No Indian prime minister in the past has been shown feeding tender grass to cattle or adorning himself with mounds of rudraksh necklaces before elections in his or her constituency. But Narendra Modi is a different kind of politician – and an aggressive one at that.
A few days before the fourth phase of the Uttar Pradesh elections, Modi made an unfair comparison between Muslim graveyards and Hindu cremation grounds. This was no innocent remark. It was a nuanced attempt to polarise the electorate in a high stakes election, which the BJP subsequently won with a massive mandate.
Now, turn back to 8 November 2016, when Modi sprung a surprise by demonetising two high-value banknotes, sucking out Rs 15.5 lakh crore in value from the banking system and, in the process, causing tremendous hardship to Indians, not to speak of damaging the economy.
This was, with the benefit of hindsight, a move to “construct” a new rich-poor narrative that, some analysts say, met with a degree of acceptability in UP.
Rise of Populism Across the Globe
But Modi is not alone in using or projecting distorted forms of reality as a means of capturing power or to solidify his position with people unable or disinclined to make sense of such no-holds-barred politics. In the United States, Donald Trump has followed a similar, if not a more vicious campaign, that split Americans along class and religious lines.
In other parts of the world, especially Europe, there has been a resurgence of right-wing, anti-immigrant politics, something that’s so reminiscent of the continent’s experience in the early years of the last century.
In France, there’s Marine Le Pen, the daughter of National Front founder Jean-Marie Le Pen. In Germany, there’s Frauke Petry, chairperson of Alternative for Deutschland (AfD), which often meets in Bavarian taverns to plot its politics. And Hungary has David Kovacs’ the Movement for a Better Hungary or Jobbik, which describes itself as a “principled, conservative and radically patriotic Christian party”.
All these are among a new breed of leaders who, like Modi and Trump, are part of a “broad populist upsurge” – as Fareed Zakaria describes it – that has found armies of supporters who seek to legitimise it as the “reigning ideology”.
Modi Is Subhas Chandra Bose for Some
For Zakaria, different versions of this populism “share a suspicion of and hostility towards elites, mainstream politics and established institutions” – elements that characterise Modi as they do Trump 10,000 miles away in the US.
In this world of populism, the leaders ostensibly speak for the “forgotten ‘ordinary’ person” and they seek to be the “voice of genuine patriotism” or espouse a vision of nationalism that is lapped up by large sections of the people.
On a recent visit to India in the midst of the ravages of demonetisation, this is how American journalist-author Steve Coll described Modi:
The latest figure in the world’s swelling ranks of populist-nationalist leaders, a gallery of strongmen in countries rich and poor, some more democratic and some less so, who govern partly through intimidation and a certain curated arbitrariness, a methodology of deliberate surprise.
Coll sized up Modi almost fully. While Trump and Modi are “egotists who pressure the press and react poorly to dissent”, there is something else in the latter that Coll has missed noticing. Often described as a politician with “dictatorial tendencies”, Modi is several Indians’ Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose in some – but not in most – ways.
In this broad view, Modi comes closest to the Netaji-in-uniform with the latter’s “give me blood and I will give you freedom” call finding resonance with generations of frustrated post-Independence Indians who have always had a latent fascination for authoritarianism.
Worshipping Modi Like a Hero
This soft corner for authoritarianism stems from Hindu society’s smallest unit – the family – in which the paternal person in the form of the father assumes to himself all the power of decision-making. The father retains the right to control, command and determine what is right and wrong. Modi, in this view, is the mai-baap so reminiscent of British paternalism in the late 18th and 19th centuries.
It is from this perspective that majoritarian Hindus’ hero worship of Modi must be understood, for, they believe that at long last India is being governed by a prime minister who does not bat an eyelid to cross the Line of Control to punish Pakistani transgression, goes after the parasitic rich and hands out LPG connections among the rural poor, besides dishing out other populist measures.
According to Coll, “populist politics is often constructed from a blend of nativism, bigotry, grandiosity and coarse speech” which are not alien to Modi and some of his trusted lieutenants in the BJP. Like Trump’s Twitter handle, Modi’s too churns out exhortations, braggadocio, promises, rants and sometimes innuendos in speech and social media posts. In each of these methods, Modi makes himself “felt” far better than Rahul Gandhi who is left reacting to the unfolding politics.
Mix of Populism and Nativism
Populism or even its extreme form is not unknown in Indian politics, whether of the right or left variety. The left has, by all accounts, disappeared from India’s political landscape.
Modi’s politics, centring around populist, nativist, and sometimes paternalistic issues, is yet to find full play.
But as Indians increasingly seek dramatic solutions to their problems and anxieties, Modi and others of his kind in the BJP will take this as a cue to “dispense with the checks and balances” of institutional democracy to further a new brand of politics.
Whether disparate leaders in the opposition will be able to rise to the occasion to challenge Modi’s disruptive politics and offer a better alternative before the 2019 general elections will be keenly watched.