The long read: Narendra Modi’s journey from nationalist firebrand to global statesman
India in the summer is a furnace. And last May, as the final phase of polling in the 16th general elections ended, so many of the certitudes long associated with the world’s largest democracy seemed to be melting away. A lawyer in Mumbai winced when I brought up the old truism that the Hindu-supremacist Bharatiya Janata Party would never be voted into power by India’s multi-religious electorate. “That old trick won’t work,” she said. “People are fed up with ‘secularists’ who screw up in government and then blackmail voters by saying the alternative is ‘fascist rule’ by the BJP. Efficiency is all that anyone cares about, and Narendra Modi looks efficient.” Modi, said to be the architect of this turnaround, was as inescapable as the severe summer heat. His name dominated news coverage, clogged up Facebook feeds, and trended interminably on Twitter.
When the results of the elections were declared on May 16, Modi and his party surpassed the most bullish predictions, capturing 282 seats in the 543-seat lower house of parliament. Modi’s triumph shattered a 25-year-long spell of coalition governments: the last time a single party obtained a clear majority was in 1984, when most Indians alive in 2014 hadn’t attained voting age. Congress, once the default party of government, scraped 44 seats: its worst performance ever. A former adviser to the outgoing prime minister, Manmohan Singh, described the result as the dawn of a “second republic”.
The magnitude of Modi’s achievement justified the hyperbole. Yet as he took the oath of office after a yearlong campaign, he still seemed like a mystery. Very few individuals could claim to have meaningful access to the man who, as David Cameron went on to rhapsodise, “got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe”. Accused only a decade ago of abetting in his home state of Gujarat one of the bloodiest episodes of sectarian violence in India’s history, he was pledging to safeguard its secular constitution. How did this happen?
The hardscrabble youth of Modi is by now familiar. Born into a lower-caste family of Hindu Gujaratis in 1950, he spent his teenage years hawking tea on the platforms of Vadnagar’s railway station. The third of six siblings, Modi grew up in an age of tremendous upheaval. India, recently liberated from British colonial rule, was still mourning the subcontinent’s amputation to accommodate the Muslim nationalist demand for a separate homeland called Pakistan. There was an overwhelming clamour to respond to the creation of Pakistan by turning India into its Hindu variant. But Pandit Nehru, India’s first prime minister, refused to succumb, and India quickly gave itself a secular constitution. Militant Hindus, operating since 1925 under the aegis of a paramilitary outfit called Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Corps), never pardoned Nehru for denying them political hegemony in post-partition India.
Denied the chance to shape India from the top, the RSS dispatched its propagandists across the country with the ambition of engineering a cultural revolution. But animated by victimhood, the RSS, rather than instilling self-respect in the young Hindus it drew to its proliferating “training camps”, infected them with resentment. It was in these camps – which introduced volunteers to the vast pantheon of Christian and Muslim adversaries that had apparently emasculated Hindus over the ages, and taught them to shed their “impotence” – that Modi’s political awakening occurred. Its influence on his young mind was so pervasive that by his early twenties, having attempted nothing else in life, he adopted the RSS as his family.
Modi’s glacial progression through the ranks of the Sangh paralleled the gradual corrosion of the secular edifice bequeathed by Nehru. Each decade added a fresh crack. The demoralising military defeat at China’s hands in 1962 on Nehru’s watch was followed in 1975 by a bout of dictatorial rule by his daughter, Indira Gandhi, who expelled her opponents and turned the Congress Party into her family’s private fief. Her assassination in 1984 by Sikhs incensed by the botched assault she’d ordered earlier that year on their holiest shrine resulted, under her son’s rule, in state-abetted pogroms of their co religionists across northern India.
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By the mid-90s, India, led by a Congress-dominated government, had discarded socialism and, as the unobstructed demolition in 1992 of the 500-year-old Babri Mosque by RSS cadres demonstrated, diluted its commitment to secularism. As ideological distinctions evaporated in the solvent of new wealth generated by economic liberalisation, the BJP – the political arm of the RSS – won enough seats in 1999 to cobble together a stable coalition government.
Modi’s hard work was rewarded by the new regime when he was dispatched in 2001 to govern Gujarat as its chief minister. But his career in elective politics seemed destined to end in disgrace when sectarian rioting erupted in Gujarat just four months after he stepped into office.
