Modi’s Transformation?


Sumanta Banerjee

["A clever conqueror will always, if possible, impose his demands on the conquered by installments". —Adolf Hitler : Mein Kampf]

Asweet-smelling aroma wafts from 7 Race Course Road which is holding spell-bound the erstwhile critics of Narendra Modi. Contrary to their apprehension that Modi (notorious as a rabble-rousing chief minister who presided over the killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002) would implement the murderous and divisive agenda of his political parent Sangh Parivar, once he became the prime minister, he now looks acceptable to them as a 'gentleman' oozing fragrance all around with a conciliatory approach to all problems, both domestic and foreign. His rise from a 'chai-wala' to the country's topmost post is being touted by the cheerleaders of neo-liberalism as an illustration of the upward mobility that is possible in capitalist democracies (a replica of the highly exaggerated 'rags-to-riches' story of individuals that is often circulated to propagate the opportunities available in the rat race of the Western bourgeois democratic states). In tune with this approach by the champions of neo-liberalism, their hacks in the media are at pains to prove how Modi as a member of the downtrodden has recognized capitalism as the solution for their woes, while Nehru failed to understand them as he came from the elite, and chose socialism as a panacea which failed to deliver the goods.

Narendra Modi is the latest protégé of the global neo-liberal establishment. He is getting chits from Obama and other European leaders. At the moment, he is trying to work up a pastiche of (i) an image of a friendly neighbor in the sub-continent and a strategic ally of the US in global politics ; (ii) post-modern neo-liberal reforms in domestic economy ; and (iii) revival of conservative majoritarlan religious hyper-nationalism in society and culture. Each of these facets of the multi-pronged strategy is fraught with built-in tensions and conflicts. He has to live up to the expectations of the bourgeoisie—ranging from industrialists to middle class homes—as well as the rural and urban poor. At the same time, he has to keep his commitment to the socio-religious agenda of the Sangh Parivar.

But let us come down to brass tacks. Modi had been basically a small time provincial Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) operator who was catapulted to power at the national stage by an electoral quirk. Low cunning and demagogy cannot sustain a leader for long. He lacks both the long-term ideological vision to lead India, and the political manoueuverability to fulfil the populist promises that he made to the electorate. The people will call his bluff—sooner or later.

To begin with, it is in the area of foreign policy that Modi has endeared himself most to the Indian liberal section and governments of both the West and the East. He started his first day in office by offering an olive branch to Pakistan—a gesture that took his critics by surprise, but boosted his image in the West as a peace-maker. But within a year, this tight rope walking strategy of combining dialogue with sabre-rattling has come a cropper. In the face of increasing cross-border terrorism and almost daily killing of Indian jawans and civilians by Pakistan in the LoC area, all the tough talks by Modi and his Home Minister Rajnath Slngh make no sense to either the victims among the common people, or even within their own party ranks and the army who are increasingly feeling that the pre-election image of Modi as a tiger about to leap upon Pakistan is fast being replaced by that of a pusillanimous pussy cat! All those threats of fixing Pakistan by revealing reports to expose its terrorist connections (which could be authentic) during the upcom-ing talks between the two National Security Advisors, evaporated within a few hours with Modi's churlish direction to prevent the Hurriyat leaders from meeting the Pakistan ambassador, and keep the Kashmir issue out of discussion—thus providing Pakistan with an excuse for avoiding a diplomatic confrontation which would have embarrassed it with revelations about its complicity in cross-border terrorist acts.

As for India's other neighbour, Modi has added a feather to his rather fraying cap by putting an end to the long standing dispute over border enclaves by inking a treaty with Bangladesh—an act which has brought some hopes to the hitherto stateless inhabitants of these enclaves on both sides of the border. It is yet to be seen how it works out.

But it is his monthly jamboories abroad—spanning the West, the South-East and the Arab Emirates—which are being touted as Modi's achievement in introducing India as a hub of economic ebullience in the world market. However, his tall claims about foreign investments wait to be verified by the actual inputs by these investors in terms of industrial production and employment opportunities. The multinationals whom Modi is wooing may not be all that enthusiastic when watching the domestic business scene in India, where sections of the Indian corporate sector which had bank-rolled Modi's election campaign and brought him to power, are expressing disaffection with the slow progress in his 'reforms'—the euphemism in neo-liberal jargon for arbitrary acquisition of land for industrial development; changes in labour laws to allow employers to hire and fire workers at their will; ban on trade unions in SEZs; end to subsidies for public social welfare measures to make way for profitable investments in these sectors by private entrepreneurs.

However much Modi might want to accelerate the pace of these 'reforms'—some of which he could steam-roll in his fiefdom in his state as its chief minister—he cannot replicate the Gujarat model all over India. Apart from organized mass movements in protest against such 'reforms' there are grumblings within Modi's own Sangh Parivar. Its trade union wing Bhartiya Mazdoor Sangh is opposed to the curtailment of workers' rights; its other outfit the Swadeshi Jagaran Manch is suspicious about the entry of foreign concerns in domestic economy. Modi therefore cannot go the whole hog in satisfying the demands of the Indian corporate sector and its multinational collaborators.

