Narendra Modi – Visionary or Demagogue?

The last time I watched a speech by a political leader was 15 years ago – because my parents used to ask me to listen to the Prime Minister’s or President’s addresses to the nation on Independence Day or Republic Day. Presumably they wanted me to take an interest in politics. It would be difficult to imagine a more effective way to ensure the opposite! That, the stench from the sewer that is Indian politics, and my conviction that politics is fundamentally unimportant (I believe that culture drives politics rather than the other way round), has meant that I have never bothered to follow politics. All the hype around Modi’s SRCC speech however interested me enough to watch his speech.

In his speech, Modi talks of enabling development, condemns vote-bank politics and even has the courage to say “the government has no business to do business”. Had this speech been delivered by a man without a history or a well-established image, it would have impressed me enough to register for a voter identity card. As things stand, it has merely succeeded in confusing me.

Some facts:

  • Modi is part of a political party (the BJP) that established itself by creating and exploiting the Ayodhya Ram Mandir issue.
  • Modi swept the Gujarat elections after the 2002 violence during which he was the Chief Minister.
  • BJP itself is the political arm of the Sangh Parivar, an organization that is best known for using hooliganism as its primary weapon in a mission to safeguard “Hindutva” and “Indian culture”. Many (if not most) of Modi’s ardent supporters seem to be part of the Sangh Parivar.
  • Modi himself has an image of being a Hindutva hardliner, presumably the same obnoxious conception of Hindutva held by the Sangh Parivar.

In his speech, Modi does not make a single allusion to religion, let alone Hindutva, and focuses solely on development. In fact, he openly mocks India’s reputation for being a land of snake charmers and proudly claims that India is now a land of mouse charmers – whose youth transforms the world by the click of a mouse. This, even as the Maha Kumbh mela – a festival of snake charmers – is being celebrated by the Hindutva-vaadis. If what he claims about Gujarat is true – and anecdotal evidence indicates that it is – he has delivered on his vision in his own state.

In his speech, Modi declares that vote-bank politics has destroyed the nation and development politics is needed instead. But his party has always played the same vote-bank politics and continues to do so (witness FDI and fuel price decontrol).

The question remains: What is Narendra Modi? A visionary and a statesman? Or a demagogue and master orator who can tailor a speech to his audience?

And there is another question too. One that I believe is even more important. What do Modi’s supporters really want? Development or Hindutva?

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