Friday, May 23, 2014

India "Modi-fied" - The Making of Modi

I was in Mumbai in February, taking a ride in an ubiquitous antique black and yellow Fiat taxi. A Ganesh statuette was prominent on the dashboard and the glove compartment had a colorful picture of goddess Lakshmi on a magnet. As I often do, I started a conversation with the driver. Since the elections were around the corner, I asked him who he thought would be the next Prime Minister of India? Without hesitation he said, Narendra Modi. Mumbai is the heartland of the Shiv Sena, the powerful communal party of the region that is allied with the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party) of which Narendra Modi is the candidate. So I thought his answer was predictable. But his reasoning was not as much. He said he and his kind were looking to Modi for serious economic change, as living hand to mouth had become unsustainable and hardships from rising prices were making life untenable. And the ruling Congress party had run out of time to deliver. Coming from a taxi driver, one who lives on the lowest rung of Indian society, it was profound. But there was no denying that the pedigree of Narendra Modi had a role to play in his support. The sentiment that a "chaiwallah" (tea seller), one of his kind, could one day be king was powerful. And the idea that he would vanquish the dysfunctional and corrupt dynastic politics of the ruling Congress party was dynamic.

After a head spinning, long and arduous election and a mind numbing cacophonic media frenzy that no nation could top, Narendra Modi and his party were declared the undisputed winners. Voter turn out across the nation was at a record high with 64% of the eligible voters casting their ballots. The BJP amassed enough seats to form a government on their own. A feat not achieved in Indian politics in three decades. The west which had largely ignored the election of the largest democracy of the world, woke up in shock. The "Hindu Nationalist Fundamentalist", "The Butcher of Gujarat", "The Muslim Killer", "The Human Rights Violator", "The Right Winger" was now the Prime Minster of India. Modi's photo was on the front page of every major newspaper, and everything uncomfortable that he personified was now here to contend with. President Obama quickly called to congratulate and invited him to the White House, unceremoniously revoking a visa ban that had made Modi a pariah to the US for almost a decade. The rest of the world chimed in with congratulatory notes. The Indian media blasted the headline in bold red, "India Modi-fied". The western media started speculating whether he will be "India's Putin or Hitler" and whether the 150 million Muslims in the country would have to run for cover. Or wether he would actually deliver on his campaign promises of growth, efficiency, clean governance for all Indians. No political leader since Indira Gandhi had won an election on pure name recognition, and Modi seemed to have electrified and badgered an electorate into believing in him. It is too soon to say whether India will really be "modified" by this verdict. But there is no question, the mood of the nation has certainly been modified.

The stock market climbed historic highs when Modi and his party were declared front runners, indicating that the financial sector had confidence that things will change, and the foreign investment that evaporated would soon return. Modi was always considered by many "as good for business" because of his performance in his home state of Gujarat. He was elected the Chief Minister of that state three times consecutively and was behind branding his state "Shining Gujarat" for its infrastructure development. In his first few months as Chief Minister in 2002, he also oversaw the massacre of mostly Muslims in religious riots in and around the capital city of Ahmadabad. The mismanagement of that incident, and possible culpability hounded him through the election, but really did not make a difference to those who saw in him a strong leader. His supporters consistently reminded in his defense, that he was cleared by the highest court in the land so he was absolved of all crimes and had no reason to answer any questions on the subject anymore. To date Gujarat has not seen any sectarian violence since that incident and that spoke a lot about where he stood as an administrator. While under the opposition Congress' regime not only were Sikhs massacred in New Delhi in 1984, and the perpetrators still walked free, there have been many incidents of sectarian violence all across the nation as recently as this month in Assam and no single leader had been held accountable. This argument paid off in the election noise, but I don't think the stain of the Gujarat riots will leave Narendra Modi's side anytime soon, as many await justice, rehabilitation and restitution. The opposition, which has very little ammunition left, will try to rearm with many questions that remain unanswered and unaddressed.

For many on the left, the verdict on the Gujarat riots will never be satisfactory, until either he apologizes or goes to jail. Neither of which is now bound to happen. So by dodging, denying and throwing some of his close confidants under the bus, Modi has successfully pulled of the unthinkable, but much remains still murky. Also what many find uncomfortable are his RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh) roots which he openly acknowledges as the foundation for his success and fortitude. RSS is the spiritual, ideological and philosophical backbone of the BJP, much like the Muslim Brotherhood is to many political parties in the Arab world. Established in 1925, it started as a patriotic movement to instill discipline and character among Hindu men to counter British colonialism and suppress Muslim separatism. The group drew inspiration from right-wing groups in Europe during the war, and admired Hitler's vision of building a state based on racial purity. They also admired the establishment of the Jewish state of Israel for the same reason and saw similar aspirations for India as a Hindu state. One of its members assassinated Mahatma Gandhi in 1948, and since then the group was branded militant and has been outlawed by several Congress governments over the course of its existence. As a fringe group it has had a powerful influence on many leaders, and sent one of its members, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, to be the the eleventh prime minister of India. Narendra Modi spent his formative years as a foot soldier for the RSS, and still maintains the strict disciplinarian code that he acquired there. He says it is that very discipline that has made him the man he is today. A strict vegetarian, a teetotaler and an early riser and hard worker, he dedicates himself in the "seva" (service) of the nation he says. When Vajpayee was prime minister he moved to the center and that is what is hoped Modi will do. But what is destined to happen, and which is where the fear lies, is that Hindu militant groups spawned by the RSS such as the Bajrang Dal and Vishva Hindu Parishad (VHP) will be emboldened under the leadership of one of their own, much like fringe right wing Christian groups become influential when Republicans come to power in the United States.