In the domestic sphere, Modi has launched a host of plans to woo various segments of society. Projects like 'Make in India,' 'Swachh Bharat Abhiyan,' and 'Smart Cities' are aimed at entrepreneurs and urban households to assure them of modern infrastructural facilities and clean environment. Turning to the rural sector, he has come up with high-sounding and populist schemes that prioritize its needs—'Jan Dhan Yojana' (meant to cover the rural poor under the banking system); 'Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana' (under which every MP is expected to adopt three villages in his/her constituency for development); and 'Beti Bachao, Beti Padao' campaign, to protect girls and educate them. Thus, instead of the 2002 Gujarat model of genocide of Muslims, he is projecting another paradigm—the much-hyped Gujarat model of development, which, under his chief ministership there had supposedly led to state-wide prosperity! Despite revelations of facts and figures contrary to such claims (e.g malnutrition of children, displacement of tribals, etc. in Gujarat), it is being sold as the national solution to all our problems. This image, meticulously bolstered up by the corporate sector and a grovelling media, is however getting dented at the ground level. Most of the MPs, from both the ruling and Opposition parties, who had adopted villages under the Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, are left red-faced as Modi has not released the promised funds to implement the scheme. (Re: The New Indian Express, Hyderabad edition, August 24, 2015). The much ballyhooed plans are thus turning out into empty drum beats.

The other sector where Modi is trying to rehabilitate himself is that of the Muslim minority. In an effort to erase his notorious role in the 2002 Gujarat riots, Modi has managed not only to neutralize Muslim public opinion, but to recruit into his fold quite a number of influential Muslim leaders. Industrialists like Azim Premji and clerics like Mufti Shamoon Qasmi, general secretary of All India Imam Association, are willing to forget and forgive Modi for the genocide of their community in 2002. Both reconstruct Modi as a reformed politician in his role as a prime minister, to suit their respective interests. Mufti Shamoon was in fact snapped by a photographer sharing a yogic posture with Ramdev at the rehearsal for the June 21 International Yoga Day in Delhi (Indian Express, June 15, 2015). So, are Indian Muslims being drawn into the so-called mainstream (Hindutva-dominated), as a part of Modi's 'inclusive' policy ?

Well-known Muslim politicians of the BJP like Shahnawaz Hussain and Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi can be seen as careerists seeking berths in a major political party spectrum, by serving the interests of the party to project its Muslim face. Many others from the community could be joining it out of the sheer need for protection (from the Hindu goons) or are being enticed into doing so by promises of funds and privileges. As one such person -Salem Mohammad Baghaad, who joined the BJP and won the municipal polls in his Muslim majorty town of Salaya in Gujarat in 2010, said: "If I joined hands with Mr Modi it will mean more benefits for the town and more development and he indeed drew more funds after being elected. (Re: NDTV interview. February 13, 2013) As for the rest of the community, Modi is turning a blind eye to their victimization by his foot soldiers (of Bajrang Dal, RSS, Shlv Sena) who through strong arrn methods are intent on creating a Hindu Rashtra, where strict orthodox socio-cultural rules and customs of the majority religious community will be imposed on the citizens, and religious minorities will have to be second class citizens- a replica of theocratic states like Zionist Israel, or the Islamic Saudi Arabia.

So, is Modi really redeeming himself of his past crimes, by emerging as a reformed soul? Has the merchant of genocide of 2002 in Gujarat, turned into the merchant of peace and goodwill in 2015 in India and the international arena? Does this U-turn in public by Modi recall the historical transformation of Asoka from his reputation as Chanda-Asoka (Asoka the terrible) which he earned during his violent conquest of Orissa (today's Odisha), into his later immortal role as Dharma-Asoka (Asoka the preacher of the religion of non-violence) all over his empire? Is Narendra Modi's psyche going through such a tectonic shift?

Commentators in the national media (including retired CEOs, ex-army generals and journalists-turned-politicians) are busy building up this image of Modi as a reformed soul. At gatherings in the homes of liberal minded middle class professionals, one hears, charitable comments like—"Why dig up Gujarat of 2002 ? Modi has repented," or "After all, in his public meetings, he is assuring Mulsim and Christian minorities of protection," or "He is bringing some discipline in the governance of the country," and lastly the common refrain: "Give him a chance." Lucky to come to power through the flick of a switch on the first-past-the-post button of Indian electoral system, Modi was all set to carry out his party's agenda—a joint venture of neo-liberalism in economy and Hindutva in the society and culture.

But going by the signs of the last one year of the Modi regime, despite his tub-thumping, the sheen is already wearing off. On the Pakistan front, the flip flop between diplomatic bonhomie and sabre-rattling may entertain newspaper readers, but jawans and civilians continue to get killed at the LoC, amidst the unprecedented scene of public demonstrations by ex-jawans cursing Modi for reneging on his promise of equal pensions. On the domestic front, the much publicized agreement with the Naga insurgents (propagated as an end to the conflict) turns out to be only a framework for future talks—the roots of the conflict still remaining unsolved. In the economic scene, as mentioned earlier, Modi is sandwiched between pressures from his business house patrons for faster 'reforms' on the one hand, and opposition from his Sangh Parivar trade union and other outfits to such 'reforms,' on the other. In the cultural sphere also, Modi is getting alienated from his middle class admirers. His government's decision to appoint Sangh Parivar apparatchiks (without necessary qualifications) as chairpersons in prestigious institutions like the Indian Council of Historical Research, and Film and Television Institute of India, has led to a mess from which Modi finds it difficult to extricate himself. So, at the end of it all, is Narendra Modi going to end up as the proverbial garrulous dwarf aiming at the moon?

Autumn Number, Vol. 48, No. 14 - 17, Oct 11 - Nov 7, 2015