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Where Is Modi Taking India?

By Sandip Roy Email By Sandip Roy
November 2015
Where Is Modi Taking India?

Narendra Modi’s election was a game-changer in Indian politics, and not just because of his humble origins. While his rise from chaiwallah roots was indeed inspirational, let’s make no mistake. The man was elected not because he was the humble chaiwallah but because he was the very powerful chief minister of Gujarat. He was elected promising India something called the Gujarat model of economic development. A grateful nation, weary of sectarian politics, responded with a huge mandate—for progress and development. Writer Aatish Taseer, who covered those heady days of the Modi campaign, wrote in The New York Times: Given his background in Hindu nationalism, he was justly an object of suspicion. When journalists from Delhi would prod voters into giving sectarian reasons for electing him, a majority would stoutly reply, “Why are you asking us about temples, when we’re telling you that we’re electing him because we think he’ll bring development?” That was the mandate. It was very moving, and like many, I held my breath. 

The Paradigm Shift

The symbolic shift that Modi represented was that he was the first Indian prime minister to have been born after Independence. That really marked a passing of the baton and, in that sense, the arrival of a leader who was looking forward instead of looking back at a hallowed past of khadi and sacrifice.

Clearly, there was a cultural change happening in India. Lord Meghnad Desai, drawing an analogy from Bollywood, remarked that Indians were thirsting for a Dabanng hero. “They want someone who can kick butt. He is not just an angry young man. He is a police officer. Modi is that image.”

Never The Twain Shall Meet

Modi-Enlight1.jpgA year from then, Modi remains as powerful as ever. According to a Pew Research Center poll, his popularity remains at an enviable high––87 percent. India has not descended into communal riots and the Ram temple has not been fast-tracked as some of his most dire critics had warned. On the other hand, many who had been wary of a Hindutva agenda but bullish on a development agenda, have been frustrated with the perceived slow pace of reforms, many of the promises marked by stalling, half-measures, even U-turns. While his public approval seems to have remained high, some high-profile supporters are less sure. Economist Bibek Debroy, very sympathetic to the Gujarat model, has said Modi’s NDA feels like “nothing but the same [Congress led] UPA regime with better implementation.”

Log in to Twitter conversations and it seems like there are two Narendra Modis, the twain never destined to meet.

Development Modi is a result-oriented technocrat. Before Modi became the PM, I remember meeting a bureaucrat in Delhi who told me about how much he envied his colleagues in Gujarat. Everyone had a story about how Modi came directly to them with a problem, listened to their solution and then just got it done. “He actually listens,” said the bureaucrat wistfully. That Modi is hard-working, supremely disciplined, brooks no nonsense and is personally incorruptible. Modi played up that image in his blitzkrieg of a campaign, crisscrossing the country with rallies, often several in the same day. Keenly aware that there were doubts about a Gujarati leader’s national appeal in other corners of the country, he left no stone, or hologram, unturned in his outreach. By his digs at the Gandhi family’s damaad and the maa-bete sarkar, he repeatedly reminded the audience that they did not have to worry about dynastic, family-based nepotism from him. The Opposition’s responses to these attacks were, at best, feeble and lost on a nation eager to buy into Modi’s vision of a progressive, new India.

Then there was the other Modi, the Sangh Modi, one who had not come out from the shadow of 2002 and perhaps never would, no matter what courts said or did not say. That Modi was also in evidence during the campaign but less so. That Modi was polarizing, he did not play well with others. This was the Modi who steadfastly refused to wear a Muslim skullcap though he wore a hornbill hat in the northeast and a Sikh turban with élan. That Modi both answered and evaded questions about Hindutva by saying the Constitution was his holy book and that his motto was sab ka saath sab ka vikaas, a desi version of the ‘rising tide lifts all boats’. The fear was that the election of that Modi would be a green signal to the fringe elements of Hindutva who would feel as if their turn had come because their
man was in power.

The Sounds of Silence

Each side sees the Modi they want to see. Nothing was clearer proof of that than the reaction to the recent horrific lynching of a Muslim man in Dadri village, Uttar Pradesh, on the suspicion that he was eating beef. Some saw it as clinching proof of a Modi’s India that was increasingly intolerant of difference and lurching into bigotry, where fringe extremists had infiltrated the mainstream. Others saw it as a misbegotten rush to pin the blame of anything and everything on Modi, of a liberal elite blinded by their hatred for the man. As writers around India, starting with 88-year-old Nayantara Sahgal,  registered their protest by returning Sahitya Akademi awards and honors, many dubbed it the #SelectiveOutrage of  literati who had not seen fit to return those honors earlier. For instance, after the 1984 Sikh massacres.