More than 2,000 Muslim lives were devoured by sword-wielding mobs who claimed to be avenging an arson attack on Hindu pilgrims. An investigative team appointed by the Supreme Court of India absolved Modi of all criminal responsibility a decade later. Survivors of the victims, however, continue to allege that the chief minister’s office was aware of the mobs’ movements but refused to intervene; in some instances, they say, it even incited them.
The riots made Modi a globally reviled figure. But they also consolidated the Hindu vote within Gujarat. Having started without a mandate, Modi led the BJP to three successive election victories. He waged an arduous campaign over this period to sanitise his image – not by eschewing his beliefs or apologising for the loss of lives in 2002, but by remodelling himself as an able manager of the economy.
As Lance Price argues in a new book, The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India, Modi’s effectiveness in detoxifying his brand confirms him as the most consummate political salesman of his age. Price, a former director of communications for the UK Labour Party, who successfully co-ordinated Tony Blair’s general election win of 2001, draws on extensive interviews with the prime minister and his team of advisers.
The result is a highly readable survey of Modi’s dexterous metamorphosis from despised provincial leader into national saviour. His makeover was so convincing that many young professionals genuinely believed he had abandoned identity politics for a “development-driven agenda”.
Price meets a prodigious cast of admen and entrepreneurs who formed a passionate confederacy around Modi’s candidacy. Their cause was no doubt boosted by Rahul Gandhi, the Congress Party’s putative candidate for prime minister. When a young communications expert approached the Congress leader with a plan to bolster the party’s visibility on the internet, he was subjected to a patronising “socialist speech” by Rahul. Disillusioned, he took his idea to the BJP. His first reaction on meeting Modi was, “this guy speaks my language”. Modi, two decades Rahul’s senior, grasped the importance of the internet: its users, though relatively minuscule in number, could potentially spread his campaign through word of mouth to offline voters in their communities.
The quasi-oligarchs created by the “socialist” Congress’s economic reforms, seeing Modi as a more dogged champion of their cause, lavished laudatory coverage in their newspapers and television networks on his campaign. In villages without electricity or running water, Modi entranced voters by beaming his speeches live on 3D holographic projection technology imported at astronomical cost from England.
The BJP talked up Modi’s “development record”. But Price is alert to the communal dog-whistles that formed an important aspect of his prime ministerial campaign. Weeks before the elections, Amit Shah, Modi’s closest confidante and dreaded enforcer in Gujarat, exploited sectarian strife by exhorting the Hindu victims of a localised riot in Utter Pradesh to “avenge the insult meted out to our community” by voting for the BJP.
Price is nonetheless persuaded that since becoming prime minister Modi has abandoned identity politics for India’s material progress. Certainly, there is ample evidence of inclusive rhetoric from Modi over the last year. He used the traditional Independence Day address last August to urge a moratorium on sectarian violence. He has moved India closer to the United States, showing he held no personal rancour toward Washington for denying him a visa. His foreign policy – he has travelled to 18 countries in one year – is dictated for the most part by pragmatism. Unlike his abject predecessor, he cuts an imposing figure on the global stage. He has revived relations that had fallen into catastrophic neglect. He has loudly solicited investment. He wants to cultivate deep friendships in east Asia. Pakistan’s generals fear him. China’s communist overlords, long accustomed to getting away with treating India shabbily, regard him as a formidable challenge.
It’s too early to judge Modi’s premiership. But to conclude that he has been transformed by the job is to prise the man from everything that shaped him.
Tenancy of the nation’s highest political office hasn’t diminished the inferiority complex he inherited from the Sangh. He continues to cast himself as a victim of an entrenched establishment peopled by self-loathing secularists. His choice of gift for foreign leaders, a Hindu holy book, is his idea of undermining his adversaries at home. His government showers preferential treatment on Hindu refugees fleeing Pakistan and Bangladesh as though India were a Hindu Jerusalem. His attempt to suffuse education with the RSS’s view of history has led to the debasement of prestigious institutions.
The man he appointed to head the Indian Council of Historical Research, for instance, wants Hindu epics to be treated as credible historical sources. Last year, Modi himself told a convention of doctors in Mumbai that genetic science and plastic surgery had existed in ancient India. Buoyed by this absurdist turn, senior BJP officials called for the burning of history textbooks commissioned under Congress. Anti-Muslim rhetoric that not long ago lurked in the peripheries has now permeated the mainstream, with at least one member of the Modi cabinet urging voters in a local election earlier this year to choose between Hindu “children of God” and “baseborn” Muslims.
