The real reason Indian intellectuals are backing Narendra Modi

Everyone is ready to jump on the Modi bandwagon.
Everyone is ready to jump on the Modi bandwagon.
Image: Reuters/Adnan Abidi
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Let there be no doubt—India’s intelligentsia has begun to embrace the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), headed by strongman Narendra Modi. Economists and editors, film stars and script-writers, athletes and authors are all rushing to beat the crowd that wants to join the BJP before election results are announced on May 16. And they are tweeting, status-updating, blogging, op-eding and TV-debating their way to prominence in the political vaudeville, managing to somehow multi-task between trans-continental flights, book signings, lecture tours, movie launches and soirees.

This is raising the question: Is the secular-democratic trajectory of India’s politics about to change?

On any random day in April, you could have observed the following: India’s leading rom-com novelist, Chetan Bhagat, tweeting a selfie taken with Modi; Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor and author from Ottawa, Canada, writing a valiant op-ed to assert that Modi posed no danger to India’s political freedoms; Lord Meghnad Desai, an Indian born economist and Labour politician, writing a letter to the Guardian to protest an article that he thought was unfair to Modi; M.J. Akbar, editor, author and now a BJP spokesperson, attending a meeting of the party’s Strategic Action Committee headed by former Harvard professor Subramanian Swamy who has advocated that Muslims be denied voting rights unless they own up to their Hindu ancestry;  Arvind Virmani, former chief economic advisor to outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, defending a BJP leader who used the word “revenge” while asking for votes; and professor Jagdish Bhagwati, the globally respected economist and long-standing Nobel prize hopeful telling David Pilling, the Asia editor of the Financial Times over lunch in London that he would not be optimistic about India unless Modi came to power. There is also the well-known “twitterati” with thousands of followers pushing forward the viewpoints of BJP and its ideological guardian, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a nationalistic volunteer force which focuses on instilling in Hindus pride in their culture, through thousands of branches and millions of adherents. This is even before counting India’s top industrialists, almost all of whom are supporting and funding Modi in the hope that he will take India’s GDP back above 8% annual growth rates.

All of this is new because until very recently, BJP had had a severe deficit of intellectual firepower. Apart from a few former and current editors such as Swapan Dasgupta, Chandan Mitra, and Arun Shourie, a few retired men from the defense services, and some self-appointed historians, the BJP had no one much to show for all the decades it had been in existence under one name or another. That was because until recently, movers and shakers in academia, journalism, literature and films had tended to steer clear of the bad odour that came with the aggressive, religious-identity based politics that the party championed, based on issues such as demolishing mosques that are believed to have been built on top of then-existing temples a few centuries ago by Muslim invaders. In the course of promoting these agendas, the BJP has often found itself at the receiving end of accusations that it stirred up violence and riots. The biggest of them happened in Gujarat in 2002, when Modi was the chief minister of the state. Those riots killed more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims. This helped polarize the state along communal lines, and Modi fought the central Election Commission to ensure elections were held as early as possible, before passions that the riots had stirred up cooled down. Modi went on to win the elections handsomely, even though his party had been losing all the by-elections in the period before the riots.

How the tide turned

But all this is beginning to look like distant history. Modi, who has been the chief minister of Gujarat for the last 12 years, has rebranded himself as a go-getting, business-friendly free marketer who has delivered a consistent growth rate of about 10%. And the BJP is now so surfeit with newly imported talent that it is causing heartburn among long-established supporters of the party.

The turn of the tide in India is so strong that to see concerted action by intellectuals trying to stop the momentum of the resurgent BJP, one would have to go overseas. On April 21, the Independent carried a letter from 75 academicians, two-thirds of whom were people of Indian origin, with the headline: “The idea of Modi in power fills us with dread.” A few days earlier, the Guardian had carried a similar letter, headlined: “If Modi is elected, it will bode ill for India’s future.” This was signed by 27 artists, novelists, film directors, barristers, and economists, including author Salman Rushdie, sculptor Anish Kapoor, and filmmaker Deepa Mehta. They share the sentiments of Harvard economist and Nobel laureate Amartya Sen, who said last year that as an Indian citizen, he did not want Modi to be his prime minister because “he hasn’t done enough to make minorities feel safe.”

