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.

Other commentators suggest that Modi’s economic record and philosophy trump all other arguments now. Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University, who has been an adviser to Human Rights Watch and is rightly angry over the immunity which some Congress politicians have enjoyed after the 1984 massacre of Sikhs, now angles for a senior advisory position in a future Modi administration, and recommends his co-author and Columbia colleague, Arvind Panagariya, for the post of prime minister’s chief economist.

Modi’s relentless campaign projects him as the Indian equivalent of bapak pembangunan, or the Father of Development, as Suharto was called during his 32-year-rule of Indonesia. Indeed, Modi may potentially become India’s first leader in the East Asian, and not South Asian, mould. Those seeing a Reagan in Modi are, like Christopher Columbus, mistaken about the direction they are looking in. Modi’s approach and governance style are closer to China’s Deng Xiaoping or Indonesia’s Suharto. Deng and Suharto both bore the burden of massacres (as does Modi)—in Suharto’s case several, with Deng it was Tiananmen Square, 25 years ago this June. Both put in place economic policies that delivered sustained economic growth, lifted millions out of absolute poverty, and improved health and education indicators. But they ruled as stern authoritarians, and jailed writers, human rights activists, artists, union leaders and dissidents, sometime for years. A crucial difference: if Modi becomes India’s prime minister, he would have been elected in a free and fair election, unlike Deng (who never faced an election) or Suharto (whose elections were sham).

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