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?

8 Responses

  1. He is not a statesman, that’s for sure. We have had mixed economy for such a long time that it would be next to impossible for any one of his or younger generation to rise to that level. The cultural trends have been mostly taking a downturn for such a long time that, these days, all politicians are all driven by the compulsions of democracy—the actual, *systemic*, compulsions imposed by the rule of the mob, within a constitutional framework that contains too many contradictions and so succeeds in giving only a semblance of cohesion or integration to the polity. For instance, the constitution prohibits changing parties, thereby inducing the herd effect to a greater extent. Gone are the days of being true to “conscience.” In fact, conscience is a word which one would run into at least once a week some three decades ago, but doesn’t find mentioned anywhere for months together, these days.

    Still, about the cultural downturns, I said “mostly.” That’s observation-based, not an expression of a general pessimism.

    The only noticeable cultural *up*swings have been those in the wake of the *political* liberalization in the early 90s (which itself was driven by the *economic* compulsions and the better, liberalizing, terms set by the somewhat better, i.e. the Western, elements in the World Bank, when we had gone bankrupt due to our socialistic political pursuits). Though liberalization was a political process, in reducing shackles and exposing India to the (whatever remaining) better elements in the West, it also allowed betterment in *culture*.

    However, these accompanying *cultural* upswings have been countered by the other cultural *down*swings, in particular, those of the religious kind.

    BTW, I don’t think we have had a *cultural* downswing of the communist/socialist kind since the 1970s. All the recent downswings in India have been of the religious kind. Sonia Gandhi’s NAC-inspired socialistic programs, or, to a lesser extent, Vajpayee’s populist programs, have been downswings on the economic side, not cultural. For that matter, even when the left was a part of the power at the Center in UPA1, they were completely ineffective in promoting the leftist trend in the *culture*. Bollywood continued with the pelvic thrusts, and even artsy “socially conscious” cinema chose themes like Peepli Live, Shwaas and Deool, rather than a glorification of egalitarianism, of redistributing poverty.

    So, the main thing to worry in today’s India, as far as *cultural* degradation is concerned, is: religion, not socialism. Notice the lack of any enthusiastic coverage in the urban, well-educated, middle classes about the movie: Deool. Its theme contains too many undercurrents uncomfortable to the religious mystics of the modern Indian variety.

    Incidentally, despite India being a mystic country for such a long time, the execution model they (the religionists) have tried to follow in recent times is not indigeneous in origin; it’s a recent import from America. The recent Indian model is based on the upswing of religion in America, which itself is a rather recent phenomenon (gaining ground after 1970s, and consolidating during the Reagen years).

    Thus, Jansangh, for instance, would never have put up a rippling-muscles, six-pack abs kind of a portrayal of Shri Ram on those wide-view flex boards in the cities; it would take the BJP to do that. The traditional Indian portrayal, in fine arts, sculputre and literature, of this God, even if he was a “kshatriya”-born, is that of a middle-aged deity with a somewhat roundish body and carrying a vague, almost nurturing kind of a smile, with the deity situated in a rich, opulent, but peaceful settings, together with family—not that of an angry, young warrior, taking aim with a tautly stretched bow-and-arrow, with his clothes flying in the strong winds as he stands alone on a treeless strech of brownish land, with anger uncontrollably shooting out of eyes. (With all that evident anger, it would be difficult to hold aim to the target, one wonders.) The traditional Indian portrayal of this deity—qua deity—has been different, the history of there actually having been a major war notwithstanding.

    The elder Indian even today sometimes does an involuntary double-take at the spectacle of “teertha” (holy water) being sprayed onto those wildly dancing, hysteric masses from a high platform as in the rock concerts, using water-pumps and hose-pipes to spray the “teertha”. To the earlier generation of the religious Indian, “teertha” is always taken in a small quantity using the right hand. A small bamboo “pichkaari” is acceptable at the time of Holi, but it’s not a religious event. Using a *hose-pipe* and a *pump*, for *spraying* “teerth” is too much.

    Before these trends spread elsewhere in India, they had begun in those massive religious gatherings in Gujarat, during the times of Modi’s rise to, and assumption of, the political power.

