Cover Story: 4 Years of Modi

Narendra Modi: Still the Unchallenged

PR Ramesh is Managing Editor of Open
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Karnataka adds to the aura of Modi on his fourth anniversary in office

NO INDIAN PRIME Minister in recent memory has had on his shoulders the burden of steering both the Government he heads and the political party he spearheads. No Prime Minister since Jawaharlal Nehru or his daughter Indira Gandhi has wielded such charm as a crowd puller and had the stamina to create history across new geographies. Unlike them both, he didn’t have the popularity and reach of a party apparatus moulded and mobilised by the Mahatma to fall back on. Whether one admires or hates him, Narendra Modi has over the past four years nearly perfected the role of a tireless campaigner determined to go the whole hog in politics, regardless of the grime and dust, election after election.

He strode into the national field like a man possessed, like one of those mythical warriors of yore who would invest vast amounts of time and energy in annexing new territory and then consolidate the gains as though no power was enough power when there was yet another fight to be won.

Modi is both revered and reviled for his outspokenness and disrespect for the status quo, but Indian politics since 2014 has been centred on him, especially wherever his party, the BJP, had a stake or needed one. The cause and consequence of his advance has been the decline and fall of the Congress party, which was not only voted out four years ago after 10 years of being in power at the Centre, but has seen the count of states under its rule collapse from 11 to three in the period since. Modi began his Lok Sabha campaign in 2014 exhorting the electorate to vote for a ‘Congress- free India’, and as of now, the rival party’s electability looks unable to recover from its crash in 2014, when it was reduced to its lowest tally in Parliament. In the just-concluded Assembly polls of Karnataka, it has slid from 122 seats five years earlier to 78 now.

Modi had hit the ground running in 2013 once it was clear that he would be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the General Election the following year. At the time, some leaders in his own party were not fully convinced that he was the right choice. This, despite the fact that the then Chief Minister of Gujarat had more than adequately demonstrated his sway over voters in the western state he had won time and again. As the campaign for 2014 got underway, instead of calling the phenomenon of his rising appeal as a national leader what it was—a wave—opinion writers back then preferred to term it just a ‘force multiplier’ for his party. It was especially evident in Rajasthan: constituencies where Modi campaigned won the BJP greater margins of victory than other seats. The same was true of Madhya Pradesh as well as Chhattisgarh, where the BJP bucked anti-incumbency and created history by not doing well in Bastar and still forming the state government. Still, there was some hesitation in giving him his due credit.

However, over the next few months in the run-up to 2014, the Modi effect was felt by his rivals even in the eastern states of Bihar and elsewhere, with leaders who would otherwise have lobbied hard for tickets refusing to contest the polls in fear of being swamped over by a BJP wave. As they say, the rest was history: for the first time since 1984, a single party had the numbers to form a government at the Centre on its own. Politically, it was a dramatic event in national politics, an obliteration of a long-held myth that coalition politics marked by dependence on regional players was there to stay.

An astute politician blessed with oratorical skills, Modi knew the Lok Sabha triumph was just the beginning. It was time to follow it through with a string of wins in the states as well, displaying his sustained popularity on his way to the next General Election. Expansion was the game. Maharashtra was the first challenge, and in a state where a Congress-led alliance and the provincial Shiv Sena had invariably called the shots, the BJP, for the first time, became a power to reckon with on its own. Other rival strongholds also began to crumble under the weight of a BJP campaign aided by strategy and vision. After that, barring two resounding defeats in Delhi and Bihar, the party has been on a winning spree, amassing significant gains across the country. And now in Karnataka, against provincial forces of linguistic chauvinism, the BJP has emerged as the single-largest party in a fiercely fought election. The overall score card looks impressive: the party is in power in 22 states. The Modi Wave shows no sign of abating and he remains the man in control.

Over the past four years, Narendra Modi and his team have been subjected to much scrutiny and criticism. But the Prime Minister does not allow himself to be distracted from the job he has been given by the country's electorate

Even Modi’s opponents secretly concede that one of his biggest assets is his ‘outsider’ tag, which he has managed to retain even four years after moving to Delhi to assume office. As Prime Minister, he is a hard task master who keeps a close watch of almost all that his Government does. This also explains his connect with the marginalised yet aspirational classes of the country. The chord he has struck with the poor sets him apart from other leaders who, while saying similar things, often end up being branded as part of an ‘establishment’ that has largely been discredited. Scholar Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s observations on Modi perhaps sum up that appeal: ‘The fellow is an ascetic and I usually trust people who are ascetic.’