But if there was indeed #SelectiveOutrage, it was matched by the Prime Minister’s #SelectiveSilence. Modi is not Manmohan Singh. That was his great asset on the campaign trail because here was a man who clearly enjoyed the crowds, reaching out to them via social media, chai pe charchas, and a punishing schedule of public appearances. His media interviews followed much later. As PM, he kept up his direct engagement with ordinary folks, tweeting on all kinds of issues, posing for selfies, popping up on Instagram, launching a Modi app, and delivering Franklin Roosevelt’s Fire-side chat-style Mann ki Baat radio lectures. Thus, when that Modi opted not to address the Dadri lynching
for days, choosing to tweet birthday greetings to world leaders and wishing an ailing cricketer well instead, his silence spoke louder than words.

Even Tavleen Singh, who describes herself as a “supporter of Modi” and is certainly no friend of the Gandhis, was underwhelmed by what Modi said when he finally spoke on the issue.  She wrote “He did not say he was appalled by the terrible murder of Mohammed Akhlaq, but said that Hindus and Muslims had to decide if their fight was against poverty or against each other. It was not a strong message and it came too late. By then the lunatic Hindutva fringe that lurks in his shadow had made it clear that they approved of Akhlaq’s murder, because to them the possible death of a cow was more important.” Surjit Singh Bhalla, chairman of Oxus Investments, who was a strong critic of the Manmohan Singh government and a supporter of Modi, wondered in the Indian Express “How did Modi make the major mistake of tweeting about all and sundry – including a blood clot operation of a former cricketer – but not find the time, or have the inclination, to merely tweet about (forget protest or condemn) this horrible murder?”

Given that Modi is not predisposed to silence like his taciturn predecessor, one cannot but think that the silence was also deliberate. Modi chose not to speak. When he did, he seemed to just echo President Pranab Mukherjee and uttered platitudes. In an interview a few days later with the ABP group Modi protested, “To what extent is the role of the central government in these incidents?” Juxtapose that with statements from his own MPs like Sakshi Maharaj––who escaped unscathed with his remark that Hindus would kill or be killed to uphold the sanctity of the cow––and the worry factor again rears its head. Who’s the real Modi? That’s what led a Nayantara Sahgal to say in her statement, “The Prime Minister remains silent about this reign of terror. We must assume he dare not alienate evil-doers who support his ideology.” 

The New Sheriff

This is where the two visions of Modi collide uneasily. In the early days of the Modi sarkar, stories abounded about a new sheriff in town. Bureaucrats, it was said, had to show up at work on time and stay late because files had to be cleared fast. This was the era of the empowered bureaucrat. The stories were not unwelcome because after the lackadaisical, scam-ridden Congress sarkar, a PM who was very clearly in charge felt like a much-needed change.

What seems incredulous to some is how Modi can be so firmly in command yet allow so many “fringe elements” in his party, including sitting MPs and ministers, to shoot their mouth off with impunity. Mahesh Sharma, the culture minister, has proven to be major foot-in-the-mouth embarrassment with comments like the late President A. P. J. Abdul Kalam being a great nationalist and humanist “despite being Muslim.”  That’s where the silence of Modi feels difficult to explain away, knowing full well that he can seize the bully pulpit and appear as a statesman-in-chief, the way Obama takes the reins of a national conversation, whether it’s after a school shooting or #IStandWithAhmed.

The Development Report Card

In his one year  #SaalEkShuruaatAnek round up, Modi wrote, “We assumed office at a time when confidence in the India story was waning. Unabated corruption and indecisiveness had paralyzed the government. People had been left helpless against ever climbing inflation and economic insecurity. Urgent and decisive action was needed.”

It is debatable whether he was able to provide that impetus in the first year. Forbes gave him a B- , lauding him for a general improvement in the economy, currency stabilization and cutting the inflation rate in half, some of it helped by falling oil and gold prices worldwide. The government did open up more than 125 million bank accounts for the country’s poorest citizens, whether or not they had money to put in them. 

Modi made an electoral vow of “Na khaaoonga, na khaaney doonga” (will not take bribes, or allow them). While some ministers have been embroiled in a few scandals, most of the scandals pre-date Modi and none of them have the multi-billion dollar stench that clung to the prior Congress government.  Modi claims his government has expedited regulatory clearances and according to India Real Time, the Environment Ministry says that between May 2014 and September 2015 it has given the green signal to 788 large-scale environmental projects as opposed to 498 in the year ending March 31 2014 and 439 the year before that. The NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman Arvind Panagiriya told the Economic Times: “If you take full stock of what the present government has done in its first year, you will see that the present government has done in its first year more to advance the cause of reforms than the previous government did in all its 10 years put together.”