    One reason the elderly Indian winces at such sights is: an Indian, true to his color, would in principle be averse to any grand-scale show on the material side. Especially so, when it comes to the matters related to religion. The Indian tendency, particular in the spiritual matters, is to turn the gaze inwards, not outwards. The Indian is not averse to the bodily power; but in his view, either the bodily power is to be subjugated to the spiritual wisdom, which is all outwordly, or the entire matter is superfluous to him simply because it pertains to this world. There is a reason why the “gopur”s of our temples may be grand on both artistic and spatial scales, but the “garbha-griha” is spatially so small as to hardly admit only a few people at a time. When it comes to temples, the idea of a vast space or a large auditorium accomodating a large gathering, with a high pulpit for the priest, is specific to the Abrahamic religions, not to the Indian ones. Clearly, “event management” of *this* kind is a recent import. (We have always had massive religious gatherings, e.g. Kumbh Mela or Wari, but these have been more noticeable for their messyness, randomness, than for masses being coralled together and aroused to a common passion by an organized priesthood. The Indian religious philosophy is far too outworldly to ever care for any organization or purpose in this world, especially that on a large scale. Our temples may have large spaces surrounding the main building (“aawaar”), but these spaces noticeably lack the pulpits to address the assemby—in fact, there never is an assembly, only a random and overcrowded collection of people.)

    We have only recently imported the more effective, large-scale, techniques of management of mobs on the basis of religion as a uniting force.

    Modi’s management style seems to reflect his times; it seems to be a mix of an upbringing in the traditional organization mold of the old RSS (itself based on an awkward mixture of the European fascists of the early 20th century for the most part and some Scouts-like activities thrown in for good measure), *and* these modern techniques of religion-based political management imported from America.

    In short, there have been cultural betterment in certain areas. For example, today, we can openly advocate capitalism in India, without any fear of ridicule, which was not possible as late as when I was in my 20s, i.e. in 1980s.

    However, overall, the net cultural change has been to go on to the down side.

    Since, as you observed, culture (in the broad sense of the term) does drive politics, the culture of politics also has been going down. (I never thought it stinks to the extent you and many others do.) It’s in the recent atmosphere that it’s difficult to produce statesmen. Try to think of a successor to Jamshedji Tata, in today’s world. Or even to JRD, for that matter. Politics is hardly different. You don’t expect a Sarvapalli Radhakrishnan or even a Shankar Dayal Sharma, in today’s world; the alternative to Pratibha Patil was Bhairo Singh Shekhawat. Even if IMO politics does not stink to the extent you seem to think it does, it is very obvious that we can no longer expect statesmen to rise in today’s India.

    So, the smart spin of Modi’s internationally outsourced image consultants aside, he simply can’t be a statesman. The very suggestion is ludicrous, and a direct product of his spin-doctors. (He is not alone in employing/benefitting from spin-doctors; his anticipated 2014 opponent, Rahul Gandhi, supplies an easy example.)

    Is Modi a visionary? Ok. Can you use that word to describe a fascist? To clarify this issue, let’s take a more extreme example of a fascist: Can you use that word for Mussolini? If yes, then, sure, Modi is a visionary. He has the “vision” of unleashing the Hindu religious kind of irrationality, on India (and if possible, elsewhere, too), and to preside over the accompanying political power in an executive capacity. That’s his “vision.” (He might succeed in “achieving” it—simply because Rahul Gandhi is what he is.)

    Is Modi a demogogue? In view of his political success in Gujarat, he must be. But then, of course, there are so many demogogues, even within his own party. Rajnath Singh, for instance. An array of them could be witnessed during the recent FDI issue. That hardly makes him special.

    Is he a master orator? I don’t think so. I haven’t seen the video you refer to, but from whatever his earlier speeches I have seen, they seem to indicate skills lesser than those of a master orator. A master orator is different. Balasaheb Thakarey? Yes. Narendra Modi? Not really. Of course, he does have that ability to deliver effective speeches, often with a lot of punches. But then all politicians routinely do that. When you say a master orator, the person has to go beyond that level. I would certainly put Lalu Prasad Yadav ahead of Narendra Modi in that department. This is not humour; I mean it. When it comes to superior oratorial skills, just the way Vajpayee is (rather was) a master orator, so is Yadav.

    Rather than pieces of superior oratory, Modi’s speeches seem to be like *events* that are quietly and masterfully coordinated in the background. The actual speech seems like just the tip of the icebert. The silent coordination is palpable. Right from creating the atmosphere for an upcoming speech, including coordination in the media (not just locally, not just in the neighbourhood or with the people in the city, but specifically within media), to the necessary followup capitalization on what(ever) he said.

