Modi is a bigger cult figure than Savarkar or Vajpayee: Jamia professor Mujibur Rehman

01 December, 2020

Mujibur Rehman is an assistant professor at the Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy at Jamia Millia Islamia, in Delhi. A political scientist by training, his research focuses on identity and development politics. In 2018, he edited a collection of essays titled, Rise of Saffron Power: Reflections on Indian Politics, and is currently working on a book, Shikwa-e-Hind, The Political Future of Indian Muslims, which will be released in 2021.

As Indian politics places itself on the right of the ideological spectrum, some individuals who were members of right-wing organisations, have moved towards the Left—or at least, away from the Right. Yet, others, who hail from a notably right-wing milieu, never embraced it and have become the political right’s fiercest critics. Abhimanyu Chandra, a doctoral student at the University of Chicago, seeks to explore these transitions in a series of interviews, titled Converse Lens, published by The Caravan. The initial set of interviews focused on individuals who turned critical of the Right despite previous associations. In the latter part of this series, Chandra interviews experts who comment on when, why, and how some people leave right-wing settings, even as so many others do not.

Chandra spoke to Rehman about his experience as an educator, the gap between how intellectuals view an issue versus an average Indian, and more. Rehman said that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s failures may diminish his appeal if opposition parties manage to “transform specific discontent into a new political thinking.” 

Abhimanyu Chandra: Globally, errors by prominent right-wing leaders, including Modi, do not seem to affect their support amongst their base. What can or does change the minds of their supporters?
Mujibur Rehman: If one goes back to the conventional literature regarding voting behaviour, primarily there are three kinds of voters. One is who are called “core voters,” who are loyal—people who belong to the BJP, whose families belong to the Congress, whose families support the Communist Party. They don’t change their minds. Then, in every election, there are always new, fresh voters who join. And then, there are always floating or independent voters. 

In a country like India, the new voters who join are mas

sive. A lot of young people, who joined the political system, voted for Modi because of hope that he will carry out development. A lot of these young voters, in a poor country like India, are not very ideological—they aren’t left-wing, right-wing, in terms of the categories with which many people discuss politics. They don’t look at things from the point of view of left, right, or liberal. Someone at St Stephens College [a prestigious college of the University of Delhi], they can maybe make sense of these ideological frameworks and debates. Someone at the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi or some other technical college, the guy will be completely ignorant about it. And the same will happen if you go to some small-town college. Ideological descriptions that intellectuals use are not the frame through which most people look at politics in India.

What has happened in Indian politics, in the last four-five years, is that Narendra Modi, as a leader of the BJP, has been able to emerge and position himself in the eyes of the people as above the BJP. So, there have been election results where people are angry with the BJP, but they are not angry with Modi. For instance, in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, and Gujarat, opposition parties did very well. [The assembly elections for the former two were held in December 2018, while Gujarat went to the polls in December 2017.] In MP and Rajasthan, opposition parties formed governments. And in Gujarat, it was a close contest with Congress. But in parliamentary elections [in May 2019], there was a massive sweep for Modi. That happened because voters, in my assessment, were very angry with the state governments run by the BJP in these three states, but not with Modi as such. So, Modi has been able to position himself in such a way.

Another thing I would like to argue is, Modi has been able to fulfil some of the core ideological agendas of the BJP—removal of Article 370, building of the Ram Mandir, passing the Triple Talaq Bill, which is seen as a way to fulfil a uniform civil code agenda. That has deepened his relationship with the core ideological base of the Hindu Right. I was in discussion with the senior BJP leader Swapan Dasgupta, who said he never thought that Ayodhya [where the Ram Mandir is being built] and Article 370 removal could, or would, happen in his lifetime.

All these have positioned Narendra Modi as a cult figure in the eyes of the Hindu Right. Today, Modi, in my assessment, is a bigger cult compared to other leaders. He will tower over Atal Bihari Vajpayee, Advani and even Savarkar. If you do a survey of who is the greatest Hindu Right leader of the past 100 years, my sense is Modi will sweep that by a long stretch.

