In India 2014, Narendra Modi was the name of the rapture. He was the argument that India had won.
So what did Modi mean as India awaited freedom from the rule of a hologram called Manmohan Singh? Perhaps, that was not the case. Manmohan Singh was irrelevant; and he was bound to wither away with no honour left. Candidate Modi was pitted against a set of ideas that stifled India—ideas inherited from the holy ghosts of our founders and ideas borrowed from the fatherlands of the Left.
We need to tell the backstory here.
The biggest idea was the state as protector, preserver, guide and, most importantly, the arbiter of our ambitions. The foundation of the big state, the Indian Leviathan, was set by our first Prime Minister. Nehruvian nation building was about building a socialist super state as well, controlling and compassionate. Freedom’s nascent years, to a great extent, required we-know-better intervention from the wiser leader.
Nehru was wiser and, certainly, necessary at that moment in freedom, but the same could not be said about the state that became wiser than the individual—an old socialist pretence. The only redeeming feature was that India, unlike many other post-colonial societies, remained a democracy, and the liberators did not turn into dictators. And Nehru, a Westernised socialist and internationalist, was one of the most sophisticated minds of his time. By the time Mrs Gandhi became the unforgiving Mother India, marking the second phase of socialism, the state was bigger—and rotten.
Those were the days when nationalism was a socialist’s exaggerated sense of welfarism, and Mrs G, India’s first maximum leader, was its unrivalled exponent. She made use of the freedom a democracy as volatile as India offered to play out what could be called ‘emotional nationalism’, kitschy but effective as an instrument of mass sorcery. The state danced to her temptations, and the state was sinister and secretive. It was socialism rearmed.
The 90s differed. Paradoxically, it was the outsider- Congressman who shattered the comforting idyll of the socialist state. The state of layered socialist control began to open up—call it Narasimha Rao’s version of glasnost. He did not entirely free the market; a partly de-socialised state let the marketplace breathe. The Rao era was the third critical phase in the evolution of the Leviathan.
Elsewhere in India, the streets were erupting. It was a different kind of nationalist stirring, powered by an argument that challenged the certainties of the socialist- secular state. A chariot, driven by Hindu nationalism’s time traveller, would run through the aggrieved minds of political Hindus. Displaced gods would be retrieved from the backyards of mythology, and in the frenzy of rebuilding a vandalised civilisation, the shrine of the other religion would be demolished. If the social engineering of the Mandal Commission sharpened the fault lines of an India caught between the affinities of caste and the attitudes of modernity, Mandir politics made the face-off between the two varieties of nationalism— cultural and socialist—bitter.
The historic moment of the Right in power was not a victory in the clash between two ideas of tomorrow; it was a cultural rejoinder to the socialist-secular state. In spite of the universal acceptance of Atal Bihari Vajpayee as a unifier, the much-needed Dubcek of the Indian Right after the masculine abrasiveness of the Hindu nationalists, it was a romance undone by those who did not realise the responsibility demanded by that history-shifting mandate. In the end, it was not the folly of a slogan— ‘India Shining’; it was the folly of small men entrusted with a big idea of change.
It made the horror of the UPA possible; it made the transgressions of the reformed socialist state possible.
The state might have become leaner; it was, nevertheless, more opaque and unaccountable than before. When the Regulation Raj became the new Licence Raj, crony capitalism was inevitable. In an economy controlled— or, say, regulated—by the state, there were few growth avenues for ‘good’ capitalists. The Manmohan Singh decade, in retrospect, brought out the perversions and pathologies of Congressism more starkly than the combined years of his predecessors did. The state lost the popular vote; its managers looked out of place. India was impatient to be reclaimed.
In such a context, only Narendra Modi had the text to regain India—let us be magnanimous enough to admit that. It was not a text born out of scriptural misreading; it was not an absolutist narrative on a greater yesterday either. He could have, going by the conventional wisdom of Hindutva, mined mythology for his metaphors. Modi on the stump was one of those rare performances that reduced the distance between traditionalism and modernity. Being modern in 21st century India, it emerged from his stump speeches, was not about being freed from the idea of the nation; it was about being Indian, as a citizen, nationalist, and individual who is not subordinated to the benevolence of the state.
Candidate Modi was more ambitious than his party. He wanted every Indian—or at least the one who would listen to him—to re-imagine his covenant with the nation. Even as he invited them—the young who are not trapped in history—to dream with him, he refused to assure them that the state alone would be the deliverer. He was candidate as part evangelist, part proselytiser, part communitarian, all the while stressing the responsibility of being an Indian in an India abused and plundered. He wanted his struggle for power to be every Indian’s struggle against the perversions and pathologies of power. It was as if he wanted to be in power only to redefine it. For those who were swayed by him, the struggle was a nationalist responsibility. And like any other revolutionary, he let the dreams soar. That was change; the Right before him let fantasies of a religious Ruritania be the alternative to the Godforsaken secular state.
It was a personal as well as political battle for Modi. Personally, he had nothing except his own biography as an illustrated narrative on the possibilities of being Indian. It was: ‘Make-in-India and look at me.’ The political battle was fiercer, and as lonely as the personal one. It was perhaps the longest political campaign, and it was certainly the only one begun from what could have been the embers of his career. In 2002, when Gujarat erupted in communal riots, the chief ministership of Narendra Modi too could have vanished in the flames. The years that followed saw a lone man’s fight for retrieving himself from an ebony black caricature: a man-eater by the Sabarmati, an image enlarged by the evil mongers of Left-liberal India. There are people who still believe that there was no need for Modi to say ‘mea culpa’ but he should have said ‘sorry’ for the crimes of others, true statesmanlike; that he should not have airbrushed the past.