    The only way to explain the extraordinary effectiveness of this not-so-extraordinary personality is to make reference to the quiet work done for him by those “swayamsevaks.” Take away the aura they impart him, and then, judging him for himself, Modi comes across a far more ordinary personality—not just in speeches but also in every respect. There are times when I wonder if he could be described as a pigmy. He is said to divide all people into two camps, and evoke extreme passions of either admiration or loathing in them. The description is accurate except for the starting word: you have to replace “he” the person by “he” the image—nay, the rather seamless sort of an enormous collage—built up by all those collectivist “swayamsevaks.”

    As to demoguery, I think more than being just a demogogue, he is a shrewd “organization man,” capable of slowly but surely advancing over his competition, especially internally. Here, I think a definite credit is certainly due to him. Not just in a value-neutral sense. I think he has put in very honest and very hard efforts in rising through his organization. To a certain extent, esp. for politicians, personal honesty *is* compatible with a contradictory or irrational political agenda.

    He is not a typical BJP leader. Nope. He is more pure-minded on their agenda, more hard-working on that agenda, than any others from his party. Compare him with your ordinary, compromising sort of a guy like, say, Ram Naik, Nitin Gadkari, or even Rajnath Singh. When it comes to the BJP agenda, Modi would be more ruthless compared to any other BJP leader. Not because he lacks emotions, or controls them better, or manages to suppress them. Not even because he wants to be ruthless with people—in fact, quite the opposite is very likely, from whatever I can gather from his coverage on TV in general (never saw him in person at a close distance). It is easily possible that he is responsive and sensitive.

    Still, he will end up being more ruthless simply because he would be morally more unshakeably convinced about the moral worth of the BJP agenda.

    I think that it is possible to imagine Modi’s developing inner doubts privately, when it comes to his assessments of his own abilities, his own capacity to lead and to rule. He certainly does seem to be both sensitive and intelligent enough to be able to develop such doubts, at least some times. But what he seems entirely incapable of doing is: ever challenging the moral worth (to him: the moral *superiority*, nay, *infallibility*) of the *moral* agenda of his organization, of his party. It’s this greater—moral—conviction which would make him more ruthless. And it is this emphasis on the moral agenda rather than a political agenda which permits him enough flexibility to be a chamelion on many political issues or to even strike some compromises—the reason why so many Muslims do in fact support him. They too are religious, like him, but too short range, unlike him.

    It’s Modi’s moral convictions that set him apart from the others in his party. It’s not any particularly superior personal set of qualities, except for being a better organization-man among them. Honest hard work, a lot of them do. Shrewd, a lot of them are. May be, he is slightly more shrewd, that’s all—though I honestly doubt that. From all that you can gather about him, he is very shrewd, but he could even be more sincere than shrewd. So, the real difference setting him apart from his colleagues is his willingness to go all the way down along the path of their shared morality. And the real reason why he can make that contradictory morality work, is: using his superior skills as the organization-man. The burden of the contradictions is calculated to fall on those outside the organization, the enemy camp (whoever they may be), and, since a contradiction nevertheless has a way to also run in the opposite direction, i.e. internally, the burden then has to fall on to those who have lesser skills to make the organization work for them. (One reason for this last also is the lesser strength of the same morals. There does seem to be a feedback loop here.) And so, when it comes to his individual assessment, the actual reason can only be ascribed to the depth to which he carries his (wrong) moral convictions.

    Finally, coming to his supporters. In wondering about what *Modi*’s supporters want, if you are at all going to set up an *alternative,* esp. an alternative between Hindutva and “development” (whatever that means)—or, for that matter, between Hindutva and anything else—then, I would say, you are politically so naive, so very naive, that I have a suggestion for you: consider abstaining from voting regardless of where you are (i.e. even in places/elections where the BJP is weak/absent), for, when it comes to politics, you obviously cannot be trusted to choose wisely. 🙂 [This last was just a joke, BTW.]

    Too long, in fact longer than usual. Hope you tolerate. (It was just a writing on the fly.) Guess one of these days I should write a slightly better organized piece on Modi, at my own blog. I wanted to do one well before the heat of the campaign begins, and right now might as well be a good time to do that. So, unlike my comments on spirituality and all, this time round, this comment might actually move very quickly to my blog. Though, guess I will let it begin its course here.