Narendra Modi is the exact kind of Hindu Right leader that the ideological organisations wanted BJP to have. Unlike, say, with Donald Trump, who is an aberration in the Republican Party—there is no ideological connection between the Republican base and him, he is primarily a corporate guy. Modi is the paradigmatic, the ideal case which has emerged; he is a role model which successive [Hindu Right] leaders will be expected to follow.

And Modi, in terms of his personality, is more guarded than Trump. For instance, the kinds of things Trump says about women. You don’t see that with Modi. Modi is very committed to majoritarian ideology but at the same time he is not making offensive, vulgar statements against Muslims. He was doing that when he was in Gujarat. Now, he is more guarded. 

Then, the media has surrendered to the Modi government because it controls advertisements, and there are different ways through which it controls the media. It is behaving more like a government organisation, large sections of the media, barring a few organisations like The Hindu, NDTV, Caravan. And the media has also been very well managed—such as on COVID and with setting the terms of the debate with [the death by suicide of the Bollywood actor] Sushant Singh Rajput, et cetera—so that substantive issues are not a part of the discussion. NDTV, The Hindu reach only a very small percentage of the population. I don’t know of any other democracy where the ruling establishment has been able to set the agenda so well, and distract from its failures. All of this is working in favour of Modi’s image. Because people are not asking that your leader is not doing anything, they are asking, “Oh, there is this drug racket going on in Bollywood.”

So, in the core base of the Hindu Right, any issue, any failure in the coming years—say, if Modi fails drastically with China on issues of security, or with the economy—Modi’s own approval rating is not going to decline.

The right wing is consolidating in India mainly because we don’t have an alternative. The opposition parties are not adequately organised. Unless political parties are able to organise and transform specific discontent at the ground level, for instance on the recent farmers’ protests, into a new political thinking, it is likely that Modi will not be as badly affected by all the failures that have happened and more failures that will happen.

AC: You said voters are often angry with the BJP but not with Modi. How has he been able to insulate and distinguish himself from the BJP?
MR: This generally happens with most charismatic leaders. Modi is ideologically a very contentious figure of Indian history. In modern Indian history, two prime ministers have been the most ideological: one was Jawaharlal Nehru, the other is Modi. Nehru wanted to move Indian politics to the left of centre, Modi to the Hindu Right. And he has been very, very successful with that. Partly because the Modi brand has been built up slowly. It’s not a one-day affair.

First, he built up the whole brand of “Gujarat model.” He presented himself as the most efficient, most capable, development driven. That particular personality was able to attract a lot of voters who had nothing to do with the Hindu Right. A lot of these people voted for him because of his commitment to development, as somebody who is very concerned about the remarkable failure of the Indian state over the last seventy years, the remarkable failure of the Congress party. 

One of the reasons why Modi emerged as such an acceptable leader to the Indian population was mainly because he was able to present a coherent critique of the failure of the Indian political system. When he said, “Look, in seventy years, your railways are not running on time. We need bullet trains. All over the world there are bullet trains. And our trains are in such bad shape.” People saw these things in their own lives when they travel on trains. That they get late, that there are accidents. Similarly, when he spoke about the condition of roads; it was not that he was trying to make up stories. He was relating to what people were experiencing. He was saying, “Listen, nothing has happened, I’ve done it in Gujarat. Now, I will do it for you.” 

Now, he does not talk about the Gujarat model because the Gujarat model has been exposed. It is not the opposition which exposed it. It was the Patel movement [referring to a large movement for reservations by Gujarat’s Patidar community in 2015]; Hardik Patel exposed the Gujarat model. 

One of the things that people are fed up with Indian politicians is that they are individually very corrupt. And they are corrupt because of their family and dynasty. Modi doesn’t have that baggage. His family members, brother, nephews, none of these people have profited [while Modi has been in public office]. That makes people feel that this guy is different, even though there has been massive political corruption—BJP is one of the richest parties in the world today. Several other BJP leaders, too, are corrupt, who have done things for their families. People are angry with them. So, people see a difference between what Modi is, versus what other guys are. And that difference has contributed to the image-making of Modi. 

