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Wednesday, December 08, 2021

The elusive Modi

It is hard to take his measure. All the contradictions of India play out in his persona.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta |
Updated: May 26, 2015 12:00:30 am
Modi government, Narendra Modi, PM Modi Modi was elected at a moment of two separate yearnings: the need for a decisive leader to infuse energy in government on the one hand, and to build institutions on the other.

Modi at one is an elusive idea. The government remains a work in progress. It is delicately poised in ways that could lead either to a virtuous cycle of transformation or to the familiar traps. Prime Minister Narendra Modi provokes unprecedented passion. Both his supporters and his critics fail to keep a steady grip on his vices and virtues. He is hard to grasp because he is the product of a peculiarly contradictory moment in Indian democracy. He is a centraliser who looms large. A sense of his self is infused in every speech. Some yearned for exactly this kind of leader. But his sense of self-legitimation also draws power from democracy: an architect of his own fortune, who represents, in his own way, a deepening vernacularisation of democracy. He is seeking legitimacy in the eyes of the people: the compulsive desire to project an image is in service of this goal. But it also means that he will don different costumes, languages and even headgear when necessary. The script will evolve as he reads the people.

Leaders lead in different ways. Some, like Nehru, lead people with a self-conscious sense of their own distance from them; their art is not to let that distance detract from their popularity. Others, like Vajpayee, evoke affection, but not much passion.

Modi is, in a strange way, a leader who seems to wants to fold in all the qualities of those he claims to represent. This is, by its very nature, a quixotic enterprise, full of tensions. It is often asked: Who is the real Modi? The one articulating lofty and generous aspirations or the one whose government can have streaks of paranoia and petulance?

The uncomfortable answer is, both. What critics and supporters divide up is actually conjoined at the hip. This mix will never entirely reassure, but it will also hold out tantalising possibilities.

The deep tensions of Indian democracy are working themselves out in this government. One contradiction is between a discourse of virtue and a discourse of institutions. Modi was elected at a moment of two separate yearnings: the need for a decisive leader to infuse energy in government on the one hand, and to build institutions on the other. Modi has staked his claims on projecting the first, while entirely short shrifting the second. There was a productive Parliament session, some devolution is on the cards. But institutions that supposedly protect individuals: justice systems, police, bureaucracy, the CBI, the CVC, the RTI are in disrepair. Many of their pathologies were not the creation of this government. But there is an anxiety that this government could match existing pathologies with a new efficiency, to produce even more detrimental outcomes.

Indian politics is oddly consensual, and yet it demands moments of deep transformation. The economic paradigms of the UPA and NDA are not behaviourally different. Arguably, even their finance ministers are cut from the same cloth. The uneven differences stem from fiscal circumstances, and differences in execution. And even this government is struggling with execution. Any government will have to both create the conditions for growth and competitiveness and harness those gains for a rational welfare state. On growth, Modi’s challenge was to continue to restore macroeconomic stability and make the transition from crony to efficient and well-regulated capitalism. Transactional corruption at high levels seems to have come down, but whether the regulatory and taxation structures can undergo enduring transformation is still an open question. There seems to be, on the surface, a marginal welfare rollback. But it is more likely that this is a contingent fiscal artefact: the direction will be to use platforms initiated by the UPA to rationalise and enhance welfare, as it has done with pensions and insurance. The desire to show off “what’s new” ignores a judgement, “what’s correct?” The UPA ignored anxieties about the future, and the upwardly mobile; the NDA risks ignoring the present distress of farmers and the fact of stagnation. Modi is finding that, in addition to creating a market friendly environment, enhanced public investment, stimulating demand and support systems for farmers are also required. But these are uncomfortable for his narrative of newness.

There is a tension between Modi’s two support bases: his hardcore Hindutva base, which feels empowered, and his new supporters, who thought, all things considered he was still the best bet. Has Modi done enough to be reassuring on how he will negotiate this tension? Modi’s supporters have half a point. There is some scare-mongering, a will to convert local skirmishes into a doomsday scenario. Notwithstanding this, anxieties remain. Modi knows significant violence will dent his credibility. But some local-level polarisation is taking place, a kind of corrosion from below. Second, the experience of political and cultural marginalisation of minorities is real, inscribed in structures of discrimination. This is not a unique creation of this government. But we are still a long way off from a society where rights are independent of identities.

None of these tensions will be resolved outright. How they are negotiated will depend on two larger processes: how the growth and opportunity stories shape up. There is reason to be cautiously optimistic that growth will pick up. Hope is a bigger liberaliser than anxiety. There is also that blunting effect of democratic processes: the fanatics of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement became the respectable leaders of the future. Who would have thought of an RSS leader like Ram Madhav purveying a complex foreign policy far more sensible than those that strategic mandarins in Delhi come up with? The fascination and frustration with Modi is that all the contradictions of India play out in his persona: the arrogance of the “I” combines with a curious lack of boldness in deference to democracy. There are grand plans, but little attention to detail. There is ambition, and even a hint of liberality that ambition brings. But there is the temptation to knock down all opponents. It has been hard to take his measure, because the man and his measures have become one. And the man, after one year, still remains elusive.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’.

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