  2. My instinctive reaction to Modi (or as you say, to his image) has so far been extreme loathing. I assumed he was a religionist and fascist. And the speech was remarkable because I did not think any public figure in India is capable of delivering a speech like that. It was not the speech I would expect from either a religionist or a fascist. This judgement is not based on any concrete experience. As I said I do not follow politics. I do not even know who Ram Naik is (you made a reference to him in your comment). This is only based on a “gut feel” of where I think Indian politics stands today.

    When you wrote that you do not think Indian politics stinks as much I do, I asked myself why I think it stinks. The only answer I can give is that no one “leader” today seems to have the least bit of conviction. Such an environment must stink. As you might observe, all my views on politics are indirect inferences. Modi doesn’t seem to fit the image I had of him.

    “In wondering about what *Modi*’s supporters want, if you are at all going to set up an *alternative,* esp. an alternative between Hindutva and “development” (whatever that means)—or, for that matter, between Hindutva and anything else—then, I would say, you are politically so naive, …”
    Can you elaborate on that?

    “I have a suggestion for you: consider abstaining from voting”
    Don’t worry. I have never voted yet and don’t intend to do so anytime soon. As I mentioned in the post, I don’t even have a voter identity card. I do not wish to sanction this system by voting and I know I am a poor judge of people in any case.

  3. >> “Can you elaborate on that?”

    I think there is hardly anything to be elaborated here. The point is clear enough, isn’t it? Let me give it a try.

    The emphasis is on Modi’s supporters. Not of the BJP in general. The BJP itself of course believes in the Hindu Cultural Nationalism. Modi’s supporters form a “purer” strain within them, don’t you think so? If so, the meaning is very clear, and what’s there to elaborate on it?

    The only thing I can now think of as to why you (or anyone else) could at all be asking for an elaboration is the following—and it struck me only after reading Chetan Bhagat’s piece in today’s Times of India (and to a lesser extent, also Tavleen Singh’s piece in today’s Indian Express).

    The logic might go like this: Chetan Bhagat is not a BJP guy; that’s for sure. Yet, he is found imploring Nitin Kumar (another non-BJP guy) to support Modi. Thus, there *are* certain people *outside* the BJP who, too, are only too willing to support Modi. They typically would say they are doing this for “development,” not for Hindutva. Ergo, your question—the *alternative* between Hindutva and development.

    My answer: When it’s someone like Modi, you still cannot set up an *alternative* between Hindutva and anything else. Even if he talks on development (or any other alternative to Hindutva) at a political, policy, implementation, adminstrative, feedback, etc. etc. levels, nonstop for two hours, 24 hours, or till his face falls blue (whichever later).

    At the moral level, Modi would still always believe in the Hindutva. The alternative, thus, already decided in one direction, at a more fundamental level. Hence is the outcome.

    Modi wouldn’t do development by giving up Hindutva; full stop. Don’t take my word for it. Just go, ask him!

    Though Chetan Bhagat (or the corporates from within Tavleen Singh’s many social circles) wouldn’t dare do so, if you can manage them to get to ask Modi on national TV to choose between Hindutva and development (in the real sense), even if they are (or pretend to be) dumb enough not to know the real answer, *I* know it—and so does Modi. And so do Nitish Kumar and Mamata and Digvijay Singh and Rajnath Singh—even Rahul Gandhi!

    So, the only people pulling the wool over their eyes in this game are the middle-class educated folks, the likes of Chetan Bhagat perhaps being the most innocent among them. (You can’t say that for every twitter user supporting Modi.)

    The only possible reason they—I mean the more innoncent people like Bhagat, and *some* (in fact few; very, very few) of the Indian corporates—could be believing that there could be an alternative between Hindutva and development is because they aren’t clear on philosophic fundamentals; they don’t have as consistent grasp of the role of morals in the fundamental political issues as they need to have, and not clear enough a working epistemology.

    If you aren’t clear on philosophic fundamentals, you are very easily likely to allow an anti-concept like “development” to grow in your mind. (On anti-concepts, see here: Oh, btw, development *is* an anti-concept.

