Friday, February 8, 2013
The man who would rule India
A journalist who recently interviewed Narendra Modi reported their conversation as follows: “Gujarat, he told me, merely has a seafront. It has no raw materials — no iron ore for steel, no coal for power and no diamond mines. Yet it has made huge strides in these fields. Imagine, he added, if we had the natural resources of an Assam, a Jharkhand and a West Bengal: I would have changed the face of India.”(see The Telegraph, January 18, 2013).
This conversation (and that claim) underlines much of what Narendra Modi has sought to do these past five years — remake himself as a man who gets things done, a man who gets the economy moving. With Mr. Modi in power in New Delhi, says or suggests Mr. Modi, India will be placed smoothly on the 8 per cent to 10 per cent growth trajectory, bureaucrats will clear files overnight, there will be no administrative and political corruption, poverty levels will sink rapidly towards zero and — lest we forget — trains and aeroplanes shall run on time. These claims are taken at face value by his admirers, who include sundry CEOs, owner-capitalists, western ambassadors and —lest we forget — columnists in the pink papers, the white papers, and (above all) cyber-space.
Mr. Modi’s detractors — who too are very numerous, and very vocal — seek to puncture these claims in two different ways. The unreconstructed Nehruvians and Congress apologists (not always the same thing) say he will forever be marked by the pogrom against Muslims in 2002, which was enabled and orchestrated by the State government. Even if his personal culpability remains unproven, the fact that as the head of the administration he bears ultimate responsibility for the pogrom, and the further fact that he has shown no remorse whatsoever, marks Mr. Modi out as unfit to lead the country.
The secularist case against Mr. Modi always had one flaw — namely, that what happened in Gujarat in 2002 was preceded in all fundamental respects by what happened in Delhi in 1984. Successive Congress governments have done nothing to bring justice to the survivors, while retaining in powerful positions (as Cabinet Ministers even) Congress MPs manifestly involved in those riots.
With every passing year, the charge that Mr. Modi is communal has lost some intensity — because with every passing year it is one more year that the Sikhs of Delhi and other North Indian cities have been denied justice. (They have now waited 28 years, the Muslims of Gujarat a mere 11.) More recently, the burden of the criticism against Mr. Modi has shifted — on to his own terrain of economic development. It has been shown that the development model of Gujarat is uneven, with some districts (in the south, especially) doing very well, but the dryer parts of the State (inland Saurashtra for example) languishing. Environmental degradation is rising, and educational standards are falling, with malnutrition among children abnormally high for a State at this level of GDP per capita.
As a sociologist who treats the aggregate data of economists with scepticism, I myself do not believe that Gujarat is the best developed State in the country. Shortly after Mr. Modi was sworn in for his third full term, I travelled through Saurashtra, whose polluted and arid lands spoke of a hard grind for survival. In the towns, water, sewage, road and transport facilities were in a pathetic state; in the countryside, the scarcity of natural resources was apparent, as pastoralists walked miles and miles in search of stubble for their goats. Both hard numbers and on-the-ground soundings suggest that in terms of social and economic development, Gujarat is better than average, but not among the best. In a lifetime of travel through the States of the Union, my sense is that Kerala, Himachal Pradesh and (despite the corruption) Tamil Nadu are the three States which provide a dignified living to a decent percentage of their population.
To be sure, Mr. Modi is not solely responsible for the unbalanced development. Previous Chief Ministers did not do enough to nurture good schools and hospitals, or enough to prevent the Patels of southern Gujarat from monopolising public resources. Besides, Mr. Modi does have some clear, identifiable achievements — among them a largely corruption-free government, an active search for new investment into Gujarat, some impressive infrastructural projects, and a brave attempt to do away with power subsidies for rich farmers.
Both the secularist case and the welfarist case against Mr. Modi have some merit — as well as some drawbacks. In my view, the real reason that Narendra Modi is unfit to be Prime Minister of India is that he is instinctively and aggressively authoritarian. Consider that line quoted in my first paragraph: “I would have changed the face of India.” Not ‘we,’ but ‘I’. In Mr. Modi’s Gujarat, there are no collaborators, no co-workers. He has a chappan inch chaati — a 56-inch chest — as he loudly boasts, and therefore all other men (if not women) in Gujarat must bow down to his power and his authority.
Mr. Modi’s desire to dominate is manifest in his manner of speaking. Social scientists don’t tend to analyse auditory affect, but you have only to listen to the Gujarat Chief Minister for 15 minutes to know that this is a man who will push aside anyone who comes in his way. The intent of his voice is to force his audience into following him on account of fearing him.
The proclamation of his physical masculinity is not the sole example of Mr. Modi’s authoritarianism. Like all political bullies he despises free speech and artistic creativity — thus he has banned books and films he thinks Gujaratis should not read or watch (characteristically, without reading or viewing these books and films himself). He has harassed independent-minded writers, intellectuals and artists (leading to the veritable destruction of India’s greatest school of art, in Vadodara). His refusal to the spontaneous offer of a skull cap during his so-called ‘Sadbhavana Yatra,’ while read as an example of his congenital communalism, could also be seen as illustrating his congenital arrogance.
The most revealing public display of Mr. Modi’s character, however, may have been a yoga camp he once held for the IAS officers of his State. They all lined up in front of him — DMs, DCs, Secretaries, Under-Secretaries, of various sizes, shapes, ages, and genders — and followed the exercise routine he had laid down for them. Utthak-baithak, utthak-baithak, 10 or perhaps 20 times, before a diverting Surya Namaskar was thrown in by the Master.
I do not know whether that yoga camp was held again (it was supposed to be an annual show), and do not know either how Mr. Modi appears to these IAS officers when they confront him one-on-one. But that the event was held, and that the Chief Minister’s office sought proudly to broadcast it to the world, tells us rather more than we would rather wish to know about this man who wishes to rule India.
To be sure, Mr. Modi is not the only authoritarian around in Indian politics. Mamata Banerjee, J. Jayalalithaa, and Mayawati (when she is Chief Minister) also run their States in a somewhat overbearing manner. Naveen Patnaik and Nitish Kumar are intolerant of criticism too. However, the authoritarianism of these other State leaders is erratic and capricious, not focused or dogmatic. This, and the further fact that Mr. Modi has made his national ambitions far more explicit, makes them lesser devils when it comes to the future of our country.
Resemblance to Indira Gandhi
Neither Mr. Modi’s admirers nor his critics may like this, but the truth is that of all Indian politicians past and present, the person Gujarat Chief Minister most resembles is Indira Gandhi of the period 1971-77. Like Mrs. Gandhi once did, Mr. Modi seeks to make his party, his government, his administration and his country an extension of his personality. The political practice of both demonstrates the psychological truth that inside every political authoritarian lies a desperately paranoid human being. Mr. Modi talks, in a frenetic and fearful way, of ‘Rome Raj’ and ‘Mian Musharraf’ (lately modified to ‘Mian Ahmed Patel’); Mrs Gandhi spoke in likewise shrill tones of the ‘foreign hand’ and of ‘my enemies.’
There is something of Indira Gandhi in Narendra Modi, and perhaps just a touch of Sanjay Gandhi too — as in the brash, bullying, hyper-masculine style, the suspicion (and occasional targeting) of Muslims. Either way, Mr. Modi is conspicuously unfitted to be the reconciling, accommodating, plural, democratic Prime Minister that India needs and deserves. He loves power far too much. On the other hand, his presumed rival, Rahul Gandhi, shirks responsibility entirely (as in his reluctance, even now, to assume a ministerial position). Indian democracy must, and shall in time, see off both.
(The writer is a historian. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org)