There are two ways to describe the meaning of Narendra Modi’s massive victory. We can say it is a game-changer, profitably using the term “critical realignment”, a concept that basically depicts a radical shift in the social bases of political power, a shift that is not transitory but long term. A second way to explain the significance of Modi’s rise is to deploy a more colloquial term: capitalism with Indian characteristics.
Either way, a new era is upon us, though I am still not entirely sure about its durability.
To evaluate the significance of Modi’s triumph, we clearly need an appropriate benchmark. Just what should it be compared to? To 1977, when popular vote brought Indira Gandhi’s dictatorship to an end? To 1998-99, when a BJP-based NDA brought Hindu nationalists into the heart of India’s power structure? Or, more radically, to 1952 when, against all odds, a poor nation instituted universal franchise, allowing millions of poor to vote their wishes for the first time in human history?
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I would argue below that the most conceptually interesting comparison is with 1952. Let me, however, work back from the most recent comparison to the first.
The NDA’s rise to power under Atal Bihari Vajpayee in 1998-99 was a watershed event. But as many commentators have noted, there was something quasi-Nehruvian about Vajpayee. Vajpayee’s manner was mild, and his oratorical style literary and polished. He kept the extreme wing of the RSS at a distance. Disagreeing with L.K. Advani, he opposed the Ayodhya movement. Though business flourished under NDA rule, Vajpayee was not market-oriented at heart. Indeed, Gandhian socialism was the initial ideological cornerstone of the BJP when it was reborn in 1980 under Vajpayee’s leadership. Modi repeatedly invokes Vajpayee as a model but, unlike Vajpayee, he is business-oriented. Moreover, he worked for the Ayodhya movement and it is still to be seen whether he can distance himself from the RSS.
Our second comparison, 1977, shares quite a bit with 2014. In 1977, the Congress was not only outvoted, but the party was wiped out of north India, as it very nearly has been this time as well (though unlike now, the Congress had held the south in 1977). The great difference, of course, is that the Janata Party was a ramshackle coalition, with no identifiable core, united only by an intense and entirely justifiable anger towards Indira and Sanjay Gandhi and a highly docile Congress party. Inherently unstable, the Janata coalition quickly collapsed. Unlike 1977, Modi’s victory is not simply due to anti-incumbency. He has a message of reconstruction.
This takes us back to 1952, which was a dramatically different moment. Indeed, the critical significance of 2014 springs precisely from this stark contrast. The 1952 election instituted a democratic polity marked by norms, values and an ideology, which appear to have fully passed away. New forces, norms and practices have been unleashed, which Modi represents in a most emphatic manner.
In 1952, India was desperately poor. Though in a downturn today, India has been in a phase of high economic growth for two, even three, decades. During the mid-1960s through the 1970s, my generation of small-town middle class kids grew up with four-five sets of clothing, my parents’ generation with a mere two-three. Influenced by Gandhi, my father, like so many of his generation, only wore khadi until his death. As a teenage girl, my mother, also deceased, proudly went to jail for freedom.
Today’s middle class bears no resemblance to these two generations. We rode bicycles and looked upon scooters as a splendid upward possibility. The mufassil middle class today drives motorbikes and dreams of cars. Indeed, the idea of consumption and economic possibilities has gone deeper and wider. Having seen nothing better, India’s poor used to be virtually resigned to their wretched fate. Watching rising incomes all around, the poor now want to be part of the middle class.
I don’t mean to be wistful about the past and critical about the present. Indeed, I wish to say precisely the opposite. It is often forgotten that the great promise of socialism was not only that it would discipline inequality and end poverty but also that it would bring about India’s industrial transformation, just as it had in the Soviet Union. In the end, nothing of that sort happened. Socialism neither ended poverty nor did it bring about economic transformation. It only brought khadi, bicycles, bad roads, inadequate power, awful housing, terrible public buildings, wretched public transport, substandard industrial products, a bloated bureaucracy, social domination by a class speaking Oxbridge English, and political dominance by those who blindly believed in the state and profoundly distrusted private initiative and business.
Modi both represents the aspirations of the new Indian masses and is also one of them. There have been many plebeian political leaders in India, but most have used some version of samaajvaad (socialism) as their political creed. Though plebeian in origin, Modi has no love for socialism. He has presided over a private business-led economic transformation of Gujarat, whose reputation has travelled widely. In Varanasi two weeks back, an 18-year-old Banaras Hindu University student emphatically asserted that Gujarat ki prati vyatki aay bahut adhik hai aur UP ko usi tarah aage badhna chahiye (Gujarat’s per capita income is very high; UP should follow Gujarat). I grew up in UP. Its 18-year-olds never talked about per capita income in the 1970s.
In his stunning victory speech in Ahmedabad, Modi said that just as Mahatma Gandhi turned the freedom struggle into a movement in which millions participated, he would like to transform vikaas (economic development) into a jan aandolan (mass movement). That, he said, is the only way India’s masses can realise their destiny.
In Indian politics, this language is entirely new. For the last 15 years, I have been associated with the argument that economic reforms are a matter of great contestation in India’s elite politics but not in mass politics, whose master narratives have been religion and caste. In August 2013, I wrote in my recent book: “India has still not witnessed a national-level mass politician, who can make a political claim on behalf of markets and integrate it as part of an election campaign.” Modi has done precisely that. India’s economic reformers, including Manmohan Singh, have thus far been reluctant reformers.
Why, then, am I less than sure that Modi can stabilise economic development as a master narrative of Indian politics, displacing religion (and caste)? As this column has argued before, my unease stems from Modi’s relationship with the RSS, an organisation that groomed him and also worked assiduously in this campaign. The RSS is driven by three core ideas: Hindu primacy, profound distrust of Muslims (and Christians), and swadeshi (opposition to foreign capital and imports).
Repeatedly in history, compared to the outsiders, powerful insiders have been better at changing ideological organisations. Deng Xiaoping made the Chinese Communist Party accept markets, an anathema under Mao Zedong. Richard Nixon made China agreeable to the Republican Party (and the US); the Democrats could not. In principle, Modi can be a Deng.
But if Modi is unable to change the RSS, considerable difficulty lies ahead. The narratives of development and anti-Muslim Hindu nationalism will become embattled twins, coexisting not peacefully but in great tension, one threatening to consume the other, creating potentially serious problems of governance.
Can the RSS accept development as the master narrative of Indian politics? We simply do not know.
The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express’.