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

11 May 2014
Associated Press
Associated Press

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

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

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

Salil Tripathi lives in New York, is a contributing editor at The Caravan and writes for Mint.