He was overcoming 2002 in his own way, with the kind of ingenuity rarely seen in Indian politics. He began re- inventing himself while rebuilding the state—and turned every assembly election he fought and won into a referendum on himself. It was biography-is-destiny all through, and, even as he played the role of the develop- ment man to perfection, he talked only India. The conversation was consistently national. And this project in creating his own iconography was not an act appreciated by a party that was still wallowing in defeatism. Modi dared to be ambitious in a country that frowns upon the individual struggle for power as some kind of moral anomaly. The man who came from nowhere and then became the abiding conversation of political India made himself inevitable for the BJP, which by then had already abandoned the natural space of the Right, and then for India. The political victory, for Modi, was a personal vindication as well.
The Modi mandate in 2014 was not a repetition of Vajpayee’s rise. Then it was the cultural nationalists who won the election, though, much to India’s relief, Vajpayee himself did not carry forward their agenda. He was not obliged—or subordinated—to the foot soldiers of Ram Rajya. Modi could keep the base energised without shooting a single arrow that was his to lift from Ram’s bow. Without alienating cultural nationalists—more aptly perhaps religious nationalists—Modi won the economic argument. There were no eulogies on cow-dung capitalism. If there indeed was a Utopia, it was built on silicon, more Deng than Ram. Modi demolished the myth that the poor in India could only be moved by maudlin socialism. He did not go for ghetto-friendly rhetoric; he sold them modernity. He was not the condescending saviour; he was the inclusive moderniser.
The overwhelming question today is: has the economic argument lost its edge, or has it become less audible in the din of religious nationalism? For those who were looking for a re-run of the drama that characterised his campaign in governance, he was a bit of a disappointment. And the little reforms missed the front pages. ‘The end of the Congress Century’ was a hurried, premature celebration in the wake of Vajpayee. The end came, after an extended afterlife, when Modi gave his first Independence Day speech from the Red Fort. When he announced the redundancy of the Planning Commission, he was repudiating the ideal of the socialist state. That was reform with drama, and it meant Modi wanted to start his lessons of development on a clean slate.
We should see this boldness in the backdrop of the Right’s permanent struggle for the marketplace and the mind. The Right has seldom won the culture wars; but it has invariably won the economic wars. The immediate examples are Reaganism and Thatcherism, and let us also remember that both America and Britain are essentially conservative societies. In India, the Right was, in the post- Vajpayee era, on the verge of losing both the economic and culture wars. In spite of Modi, the Indian Right is a bit defensive when it comes to articulating an economic agenda, as if it is mortally scared of shopkeepers with veto power. It is a perception malady. Modi’s victory is sustained by India’s biggest demographic force: the youth. Their vote is an investment in the future, not an endorsement of the status quo. Modi knows that he cannot afford to be a hesitant reformer, but you still cannot miss the caution with which his government announces breakthrough reforms, the coal sector being a good example. Some market observers call it ‘reform by stealth’.
Maybe it is a case of his refusal to keep pace with the expectations of India. His hyperactive internationalism, though, shows that he is far from being a tentative leader. The systematic manner in which he engages with the world brings out a leader who is determined to sculpt an Asian leadership with democratic legitimacy. The Indian Right, by instinct, does not trust the West—the cultural polluter. Neither does the Left—for reasons imperial. That is why India missed the crucial decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall; we were still trapped in the Cold War mindset, nursing our pet shibboleths. It was Vajpayee who rejected anti-Americanism for the sake of national interest. Modi’s conversation with the West is a measure of his confidence—in himself and in the possibilities of 21st century India. Third Worldism is dead for us; today the idea is about being modern, and it is the idea of freedom in the economic as well as cultural space. At home, Modi so far prefers gradualism to kinetic market philosophy. We do not know whether it is out of fear or caution.
We can still take that. It is the cultural discourse of the rearmed nationalists—an expression of entitlement— that mars Modi’s modernisation agenda. The cultural establishment of the Right is certainly not in tune with the economic vision Modi has been selling as candidate and as Prime Minister. Is it that the Right has surrendered the argument about identity and heritage to the lunatic fringe of the Sangh Parivar? What unites a Sushma Swaraj and a Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti is the rawness, the brazenness, of their statements, which I will not call an argument. You could argue about the natural instincts of converted Hindus queuing up for a ‘homecoming’, or about its cultural acceptability, but there is something horribly jarring when you put Modi’s techno-vision of India against the image of the holy fire of the conversion ritual in Agra. It is a great idea if more Indian students learn the classical language of Sanskrit, but we do not want to be told by politicians about its importance in shaping our Indianness. The cultural right is bound to lose the argument if it continues to be as unrefined as it is now. The argument has to be redeemed from the mad men (and women) of the Right. In the marketplace of arguments, there is no alternative to the sophistication of the mind.
Has Modi stopped arguing once he reached Delhi? This magazine has earlier argued that he is a permanent campaigner, and power is the highest pulpit for such a politician. Forget all those comparative studies involving Putin, Erdogan and Modi, for the strength of Modi’s leadership is drawn from the free will of a civil society, perhaps the most evolved one in this part of the world. It is the leader’s moment to renew the argument as the one who has the strength of commitment to silence the medievalists. Let the gospel of change come from the Prime Moderniser’s Office—not from the hallucinations of Hindutva’s culture-sevaks.