Political Affairs

The liberals who loved Modi

Sadanand Dhume, Ashutosh Varshney, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Gurcharan Das (clockwise from left) shielded Narendra Modi from detractors and doomsayers on his way to the prime minister’s office. Today they have joined the ranks of those they once pilloried.
Sadanand Dhume, Ashutosh Varshney, Pratap Bhanu Mehta and Gurcharan Das (clockwise from left) shielded Narendra Modi from detractors and doomsayers on his way to the prime minister’s office. Today they have joined the ranks of those they once pilloried.
Praveen Donthi ILLUSTRATION BY Kevin Ilango
16 May, 2019

“INDIAN DEMOCRACY IS not just in crisis,” Pratap Bhanu Mehta announced from a lectern at the India Today Conclave in early March, “but there is a deep, deep diminishing of hope at this juncture compared to five years ago or perhaps ten years ago.” Mehta was impassioned, delivering his verdict on a half-decade of the rule of Narendra Modi. “The last five years have been a mutilation of the Indian soul,” he said. “They stand for everything that is un-Indian,” and “against every promise that this democracy gave to each one of its citizens.”

“All the big repositories of hope we had accumulated over the last ten [or] fifteen years—India is at the cusp of structural transformation, India will, in a sense, reach a new stratosphere of growth and inclusion and job creation—I think all of those expectations have been deeply disappointed,” Mehta elaborated. “Religion, that very thing that behooves us to transcend our identity, is being reduced to the identity that marks you, for which you will be targeted,” and “nationalism is being used to divide people.” The expected purpose of the production of knowledge, he suggested, was no longer the pursuit of truth, but “to relieve you of the burden of thinking altogether.” Even “the act of speaking has become a dangerous act.” What will be left of civility, he asked, when those in the highest positions of authority empower those who threaten and intimidate. If the looming general election did not deliver a reconfiguration of power, he predicted, Indian democracy faced great peril.

Here was Mehta claiming the moral high ground—one of the country’s most-read public thinkers, a man considered a star of Indian liberalism, fulfilling the intellectual’s responsibility to deliver uncomfortable truths. And yet, Mehta failed in another intellectual duty—that of self-reflection. Nowhere in his speech did he offer a candid mea culpa.

Prior to the 2014 general election, Mehta, in his widely read column in the Indian Express but also elsewhere, was busy deflecting concerns for the future of Indian democracy in the event that Modi became prime minister, and undermining those who questioned the politician’s record. As early as in December 2012, after Modi secured a fresh term as the chief minister of Gujarat, Mehta published a piece titled “A Modi-fied politics.” In it, he weighed in on the politician’s eligibility for national leadership, and addressed the persistent criticism of Modi for having watched over anti-Muslim pogroms in his state in 2002, soon after he first took charge of it. “You can look at the convictions of Modi’s cabinet colleagues and point to those as proxy proof of his culpability,” Mehta wrote. Among those colleagues was Maya Kodnani, Gujarat’s minister for women and child development until 2009, who was later given a life sentence for organising a massacre in 2002. (The Gujarat High Court granted bail to Kodnani in 2014, shortly after Modi became prime minister, and acquitted her last year.) But, Mehta added, “you can also look at them and wonder why so many Congress cabinet ministers still have not been made to answer for 1984”—when Congress leaders led anti-Sikh pogroms in Delhi. “The point is not to use 1984 to politically exonerate Modi. The point is that it is hard to attack evil when we so widely condone it in other contexts.”

This was a roundabout way of saying what Modi’s defenders have always said when confronted with his bloody legacy—that all those who point it out are Congress minions. Mehta wrote that “those worried about Modi need to set their own house in order,” and that “attacks on him have a self-incriminating quality.” The apparent suggestion was that it was best not to criticise Modi at all. This approach also ignored the fact that Modi’s critics included people who had long condemned the Congress’s evasion of responsibility for 1984.

“Modi is not so much a three dimensional character as an idea,” Mehta wrote.

He represents a longing for centralisation in an age of dispersion, decisiveness in a milieu of indecision, growth amidst a fear of stagnation and government in the face of raucous democracy. He is not adorned with elevated liberal values, or a deep concern for democratic diversity. But he may still prove a rallying point against a decaying plutocracy.

But Modi’s path to a greater national role is still fraught. … No one can hope to govern India if they are incapable of a statesman-like synthesising capacity. No one can govern India for long if they make minorities feel insecure. … Do you trust the logic of Indian democracy to, in the end, soften the most congenital of prejudices? Or do you fear that democracy will give them free rein?

This was already a step beyond the evasion of the pogroms. Mehta’s style allowed him a studied deniability—note his reliance on generality and rhetorical questions, the subjective interpretations masked as observations of popular trends—but, in effect, he made the case for Modi’s further rise. He conceded, just as Modi would have wanted, that the politician was to be judged not on his actual record, but rather on his desired brand—a brand that made him out to be an economic miracle-worker, a forward-thinking strongman, a one-man solution to all of India’s ills. Mehta encouraged an extreme faith in the strength of the Indian democratic system, a belief that its institutions and conventions would inevitably bend Modi to their demands, instead of Modi bending them to his. The unspoken corollary here was that those averse to this view were just incurable cynics, whom anyone of reasonable mind could ignore. Also implied was a conviction that Modi could and would radically transform himself, if only voters forgave his past transgressions and gave him a chance. This required Mehta to overlook the major forces behind Modi’s ascent—the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, as the parent of Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party and headspring of its Hindutva ideology; and major corporations such as the Adani Group. Only that could make plausible the notion that Modi would somehow come to stand up for religious minorities, and against plutocracy.

In its style and themes, the 2012 piece showed all the hallmarks of Mehta’s writing on Modi in the approach to the election. In January 2014, in a piece titled “Overcoming cynicism,” he wrote,

Underneath the surface drama of familiar faces, and occasional reminders of reactionary ideas, we should not miss the fact that the BJP has also been trying to script a new narrative. It is easy to spot Narendra Modi’s baggage. But critics missed his novelty. By gatecrashing his way to national prominence, he showed that he could create a new basis of appeal. He has been consistent on the theme that India should enlarge its aspirations … In a curious twist, the politician we had a lot of reason to be cynical about became the embodiment of a kind of anti-cynicism.

