers in the former. Also, since his business-friendliness exacts the long term cost from the state, particularly in terms of ecological damage, it will be hard for Modi to sustain the trend once at helm in the center.

Ironically, most of the scams of the past three years relate precisely to such friendliness gone too deep in the form of illicit collusion between the government officials (including the state officials in BJP-ruled states) and the business houses and once at helm, Modi will be in the unpleasant situation of having to choose between a real good governance at the cost of friendship with the business houses and a fake good governance with such proximity intact.

And finally, now that BJP as a party has been reduced to a mere shadow of Modi as a person, Modi's personality itself may dictate much of the future course of India once he is the executive chief of a country of 1.36 billion people. As the leading Indian psychoanalyst and social scientist Ashish Nandy has written in a poignant essay, the potential danger of having Narendra Modi as the helmsman of India may lie somewhere deep in his personality [1]:
Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defence of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence – all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer.

As a matter of fact, Modi's swearing in as the PM will be the de facto legitimization of everything he did, presided, omitted or committed over the past decades including the 2002 Gujarat violence, expressed or otherwise, and Indian state will lose the moral authority to ask the future politicians not to do what Modi did. As harmless his developmental slogans may be, the occasional but highly significant metaphorical use of rhetorical tools like 'puppy' analogy for a significant minority population will make it difficult for Modi to reconcile with that section of people. 

And if he lives up to only some of his pledges to militantly project India vis-a-vis the neighbors, an unlikely but possible situation, the whole of the region may be off to an uncharted territory in terms of international relation. I personally think the Indian democracy is not yet ready for that kind of gamble.

[1]: Obitury of a culture by Ashish Nandy:

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