And then, India is a deeply religious country, it has always been very religious. And he played all the symbolism very well. In the 2019 election, he went to the Himalaya and did yoga over there and released that image. And unlike Trump, he is not known as a womaniser. There are no questions about his character. The only thing people have dug out is about his wife, who he abandoned, but otherwise he has been able to present himself as a decent Indian man. 

And then, the long years that he remained chief minister of Gujarat, he provided enough support to corporates. He is not like the reckless guys in his own party, like [the Uttar Pradesh chief minister] Adityanath and others, who don’t have any corporate image. Modi had built up a corporate image, with friendships with all major people. And he has been loyal to all of these corporates. So, corporates do not find him a threat. The [recent] Farmers’ Bill is also a gift to the corporates in many ways. Elections have been an extremely over-expensive game. He has been able to understand that and generate that amount of capital for his party. And that has also worked out as an advantage. 

Then, in addition to Modi as an individual, and Modi as a strategist, there is Modi in terms of his rhetorical power. Over the years he has improved as a speaker. He does not speak in an intellectual language. He speaks a very ordinary language that connects with the people. Even if there is a massive contrast between the lifestyle he leads and the language he speaks, when he goes to people, he reminds them that he is one of them, who has come up from the grassroots. And these are not stories he is making up. It is a fact that he comes from a very modest family. 

And then there is hyper nationalism—that he is someone who can take on Pakistan. He has quite successfully been able to play up these things and build a narrative. For instance, who in the BJP could be considered as good as Modi in taking on Pakistan? You would imagine that the defence minister would come in the same light, but no one talks about the defence minister when it comes to Pakistan. It is Modi who is talked about. 

And most importantly, he has never been challenged. If you compare him with Indira Gandhi, Jayaprakash Narayan was there, he challenged her. Morarji Desai was there to challenge Indira Gandhi. All those leaders were very senior leaders. In comparison, Modi doesn’t have a big challenger. When you don’t have a challenger, everything falls in your favour. 

The criteria that people employ and that intellectuals and analysts employ in assessing a leader are very different. For us, it is a big issue that a prime minister hasn’t given a meaningful interview to the country’s media in the last six years. It is a big issue that he has no respect for the media—for instance before the COVID [lockdown], he had a conference call with editors. By our standards this is a violation. You can’t, as a political executive, tell journalists what to report and what not to report. This is interference and intervention. The average Indian voter has no idea in what sense that is bad. If you tell him that the prime minister was saying that this should not be reported, then he will say, “He said the right thing, what is the advantage in listening to depressing things? So many people are dying, if you keep telling people they will get depressed. There will be a bad impact on women and children.” Our understanding of liberal democracy and the understanding of an average Indian citizen are very different. That is one of the things that Modi understands very well. 

It’s more a case of political psychology than of any political logic that has brought about that distinction between why he stands so tall and distinctive, relative to the BJP. Otherwise, in many ways, BJP is like any other political party. They are rent seeking; they are doing all the things that other local leaders do. Just with a high dose of majoritarianism, anti-Muslim rhetoric and ideology. And they have more money. 

AC: As an educator, have you been able to shape students’ thinking on broad issues of narrative and perception? When people come with deep-seated but factually untenable narratives, for instance about Muslims, have you been able to pierce through those narratives, or are there almost bullet-proof jackets of ideological insulation that people wear?
MR: When I give a lecture, I’m not asking any student to agree with me. I say this is a text, these are my sources, and this is my evidence. Now, you are free to arrive at a conclusion. And you are also free to explore further evidence in order to agree, disagree or partially agree with me. For me, it’s a knowledge sharing experience, whether it’s a question of secularism, or globalisation, or liberal democracy, or majoritarianism. 

But that is not how political thinking takes place. A lot of people are familiar with the facts but they still don’t want to change their minds. One of the reasons, for why things that are very obvious as facts but still fail to change political thinking in society, is that they are not adequately shared. 

As one obvious example, in the last 40 years, the BJP has always been criticised as a fascist political party. Now, fascism is bad according to any average person in India—when you tell him that under fascism they might murder you, or they may throw you in a concentration camp, or they will deny you this or that. Even if he is not knowledgeable about fascism, Hitler, and doesn’t know where Germany is. Because he will apply his own standard of what is right and wrong, and based on that he will say that this is bad. 