Narendra Modi and his party ran an effective campaign and having an incumbent with a dismal record had a big part to play in their victory. Also the three hundred odd parties taking part in the election, fractured the vote, confusing voters and giving BJP an edge. There were only three real leaders on the national level to choose from and the most charismatic was Modi. While many local political parties bought votes for hard currency and outrageous gifts and promises, the BJP stayed clear of all appeasement. Borrowing ideas and language from the successful campaign of candidate Obama, (which was also helped by George Bush's dismal performance) the BJP unleashed a powerful social media operation using Twitter and Facebook, never seen before in Indian politics. By researching and plugging local issues that mattered to the diverse and young electorate they were able to capture the imagination at a grass roots level. They were also very well funded and outspent every party in the running. The Indian election is estimated to have cost five billion dollars. Not many questions were raised about the source of those funds, in a nation that still struggles to feed its people. The American elections spent seven billion dollars, a stark reflection of why democracy will always be short-changed, unless and until campaign financing is reformed.

Modi ran on a platform of returning India to a path of development and rapid economic growth seen during liberalization, largely overseen by the previous regime. But his vision for development was not clearly spelled out or explained. All that was offered was his track record in Gujarat. Running a nation is far more complicated than running a state, especially when there are so many India's that coexist. There is the rural India, that has seen very little tangible change by virtue of economic growth in the sixty odd years of independence. There is urban India that has seen meteoric, yet haphazard growth at the cost of tremendous ecological damage. Modi promises to return India to a 7% growth rate and follow China's model of high-speed trains, skyscrapers and massive infrastructure projects. China has paid for its rapid development with environmental degradation and rural destitution. While India needs good infrastructure, China's model is not the answer. Modi needs to be aware that he has to deliver to the vastness of India's aspirations on every front, in a democratic framework. Education, health, women's rights, human rights, security, law and order come first. India lags behind in all these areas which form the basis of any healthy society. Real development is more than just monetary satisfaction. The social fabric of any nation is sustained by harmony that is achieved by a wider distribution of the rewards of development and wealth.

The euphoria surrounding Modi's election is still high. The honeymoon period is just beginning. Much like the aspirations of the American people were projected onto the storied election of president Obama, Modi to some extent is the projection of the aspirations of a diverse Indian population. While Obama failed to deliver on many fronts due to a gridlock engineered by a partisan congress, Modi does not have that handicap. He can get things done, he has the numbers needed to pass legislation. Which is both a boon and a curse. But he would have to contend with powerful local governments which could block the implementation of his programs. If he surrounds himself with technocrats, things could move fast. But if he succumbs to cronyism, which is ingrained in the Indian system of governance, he will falter, much like the previous governments have.

The story of the rise of Narendra Modi is fraught with symbolism and enigma. Projected as a man of the people, a tea seller, his speeches used a language and diction that connected with the man on the urban and village street. For the urban elite, it was far removed and archaic. For the ruling class and a handful of families that dominate Indian politics as their destiny, it was a rude awakening. For the intellectuals and media pandits, it was unsettling. A man who spoke heavily accented broken English, and used Hindi in a powerful tone and manner to capture the hearts and minds of multitudes around the country, was hard to fathom. His overt use of Hindu symbolism also made many uncomfortable and others ecstatic. All the way from performing a religious victory ceremony on the banks of the most sacred and polluted Ganges, to the touching of the parliament steps with his forehead, Modi sent arresting images to the world of what's to come. At the Ganges he said he would clean up the river, metaphorically alluding that he would clean up the country. He bowed is head on the parliament steps, as a pious person would when entering a temple or a church, signaling he was entering the temple of democracy.

To win an election is impressive. But to effectively govern a nation as vast and complex as India, is another thing. Modi certainly has governing experience having been a chief minister of a prosperous state for more than a decade. While the BJP did not demonstrate diversity in its roster of parliamentary victors, it will have to change its image, not to appease or patronize, but to be realistic. India is a nation of many, and not all groups have political power. Much of India's regional and ethnic strife is around issues disenfranchisement. From the Kashmiris to the Naxalites and the separatists in the north eastern states, there are vast populations that are neglected and many do not have faith in India's democracy or governance, and they did not vote for Modi. If there is any tangible change that is to be felt, all groups would have to be seen and heard.

On the 26th of May, Narendra Modi will be sworn in as the fifteenth Prime Minister of India. While some see this as Modi's first chance, for many who have wrestled with his past, it is truly his second. Everyone deserves a second chance and to his credit Modi did mention (not as effectively as he should have) that he will be Prime Minister to all Indians, even those who did not vote for him. But as the taxi driver in Mumbai expressed, at the moment not many are concerned about his social agenda. They voted him into power for the economic prowess that he so effectively sold.

One thing Indians do better than anyone on this planet, is show up at the voting booth. And that is the only certainty that can prompt politicians into some action. But politicians in India thus far, have seldom been men/women of their word. It is what it is.