    A feudal lord from the past, too, could have easily (and honestly, to the extent possible to him) vouched for the fact that he supports “development”—even while actively pursuing Sati, caste-discrimination, and dictating over every life-choice of his own sons. (Hindi) “hari bhari kheti to dikhani hi chaahiye!” could easily be an honest exhalation coming off even his lips. How does that matter, if that “hari bhari”ness of his “kheti” is to be brought about via the slave-labor of his bonded low-caste labor?

    A communist could have easily vouched for “development” too. In fact, they always did. In Soviet Russia and elsewhere. In fact, the “credit” to first introduce this term in India’s intellectual life probably goes to the Indian communists, though it is more than likely that the party to give it the kind of full respectability it has today has been not the Communists but the Indira Congress, once the term came to it from the Left via the Planning Commission—which might have grabbed it because it seemed to provide a rationale for its own existence and growth: the “commanding heights of economy.”

    It *is* an anti-concept.

    I watched the first 10 minutes of the SRCC video today. Modi is not talking about capitalism. He is talking about “development”—as under his rule. He is not talking about diluting government when he is proud to talk about the fact that he could make 1 lakh Gujarat governement employees work for him. A man that proud cannot possibly want to reduce government and increase freedom. “Development” is just a challan or a token that gains him an entry into respectable “think tanks,” and so he uses it. Not his fault. The fault belongs to the “think tanks” i.e. intellectuals.

    Enough. No more/further elaborations. Let me write my blog post tomorrow or the day after, and then, let’s see where it goes.

    About politics and all—why I don’t as easily think that it stinks to as much extent as you (and many others) do. Perhaps, because, my background is different. I saw my first Loksabha election (the one I well remember) as a 5th standard student in a small place (~10,000 population) in 1971; it was a place where the Indira Congress then won but it also was a place that otherwise was a stronghold of the Jansangh. Four decades is a long time for everything. 1971 was far closer to 1947 (26 years) than even 1977(Indira’s debacle) is to 2013 (36 years). And then, villages, though many aspects of life in them has unrecognizably gone down today, even today remain distinctly different from cities. In a village, everyone knows everyone else; life offers little different opportunities due to any differences in the choices than an individual might make. This is something that happens all over the world, and also in India. Further, in *Indian* villages, there also is just too much of accumulated wisdom in even simple ways of life such that politics, in an overall sense, remains a thing within the reach of most people, and therefore, their immediate judgment isn’t to ascribe politics with stinkiness. Even if the idealism of the freedom movement times is already fully lost, there still is enough inertia of the traditional Indian way of life that the void has not yet been filled by an all-encompassing cynicism. In villages, it easier to find a sense of honest resignation than a sense of either disenchantment or cynicism—and that too, typically, only in the older age. The village life remains too much conforming to the traditional grooves to allow for a too much of a flight of fancy, and hence the subsequent disenchantment, or too much intellectuality including the possibly of a vain/erroneous/empty intellectuality and hence the subsequent cynicism. And, in the life in villages, as far as social matters go, things still are easily within the reach—hence that sense of efficacious participation in politics remains untouched. So much so that to locate the enthusiasm of a woman “sarpanch” in intellectual idealism, say of the freedom-movement variety, is to misread the situation—the idealism of the freedom-movement has been lost long time back also in the villages. But then, in cities, everything is so different.


  4. Read Nitish Kumar in place of Nitin Kumar. I am almost sure I had typed the name right. (He is an engineer by training, isn’t he?)

    BTW, as to Rambhau Naik (my earlier reply): He is one of those more likeable sort of RSS guys, as belonging to the earlier generations. Lived in a small 2-room tenement in a Mumbai chawl or so (if I am not confusing between him and someone else). Entertained and even helped everyone who approached him with a smile, and that’s how grew in public life. I mean, helped every one—including people who he knew voted for Congress. (That’s why I called him an ordinary compromising sort of a BJP guy. Today’s purer variety, esp. of the Modi’s sort, wouldn’t help *every* one; in fact, the late Pramod Mahajan openly used to admit and advocate so.) Naik was a Central minister in the Vajpayee government. Look up the Wiki etc. for the rest.


  5. Modi’s support base has swollen because of his focus on comprehensive and inclusive development. Not sure how Hindutva is defined here.One perspective of it is “Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam”. It’s a philosophy that can be applied to life

  6. […] Recently, I was prompted to write a response at a great length to these questions [^]: […]

  7. Mr. modi is disappoint with this year budget!!!

  8. Modi is is the only candidate of BJP who deserve next PM post.

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