Modi’s ‘strongman’ image echoes an Indira Gandhi era

From a debut ‘national’ speech at the Sri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi University, to favourable mentions from the RSS chief at the VHP Dharam Sansad, to the news that European envoys hosted him for lunch, Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi is never quite out of the media space and every day his claims to become prime minister grow louder. Modi’s social media army stands perpetually at the ready, primed to target, attack and try and annihilate any Modi detractor. Anyone on Twitter or Facebook who dares to voice a single word of criticism against their ‘Beloved Leader’ is vilified for days as a “Congress agent.”

Modi prides himself on people-friendly governance, yet the social media army which works in his name is a Gestapo style force, operating under the cover of anonymity and threatening, with dire consequences those “pseudo sickular” and “Congi” folks perceived to be biased against the Beloved Leader. The Modi cult, built to a large extent by a superbly well organised PR and social media machine now dominates not only the social media but urban middle class discourse on politics. For articulate, tech and net savvy Modi fans the “secular” controversy around Modi is also his USP: a sneaking admiration for the man who supposedly “taught the Muslims a lesson” underlies much of the Hindu middle class’s enchantment with Modi.

Modi is a riposte to perceived week-kneed secularism, he’s the majoritarian strongman who is the alternative to the “minority appeasing” Congress way of thinking. The cult around Modi concentrates on what he isn’t, his persona is defined by what he opposes and his identity is constructed as a challenge to the “pseudo-secular-leftist-liberal-anti-national-human-rights-oriented-2002 riots obsessed” folk who have always misunderstood him.

Modi is thus “anti-pseudo”, “anti Delhi” and “anti weakness”, his speeches invariably peppered by derogatory references to pundits and commentators who sit in TV studios or write in newspapers. He is the roaring son of the soil from Gujarat who pours scorn on the English-speaking elite and their ’50 crore girlfriends’, even as he seems to seek an acceptance from them given the occasional donning of a cowboy style hat or a sharp suit.

The question is, can Modi graduate from an identity created in opposition, to an identity that is judged for what it is rather than for what it isn’t? Hitting out constantly at the media, the pundits, the Delhi-based secularists and the human rights lobby, might find applause and approval in audiences in Gujarat and among the fashionable crowd of “NGO haters”. But is that oppositional stance, that polemical positioning, that identity of the battering ram against the “Delhi sultanate” going to stand him in good stead as he seeks a national role?

Prime ministers in the age of coalitions must by definition be consensus builders and team players. Given Modi’s domineering personality and his haranguing style of speech, why should a Jayalalithaa or a Mamata or a Nitish or a Naveen Patnaik tolerate any bullying from Modi or his social media army? The Twitter army can seek to bludgeon journalists and target commentators who dare to speak against Modi, but it might take more than simply a Twitter and Facebook offensive to convince the other regional leaders to fall in line behind Modi. It is one thing to shut down television channels in Gujarat, to attack journalists and deny them interviews, it is quite another to win hearts and minds of coalition partners or indeed hearts and minds of all Indians in a competitive political space. Strong arm tactics, bullying and a domineering personality are misfits in the coalition era.

Modi’s biggest strengths may become his biggest weaknesses.

Modi’s “strong man at the top” image, the dynamic one man show do-er-politician is also an echo of Indira Gandhi and the Emergency. As historian Ramachandra Guha writes, if there is one politician who Modi resembles, it is the senior Mrs G. When Harin Pathak of the BJP said “Modi is the BJP and the BJP is Modi” he sounded eerily similar to the Congress’ Debakanta Baruah saying “Indira is India and India is Indira.” The big difference between Indira and Modi is that she commanded a brute majority to impose her writ, whereas Modi is only one of a range of satraps.

The model of a Beloved Leader towering above all his party colleagues, exercising complete control over his party machinery and reaching out directly to the people, could become, as in the case of Indira Gandhi, a leader who subverts the constitution and democratic institutions, in the belief that l’etat c’est moi.

Young Indians, who have never had the experience of a strong prime minister yearn for machismo, decisive leadership, fast growth and rapid change. But a prime minister simply cannot deliver on growth the way a chief minister can, precisely because a prime minister has to reckon with multiple stake-holders, multiple chief ministers and multiple pulls and pressures. To think that Modi will be the super chief minister of a “state” called India, and do for India what he did for Gujarat is to misunderstand the roles played by prime ministers and chief minister. A highly centralised government, resting on the persona of a single towering individual, as in the case of Indira Gandhi, spelt danger to democracy.

Modi began his SRCC speech saying in Hindi that he comes from the soil of Gujarat. He then went on to list the development achievements of Gujarat, that Vibrant Gujarat for industrialists co-exists with krishi melas for farmers. He dwelt at length on the importance of “packaging” and “branding”. Ayurveda he said can only be popularised if it is packaged well. India too must be “packaged” and branded in a manner that a “made in India” brand becomes as reliable as a made in Japan brand once was. He also spoke on the fact that salt and milk consumed across India comes from Gujarat. He said while other parties view young voters as a “new age voters”, he sees young as “new age power”.

The 62 year old former pracharak is a master orator and speaks effortlessly, without ever having to use written notes. He is perhaps the only politician to be brave enough to voice an openly pro-business and pro-corporate line. There is no doubt that his record of governance is impressive and should be emulated by chief ministers across India. Modi’s speech (and claim to prime ministership) was based on his proven record in Gujarat.

But apart from his governance record in Gujarat and commitment to growth, Modi’s speech contained no attractive, durable idea. There wasn’t a single idea in the speech that stayed with you. Thinking back on the speech, no phrase or interesting concept or original idea comes to mind, beyond youth power and growth. Growth is like motherhood, growth is a golden truth, everybody loves growth and everybody says they are committed to growth. Even the Left is now speaking about growth. The really tricky questions are how is growth going to be created given all the stakeholders? What is Modi’s vision for creating growth? How will he deal with the challenges facing the economy? How will he create jobs? It’s the ‘’how” that’s important, not the stated objective espoused by every party.

Today India’s cultural emergency of banning books and movies has become a talking point across the world. Gujarat too has a cultural emergency. Aamir Khan’s film Fanaa could not be shown in Gujarat because of the actor’s comments against Modi’s handling of the Narmada dam issue. “Great Soul”, Joseph Lelyveld’s biography of Gandhi has been banned in Gujarat. Journalists and media are routinely targeted by Modi himself in speeches.

Gujaratis may not mind the limits placed on press freedom as long as systems work, just as large sections of the middle class hailed the Emergency, but Modi is not exactly an ally of press freedom or indeed of intellectual freedom, however much of an efficient, scrupulously honest workaholic he may be. Modi’s life and entire career has been spent in the RSS, he is a son of the RSS family. Challenging the Nehruvian consensus from the Right has been the RSS’s mission, and even though Ashok Singhal may call Modi the new Nehru, Modi’s politics are divisive rather than inclusive.

As he stakes a claim to prime ministership, Modi’s biggest strengths may become his biggest weaknesses. A dominant bullying personality and a decisive dynamic style may impress the students of SRCC and the corporate class but when it comes to operating in the competitive terrain of coalition politics a bossy leader might put off potential allies. India of 2013 is very different from the 1970s, today a fractured polity and powerful state leaders mean that there are unlikely to be any massive Gujarat-style or 1970s style poll mandates. And an Indira Gandhi type persona without an Indira Gandhi type mandate is a liability rather than an asset.


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