How some of India’s brightest minds have bought into the Modi myth

By SALIL TRIPATHI | 11 May 2014

Only one man knows the mind of Narendra Modi, and his name is Narendra Modi. And yet, discarding cynicism and skepticism of political manipulation, several business executives, intellectuals and economists appear to have taken him and his supporters at their word and accepted him as an exemplar of good governance, a protector of equal rights, the harbinger of a Reaganite small government (even though in the Reagan era, US government spending only grew bigger, with larger deficits), a magician who will spark entrepreneurship, and a champion of safety and security for women.

The strategy to remake Modi begins with the claim that the Modi of 2014 is not the Modi of 2002; that he appears to have moderated his views. To support this view, many commentators point to the BJP manifesto and his recent public speeches. For example, Brown University’s Ashutosh Varshney, an astute observer of Indian politics, has read Modi’s campaign speeches closely to conclude that he has succeeded in presenting himself as a moderate. Varshney does not say that Modi has become moderate, but that he has managed to present himself as one.

But elections don’t run on nuances, least of all this election. For Modi to remain above the fray and appear prime ministerial and development-oriented, other Bharatiya Janata Party leaders are saying the more un-sayable stuff, to reassure militant supporters that nothing really has changed. The BJP candidate Giriraj Singh said Modi’s opponents should go to Pakistan, and the Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader Pravin Togadia asked Hindus in Bhavnagar to drive Muslim owners away from a property they coveted. (Varshney was writing before these divisive remarks became known; perhaps he wrote too soon?) Modi called the remarks “petty” and “irresponsible,” but didn’t condemn them outright—he said they diverted from the campaign’s central message of governance. The activist Swami Agnivesh promptly praised Modi for distancing himself, as though not distancing himself from those statements was a feasible alternative.

Other commentators suggest that Modi’s economic record and philosophy trump all other arguments now. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, who has been an adviser to Human Rights Watch and is rightly angry over the immunity which some Congress politicians have enjoyed after the 1984 massacre of Sikhs, now angles for a senior advisory position in a future Modi administration, and recommends his co-author and Columbia colleague, Arvind Panagariya, for the post of prime minister’s chief economist.

Modi’s relentless campaign projects him as the Indian equivalent of bapak pembangunan, or the Father of Development, as Suharto was called during his 32-year-rule of Indonesia. Indeed, Modi may potentially become India’s first leader in the East Asian, and not South Asian, mould. Those seeing a Reagan in Modi are, like Christopher Columbus, mistaken about the direction they are looking in. Modi’s approach and governance style are closer to China’s Deng Xiaoping or Indonesia’s Suharto. Deng and Suharto both bore the burden of massacres (as does Modi)—in Suharto’s case several, with Deng it was Tiananmen Square, 25 years ago this June. Both put in place economic policies that delivered sustained economic growth, lifted millions out of absolute poverty, and improved health and education indicators. But they ruled as stern authoritarians, and jailed writers, human rights activists, artists, union leaders and dissidents, sometime for years. A crucial difference: if Modi becomes India’s prime minister, he would have been elected in a free and fair election, unlike Deng (who never faced an election) or Suharto (whose elections were sham).

But how valid are the claims about Gujarat’s growth and Modi’s role in enabling it? The evidence is mixed. Other states, large and small, have also grown rapidly, and sometimes from a weaker base. Gujarat was hardly an industrial or economic laggard before Modi became chief minister, and the growth is not a post-2001 phenomenon.  From motels in American towns without tourists to shops in cashless African villages, under Communist-ruled Kolkata or entrepreneurial Mumbai, Gujarati businesses have succeeded without Modi’s leadership. In fact, despite Modi’s claims of leading a booming economy, fresh investments dipped soon after the 2002 massacres and new capital remained shy of Gujarat for a few years. Further, the 2002 massacres were not an aberration, and the state has not always been at peace since then. Troops had to be called in 2006 and there have been other communal incidents after. (In contrast, while there have been terror attacks in Mumbai and Delhi regularly, neither has seen mass communal violence or massacres since 1993 and 1984, respectively.)