Mehta added that “Modi managed to brush off his vices through sheer energy,” without specifying what vices he had in mind. “Professional cynics will warn us not to replace cynicism with delusion … We should not be cynical about these cynics. There is something to these warnings. But there is little doubt that 2014 will belong to the party that can most successfully capitalise on the new yearning to overcome cynicism.”

In March, under the title “Iron in the soul,” Mehta considered the “interesting question of how to form expectations of strong leaders”—figures such as Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa. When such leaders are elected,

they often ride two contradictory waves. Some vote for them because of who they project themselves to be: strong, decisive, ruthless, capable of even nasty decisions. Others vote for them for different reasons. There is a genuine recognition of the fears a leader may pose. But there is also great confidence in the protean side of leaders.

In this view, leaders are characterised by a capacity to change. They may have posed risks in the past, but one of their qualities is the ability to sense a political occasion and live up to it. If the context is right, they can change and do the right thing.

Mehta held that “much of the Narendra Modi surge has elements of both of these impulses.” On the heels of this, he pointed to “the great faith a democracy has in itself: its ability to transform devils, to change opinions, to mould its leaders as much as it is moulded by them. Democracy takes risks not because it condones authority, but because it believes in its own power to tame authority. Sometimes this belief works, sometimes it comes to grief.” Readers might well have wondered if Mehta knew which way things had gone in the cases of Erdoğan, Putin and Rajapaksa.

Through some roundabout reasoning, Mehta arrived at the strange conclusion that the “appropriate question” when it comes to strong leaders “is not the question of what their ideology and beliefs are. These may indeed be quite malleable. The appropriate question is their capacity for tolerating dissent.” Then came the rhetorical questions:

Are dissenters a legitimate part of democracy, to be protected and accorded respect? Or does the leader, now wearing the mantle of the people, declare them to be treasonous? How do we come to a judgement of the capacity to tolerate dissent?

In the first week of April, with the first phase of voting only days away, Mehta wrote, “For all the paranoia about Modi’s centralising tendencies, the interesting fact about the BJP’s evolution in the last few months is this: Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders”—figures such as Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Sushil Kumar Modi. “If these are worthy leaders, as they are,” Mehta wondered, “should not their presence in the party and their accepting to work with Modi be some source of reassurance about the BJP?” He concluded that “the noise around Modi may be deceiving us. The party with the greatest personality cult may also turn out to be more of a genuine party. The issue may not be Modi’s personality, but how the relationship between these regional leaders in the BJP plays out.”

The following week, Mehta rebuked those who characterised Modi as fascist. “It is easy to dismiss this concern over fascism as the hyperbole of a crumbling elite that has often used moral outrage as a substitute for addressing genuine political challenges,” he wrote. “Can the combination of military power, total mobilisation and eliminationism that marked fascism really be reproduced in India?”

Mehta recognised that the concern over fascism in India was fuelled by growing communalisation—it had been barely half a year since the bloody communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar, which left dozens of Muslims dead and tens of thousands of Muslims displaced. But he held up an unflinching belief that the primary goal of Modi and his party was economic growth, and argued that the pursuit of that goal militated against further communalisation. Mehta wrote that “the incentive structures for the BJP at this moment are very different. Large-scale communalisation will, in the long run, create the very uncertainties that can damage growth. Violence may pay in specified local contexts, but beyond a point it backfires nationally.” He did not stop to consider how the BJP’s incentives might change if its promises of economic growth proved false.

“We are not on the high tide of fascism,” Mehta reassured his readers. “It is more about a complicated country feeling its way through difficult times, fed up with old power structures. The ‘F’ word has become a substitute for real thinking.”

Whether through naivety or deliberation—either, in this context, unbecoming of an intellectual claiming liberal credentials—Mehta did not address the pertinent fact that the RSS, for much of its history, has looked with unabashed admiration at the examples Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler. If he had wanted a more considered view on whether the conditions for fascism exist in India, he could have turned to Umberto Eco, the Italian writer and philosopher, who had first-hand experience of life under fascism. In his iconic essay “Ur-Fascism,” Eco wrote that if we think of fascism solely in terms of “the totalitarian governments that ruled Europe before the Second World War we can easily say that it would be difficult for them to reappear in the same form in different historical circumstances.” But, he explained, “fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions,” and “I think it is possible to outline a list of features that are typical of what I would like to call Ur-Fascism, or Eternal Fascism”—among them, machismo, the fear of difference, the cult of tradition and the cult of action for action’s sake. Ur-Fascism, Eco warned, “can come back under the most innocent of disguises. Our duty is to uncover it and to point our finger at any of its new instances—every day, in every part of the world.”

The fixation on Gujarat’s economic growth under Modi came hand-in-hand with a blindness to its attendant social and political realities, among them the ghettoisation of the state’s Muslims. raveendran / afp / getty images
dhiraj singh / bloomberg / getty images

MEHTA WAS NOT the only prominent liberal to shield Modi from detractors and doomsayers. For one, the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney, a professor at Brown University, echoed many of his thoughts. “Comparisons with fascism, often made, are too facile,” he wrote in his own column in the Indian Express, right on the cusp of the election. “India simply does not have the conditions of 1930s Germany.”

Varshney argued that since the logic of Indian politics “requires building bridges across India’s diversities, Modi’s desire for power appears to be pushing him towards inclusion.” Happy to take Modi and the BJP at their word, just as Mehta was, he pointed out that “governance and development constitute the main thrust” of the party’s 2014 manifesto. He listed some of the documents’ promises to Muslims—the “maintenance and restoration of heritage sites,” the “preservation and promotion of Urdu,” the empowerment of Waqf boards, and more such—and declared that anyone “who has read the early texts of Hindu nationalism by V.D. Savarkar or M.S. Golwalkar would call these moves a sign of ideological moderation.” To add to that, “Modi can rightly argue that his campaign, by and large, has been devoid of anti-Muslim rhetoric”—a point Varshney had made at greater length the previous month, in a piece titled “Modi the moderate.” Never mind that, as Varshney himself now pointed out, a “deeply anxious Muslim community does not yet find Modi’s conciliatory gestures credible.”