On the other hand, empirically, in the last 40 years, BJP’s support base has increased—today, it is close to 37 percent [the BJP’s vote share in the general elections of 2019 was 37.4 percent]. So, logically you’ll conclude that this argument of fascism against BJP hasn’t worked. Because the reason for describing BJP or Modi as fascist was to scare people with the argument—that they are fascist, that they will do some bad thing if they come to power. 

But you can’t make the argument that people are voting for them because the people are embracing fascism, even though that is the argument that you could logically infer. My own sense is that that would be the wrong inference. I would say the average guy is simply not aware. They aren’t able to connect. They aren’t able to see the similarity. How you present facts, how it is received, and to what extent that helps in forming political thinking, that is a very complex subject. And I don’t think that liberal narratives have been able to understand that. Somewhere there has been a massive rupture in communication. 

Let me add as a supplementary thought—if you ask me, has there been a massive, dramatic increase in Islamophobia in Indian society? I would say yes, in the last ten to fifteen years. Which is why there has not been much protest or anger against lynchings and so on. People have not come out and said, “I’m not going to vote for them because this is the only government in which lynchings have happened, and I don’t want lynchings happening in Indian society.” The reason why Islamophobia has increased is because there has been a massive mobilisation, RSS activities in India have grown manifold. 

In my neighbourhood, I have noticed in the last seven-eight years, that average people, for instance, a security guard, their language has become very Islamophobic. And they aren’t watching Arnab Goswami. These people are working from morning to night. They are fed through other ways of communication, through various social channels. These ways of communication are going on, and they are shaping the ideological direction of Indian society. Why India is moving towards the Hindu Right is because those forces are operating and aren’t acknowledged. But they are there, working quietly. 

AC: In recent years, BJP and parts of the media have callously thrown around labels such as “urban naxals” and “jihadi,” and linked them, for instance, with Jamia Millia Islamia and Jawaharlal Nehru University. A lot of people have bought into such rhetoric and when they hear JNU or Jamia, they immediately think of them as homes to “urban naxals” and “jihadis.” How will this thinking change? Can it?
MR: JNU and Jamia are both disproportionately highlighted in Indian politics. One of the main reasons for this is that India is going through an ideological change, and institutions represent certain kinds of ideological faces of Indian society. One of these is perceived as a minority institution, the other as a secular, modern institution. So, they are seen as a threat to the Hindu Right ideology. When the Ayodhya movement was taking place, in the late eighties, early nineties, Murli Manohar Joshi, then a prominent Hindu Right political figure, said, “Everyone is appreciating our work except the JNU people.” So, JNU has been on the radar for a very long time—because of its intellectual activities, because it is a left-leaning university, because a lot of intellectuals wrote about the BJP and opposed the Ayodhya movement. So, there’s a long history. 

Any average person who is outside JNU, or Jamia, they’ll only take the information and arguments seriously that come from who or what, based on their understanding, is credible. If they think that NDTV is credible, then what NDTV is saying, they will believe it. If they think that Arnab Goswami is credible, then what Arnab Goswami is saying, they will take as credible. So, if Arnab Goswami says that JNU is “urban naxal,” IIT Bombay is “urban naxal,” they will say, “Okay, they must be ‘urban naxal.’” Let us recognise that the credibility of all these allegations, a lot of it has to do with how the mediating institutions present themselves, what is the credibility they enjoy. 

More broadly, there are lots of prejudices about Muslims in this country—that they are more sympathetic to Pakistan; that most Muslims are this way, that way. These prejudices remain very deep in the heads of people. Even if you provide evidence against it every day, it can be difficult to uproot. If you provide evidence to a Hindu Right guy that regular Muslims don’t do “love jihad” [a right-wing conspiracy theory that claims that Muslim men fraudulently marry Hindu women, forcibly convert them and use them to increase the Muslim population], that they aren’t terrorists, you give him examples of Abdul Kalam and Shahrukh Khan and Sania Mirza every day, they will still believe that these people are exceptions. 

Jamia and JNU, they have become victims of this ideological movement of the Hindu Right. 

This interview has been edited and condensed.