In India itself, there are still strong holdouts resistant to the attractions of the BJP, though some of those who had staunchly opposed the BJP in the past are now toning down their criticism. Shekhar Gupta, editor of the liberal Indian Express—one of numerous newspapers that excoriated Modi during the 2002 riots—wrote in a recent column mockingly titled “Secularism is dead!”: “This anti-Modi battle cry is lazy, illiberal and an affront to Muslims—and Hindus.” But he makes two strong points. One, the BJP-led alliance would get no more than a third of the popular vote at best, and though this may be enough for it to come to power under India’s first-past-the-post voting system, what is clear is that the vast majority of the Hindus, who form more than 80% of the population, have not given up on secularism. Two, even the 30% who might end up voting for Modi would be doing so not because they want to build temples or banish the Muslims to Pakistan, but because they want an alternative to “the weakest, most incompetent, uncommunicative and incoherent full-term government” in India’s history (the Congress).

Shekhar Gupta is correct that Congress’s misrule over the last decade has caused deep anger, especially among the middle class, and Modi’s own speeches during this election have focused on issues such as corruption and development. However, the same cannot be said of his lieutenants. Amit Shah, Modi’s right-hand man who is in charge of the crucial Uttar Pradesh campaign, was recently pulled up by the Election Commission for asking Hindu voters in a riot-affected area to take their “revenge” through the ballot. Shah, a former home minister of Gujarat under Modi, is also an accused in many cases of “fake encounter deaths” where alleged terrorists were shot down by a police force under his supervision.

To an extent, the shift in tide among the intellectuals was only to be expected. With almost every opinion poll predicting an unprecedented drubbing for the hapless and corrupt Congress party and an equally unprecedented win for the resurgent BJP, there is a sense that a great power shift is occurring. If Modi gets to form the new government, he will be looking for people to fill hundreds of new advisory and other positions in key ministries and departments, and if you are the sort of person who finds these attractive, it makes sense to signal your availability and your affinity with the ideology of the BJP. Some of the intellectuals rushing to embrace Modi may not be new converts to the BJP ideology at all; they may just have decided that the time has now come for them to announce their allegiances publicly. Neither of these motivations are worth dwelling upon since opportunism knows no color, and one shouldn’t be surprised that a winning Modi is a more appealing Modi.

What is more important are other motivations that are making people like Gupta, or Shahid Siddiqui (owner and editor of an Urdu weekly that serves mostly Muslim readers) treat the Modi-led BJP with a softer touch than earlier. According to Siddiqui, the reason why one should not consider the BJP an implacable enemy is this: “Muslims always vote in a manner to defeat the BJP candidate and make a candidate of another party successful. But Muslims themselves did not get anything. They became fuel for such battles.” If Muslims want to be part of the “national mainstream,” writes Siddiqui, they will need to find another way to move forward. In other words, there seems to be a sense of both hope and helplessness in his message: hope that Modi’s BJP may indeed start considering Muslims as potential voters rather than a permanent enemy target; and helplessness in knowing that voting for other, more secular parties hasn’t helped the Muslims much anyway.

The big question: who belongs, who doesn’t?

So the elephant in the room is the question: Can a Modi-led BJP rule the country in a democratic and non-divisive manner, without causing a gradual slide into societal strife? His track record in Gujarat is not reassuring. Though there have been no major riots there since 2002 under his watch, his government has victimised police officers and other critics who spoke up against it; refused to field a single Muslim candidate in state assembly elections though a tenth of the population is Muslim; and inducted into the cabinet a politician who was directly involved in the massacre of 96 people, and was later convicted. He has also sidelined all potential political rivals within his own party. In the words of Ramachandra Guha, well-known historian and author, Modi “is a bully and bigot… Unlike others, I don’t believe he will change, because at 62 you cannot have a personality transformation.”