On the debit side, the government seemed helpless before the Opposition’s determination to stall a cornerstone land reform bill, ultimately throwing up its hands and backtracking. The Swachh Bharat campaign, launched with much fanfare, now limps along. The One Rank One Pension agitation by armed forces veterans was also mishandled and allowed to continue much longer than it needed to without the PM’s intervention. The Goods and Services Tax bill got stuck in a parliamentary logjam and now the PM hopes it will roll out in 2016. The BJP lacks numbers in the Rajya Sabha, and the Opposition, if it unites, can force the government into a deadlock there as it has done more than once.

Having said all that, a Forbes India and BMR Advisors survey after one year of the Modi government found 87 percent of senior industry leaders feeling the government was pro-business and pro-development. Seventy one percent believed that the PM’s Make in India campaign would have the highest long-term impact on the economy but only 29 percent believed that sufficient steps have been taken to stimulate the campaign.

International Modi

Where Narendra Modi has gotten a clear A is his performance abroad. Given his less than cosmopolitan background, he surprised his critics with his panache on the world stage. His very first gesture of inviting SAARC leaders to his inauguration caught everyone by surprise as did his prompt response to the Nepal earthquake. There were fears that the visa snub from the US Congress would embitter him and affect his relationship with the USA. Again, Modi proved his critics otherwise, building a tangible rapport with leaders like Obama. Every foreign trip has been a resounding success and he has parlayed “rockstar” appearances like the one at Madison Square Garden into an occasion to demonstrate to the world that his appeal does not know national boundaries. Having moved to raise FDI caps in different sectors including defence, Modi has ensured that he gets a very warm welcome abroad.

While the tangible benefits of his foreign travels is measured in FDI, there is a larger, perhaps more important intangible benefit. Modi’s assured presence on the world stage comes as a confidence booster to the very idea of India as a world player at home and abroad. The International Day of Yoga was a PR spectacle but also a demonstration of India’s soft power and a ghar wapsi of a tradition that had become more Western than Indian.

What Modi taps into brilliantly is the diaspora’s need to not feel like India’s stepchildren. If he wants to assuage the NRI American of the guilt of having abandoned Mother India for the American Dollar Dream, he cleverly offers gratitude, reassurance, and much needed recognition, to Gulf-based Indians, many of whom have gone there as laborers and whose foreign remittances have hugely contributed to India’s coffers.  

One black spot in this immaculate overseas report card has been the Modi government’s crackdown on international NGOs like the Ford Foundation and Greenpeace. Ostensibly, there are technical reasons to justify the crackdown; however, the style of its execution has raised eyebrows. Only the most willfully blind will pretend that this spurt of govern-ment muscle-flexing when it comes to NGOs is just about bookkeeping and has nothing to do with the ideology of those organizations. Clearly, the message is this: there are NGOs that this government likes, NGOs it tolerates, and NGOs it wants to get rid of. And if you are in the last group—and an NGO like Greenpeace routinely rankles governments—you’d better make sure all your i’s are dotted and t’s are crossed. The Modi government has clearly signal-ed it would prefer NGOs that work on vaccines rather than espouse democracy. Modi as the Fountainhead

The question is, what does this all add up to? Anti-Modi activists coined the hashtag #ModiFail and sent Mark Zuckerberg bottles of handwash after he shook Modi’s hands. Modi’s supporters insist he has delivered more than could be expected in one year and any criticism of the man is the work of “presstitutes” and “news traders”.

What’s indisputable is that Modi looms large over the Indian consciousness. That remains both his greatest asset and greatest handicap. The clamor for Modi to speak up on all kinds of issues, whether it’s Dadri or church burnings, is as high as it is because all sides realize that ultimately the one voice that counts is the PM’s voice. That also means the buck stops with him. 

The centralization of power in the PMO does not automatically mean a one-track window to double-digit growth. Shashi Tharoor writes in India Shastra “How does one interpret a PM who speaks of ‘minimal government, maximum governance’ but is in the process of running the most centralized, top-down, bureaucracy-driven, personality-cult dominated central government since Indira Gandhi’s Emergency rule?”

It means organizations remain headless because everyone is waiting on the PMO. It also means that when B-grade film actor Gajendra Chauhan is appointed to head the Film and Television Institute of India, it immediately reflects on the PM himself. 

As if all this doesn’t have the average Indian’s head in a spin, there are the disturbing demands for bans of every stripe––on books, plays, and popular culture, to name a few–– and threats to writers, intellectuals, and artists that speak of a rising level of intolerance. So is India turning into a Modi-fied Hindu Rashtra where civil liberties and free speech are threatened? The jury is out on that one. Salman Rushdie, in an NDTV interview opined, “…the ordinary right to organize an event in which people can talk about books and ideas freely and without hostility, that seems to be in real grave danger in India today.” That sounds a bit dire given that it was a Congress government in place when Rushdie was forced to stay away from the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2012. Journalist Sadanand Dhume quipped on Twitter, “How do we know freedom of expression in India is dead? By reading eight op-eds and watching three angry TV debates about it every day.”