Besides the anxieties of minorities, Varshney also addressed prevailing anxieties over Modi’s position on freedom of expression. After describing numerous past instances of inaction and intimidation on this front by Modi and his “foot soldiers,” Varshney mused rhetorically, “Will Modi’s rise to power lead to intimidation and punishment of critics and to restrictions on free speech?”

In another piece that same month, titled “Modi, on balance,” Varshney allayed fears that if someone like Modi is allowed to rule India “the nation will descend into a deep communal abyss, even fascism.” He explained that “the discipline of political science, which I have taught for two decades, fundamentally disagrees with this view,” for two reasons.

First, “we know of no theory that would view the future as a linear extension of the past.” As a philosophical truism this was beyond challenge, but to apply it to Modi’s politics beggared belief. Varshney, like Mehta, swept away Modi’s past as a full-time organiser for the RSS, and the bloody history of his rule in Gujarat. And, also like Mehta, he promoted an infinite faith in Modi’s capacity for radical regeneration, independent of the forces and beliefs that had fuelled him thus far.

Second, Varshney continued, again echoing Mehta, the view that communalism posed a major danger was “institutions-free,” where in fact the “inner truths of leaders are constrained by the institutional frameworks within which the leaders must function”—those of parties, parliaments, constitutions and the like. In “Modi the moderate” Varshney reassured readers that though “Modi is often criticised for nurturing an all-consuming desire for power,” viewed from “the perspective of political theory, that is not a damnable flaw unless it leads to the weakening of democratic institutions.” But Varshney’s view of Modi was “institutions-free” in its own way—it was blind to the institution of the RSS, which continued to hold firmly to its Hindutva prejudices even as it rallied its immense network in support of Modi’s election.

The author Gurcharan Das was another liberal to support Modi—and he was happy to do so while frankly acknowledging the politician’s known vices. In a piece in the Times of India titled “Secularism or growth? The choice is yours,” published on the day before voting for the 2014 election began, Das wrote that “there is a clear risk in voting for Modi—he is polarizing, sectarian and authoritarian.” But, he reasoned, the greater risk was in not voting for him. To do so would be to “not create jobs for 8-10 million youth that enter the market each year”—to fail to capitalise on the so-called demographic dividend. “Restoring growth to 8% is [a] prize worth thinking about when casting one’[s] vote. There will always be a trade-off in values at the ballot box and those who place secularism above demographic dividend are wrong and elitist.”

Das also showed supreme confidence in Modi’s ability to deliver economic growth and sideline the RSS’s agenda. “Modi is likely to reduce corruption as well based on his record,” he wrote. “The BJP without Modi is an unappealing option; nor is voting for him [a] vote for RSS’[s] social agenda. The RSS is afraid in fact, that its Hindutva programme might be marginalized by his economic agenda.” This, again, did not square with the organisation’s wholehearted mobilisation behind Modi.

Others also employed shades from the same argumentative palette. Sadanand Dhume, a columnist with the Wall Street Journal, hailed Modi as a sure-fire economic reformer. (Disclosure: Dhume is a contributing editor at The Caravan.) Just days before the 2014 election, in a piece titled “The Making of a New Modi,” he wrote that, “instead of feeling dejected, India’s liberals should be quietly satisfied” with the fact that their “public enemy No. 1” was poised for victory. Liberals, he explained, had forced Modi to “shelve his party’s most contentious policies, tone down his image as a hardliner and focus instead on economic development.” While Modi’s “more anxious critics” feared that “the world’s largest democracy is about to be squashed by Hindu nationalism,” Dhume reassured his readers that, upon a closer look at Modi’s evolution, the “opposite picture emerges.” The historian Ramachandra Guha, even as he described the politician as “a bully and a bigot” at a public event in the months before the election, still wrote at the time that that those who feared Modi “would inaugurate a period of ‘fascist’ or even Emergency-like rule in India, underestimate the strength of our democratic institutions, and the robustness of our federal system.”

sam panthaky / afp / getty images

In hindsight, after five years of the harsh realities of Modi’s rule, the foolishness of such analysis stands exposed by facts alone. The “new Modi” was stillborn.

The most powerful of India’s public institutions—the Reserve Bank of India, the Election Commission, the Central Information Commission, the Central Vigilance Commission, the Comptroller and Auditor General, the Central Bureau of Investigation, the Enforcement Directorate, the Intelligence Bureau, even the Supreme Court itself—are under grave suspicion of executive interference. Even the credibility of the government’s storied statistical bodies has been undermined. Many of these institutions have witnessed unprecedented scandals in the last five years—witness the Supreme Court judges compelled to speak out to the press about administrative rot, or the internecine warfare over the leadership of the CBI. Meanwhile, Modi’s grip over his own party has been underlined by the appointment of Amit Shah, his main lieutenant, as its national president. A shocking number of media organisations have worked to amplify government propaganda and Modi’s personality cult, not hesitating to fire editors, kill investigations or pull down stories to please the ruling powers. Civil society has been shown an example with, most recently, the murder of Gauri Lankesh and the persecution of activists linked to last year’s Dalit march at Bhima Koregaon. Sudha Bharadwaj, Anand Teltumbde and other champions of ordinary citizens have been incarcerated on suspect charges and denied bail, while fellow travellers of the RSS such as Maya Kodnani, Aseemanand, Pragya Singh Thakur and Amit Shah, as well as police officers implicated in extrajudicial killings in Gujarat, have seen the cases against them systematically dismantled, and have been acquitted or released on bail.