But an even bigger worry is the RSS, the fountainhead of the Hindu nationalist ideology, which controls the levers of power in BJP and which has put its weight behind Modi to make him prime ministerial candidate. At the heart of the problem lies the RSS definition of who is a Hindu. According to M.S. Golwalkar, one of the founding fathers of RSS, a Hindu is one for whom India is both punya bhoomi and karma bhoomi (holy land, and the land where one lives and works). In the RSS version of nationalism, only those who belong to religions of the land—Hindus, Sikhs, Jains, etc.—can consider India a holy land. For others such as Muslims and Christians, the holy land is elsewhere, in Mecca or Jerusalem, it insists.

Having made this unilateral assertion, Golwalkar argues that all Indians who are not Hindus “must adopt Hindu culture and language, must learn and respect and hold in reverence the Hindu religion, must entertain no idea but of those of glorification of the Hindu race and culture. … In a word, they must cease to be foreigners, or may stay in the country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, claiming nothing, deserving no privileges, far less any preferential treatment – not even citizen’s rights.” Not surprisingly, Golwalkar also admired Hitler’s ideas of racial purity and the way he went about ridding Germany of the Jews. The RSS has disowned these statements of Golwalkar (called Guruji by his disciples) and the book in which these appeared, as “neither representing the views of the grown Guruji nor the RSS.”

The trouble is, the RSS has never explicitly questioned Golwalkar’s division of Indians into two sides—those who regard India as their holy land and those who do not. Hence the deep disquiet over statements like that made by Indian politician and economist Subramanian Swamy, that it would be right to take away the voting rights of those Muslims who refused to acknowledge their Hindu ancestry. Sentiments of this kind drive a deep wedge between communities in everyday life. Just last week, the head of Vishwa Hindu Parishad, one of the many wings of the RSS, was caught on tape asking Hindus to use violence and intimidation to evict a Muslim businessman who had the temerity to buy a house in a Hindu locality.

Strong Modi, Weak Modi argument

The intellectuals who have flocked to Modi’s side say that these fears are alarmist. Dehejia describes them as “febrile fantasies of Modi’s most fervid detractors” and says that far from turning fascist, Modi will not even be able to repeat former prime minister Indira Gandhi’s feat of declaring Emergency between 1975 and 1977, because he would be hemmed in by coalition partners, recalcitrant senior leaders within his own party, and a civil society that is infinitely more vibrant than it was in 1975. Let’s call this the “Weak Modi” argument, because its premise is that he will not be able to act as his own man because of the various ways in which he will be constrained. The problem with this argument, however, is that it contradicts another claim being made on Modi’s behalf by his supporters. Economists like Dehejia and Bhagwati want Modi to come to power because they believe he will be a decisive prime minister, unlike incumbent Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who is more of a consensus seeker. In other words, Modi supporters expect a “Strong Modi” to be in charge of economic decision-making, and a “Weak Modi” to be in charge of social decision-making. That sounds like a fervent wish rather than a reasonable expectation.

The second argument that has been put forward is that there will be strong incentives for Modi not to go down the authoritarian and sectarian path, because that way lies loss of popularity and power. But this argument was proved wrong the day Modi was chosen the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP last year.

Explaining would require dredging up a bit of recent history. When BJP became the single largest party in the general elections of the late 1990s, BJP’s then-firebrand leader L.K. Advani knew that he would not be able to draw in coalition partners because of his hardline image. Other parties would hesitate to ally with him for fear of losing their own Muslim votes. He, therefore, put forward BJP’s far milder and acceptable face, Atal Behari Vajpayee, who indeed was able to draw in enough coalition partners and run a full-term government. It then became the accepted wisdom in the party that in Vajpayee’s way of moderation lay its path ahead. To become the natural party of governance, it had to soften its hard edges and draw in the liberal majority of the country. The party had maxed out its hardline vote bank, in other words.