The Peril of Perceptions

It is, however, a question of perceptions. The Congress was perceived to be a party that pandered to minorities and treated Muslims as a vote bank. The BJP is likewise perceived to be a Hindu nationalist party, which means it will be held to a higher standard when it comes to communally sensitive issues. “A Dadri incident, if it had happened during a Congress regime, would have been treated as an aberration; during BJP rule it will be treated as a vile act that the BJP is directly responsible for even if it happens in a state ruled by a “secular” party like the Samajwadi Party,” wrote R. Jagannathan in Firstpost

It is indeed unfair to Modi to lay all communal tensions in his lap, whether it’s prohibiting Muslims at garba dances in some areas or the pulping of Wendy Doniger’s book on Hinduism. If the Vishwa Hindu Parishad grabs headlines by trying to keep Muslims out of the garba, what does that mean––no garba for Muslims in Modi’s India? Or in VHP’s India? Or is it the latter taking advantage of the former?

Media coverage of contentious issues—especially 24/7 TV news channels—provide little scope for careful investigations and reasoned analysis, and only add to confused public perceptions. Take, for example, the inexplicable arson attacks on churches in 2014. Journalist Rupa Subramanya showed that the hysteria about the burnings under the Modi sarkar did not, in fact, prove a systematic anti-Christian campaign. One incident was caused by an electric short circuit, another a drunken dare, another was a straightforward burglary. Also, she revealed, it was not just three churches that were vandalized in Delhi but also 206 temples, 30 gurdwaras and 14 mosques. “An entire narrative of a rising tide of religious intolerance in India has been crafted, on the back of unpersuasive evidence, such as these six incidents and misinformation around the conversion and reconversion debate in India,” wrote Subramanya.

The PM, in his first year, has put forth goals that are wonderful rallying points for a nation.  No one opposes a cleaner Ganga. Everyone supports a Swachh Bharat. And certainly everyone cheered when Modi promised on Independence Day that every school in the country would have a toilet within a year. But there is a perception, that as his development goals falter before hurdles, whether budgetary or political, the government is falling back on its Hindutva base. What’s dominating the headlines are stories about “saffronization” of a school syllabus or RSS apparatchiks being appointed to head various bodies. In the early headier days of the Modi government, one heard far more about ambitious plans of Make in India and toilet building. Now one hears someone like Mahesh Sharma on a weekly, almost daily, basis. Until the last few months, few were aware that there was a Culture Minister named Mahesh Sharma. In the last few months, Sharma has made one controversial statement after another about President Kalam, about the Dadri lynching, about writers, but the only thing the PM has done is to wish him a “long life and good health” on his birthday. Ganesha’s Head

There is nothing surprising about a new government wanting people in sync with its ideology..Neither is it surprising that the old order will grumble as it gives way to the new. But the new-found confident belligerence of BJP’s own Hindutva hardliners––a case in point is MLA Sangit Som after the Dadri lynching––also suggests that like many governments, the Modi sarkar finds a “culture war” convenient to rally the base just as the Republican party used same-sex marriage to marshal its base. That is the temptation of reaching for low-hanging fruit as opposed to ambitious economic plans which will take much longer to yield dividends. Also, this is where the PM’s lofty silence allows anyone, from his most vociferous critics to his comrades-in-arms in the RSS to frenemies in the Vishwa Hindu Parishad, to join the dots in whatever way they please. Who would have even imagined a year ago, in the wake of Manmohan Singh, that the “silence of the Prime Minister” would again become a national issue?

Narendra Modi enjoys a huge and unassailable majority in Parliament today. A few returned Sahitya Akademi awards will not shake that authority in any way. He has tapped into the frustration of an India that is impatient for progress and development. His campaign was about selling  pride in being Indian. Even when he makes ludicrous remarks––remember the comment on Ganesha’s head as evidence of plastic surgery know-how in ancient India?––what he’s really saying is that we do not come from nothing, that there is a wonderful heritage which does not get the respect it deserves.

Ultimately though, Modi is not the ambassador of India’s glorious past. He has been elected to deliver on India’s future. His larger vision goes beyond “Make in India”. It is to remake India’s very sense of itself and it’s a long term project. Some would say at least a two-term project. Could that require a Modi-fied Modi as well?


Sandip Roy is the author of Don’t Let Him Know. He reported on Narendra Modi’s campaign as senior editor for Firstpost.


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