On the economy, Modi’s catastrophic experiment with demonetisation has become a cautionary tale for the entire world. The Goods and Services Tax, widely hailed as a positive step in principle, became a debacle when put into practice at the hands of the Modi administration. The agrarian economy is in deep crisis, and job-growth is non-existent. Leaked government data show that, under Modi, unemployment is the worst it has been in over four decades. Official GDP figures have been blatantly manipulated to preserve the failing myth of “achhe din”—better days.

Communal violence has spiked. The lynching of Muslims, often in the name of cow-protection, has become so common-place as to barely make news, and atrocities against Dalits have also become more frequent. There have been no large-scale pogroms against religious minorities, but as the effort to engineer one at Bulandshahr last year showed that is not for lack of trying. In making Adityanath the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, Modi took the unprecedented step of entrusting an entire state to a Hindu cleric—one who distinguished himself by running a massive network of Hindutva goons. Pragya Singh Thakur, the self-styled Hindu ascetic on trial as the suspected mastermind of a series of terrorist attacks, is one of the BJP’s candidates for the 2019 election.

Modi’s “decisive” governance has undone years of political gains in Kashmir, and brought about a renewed wave of violence in the valley. All of the country’s neighbours have been antagonised, and the government’s hawkishness on China has been exposed as little more than posturing. Official documents have shown that the responsibility for the highly suspect Rafale deal lies squarely with the prime minister’s office.

Even before all of this, though, the emptiness of the reassurances mustered by Modi’s liberal apologists was plain to see. There was, of course, plain wishful thinking—the ardent hope of Modi’s transformation, the equation of campaign rhetoric with intended policy. As the historian Mukul Kesavan wondered in a 2015 piece dismissing hopes of the BJP’s transformation, “In what world would a majoritarian party, led by a polarizing leader, back away from its core beliefs after they were endorsed by the electorate in a general election?” But, to add to it, there were also gaping contradictions in the apologists’ reasoning.

Already in 2014, the journalist Tony Joseph pointed out a dissonance between the arguments packaged together by Modi’s intellectual advocates. One argument held that said that Modi “will not be able to act as his own man because of the various ways in which he will be constrained”—by coalition partners, other BJP leaders, civil society and such. The problem with this, Joseph wrote, “is that it contradicts another claim being made on Modi’s behalf by his supporters”—that “he will be a decisive prime minister.” Put simply, “Modi supporters expect a ‘Strong Modi’ to be in charge of economic decision-making, and a ‘Weak Modi’ to be in charge of social decision-making. That sounds like a fervent wish rather than a reasonable expectation.” Joseph did not extend this analysis further, but the same could be said of their approach to Modi’s past. To them, the politician’s history of authoritarianism and communalism offered no clues to his future behavior. Gujarat’s record of growth under Modi, however, was taken as a fail-proof predictor of a golden age for the national economy if he was elected.

Modi’s vaunted “Gujarat model” was used selectively in more ways than one. First, few cared to point out that the state’s robust rate of growth predated Modi’s rule, and was not his single-handed creation. Second, the liberals enamoured by it were fixated on the growth numbers, and sidestepped the socio-economic dynamics underlying them. As the political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot has shown, with copious empirical backing, the “puzzle about Gujarat is that successful economic growth has not translated into comparable improvements in indicators of the quality of life (or ‘human development’).” (Disclosure: Jaffrelot is a contributing editor at The Caravan.) What’s more,

Gujarat’s growth performance also conceals wide disparities. In fact about one third of society did not benefit from this ‘model’ of growth, with rising inequalities. Among those who did not benefit from Modi’s chief ministership, the Muslims, the Dalits and the Adivasis stand out.

In fact, the political economy of Gujarat has traditionally relied on a growth-oriented close association between the capitalist milieu and a business-friendly state. Already in the 1990s, the Gujarati recipe for growth was based on supply side-oriented public policies (including in fiscal terms). The social implications of this orientation were twofold: first, the state had little to spend (and little inclination to spend) on education, health, and so on; and second, wages remained low (and the state did not do much to remedy this situation). Therefore, while Gujarat was known for its communal polarisation—which culminated in the 2002 riots —it was also the state of social polarisation par excellence.

The extrajudicial killings of Ishrat Jahan, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Kauser Bi and Tulsiram Prajapati under Modi’s rule in the state were also part of the Gujarat model of governance, as was the ghettoisation of the state’s Muslims. None of that featured in the apologist case for Modi either, though none of his liberal proponents could have been unaware of these things. Mehta, for one, wrote in 2007, a year and a half after the killings of Sohrabuddin and Kauser Bi, that the BJP in particular had revealed its “moral obtuseness” in trying to deflect attention from the murders. He even added,

It is hubris to think that efficiency in building roads and infrastructure will be [a] substitute for basic social values. Even the most prosperous societies can unravel very quickly indeed if their foundations are lawlessness and distrust. Forgetting this is a sign of confusion. … The answer the BJP is giving to what comes after Hindutva is plain and simple: a brazenness and encouragement of thuggishness, pure and simple. Think of the pattern: the BJP has openly declared war on every institution—from the judiciary to the Election Commission. Its hate rhetoric is subtly being heightened … and the public culture in states it governs is being destroyed.

Somewhere along the road to 2014, these opinions were consigned to oblivion. In 2013, as the Intelligence Bureau faced scrutiny of its role in the Ishrat Jahan case and some dared to hope that the agency would be held to account, Mehta accused the incumbent Congress-led government of trying to destroy it. In a piece that excoriated the government over its performance on everything from inflation and employment to education and civil liberties, he wrote,

Then they came for institutions. They always had. This has been Congress DNA for four decades. They drew up a list of institutions that remained unscathed: Parliament, the IB, bureaucracy and you name it. They then went after those. They used institutions as instruments of their political design.

Such blinkered use of argument and fact by champions of India’s mainstream liberal elite, such willingness to turn a blind eye to Modi’s grossly undemocratic political upbringing and conduct, exposed the shallowness of liberal convictions in them and their sympathisers. In their universe, liberalism, if not just an empty word, was at best an unmourned sacrifice on the altar of the free market. This intellectual school’s conservative stance on caste was already well known, but on communalism, by and large, it had earlier stood its ground. With the temptation of Modi’s ascent, even that became little more than pretence.