Modi’s life story holds its own fascination for vast numbers. The boy from Vadnagar, the son of a teashop owner who made it to the top, not only is he seen as destiny’s child, but an original. He has defied the rules of political correctness, embracing Hindutva politics so unabashedly that governance with a Hindu theme has become the new normal. He has refused to confine himself to the old political lexicon of Lutyens’ Delhi, overturning all manner of received wisdom from the Nehruvian past. He has finessed a vocabulary of his own, one that plays to saffron sentiment, and made it the language of the country’s highest echelons of power. He has made no bones about having been groomed in the RSS. In the process, he has also created a Hindu constituency that until recently lay dormant or scattered and is now showing signs of cohesion and effervescence. He has rejected the idea that pluralism demands that a leader occasionally wear a Muslim skullcap in public and has paid little attention to such faux displays of brotherhood.

Like his bond with the poor—who invest their trust in him despite his ambitious yet disruptive measures such as demonetisation, which turned a vast chunk of currency illegal tender overnight— his appeal among Hindus in general appears to have grown, despite his running down weed-smoking sadhus, urging them to change with the times, study Hindu philosophy and break free of indolence. India’s have-nots may have borne the brunt of the inconvenience caused by notebandi, but as the economist Jagdish Bhagwati observed, the fact that there was no violence or unrest among people was a sign of people’s confidence in the Modi Government and its goals. He was right: contrary to the expectations of some, his emergent Hindu constituency and the poorest of the poor stood firmly behind him, as seen in his party’s emphatic victory in the polls held a few months later in Uttar Pradesh, where their troubles in the wake of demonetisation were not even an issue.

Modi’s image among aspirational lower-income groups as a man on a mission to change India and as a moderniser has helped him not only win votes, but also govern the country with the resolve of a leader aware of the strength of his backing. Also noteworthy, say observers, is his ability to detach himself from the excesses of power, which he combines with an inclination to question old attitudes and unsettle the bureaucracy.

Modi sets targets for various schemes, and appraisals of ministers and officers are done not on their broad claims, but on specific performance metrics against deadlines. Those who perform well, especially among ministers, are rewarded

The countrywide Hindu constituency that he has been working to create as a force has not fully taken shape yet, but evidence of it had surfaced as early as the state polls of 2013. His visits, not only to poll-bound states such as Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan but also Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, had begun to evoke interest even among his ideological opponents. He had an impact on the BJP’s mentor, the RSS, too; it was as though Sangh workers had found a new purpose in life, galvanised by the arrival of a man they looked up to. This trend has caught on and opposition efforts to contain it have produced no results; on the other hand, they seem to have boomeranged. Take Karnataka, for instance, where the former Congress government of Siddaramaiah had favoured the according of ‘minority’ status to the state’s numerically strong Lingayats, a grouping of 99 largely OBC and Dalit castes, thereby officially placing them outside the Hindu religious fold.

Despite the Congress campaign, Lingayats voted largely for the BJP, laying to rest any doubt of their affiliation. Such indications of a robust Hindu nationalism gaining in currency across the country are abundant now, thanks to Modi’s espousal of it. In keeping with this, he has distanced himself from what he perceives as contrived definitions of propriety that have long held sway over the national capital. Being an outsider, he appears to relish reaching out to the poor and disadvantaged through myriad welfare schemes, part of his agenda of inclusive governance that he expects will deliver the best political outcomes.

Often, consummate politicians tend to be sloppy with governance, a charge that was levelled even against Barack Obama in the US. Having been a chief minister for 13 years, Modi has a record of revitalising governance to make room for an industrial boom. He achieved this in Gujarat; and even though a few business leaders had been critical of him in the aftermath of the 2002 violence there, he ran what analysts described as a business-friendly administration. It was also in his home-state that he learnt to get his message across to people via social media, bypassing the traditional vehicles of print and television that appeared ranged against him at the time. Hard work was the mantra. His team at the Chief Minister’s Office would diligently scour newspapers and collect information about the needy—be it a school without a roof or a village without a toilet—and then walk the last mile to solve the problem. Stories of such ‘direct interventions’ made an impression on people who could hardly believe that the high and mighty could take such an interest in their lives. The outreach helped Modi tighten his grip on Gujarat.

Things aren’t very different in the Prime Minister’s Office today. Reams have been written about Modi working closely with his trusted bureaucrats. Unlike in the recent past, the PMO is not just a recipient of ideas and PowerPoint presentations on policies are taken and work done by various ministries. According to those in the know, Modi sets targets for various schemes in consultation with top bureaucrats and others, and appraisals of ministers and IAS officers are done not on their broad claims, but on specific performance metrics against strict deadlines. Those who perform well, especially among ministers, are rewarded with more responsibility, while laggards are shown the exit.