The East Asian logic—of separating the political from the economic—is at work here. Take Deepak Parekh, chairman of HDFC Bank, who was among the few executives in 2002 to say, courageously, that Modi should resign because of the massacres under his watch. (A few months later, Modi did resign, and was re-elected.) Parekh now virtually endorses the party and finds the BJP’s manifesto to offer the best guarantee for growth, as if that growth prospect is more relevant than his earlier moral revulsion. Narayana Murthy, chairman of Infosys had obliquely criticised Modi in the Darbari Seth Memorial Lecture in 2002, when he stressed the importance of secularism. But he now says Modi should not be judged solely on those massacres.

Modi’s message has also influenced those who write on business. Last year at a seminar in London, the former corporate executive Gurcharan Das said that despite Modi’s economic performance, he wasn’t fit to be prime minister. He now presents the choice in stark terms—secularism or growth, as though such a clear-cut Manichaean divide is the only way to look at the issue. He also suggests that India needs growth first, and those who prefer secularism are “wrong and elitist.” (The fact is, of course, that India needs both.)

Jawaharlal Nehru’s biographer, MJ Akbar, now expects us to forget what he wrote about Modi over the years (that he deserved Pakistan’s highest honour, that he was like Hitler) because he was struck by Modi’s speeches focusing on jobs and development even moments after bomb blasts went off near his rally in Patna in October last year. (Akbar’s onetime idol Rajiv Gandhi showed similar courage when he continued his programme unruffled after a Sri Lankan sailor hit him with his rifle in 1987, a blow which could have seriously hurt him, if not killed him, had Gandhi not been young and agile.)

Meghnad Desai of the London School of Economics praises Gujarat’s judiciary for the convictions against rioters. But, as a Stanford Law School study shows, the conviction rate of India’s most widely televised rioting and killings is less than 10 percent. Vinay Sitapati, a lawyer and Princeton University doctoral candidate, estimates that in cases where the Supreme Court has intervened and outsourced investigation, prosecution, and witness protection, the conviction rate has risen dramatically, to 39 percent. Defenders of Modi claim that the Supreme Court-appointed SIT’s report indicating there was insufficient evidence to prosecute Modi constituted a “clean chit” from the court. In fact, the court’s amicus disagreed with the report, and the court itself has not made any observations about it. Zakia Jafri, the widow of former Congress MP Ehsan Jafri, who was brutally murdered in the Gulberg Society massacre, has filed a criminal review petition against the report in the Gujarat High Court after a metropolitan magistrate rejected her protest petition last year.

Many Indians have long disliked the Congress—for its faux socialism, which entrenched well-connected businesses; for its lack of commitment to equality for all, which left minorities, women, and Dalits vulnerable; for its lip service secularism, which disempowered Muslim women; for its embarrassing devotion to the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty, which disregarded merit; for the scams, which enriched cronies; for its thwarting of freedoms, which saw books banned and surveillance imposed on the internet; and for the Emergency itself, which suspended civil liberties, undermining the sacrosanct constitution.

Modi has managed to convince many such voters that he can undo the Congress damage. These voters aren’t communal. Despite the aura of impunity surrounding him, the weakened institutions and the diminished freedoms in Gujarat (his state has banned two books, and films critical of Modi rarely get screened in Gujarat), the sedition charges filed against critical journalists and academics and the hounding of those seeking justice (think Teesta Setalvad), Modi’s new supporters project their aspirations on him and hope that he will deliver.

Some, like the economist Vivek Dehejia, hold that Indian institutions are strong, and can withstand a powerful politician. But Indian institutions have been challenged in the past and their record in responding to a leader who make arbitrary demands has not been reassuring.

Lal Krishna Advani’s criticism of the media over its role during the Emergency comes to mind: you were asked to bend, you crawled. So does Arun Shourie’s critique of the judiciary under Indira Gandhi’s second reign (1980–1984) , when he asked: by what are judges bribed? (Ambition, pride and vanity.) George Fernandes, too, comes to mind when, as industries minister in Morarji Desai’s Janata Party government after the Emergency, he asked India’s captains of industry: what makes men behave like rats?