I asked the political writer Pankaj Mishra about this phenomenon. “I think it is worth plotting the trajectory of the neoliberal intellectual in India,” he wrote to me, “who began scorning the ‘socialist’ Nehruvian past and embracing and promoting free-market capitalism long before Modi—all in a quest for personal power in the new dispensation where globalised India was going to be a powerful entity, interlocutor and ally to America etc.” Mishra argued that “one cannot understand contemporary India or a phenomenon like Modi without examining the private fantasies of Indians abroad or the foreign-returned Indians. Their longing was for power (also wealth, in some instances)—and they were ready to accept ‘modernising’ Modi as a facilitator of this ambition.”

Dhume wrote in 2010 that, at some level, Modi’s association with the carnage of 2002 “tars him for life.” Mehta, in 2007, wrote, “It is hubris to think that efficiency in building roads and infrastructure will be [a] substitute for basic social values.” Such views were put aside in time for the 2014 election. ami vitale / getty images

Mishra told an interviewer last year, “Anecdotally, I can confirm that in India a whole new American-educated—or America-philic—class emerged to argue for untrammelled markets and to institutionalize their ideas.” (Mehta, Varshney, Das and Dhume all fit the description.) Its members “often called themselves liberal, but they were also to be found on the Hindu right, and the traffic between the two camps was brisk.”

Such ideological contortions must have swayed some number of voters, but in numerical terms it is unlikely they decided the election. But those who performed them did serve a purpose in Modi’s ultimate elevation, in ways both deeply pernicious and enduring. Through all the ways they found to justify voting for Modi, through exploiting their considerable reputations and their access to privileged forums, they became instruments of a new definition of normal—one where the prime minister’s office is open to a demagogue who has overseen pogroms, where a certain controlled polarisation is considered perfectly fine so long as it does not hamper economic growth. Simply, some of India’s most famous liberals helped lower the moral threshold for holding the highest elected post in the world’s largest democracy.

WHEN MODI FINALLY WON, Mehta was rapturous. Modi’s was “one of the most gloriously spectacular political triumphs in the history of independent India,” he wrote, and in “the annals of democratic politics, there are few stories to match his.” The new prime minister “embodies the quintessence of politics: converting adversity into opportunity. … He was an outsider, demonised by the intelligentsia, with a Central government arrayed against him. But he has broken through and will now produce the biggest churning that India’s power structure has seen since Independence.”

Mehta had direct words for those who had not seen Modi as he had. “Disingenuousness marked the debate on leadership,” he told them. “Any mention of leadership was condemned as a yearning for authoritarianism. The blunt fact is that the election was made semi-presidential because we did not have a prime minister the last few years”—a reference to the ousted Manmohan Singh. What the “attacks” on Modi had done “was reinforce the one attribute of leadership: his capacity to stand his ground and not be swayed by every wind.” Already, this did not tally with the faith in the “protean side of leaders” that Mehta had counselled just a couple of months earlier.

In passing, Mehta mentioned that the BJP’s campaign had “fished in social polarisation in places like UP,” and that the party “does not have a single Muslim Lok Sabha MP.” This latter fact was something for the BJP to “address proactively”—though it was a little late for that, since the election was already over. Mehta felt that there will be “other occasions to discuss what this means for the future of Indian democracy.” Now was not the time for it.

Three months later, still in awe of Modi after his first Independence Day speech, Mehta compared the new prime minister with Charles de Gaulle, whom he saw as a “republican monarch.” Modi, like the former French president, had a “unique ability to both wield authority and yet personify the people.” His speech “called for democratic consensus,” which Mehta understood as “a marching in lock step where the people are together.” In a time “marked by a paralytic rancour, this message resonates.”

After the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, Varshney wrote that the killing was “a political project.” Responding to the communal clashes in Muzaffarnagar before the 2014 election, he had insisted that the violence was an aberration in the BJP’s strategy. manish swarup / ap

Varshney found the 2014 election comparable to the first democratic vote in India’s history. “The 1952 election instituted a democratic polity marked by norms, values and an ideology, which appear to have fully passed away,” he wrote. “New forces, norms and practices have been unleashed, which Modi represents in a most emphatic manner.” Varshney described the “stunning victory speech in Ahmedabad” where “Modi said that just as Mahatma Gandhi turned the freedom struggle into a movement in which millions participated, he would like to transform vikaas (economic development) into a jan aandolan (mass movement).” In principle, he wrote, Modi could be like Deng Xiaoping, the man who spearheaded China’s embrace of the open market. Only then did Varshney voice an unease over “Modi’s relationship with the RSS, an organisation that groomed him and also worked assiduously in this campaign.” Varshney wondered, “Can the RSS accept development as the master narrative of Indian politics? We simply do not know.”

Soon enough we did. But as the signs mounted that the new government’s Hindutva agenda would not be wished away, Modi’s liberal champions, to keep the shine on their image of the man, initially found ways to excuse it. To justify the sacrifice of liberal principles, they held out hope of an economic boom, but even that slowly foundered. Now came the period when, in fits and starts, the dream crumbled.

In August 2014, Varshney hailed Modi for being “pragmatic” rather than dogmatic on Hindu nationalism. “An RSS background will undoubtedly influence Modi’s functioning,” he wrote, and to hope Modi would “not allow any Hindu nationalist discourse is to expect too much.” He conceded that the RSS “will get personnel representation, especially in the party and in cultural and educational institutions,” but, he reassured readers, so long as Modi maintained his authority “it will not be able to dictate larger policy, economic or cultural.”

In a piece that October, Varshney noted that in “Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Vadodara and now East Delhi—a series of communal incidents have flared up of late.” But, Varshney reasoned, “Modi is likely to be opposed to an instrumental use of riots in politics, by his cadres or any other party.” We “should expect small disturbances, not big conflagrations,” he added—or “not many in any case.” The piece was titled “Sparks, not fires.”