It’s true that the PMO has been run with exemplary efficiency even in times past—think of the time that PN Haksar used to man the office—but even in those days, it was more or less an office of oversight. Under Modi now, it plays the role of a change agent within, and the transition he has effected appears to have rattled IAS officers used to handling things on their own pace. The PMO now keeps a tab on each major decision, even as channels of communication with the party are kept open so as to allow the Government and the party to work in tandem. The processes of governance and politics have been linked to operate in unison. This system of governing the country, ministers argue, is designed to bring gains both for the ruling party and the people at large.

Rooted in Hindutva and grounded in governance, the Prime Minister is experimenting with stereotype-defying vision to expand the footprint of his politics. Such is his aura that most negative campaigns against him have fizzled out

Rooted in Hindutva and grounded in governance, the Prime Minister is experimenting with a stereotype-defying vision to expand the footprint of his politics far and wide. While bureaucrats and ministers have been made accountable for their actions, any cynicism that the Government is different from its politics has been put to rest, and the apparent courage of Modi’s conviction in doing this seems to have endeared him to his supporters. Such is his aura that most negative campaigns against him—such as the charge that he polarises people by religious faith—have fizzled out over the past four years. This is at least partly because of the bold stance he has taken on his ideology, which he does not compromise through any pretence to upholding so-called secular principles. His authenticity has won him admirers.

Contrast Modi’s style with that of Congress leaders. Indira Gandhi too had deployed Hindu nationalism in the early 1980s to fight secessionist forces in Punjab (and win Hindu votes in the bargain), all of it under the cloak of secularism. A similar attempt was made in the late 1980s by her son Rajiv Gandhi, perhaps to compensate for being seen to appease minorities by enacting a law in response to a legal verdict on a Muslim woman’s right to alimony; he had tried to placate Hindu seers seeking the ‘liberation of Ramjanmabhoomi’ by opening for rituals a disputed site in Ayodhya—the one where the Babri Masjid stood—and then launching a campaign for the 1989 Lok Sabha from this town in an obvious effort to woo devotees of Lord Ram.

In more recent times, Rajiv’s son Rahul Gandhi has been visiting one temple after another. He did this in Gujarat last year and also in Karnataka, where he did the rounds of many Hindu maths. The current Congress strategy of shoring up its majority credentials, it seems, involves trying to attract Muslim voters without openly being seen as doing so; this, observers say, smacks of hypocrisy. The Congress’ other approach, of portraying Modi and his party as anti-Dalit, has not made headway either as poll outcomes show.

The main opposition party seems too steeped in old thinking to recover its electoral appeal. It reminds one of the scenario captured by the American journalist and author Mark Leibovich in his book, This Town, which lays bare the secret world of Washington’s power players who are so full of their privileges that they fail to notice what’s was going on.

What the opposition and its supporters need is to introspect, not celebrate the coming together of the Congress and JD-S in a joint bid for power in Bengaluru, nor make extravagant claims about how such an alliance could deal the BJP a blow in 2019. The hype over such arithmetic is built on fond hopes and obscures a major takeaway from the Karnataka polls: the BJP’s emergence as the single largest party marks the success of a larger narrative of cultural nationalism over Congress ploys like its divisive Lingayat decision. Siddaramaiah’s efforts to stoke Kannada linguistic chauvinism and his allegations of a ‘conspiracy’ by North Indians to impose Hindi on this state did not help him retain office. He also derided Modi and BJP chief Amit Shah as ‘North Indian’ imports. They addressed rallies in Hindi and triumphed nonetheless.

It is clear that what helped Modi and Shah prevail was the sentiment of Hindu nationalism which crossed the Vindhyas and undid the Congress formula of ‘Ahinda’, a social coalition of Backwards, Dalits and Muslims that has held the party in good stead in times past. Some commentators had expected them to fetch the party more than half the electorate’s votes in Karnataka. However Hindu resentment against the party’s religious tactics vis-à-vis Lingayats played a larger role. Those who did not fall into that trap include many maths and seers who have long championed the case of Lingayats being a separate religious community.

Today, the Congress is in power in places where only a fraction of Indian citizens reside, while the BJP and its allies preside over an electorate that accounts for more than 60 per cent of the country’s voting population.

Over the past four years, Modi and his team have been subjected to much scrutiny, even villainised, but this is not new to him. He was a victim of similar opprobrium when he was Chief Minister of Gujarat. His Government has been charged with plenty by its critics, from ‘intolerance’ and ‘bigotry’ to ‘minority baiting’ to ‘fascism at the gates’, but the Prime Minister does not allow himself to be distracted from the job he has been given by the country’s electorate through a free and fair General Election.

There is another one due within a year, and Modi remains unchallenged as a national leader. He has tenacious volunteers working for him in the field. In Karnataka, they took his message far and wide, and he is aware of the difference it makes. He is also aware that he is seen across the country as the man of the hour. Now more firmly in power than ever before, it’s clear that he intends to keep it that way from one victory to the next.

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