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Modi, on balance

What to overlook, what to watch out for, in the prospect of a Modi government.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: April 29, 2014 3:34 am
The most serious political argument against Modi concedes that he will have to function in an institutional framework, but it believes that, other than the EC, India’s institutions are so weak that one can’t bet on the institutional taming of his firebrand politics. The most serious political argument against Modi concedes that he will have to function in an institutional framework, but it believes that, other than the EC, India’s institutions are so weak that one can’t bet on the institutional taming of his firebrand politics.

What to overlook, what to watch out for, in the prospect of a Modi government.

Unlike the radical simplicity of the economic debate over Narendra Modi — economic growth versus social indicators — the political debate continues to be highly contentious. A sense of exhilaration in one camp and steeply rising anxiety in the other have polarised the atmosphere, reducing space for rational argumentation, a space we need to open up for scrutiny and debate.

I would like to suggest that the political arguments about Modi fall into three categories. The first is the argument about inner truths (androoni sach). This argument identifies Modi as a diehard Hindu nationalist, whose hatred for the minorities, especially Muslims, is deep and unchangeable. He allowed a pogrom to take place in Gujarat in 2002; he never visited Muslim relief camps; his Gujarat Shining stops at the Muslim ghetto of Juhapura. If a man like Modi, the argument continues, is allowed to rule India, the nation will descend into a deep communal abyss, even fascism. India will become a greater Gujarat.

For two reasons, the discipline of political science, which I have taught for two decades, fundamentally disagrees with this view. First, we know of no theory that would view the future as a linear extension of the past. Second, and more important, this view is “institutions-free”. Politics works with and through institutions — parties, parliaments, constitutions, interest groups, federalism, oversight agencies, non-governmental organisations etc. The inner truths of leaders are constrained by the institutional frameworks within which the leaders must function. This second view can be called the institutional approach (sansthhaayik vichardhara).

What are the implications of this view for Indian politics? Let us look at the institutions exercising oversight on the government. The Election Commission exists to make sure that the incumbents do not abuse their power over the police and bureaucracy to steal elections; India’s incumbents have often lost. The Supreme Court, which has increasingly exercised its power over the executive, sometimes overzealously so, is unlikely to become a proxy for the executive’s wishes. Some policy decisions in India can be made through executive fiat, but most such decisions must seek parliamentary approval before becoming the official policy or law. India’s Parliament can make it very difficult for the executive simply by not functioning, as has repeatedly happened over the last 15 years. The government needs to find a way to cooperate with Parliament to pass laws. India’s executive is not a lawmaking body.

Finally, if Modi wishes to bring crony capitalism from Gujarat to Delhi, as some fear, he will have to deal with the office of the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG), which has become extraordinarily powerful, as was demonstrated in the 2G case. The CAG basically shook UPA2, inaugurating its decline. The CAG has acquired the kind of power that the EC came to have in the 1990s.

Another part of the institutional view concerns how Indian politics handles the nation’s well-known diversities of religion, language, caste and tribe. To twist Immanuel Kant a little, no straight thing can be made out of the crooked timber of India’s diversities. India can’t be reduced to the domination of one religion, one language, one caste or one tribe. For national power, inter-group alliances must be made.

Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been missing in Modi’s campaign. Instead, he has concentrated on governance and development. Modi’s move away from strict Hindu nationalism is consistent with the political science research of the last several decades, which has argued that no leftwing or rightwing party can come to power in Delhi without moving towards the centre. At the state level, such takeovers are possible, but not at the national level.

The BJP’s manifesto for these elections illustrates this point further. To India’s Muslims, it promises the promotion of Urdu, empowerment of Waqf boards, preservation of Muslim cultural sites and establishment of interfaith organisations for the management of inter-religious relations. The standard Hindu nationalist tropes (Article 370, uniform civil code, Ram Temple) do appear in the manifesto, but from a political perspective, that cannot be called surprising. Because they are so unexpected, it is the Muslim concessions that are more striking. Whatever his inner truths, the institutional realities of India have pushed Modi away from the rightwing to the right of centre, thus far in rhetoric.

A third political argument is not institutions-free. But it talks about the weakness of institutions (kamzor sansthaayein). Writing in Outlook (April 28), Pranab Bardhan, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, has provided the clearest articulation of this position: “Another common position I have noted some Indian journalists taking is that Indian democracy will ultimately ‘tame’ Modi, the checks and balances in our system will smooth his rough edges over time. First of all, our democratic institutions are not all that strong. Our elections are vigorous, but other essential parts of a democracy, like some basic human rights and certain regular procedures of accountability are fragile, even after all these years. One should not welcome further pressures on these institutions and procedures just for trying out a firebrand leader.”

Intellectually, this is the most serious political argument against Modi. It concedes that Modi will have to function in an institutional framework, but it believes that, other than the EC, India’s institutions are so weak that one can’t bet on the institutional taming of his firebrand politics.

Is this position tenable? In my view, it does not draw a sufficiently clear distinction between institutions directly under the executive (the bureaucracy, police and intelligence), which are undoubtedly weak, and the institutions that exercise oversight over the executive (not only the EC, but also the Supreme Court, Parliament and the CAG), which are not. On what grounds can we say that a Modi government, should it come to power, can bend these latter institutions to its will?

There is, of course, a historical example that can be readily deployed. In 1975, Indira Gandhi’s onslaughts managed to crush the institutions of oversight, or one by one, they simply fell in line. If Indira Gandhi could do it, one might ask, why can’t Narendra Modi? Indeed, some have explicitly drawn parallels between Indira and Modi.

In a deep political sense, this parallel cannot be right. Indira Gandhi was functioning in a political space still marked by the hegemony of the Congress party. The contemporary Indian polity is coalitional. This year’s NDA is a coalition of roughly as many parties as in 1999, if not more. Today, parties can have hegemony at the state level (the CPM in West Bengal until 2011, the BJP in Gujarat for over a decade), but no party has hegemonic control over Delhi. If the oversight institutions are pressed too hard, India’s raucous Parliament can simply make it impossible for the government to function.

Another possibility is worth considering. What if one or two of the powerful women of Indian politics turn out to be necessary for executive formation after May 16? If needed to get the NDA to 272, a J. Jayalalithaa, a Mayawati, let alone a Mamata Banerjee now set on a head-on collision, can tame even the most tez tarraar (firebrand) leader in Delhi.

None of this means that we should not have any anxieties about Modi. But the problems have to be construed differently. How will Modi, once in power, deal with the organisations that work as his foot soldiers: the RSS, the Bajrang Dal, the VHP? These are some of the most illiberal organisations in India. They have a track record of ideological excesses, of harassing and intimidating those who do not agree, of orchestrating anti-minority virulence. Modi might need these foot soldiers in the election campaign. But once in power, will he control them, will he let them run amok, or will he not be able to rein them in even if he wants to?

This is the most important institutional question about Modi. But it is not the one about his ability to crush India’s institutions, seamlessly ushering in fascism.

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

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