Mehta, that same month, wrote that the BJP’s ascent had “emboldened a lot of nasty characters to openly express prejudice.” But, in his judgment, this was still “a minuscule tendency; the underlying social dynamics are quite the opposite.”

Varshney’s larger concern in the October piece was for the economic rather than moral dimension of the problem. If he turned out to be wrong, he wrote, “immense violent convulsions will rock India’s project of economic progress.” Das, writing that December, took a similar line, in a piece titled “To fulfil economic agenda, PM Narendra Modi must manage party’s cultural right.” He took it as a given that the Modi was on the path of moderation. “Political parties win elections when they move to the moderate centre,” he wrote. “This explains Modi’s miraculous success at the polls.”

One year into Modi’s tenure, Mehta had to concede that the “economic paradigms” of the incumbent and ousted governments were “not behaviourally different. Arguably, even their finance ministers are cut from the same cloth.” In sharp contrast to his assured prognoses on Modi a year ago, Mehta now wrote that the politician was “elusive,” and that it had been “hard to take his measure.” Still, he insisted, there was “reason to be cautiously optimistic that growth will pick up.” On an abstruse note, he wrote, “Hope is a bigger liberaliser than anxiety.”

Mehta suggested that whatever anxiety there was about Modi’s rule was overblown. “There is some scare-mongering, a will to convert local skirmishes into a doomsday scenario,” he wrote. The “political and cultural marginalisation of minorities is real,” but this was “inscribed in structures of discrimination” and “not a unique creation of this government.”

Then, in the town of Dadri in late September 2015, came the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq, by a Hindu mob convinced that he had slaughtered a cow. This was a litmus test of the Modi government, and of the liberal commentariat.

“No one had expected this morally odious part of the BJP—and it is part of the BJP—to vanish easily,” Mehta wrote in the aftermath. “But there was the hope that opportunism would tame fanaticism, that the need to take India into the 21st century would have enough momentum to overcome many of these nasty folks.” Mehta could not deny that no one in the BJP “is willing to signal an intolerance of the intolerant. The blame for this has to fall entirely on Modi. Those who spread this poison enjoy his patronage. This government has set a tone that is threatening, mean-spirited and inimical to freedom.”

Varshney lamented that, for many days, the prime minister “was willing to ignore for days an act of primitive savagery. And when he finally spoke, he displayed ambivalence, not clarity.” He added,

According to reliable press reports, the local cadres of the prime minister’s party were involved. A member of the prime minister’s cabinet, a chief minister of his party, some elected BJP legislators and a flagship Hindu nationalist journal openly supported the killers, not the victims. If it were a routine violation of the law, so much of the prime minister’s ideological family would not be involved. It was a political project.

This was another belated awakening. In the wake of the Muzaffarnagar riots in 2013, soon after Amit Shah took charge of the BJP’s electoral preparations in Uttar Pradesh, Varshney wrote, “At present, one should believe that, if true, the BJP’s involvement in Muzaffarnagar was orchestrated not by the party principals at the top, but by their local agents.” Closer to the election, in the April 2014 piece titled “Modi the moderate,” he insisted that the riots were an aberration in the BJP’s strategy, “whose association with Modi simply cannot be established.”

Dhume, in a column he had also started by then in the Times of India, wrote after the Dadri lynching that Modi should have condemned it “strongly and unequivocally.” In failing to do so, Dhume continued, “he opened the door for a non-stop barrage of stupidity, poor taste and downright ugliness from his party men and the extended Sangh Parivar”—the galaxy of Hindutva organisations orbiting the RSS. But with that done, Dhume moved on to justify why Modi’s supporters “wonder since when the prime minister has become personally responsible for every lapse of law and order in the land. Why do some killings merit reams of newsprint and hours of prime-time attention while others languish unreported?” As Dhume saw it, “In a narrow sense these arguments have merit. Many of the attacks on Modi … reek of political vendetta.”

Just days before the Dadri lynching, Dhume had published a piece in anticipation of a visit by the Indian prime minister to the United States. In addition to meeting fans and Silicon Valley CEOs, Modi was expected to face protests over what Dhume termed “his allegedly ‘regressive agenda’.” Dhume described a letter signed by a group of US-based academics “that accused the Modi government of disregarding human rights, censoring critics, undermining the judiciary, and suppressing religious freedom.” He coined a term for the “affliction” gripping Modi’s critics—the “Modi Derangement Syndrome,” defined as “the inability to discuss anything related to the prime minister in less than apocalyptic terms.”

Even more than before, the liberal defence of Modi displayed a growing incoherence. In December 2015, Mehta wrote of how the “hope that the churn of the last few years would lead to political maturity, institutional regeneration, economic dynamism and new social relations is fast dissipating.” He predicted coming political, economic and social storms. The following February, after the vilification and arrest of the student leader Kanhaiya Kumar and the suppression of dissent at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Mehta was convinced that “we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent. It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions.” But by May 2016, he was back to selling optimism, despite the effort sounding increasingly hollow. The government’s “backward-looking instincts keep pulling down its forward-looking mission,” he wrote, but the contradictions had “so far not exploded beyond manageable bounds.” Despite everything,

the India story still seems one of some possibility rather than doom. In a global context marked by increasing ideological frenzy and economic uncertainty, India’s warts, serious as they are, seem less glaring by comparison. It is also a measure of the prime minister’s success that no other political leader comes close to enjoying the popular legitimacy he possesses.

That same month, addressing an audience in Singapore—and perhaps emboldened by the distance from home—Mehta said that “the threat of majoritarianism is actually palpable.” There, he was clear that the government’s Hindu chauvinism was more than just a matter of electoral expedience. “I actually do think Mr Modi has let that part of the party that actually doesn’t think purely in electoral terms, whose DNA it is to think in majoritarian terms, get the upper hand,” he said. “And I think that part of the party will actually continue to be strengthened.”

