Modi's Idea of India
Comment of the Day

May 25 2017

Commentary by David Fuller

Modi's Idea of India

Three years after he was elected, Prime Minister Narendra Modi looms over India’s political scene like no other leader in the country’s recent history. And his critics must explain why his mass appeal seems unimpaired, despite his increasingly authoritarian ways and growing failures.

Modi is far from realizing his promises of economic and military security. Pakistan-backed militants continue to strike inside Indian territory. The anti-Indian insurgency in Kashmir has acquired a mass base; Maoist insurgents in central India attack security forces with impunity. Industrial growth, crucial to creating jobs for the nearly 13 million Indians entering the workforce each year, is down, at least partly due to Modi’s policy of demonetization.

That gambit was, as the economist Kaushik Basu writes, “a monetary policy blunder,” which “achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector.” Yet Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party subsequently swept elections in Uttar Pradesh, India’s politically most significant state. He looks almost certain to be reelected as prime minister in 2019.

Many commentators assumed that once in office, Modi would downplay his ideological commitment to remaking India into a Hindu nation for the sake of economic development. Today, Modi seems to mock such aspiring fellow-travellers, choosing a virulently anti-Muslim Hindu priest as Uttar Pradesh’s chief minister and maintaining an eloquent silence as Hindu vigilantes, aiming to protect the sacred cow, lynch anyone suspected of selling or eating beef.

Ascendant in both new and old media, Twitter as well as radio, television, and the press, Modi is moving India away from debate, consensus-building and other democratic rituals. He is presiding over what Mukul Kesavan, a sharp observer of Indian politics and culture, calls an “infantilization of Indians.” “Instead of being proud, equal, adult members of a republic,” Kesavan writes, they “are reduced to being the wards of an all-seeing parent.”

Certainly, Hindu chauvinists, intolerant of minorities and indeed anyone who can be identified as a “liberal,” seem determined to replace the secular and democratic principles outlined by Jawaharlal Nehru, India’s first prime minister, with the creed of Hindu nationalism.

To such accusations, Modi might respond that the founding “idea of India” was always open to radical revision by the will of the people. France, where the language of secular republicanism was invented, has experimented with several republics since its revolution in 1789 launched the earth-shaking experiment in democracy. Most of these were authoritarian in nature, hospitable to repressive leaders and acclaimed by citizens.

The French thinker Claude Lefort once described how “democracy inaugurates the experience of an ungraspable, uncontrollable society in which the people will be said to be sovereign, of course, but whose identity will constantly be open to question.” Modi has understood this dynamic aspect of democracy better than those who cling to Nehru’s idea of India.

David Fuller's view

Any strong-willed politician who is economically savvy and also charismatic, as we see with Narendra Modi, is bound to have some critics. I read and decided to post this column because I want to be objective. Readers with an interest in India may feel the same.

Personally, I think Narendra Modi is the most impressive national leader currently in office.  He is also strong-willed, and he needs to be because to successfully lead a huge, sprawling, widely diversified emerging market with the world’s second largest population is a daunting task.

So far, India’s strong GDP growth rate, leading stock market and enthusiastic support for their Prime Minister speak volumes in favour of Narendra Modi. 

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