The damage the institutions suffered during the Emergency was severe and many are yet to recover fully. Governments since have been able to curb freedoms without formally declaring an Emergency. Why would a leader like Modi, who has centralised so much power in his hands in Gujarat, act in a more consultative and collegial manner in Delhi?

As the country heads towards the final phase of an election, the rightful heir of Indira and Sanjay Gandhi’s politics is striding towards prime-ministership, with a chorus parroting “ab ki baar Modi sarkar” as if in a Greek tragedy. Even the more thoughtful voters are failing to see that what they are projecting their expectations on is a hologram. It is disquieting watching the procession, like the dance of death at the end of Ingmar Bergman’s 1957 film, The Seventh Seal, chronicling a death foretold, the death of an idea called India. 

Salil Tripathi lives in London, and is a contributing editor at The Caravan and Mint. He is the chair of the writers-in-prison committee of PEN International. An award-winning journalist, he has written extensively for over a quarter century for the Wall Street Journal, the Far Eastern Economic Reviewthe New StatesmanIndia Today, and other publications. As a correspondent in Singapore and Hong Kong, he covered the Asian economic crisis. He is the author of Offence: The Hindu Case (Seagull, 2009), The Colonel Who Would Not Repent: The Bangladesh War and its Unquiet Legacy (Aleph, 2014; Yale, 2016), and Detours: Songs of the Open Road (Tranquebar, 2015). He is currently working on a book about Gujaratis. 



87 thoughts on “How some of India’s brightest minds have bought into the Modi myth”

Supporters of the “Vikas Purush”, Lauh purush ( Iron Man) should answer some questions.Take any indicator of development , be it GDP, average income , agricultural growth, industrial growth,public healthcare, me one indicator that tells Gujrat has done any better than any other state except for controlling riots.& that too because rioters are ruling the state themselves. How come all the encounter killings have stopped ? One such supporter has written that Delhi NCR can not be compared with Gujrat, right but can Maharashtra be compared? it has 9 times more FDI than Gujrat. Both Maharashtra & Gujrat came into existence in the same year ( 1960) . Maharashtra is way ahead on every account & still its the Gujrat Model of development which is being discussed . This man has done absolutely nothing except for giving free land to big, corrupt business houses for their support ( to fund his election campaign ) & dear supporters of this Goonda syndicate ( Kali dadhi & safed dadhi) i don’t live in London but the state of Gujrat.

Agreed! Why can’t there ever be a healthy debate among online readers? Why does everyone have to succumb to dissing the writer’s views ( or in some cases, verbally attacking the writer himself? ) Why can’t these “Modi supporters ” produce counter-arguments, instead of sticking to their guns like stubborn mules, without rationalization, without reason? I literally see just one-or two well reasoned counter-arguments/ comments. It is a shame that educated online audience in my country refuses to accept and tolerate another’s view point. It is deeply saddening that the intellectual capacity of India regresses due to the triumph of belief over reason.

Personally, I disagree with some of the authors views. I don’t think the idea of India will die, because for morality and social justice and human rights and all those wonderful products of a developed society to emerge, a society needs to be developed at first. The first step was to rid ourselves of the system of “status quo”, a feudal aristocracy that the Congress had established. We need unprecedented economic development for strong legal/ justice systems to emerge- whether you look West to England and France where the Industrial Revolution preceded the Enlightenment, or you look East where growth was a precursor to social justice in Singapore and Korea. The point is, colonial institutions drained our ability to do them for a long time as the Congress re-affirmed them. Hence, they have to be removed first.
Modi is a sign that they have not only been removed, but have been replaced with a New Economic Regime (a Reagan one, perhaps): one that can put aside the diverse needs of the population and work towards the betterment of the country has a whole. If we have politicians who try to meet the demands of every individual, they will be inefficient and fail. The rights of individuals, is a concern for law, not politics. and law cannot be strong unless the economy is. Hence furnishing the political economy should be a priority, not meeting the needs of every individual. This is why when it comes to secularism, the BJP’s approach of distance is more effective than the Congress’s approach of favor.
SO yes, I know the consequences Modi’s rule might have on our “morality”. We may not achieve social justice. But we will set up the pre-conditions for it. Hence despite knowing the fear of power-concentration, I am making a conscious decision of picking development over justice, because chasing the idealistic notion of justice is a luxury at the disposal of well-developed countries only. Mr Tripathi therefore has an equally ideal idea of India as the blind supporters of Modi do. Both beliefs are grounded heavily on opinion, not history or reality.