Two months later, in July, Mehta praised a reshuffle of the Modi cabinet. He saw the choice of appointees as proof of “the ability of the prime minister to constantly think politically, unencumbered by pieties of the past, and with a relentless eye to the future.” Smriti Irani, whose ministry had presided over the crackdown at JNU and similar repression at other universities, was replaced by the “politically talented” Prakash Javadekar. Ignoring Javadekar’s history as a Sangh loyalist and his unstinting adherence to the BJP line as a member of the Rajya Sabha, Mehta mused inconclusively, “Can he domesticate the ideological moorings of the party, and its links to the RSS enough not to give in to a crushing mediocrity and cultural and political imperiousness? And can he turn around a ministry that has consistently jeopardised the future of India?”

Faced with the fact that the cabinet was still packed with votaries of the RSS, Mehta again retreated into rhetorical questions. “Is keeping a few of the rabid elements in the cabinet signalling that such behaviour will be rewarded, or is it one device to domesticate and ensure that such behaviour, while occasionally tolerated, does not cross the limits it might have if it had not been encumbered with any office at all?”

The following month, Mehta resigned from a post on the executive committee of the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, to protest the appointment of an ill-qualified former bureaucrat as its director. The previous director had earlier resigned in the wake of criticism from the minister of culture. In November, a satirical piece titled “There is no Emergency” marked a firm turn in Mehta’s view of the Modi government. “Many are arguing that we are now moving towards an undeclared Emergency,” Mehta wrote. “They say the personality cult of the ‘Leader’ has reached unprecedented proportions. … But this cult of leadership cannot possibly be like the Emergency. After all, Our Leader is always right.”

In that vein, Mehta put down a list of conditions that could not possibly echo those during Indira Gandhi’s period of absolute power four decades earlier.

There is increasing use of state power to suffocate the opposition … Nationalism is used to stifle all thinking … The covert use of state power to keep the press, particularly television media, aligned with the government’s purposes … Indian civil society’s revolt against corruption has been neutralised and made invisible … Academic institutions are threatened if students and faculty exercise their rights … The state continues to create a climate where extra-judicial killings are justified … The prime minister warns against vigilante hooliganism. Yet ministers compensate the killers, and drape them in the national flag … The unfettered use of surveillance … The attempts to control the judiciary … The arbitrary use of the state machinery of law enforcement … The growing use of militarism and military iconography in politics … The repression in Kashmir …

Mehta added that “yes, of course, all this is good for the economy. The GDP number looks impressive.” Addressing the prime minister, he added, “surely your critics are mistaken. How can the contemporary moment be declared an Emergency? After all, something can be an ‘unbiased’ assessment only when it agrees with your truth. Your truth will not permit us to say it feels jolly close to an Emergency.”

ONE BY ONE, the others changed their views of Modi as well.

Dhume, having come a long way from diagnosing “Modi Derangement Syndrome,” wrote this April,

there’s one aspect of India that someone waking up today after five years in a coma would find unrecognisable. The uncouth way public figures speak about the country’s 175 million strong Muslim minority bears no resemblance to the sobriety of the past. If the World Bank had an Ease of Doing Bigotry ranking, India’s startling “progress” since 2014 would leave many countries in the shade.

Varshney, writing in the London-based Financial Times in August 2017, was of the view that Modi’s India had started to resemble an illiberal democracy—“one that only pays attention to elections, while it violates, in the years between elections, some core democratic principles.” He pointed specifically to assaults on freedom of expression, and vigilante violence against Muslims. After the BJP’s defeat in a clutch of state elections late last year, Varshney wrote that “these are not normal times. Since the rise of the BJP to national power in May 2014, we have witnessed a truly mammoth exhibition of political hubris.” Wondering what the party could offer voters in the general election, he felt its “economic performance or governance record is barely enough.” Where the RSS “might have come to the BJP’s rescue in 2014, despite the absence of strident Hindu nationalism in Modi’s election campaign … it is entirely unclear what will bring it back now except Hindutva.”

Das, writing on the third anniversary of Modi’s rule, had not yet given up the dream. He was disappointed that the promised jobs had not materialised, but still felt the economy had been managed decently well. As for the risks of Modi, he wrote that “no communal incident has gone out of control but there is a lot of troubling noise,” and lamented that the “idea is gaining ground that Hindutva means cow vigilantism or valuing cows more than human beings.” He felt the idea was damaging Modi’s reputation, and—with no explanation as to how—that it went against Hindutva ideology. Das was “willing to wait another two years with a hope that Modi’s purposiveness and determination will help overcome the deficits so far.”

At the start of the 2019 election, writing for the US-based Foreign Affairs, Das admitted to having fallen out of love with the prime minister. Describing himself as one of the first liberals to have endorsed Modi, he admitted that his dreams for him had faded. “Had he reformed vigorously and begun to deliver the promised jobs, I would have applauded him for giving India a shot at the demographic dividend,” he wrote. “I might even have forgiven his distasteful ethno-nationalist politics.”

Even here, though, Das managed to make some fantastical claims. Modi’s “landslide victory credited the dignity of shopkeepers and invited India’s Anglophile elite to re-examine its Brahmanical prejudices,” he wrote. Declaring Modi to be a “pragmatic modernizer,” Das likened him to Lee Kuan Yew, the late mastermind of Singapore’s socioeconomic transformation.

Das also confessed his disappointment to his domestic audience, in the pages of the Times of India. Still, he was undecided on who would get his vote this time. “Modi remains the most popular leader by far,” he wrote. “There seems little hope of Congress and its allies uniting into an effective government.” From among the options, “I know that Modi will do far more for economic and governance reform but am I willing to pay the huge price in the loss of social cohesion and dissent?” Das felt that pragmatic “centrists” like him were caught in a dilemma.

Das did not respond to my requests for an interview. When I reached out to Dhume, he wrote back, “While I did not explicitly endorse any party or candidate for prime minister in 2014, it’s certainly fair to say that by the end of 2013 I was no longer making the argument that Modi was the wrong person to lead India. My view at the time was that the BJP was best placed to continue the economic reform agenda that had largely stalled after Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s defeat in 2004.” On the question of whether he would have condoned the government’s social record if Modi had succeeded economically, Dhume replied, “Modi’s appointment of Yogi Adityanath as Uttar Pradesh chief minister in 2017 would have been a deal-breaker for me even if Modi had not implemented hare-brained policies like demonetization, and even if he had carried out sweeping economic reforms as I had hoped.”

