Home Lightbox A Portrait of Narendra Modi

A Portrait of Narendra Modi

by Khaled Ahmed

Author Aakar Patel’s history of India since 2014 highlights the reasons behind the strongman leader’s continued popularity and influence

Price of the Modi Years has emerged as the most comprehensive and reliable account of the time Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has spent in power. Written by Aakar Patel, a syndicated columnist who has edited both English and Gujarati newspapers, it details the history of India since 2014.

Patel, a longstanding critic of Modi, heads Amnesty International India. His translation of Saadat Hasan Manto’s Urdu non-fiction, Why I Write, came out in 2014, and his account of majoritarianism in India, Our Hindu Rashtra: What It Is. How We Got Here, was published in 2020.

Modi’s re-election

On May 23, 2019, Narendra Modi was re-elected as prime minister of India, winning a magnificent victory in the world’s most populous democracy. He did this by widening the base and bringing more voters into his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) than any leaders had before him. The BJP’s vote share under Modi in the 2019 election was 38 percent nationally; this is twice what it was under L. K. Advani in the election of 2009, and considerably higher than what the party had secured before that under Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

The BJP (and its earlier form, the Jana Sangh) was not originally a particularly popular national party. Even at the regional level, it did not win a single state on its own from 1951 till 1990. It was Advani’s mobilization of Indian Hindus against Muslims using the totem of the Babri Masjid that made the party nationally popular. The mass mobilization around violence took the BJP’s national vote share to double digits for the first time in 1989 (11.3 percent), and it continued to climb before pausing at around 25 percent in 1999.

From RSS to Jana Sangh to BJP

Modi’s contribution has been to align the party to its original RSS roots while retaining and increasing mass support and bringing billions more to the ideology of Hindutva. He has legitimized and normalized the RSS and made its values, promoting an exclusionary nationalism, acceptable to Indians. What was once communal is now legitimate and what was secular has been made inauthentic. It is a remarkable achievement and must be acknowledged. Modi has done this through his personality, not through the BJP which has been almost incidental to Modi’s popularity.

The RSS today is a subset of the Modi BJP, rather than the other way around. The head of the RSS, Mohan Bhagwat, is actually junior to Modi in that sense. The two go back a long way and have likely known each other since 1967 when both were teenagers. Modi was familiar with Bhagwat through Bhagwat’s father Madhukarrao, who was Modi’s mentor in the RSS, and Modi stayed with the Bhagwat family during his essential training when he was around 20. Madhukarrao was one of the many Marathi Brahmins dispatched by the RSS from Nagpur in 1941 to infect Gujarat with Hindutva. He was a competent organizer and set up shakhas or neighborhood branches in 115 cities and towns, including Surat, Baroda and Ahmedabad. He learned, according to Modi’s biographical sketch of him, “to speak a beautiful and fluent Gujarati.” In the Baroda shakha, which had a large number of Marathi speakers, he “forbade the speaking of Marathi.”

Under Modi, the RSS has no internal challenge. He has brushed aside any opposition and made it irrelevant. There is no leader in the BJP except with Modi’s sanction, and no other power center. It is not easy to think of the last time—perhaps never—that an Indian leader with a majority had such absolute authority and control over party, government and people. Modi is unfettered also by the political opposition, which he has in fact bent to his will.

The magnetism of Modi

Modi has taken India to a place where political parties dare not speak of secularism and pluralism though it is the basic structure of India’s Constitution. The promotion of constitutional secularism has also disappeared from the mainstream media today, as had happened earlier in Gujarat after 2002. It can legitimately be called the Modi Effect.

Modi’s character traits are that he is decisive, full of certitude, transparent, unlearned, energetic and charismatic. Both his devoted following (they are called and often call themselves “bhakt”, meaning devotee) and his opponents will likely agree that he has these traits. Certainly, Modi himself would not only agree with this but pride himself for it.

Charisma is the ability to attract attention and admiration. Humility, modesty and self-effacement are attractive to only a few. It is bravado and bombast that attracts the many. Modi sees himself in a heroic way and tells us about it by claiming ”a chest size of 56 inches,” through many references to himself in the third person and through presenting himself before the president of the U.S. wearing a suit with his name woven in gold stripes. This is the charisma of Modi. It is transparent in the sense that he is not reticent about publicly communicating his self-image. A former cabinet minister explained his style of functioning as that of a man impatient with facts. Such genius operates from instinct and a folksy wisdom.

Modi’s modus operandi

Modi’s style manifests as a fascination with branding and nomenclature—what a thing is called and what it signals—but a lack of real interest in the actual process or product, whether it is writing a law, executing a policy or thinking of and building an institution. There is an absence of any proper knowledge and no ability to learn how it works. But there is a strong desire to engage with its brand and in particular its coinage. The Modi years are littered with the corpses of projects thus taken up and discarded once a new toy had been identified.

Years before Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, he was interviewed by Patel: “It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category comprising not only one’s ideological posture but also the personality traits and motivational patterns contextualizing the ideology.  Modi met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defense of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence—all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told Yagnik [Patel’s wife] that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist.”

Modi’s management

Modi’s governance can be described by another word used by military historians. That word is “grip.” It refers to the ability of a general to be in total charge of his command. Being aware of the situation, being knowledgeable about what resources are at hand and what may be required in the future and being conscious of what events to anticipate. Knowing what his side is capable of and being prepared. Julius Caesar had grip and he had control over his armies in a time when communications were poor and supply lines very long. He could predict the consequences of his actions because he could not only think them through, but anticipate what they would cause.”

What are the results and consequences of good governance under Modi? Ex-P.M. Manmohan Singh said just before leaving office that Modi would not make a good prime minister. His exact words were: “I do believe that, having Mr. Modi, whatever his merit, as prime minister will be a disaster for India.” Singh is famously reticent and understated; and such a firm and direct opinion on Modi and the future was unusual and surprising. A disaster for India in what way? This Singh did not say. Perhaps he thought he didn’t need to because it would become manifest in time. If so, he was right. It showed in obvious and unambiguous fashion on the issues that Modi was convinced he would transform through his energy, freshness, genius and strength of will.

Related Articles

Leave a Comment