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Lotus Ascending

by Saba Naqvi


Prime Minister Modi won’t be too different from Candidate Modi.

India may be poised to have a strong, muscular rightwing leader in the tradition of Russia’s Vladimir Putin—a man who stoked has sectarian and ethnic differences and yet emerged stronger than the forces he beat down. There is an established category of world leaders who represent chest-thumping nationalism that is underpinned by sectarianism. Such leaders have, at different times in history, also been seen by a wide section of society as economic reformers and agents of change.

The frontrunner for prime minister in India’s general elections, Narendra Modi, looks set to join the galaxy of such world leaders. He may not take off his shirt and bare his muscles like Putin, but he is very much in the mould of a dictatorial leader and he does pose in quite his own fashion. The size of his chest, too, has been mentioned by warm-up speakers at his campaign appearances.

Modi may also be compared to U.S. president Ronald Reagan, the outsider who broke into the political elite and then went on to pursue a strong rightwing economic agenda. As the three-term chief minister of the western state of Gujarat, Modi is also known for his economic philosophy that is described as “Modi-nomics.” He is basically seen to be against the sort of paternal socialism that the Indian state has practiced. His run for higher office is strongly endorsed by the business community, especially India’s most powerful industrialists. Rightwing economists have also hailed him as a visionary.

Sources close to Modi say that if he succeeds in becoming India’s prime minister he will pursue a powerful and ruthless economic agenda. He would clear several longstanding projects, both Indian and foreign. Many investments were held up during the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance led by the Congress party as serious differences surfaced within the cabinet over land acquisition and environment clearance. Modi’s promoters say that none of that will apparently happen under him. He will provide single-window clearance for projects, as he did in Gujarat, one of the most industrialized and urbanized states of India. Many commentators, of course, argue that the much talked about “Gujarat model” cannot be replicated across India.

But in the run-up to Verdict Day, there’s more emotion than reason in the political theater. It’s also become clear that Modi has not just run a presidential-style campaign, but that were he to get the numbers he would also function like a president instead of a prime minister who is accountable to cabinet and Parliament. That is why many members of his own party actually hope for a narrow win as opposed to an electoral result that would allow Modi to run away with the show. What is also clear is that India has never seen anything like Modi before.

There are many who fear him. The best of India is represented by its pluralism, diversity of faith, and culture. But increasingly such words are beginning to sound like a cliché repeated by liberals who are anxious about the future. For halfway through a giant and impressive electoral process—which began on April 7 and will end on May 16 with the declaration of results—it is also becoming clear that there are many young Indians who admire Modi and see him as a potential savior who could change the destiny of the nation.

Were he to actually get a simple majority in Parliament where coalition governments are now the norm, he would certainly be poised to change the fundamental fabric of the Indian state. For Modi comes from an ideological tradition that sees India as a Hindu nation, although the Constitution is committed to secularism and no elected regime can tamper with that. Yet, the Bharatiya Janata Party that has declared Modi the prime ministerial candidate has never accommodated the interests of the minority Muslim community and has indeed mobilized voter blocs through appeals against what they call “minority appeasement” and/or “pseudo-secularism.”

Even by the standards of his own party, Modi is a hardliner who presided over an orgy of violence in Gujarat in 2002, when over 1,000 Muslims were killed by rampaging mobs. He has never been apologetic about this violence, saying only that the courts and judicial process have cleared him. During a state election campaign that followed the 2002 riots, Modi used the euphemisms of “Pakistan” and “Mian Musharraf” quite suggestively when pointing his finger toward settlements of the Muslim community that was then utterly traumatized by the bloodbath and large-scale displacement.

Modi has since won three terms as chief minister. Pervez Musharraf, the-then president of Pakistan and Army chief during the 1998 Kargil War, was a great punching bag for Modi’s campaign. Since then, however, Modi has repackaged himself as a development-oriented leader who is committed to the growth of the economy. Such an appeal is particularly potent because of the economic slowdown in India.

Today Modi may not make openly communal speeches yet continues to make certain veiled references that affirm his stature as a strong “Hindu” leader. India has one of the world’s largest Muslim populations, just under Pakistan’s numerically. Yet the history of the subcontinent has created fault-lines that continue to be used in mobilizing voter blocs during elections. In the election currently underway, for instance, while the BJP is trying to overcome caste divisions within Hindu society by fielding a powerful figure like Modi, the ruling Congress and a slew of regional parties are trying to mobilize Muslims by fanning their fears of Modi.

The rhetoric on both sides has become rather coarse and Pakistan has again been mentioned. At one public rally Modi referred to an opponent as an agent of Pakistan. Another BJP candidate from Bihar suggested that all those who are against Modi should move to Pakistan. What can be said with certainty is that if he becomes prime minister, Modi’s muscular brand of nationalism will have a bearing on his dealings with Pakistan.

Meanwhile, the campaign to anoint Modi prime minister has actually been more presidential than anything India has seen in the past. It has been a mega-blockbuster campaign entirely built around one personality. It has also been the most expensive campaign in India’s electoral history. Brand Modi has been pushed in parts of India where the BJP as a party remains unknown. In a country where people often cannot read or write, familiarity with electoral symbols is important. The BJP’s symbol is the lotus flower. In parts of India where it was unknown, the symbol is now getting recognized because of Modi’s high visibility. Voting in India takes place on electronic machines where people press the button against the several symbols allotted to registered parties and independent candidates. Modi and his highly motivated followers have bombarded the nation with his voice, image, posters, and advertisements. Now it remains to be seen if, as most opinion polls predict, the lotus does indeed blossom.

Naqvi is a New Delhi-based journalist and political commentator and author of In Good Faith, published in 2012. From our May 10-24, 2014, issue.

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