Though “Modi has concentrated more power in his hands than any post-liberalization prime minister,” Dhume felt “we sometimes lose sight of the limits of New Delhi’s reach in a vast federal polity like India. Suffice to say that I believe there’s more reason to worry about India taking an authoritarian turn today than four years ago, but sometimes this argument is overstated. I would call Modi an elected strongman, rather than totalitarian or authoritarian in the strict sense of those terms.”

This more reproving view of Modi was not, in fact, a wholly new one for Dhume. In 2010, he authored a piece titled “Prime Minister Modi Won’t Fly,” where he expressed concern over the politician’s rule in Gujarat. Dhume expressed concern over Modi’s cult of personality and intolerance of dissent, and stated that “for all his vaunted probity and administrative skills, Mr. Modi is the wrong choice both for the BJP and for India.” At some level, Dhume felt, Modi’s association with the carnage of 2002 “tars him for life,” and in a nation of a billion people it was hardly too much to ask that leaders “be free of even the slightest hint of blood on their hands.” Writing in early 2011, Dhume also felt that “Mr. Modi’s supporters tend to exaggerate his contribution to the state’s prosperity.” Having executed his first about-turn on Modi between the start of the decade and 2014, Dhume has since simply executed another.

Varshney, over email, told me that he had always analysed Modi’s rise and governance as an empirical matter, not a normative issue. “This distinction—between ought and is—is often forgotten in popular commentary,” he wrote. “I have never supported Hindu nationalism, and I never will.” He added, “I had no enthusiasm for his cultural project, but I did somehow think the economic project could go well and I was wrong about that. You will see this distinction—between the cultural and the economic—clearly laid out in my first columns after his victory.”

Varshney felt that “in every aspect, except electoral, India’s democracy is weaker today.” He argued that the “Modi regime has hugely challenged a political-science based understanding of how he might perform. Social sciences do not allow us precise predictions, only probabilities. Still, there is no doubt that PM Modi has quite frontally defied probabilities.” Modi’s is “not a right-of-center government, which the institutional framework of politics would have pushed him towards. Instead, he has pushed institutions to their limit, and produced India’s first right-wing, not center-right, government.”

Back in September 2016, while his public position on Modi was turning, Mehta had also argued that his tools had failed him. “I’m not entirely sure or confident that we have the conceptual tools to actually grasp what is going on,” he told an audience at Brown University, where Varshney teaches. “What we need at this moment if you want to grasp the structure of politics is not simply technicians and social scientists analysing social processes, but you almost need a new moral psychology and diagnostics of the human soul.” Yet those who had warned of Modi’s dangers had seen what was coming perfectly well using conceptual tools already at hand.

Mehta declined my request for an interview. “I firmly believe that an author should not be a judge in their own cause; nor is authorial intention important,” he replied. He supplemented that with some verse:

Apana jeevan ankit kar
Fek diya hai rajpath par
Tham kar pal bhar athe jaate
Hum kub apni baat chupate

(I’ve marked out my life
Thrown it onto the path of politics
With brief pauses, I go to and fro
When have I hidden my true feelings?)

“All I can say is that in 20th-century Europe, some of the most famous writers and intellectuals fell for Stalin; other famous writers and intellectuals fell for Hitler,” Ramachandra Guha wrote to me when I asked him about the liberal support for Modi. “There is (and was) therefore no reason for anyone to think that writers and intellectuals in 21st-century India would, as a class, have greater political judgment than ordinary citizens.”

NO MATTER THE OUTCOME of this year’s general election, Mehta said at the end of his speech at the India Today Conclave, “unless there is a massive repudiation of the public culture that we have created in the last five years—in which many of us have been complicit, in ways perhaps that we don’t recognise—unless there is a massive repudiation of this public culture, you will not be able to recover either the nation, or your freedom, or your truths, or your religion. That’s what is going to be at stake in 2019.”

With that done, Mehta sat down on the stage to field questions from Rahul Kanwal, India Today’s star anchor. As was his habit on air, Kanwal stood firm by the government line.

“They say the personality cult of the ‘Leader’ has reached unprecedented proportions,” Mehta wrote in late 2016, in a satirical piece that compared the prevailing situation to Indira Gandhi’s period of absolute power four decades earlier. “But this cult of leadership cannot possibly be like the Emergency. After all, Our Leader is always right.” kk chawla / hindustan times

“You’ve laid out over the last thirteen minutes all that you think has gone wrong with India in the last five years,” Kanwal asked him. “Is there anything you think has gone right with the India story as well, or do you only see the negatives?”

Mehta began with a nervous stammer, before reiterating his view that the dreams of transformation from five or ten years ago had failed. He asked whether India had made the transition from crony capitalism to well-regulated markets. The answer, he replied himself, was broadly no.

Kanwal interrupted to list a few of the government’s touted achievements, and to accuse Mehta of seeing the glass as half empty instead of half full—much as the columnist himself had done to Modi’s detractors five years ago.

Mehta shot back that even those new economic policies that were good in principle had been badly implemented. “The question is,” he continued, “given the mandate this government had and the majority it had, whether we lost the opportunity for creating fundamental transformations that would produce growth and jobs.”

Kanwal interrupted again. “Your idea of India is not evolving in the way that you’d like,” he told Mehta, but there was another, alternative idea of India to challenge it. “Because your idea is losing doesn’t mean, Mr Mehta, that India is losing.”

And so the debate continued. All the while, just as it had during all of Mehta’s speech, the backdrop kept cycling back to an image of a colossal Modi looming above an Indian cityscape, a saffron scarf wrapped around his neck and fluttering in the wind. Giant saffron-coloured columns, styled like the bars in bar charts, soared up from between the buildings, all flaunting double-digit percentage figures. Above the rooftops, green-and-saffron BJP flags flew high.