The RSS in the meantime has been harassing religious minorities to “reconvert” to Hinduism. Its most senior officials accuse Muslim men of waging something called “love jihad” against young Hindu women – wooing them with money given by foreign governments, and then converting them to Islam. Even the first International Yoga Day – intended, in Modi’s words, to spread “goodwill” and herald a “tension-free world” – was tainted by the bigotry of a senior BJP official who accused India’s vice-president, a Muslim, of ignoring yoga for religious reasons.
Modi, who has an opinion on almost everything, has said little to assuage the anxieties of minorities. He has done even less to contain the outbreak of Hindu malevolence. This is partly because, though he now wishes to be seen as a lofty statesman, the beliefs of the RSS are not incidental to his politics. They are what animate his politics. He gave up his family for them. He wandered around India for three decades, living out of a suitcase, in their service. An interview he gave to Ashis Nandy, the distinguished social theorist and trained clinical psychologist, during this peripatetic phase makes it even harder to take comfort in the benefit of doubt Price confers on Modi.
“Modi,” Nandy later wrote, “met virtually all the criteria ... 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 ...
“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.”
Nandy saw in the Gujarat riots a homicidal vindication of his early evaluation. But even then, the notion that Modi might one day become prime minister seemed risible. When the BJP-led national government was unexpectedly thrown out by the voters in 2004, it felt like a collective verdict against sectarianism. How then did India become receptive to Modi? The answer is Congress.
The last 10 years under a Congress-led government did more to endear Modi to Indians than anything in the BJP’s manifesto. As one of the closest advisers to the former prime minister told me last year: “[Manmohan Singh] was blind to the world beyond Delhi. He is a theoretician. In a reasonable world, he’d be the vice-chancellor of a modest university. [Sonia Gandhi] made him prime minister.”
Singh never won an election in his life. He was foisted, with characteristic hubris, on the people of India by the Nehru-Gandhi family because its reigning head, Sonia Gandhi, worried that her Italian origin might become grist for the xenophobic opposition.But real authority rested with her. This arrangement – in which Singh would steer the economy while Sonia handled the messy business of politics – was meant to place India on a steady path of progress. Instead, it shrunk the prime minister’s authority, gave rise to insubordination within the cabinet, and inaugurated an era of almost unfathomable levels of corruption.
Obligingly attentive to the concerns of affluent India and accessible almost round the clock to industrialists, Singh seemed to forget that the largest pool of the world’s poorest people called India home. When landless farmers from 15 Indian states marched to the capital in 2007 to petition him, he had them corralled into a roofless enclosure in Delhi’s searing heat without access to water or toilets. In 2009, his cabinet contemplated using air power against impoverished Indians who had joined the Maoist insurgency. (Even the British had been queasy about bombing dissident Indians into submission from the skies.)
The countryside lit up under Singh with the funeral pyres of debt-ridden farmers who, ruined by his economic policies, took their own lives. Singh and Sonia’s parting shot was a hastily drawn bill to partition the state of Andhra Pradesh, bastion of Congress support and home to India’s second-largest linguistic community, without any consultation with the stakeholders. Splendidly isolated, the pair genuinely believed it was a popular measure as they railroaded the proposal through parliament. The state did not return a single Congress MP in 2015.
Price is a judicious observer. But habituated to venerating power and personality, he exaggerates somewhat the “Modi effect”.
For all his incorruptibility and energetic striving and innovative campaigning, Modi is a man propelled to power by the failures of others – a fortuitous beneficiary of the electorate’s cosmic disenchantment with Congress.
He did not spawn a new republic. He ensured, through a combination of ruthless intrigue and breathless publicity, that he was first in line as the old order crumbled under the burden of its own avarice.
Those who now lament that his rise represents something sinister are deliberately neglecting the fact that, for all the passions he arouses, Modi is not a departure from Congress. He is Congress on steroids.
Kapil Komireddi, an Indian journalist, has written from South Asia, Eastern Europe and the Middle East.
Updated: June 25, 2015 04:00 AM