The theory was so beguiling that the original hardliner Advani himself bought into it, and began to fashion himself after Vajpayee in preparation for the day when he would be taking over from him. But the Gujarat riots of 2002, the emphatic victory of Modi soon after the riots, and the iron hold he has been able to maintain over Gujarat politics ever since, have made it clear to the BJP and the RSS that there is, indeed, another way to expand its vote base, without necessarily giving up the hardline. The Modi path to expanding BJP’s vote base is not through moderation, but through offering something to the mainstream liberals that they cannot refuse: “Make me the prime minister and I will deliver growth; everything else about me, you forget.” Modi has so far refused to apologise for the riots and compared the pogrom to an accident in which a puppy is run over by a car. That is why the argument that there are strong incentives that will keep a Modi-led government from crossing its boundaries sounds unconvincing on closer inspection.

In terms of checks and balances, while India’s Election Commission is independent and does a great job of conducting fair and free elections, other institutions of democracy have serious weaknesses. While exhorting the Hindus in Bhavnagar, Gujarat, to evict the Muslim gentleman who had bought a house in a Hindu locality, the VHP leader reminded them that they didn’t have to worry about legal consequences because it would take decades before any judgement was passed. That comment got a big chuckle from the gathering because it hit home.

The real risk: social strife

The supporters of Modi, however, are right to argue that it is meaningless to compare the risks that India faces today to risks that Germany faced in the 1920s and 1930s. A more reasonable way to assess the risks ahead would be to look at how sectarianism and intolerance have driven apart countries in South Asia with a similar cultural milieu—Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Sentiments as those expressed by Subramanian Swamy bring out this danger better than anything else. He wrote in 2011: “India that is Bharat that is Hindustan is a nation of Hindus and others whose ancestors are Hindus. Even Parsis and Jews in India have Hindu ancestors. Others, who refuse to so acknowledge or those foreigners who become Indian citizens by registration can remain in India, but should not have voting rights, which means they cannot be elected representatives.” Though Swamy wrote this during a period when he was not in BJP, its similarity to the views of Golwalkar raises the question, who will decide whether someone has acknowledged or not acknowledged his Hindu ancestry and what such power to decide implies.

What this means is that ultimately, the most important bulwark against forces that could tip India away from its secular democratic path is just one: public opinion, especially the voice of public intellectuals. That is precisely why the chorus of some of them denying that there is any danger at all is unsettling and, in fact, counter-productive. If they really want to calm the nerves, what they need to do is to admit that they are aware of the risks, and that they will do their best to minimise them.  Pratap Bhanu Mehta, a widely-followed writer and president of the well-known think tank Centre for Policy Research, tried to do that in a recent article in the Indian Express: “We are on a wing and a prayer. But we need to show more intelligence than screaming the “F” word”. (“F” here standing in for Fascism)

The silver-lining in all of this is that Indian democracy is getting more participative very quickly. The voting percentages are going up sharply, and a middle class that has been apathetic to politics so far has become highly energized. It’s not just the BJP that is seeing an influx of intellectuals into its ranks. The newly-launched Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) is also attracting them in equal measure. In fact, in a Time magazine vote for the most influential person of the year, followers of Arvind Kejriwal (a former revenue service official who first went into activism and then formed a party just last year) made sure that he defeated Modi. Online, it looks like Kejriwal is a rival to Modi, but on the ground, the new party is unlikely to win seats in numbers enough to make a difference to who rules in New Delhi. The more important point, however, is that this will be the deepest, most engaging election that India has ever seen, and that should count for something.

The results will be known in about two weeks. But it will take somewhat longer to know where India is headed.

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