Bro, quite a few things in this article are cut-paste from another Caravan article ’emperor uncrowned’. For god’s sake Caravan, don’t try to fill the pages to meet ‘size’ requirements. If you don’t have sufficient content, please leave blank pages. Now coming to point of view expressed, how does one respond to this? Writer has the right to earn his morsel, i have a right not to take his gibberish seriously – if there’s nothing new in this article, why waste my time responding to charges. As regards intelligent men falling over, they aren’t where they are by cut-pasting what’s in public domain already. I am not bothered if someone is this or that, unless you present new evidence or a new argument don’t waste
the time of public-court. This isn’t fiction sir.

Salil T writes well. In the paragraph beginning ‘Many Indian have long disliked the Congress’, he goes thru a litany of Congress’s sins. But he fails to list ‘for its elevation of Oxbridge educated Brown Sahibs to some kind of Gods whose opinion alone counted for anything’. Salil needs to be included in this category eventhough he may not have an Oxbridge degree. Otherwise when thrashing about for telling analogies, why would he alight on ‘Greek tragedy’ and the film ‘The Seventh Seal’? Perhaps he does not know of any Indian tragedy.

Um, please remember that only 31% of the electorate voted for the BJP. So while the first-past-the-post system in a fragmented polity has given the BJP a thumping seat majority, it would be a gross exaggeration to say that they have an overwhelming mandate.

There is no point in becoming a Russia or Brazil – where without the social justice and strong institutions we cant have an inclusive society. For how long are we ready to make a choice between either of them? We have seen social justice and strong institutions cant be there without economic development and vice versa.

Very well adjudged and clear explanation of how human psychology can make the most intelligent become idiotic hypocrites and jokers. Or have they been bought out if not zapped and brain washed.

Is it so difficult to present a moderate viewpoint on this issue? Is it absolutely necessary to pick a side first and then argue? Can’t somebody write an article where the sides you take are dependent on the argument and not vice versa? This is horrible writing. Caravan, the quality is sliding.

“if Modi becomes India’s prime minister, he would have been elected in a free and fair election”. You are joking, right? There was nothing FREE about the hundreds of crores that was spent buying votes by all the major parties. It ties us into corruption beyond compare till they get this money back, surely? Nothing FREE about the people in shackles of corruption again, is there? And there goes FAIR as well, then!

You have NO right to criticise those who LIVE IN HINDUSTAN & work towards a more prosperous, unified Country…

Mr.Salil ,
Are you living in India?Do you claim to know the pulse of India?Or are you living in the posh environs of London and turning your nose up against your countrymen?
Give me a break.First democracy works in India.Why should you care what the majority want, right.Are you not being dictatorial about your views and prejudicial to boot?
Would you prefer the suave but slimy and unintelligent Gandhi family?Or the anarchist Kejriwal who has no vision to administer the country?

I wonder why do people not pay attention to the riots which have been happening post independence in the state of UttarPradesh in which tens-of-thousands have died ! Why don’t we ask questions about the Sikh massacre ?

Salil, favour us and rot in London. We don’t want narrow minded filth like you coming to India. Rather than writing un-reasearched shit, try to come , do something here and then talk. Till then Bollocks to everything you say!!

Wow, sitting in London the author knows whats happening at ground level in India. Dear friend, India does not require your views. Pessimism and fear has already doomed us for 10 years. Let the good economic era begin. When people dont have jobs or money to feed families, what else matters. And to be frank,I have been to shanghai lately and seen people very happy there. Why do you need Media freedom if there is no economic freedom.

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