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Tsu Namo

It's a measure of the man's political acumen that Modi squeezed the maximum mileage even out of this otherwise humdrum logistical undertaking spanning but a couple of hours.

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Compared to the 200,000 miles he is reported to have travelled in nine months of election campaigning, addressing 477 public gatherings in 25 states across the country, Narendra Modi's "victory lap" was short. Convinced that the vote-count tally - which he'd followed closely on television alone in his official Chief Minister's bungalow in the Gujarat state capital of Gandhinagar - indicated an irreversible trend toward his anointment as India's next Prime Minister, Modi set out to meet his party colleagues in New Delhi. His itinerary involved a brief stop-over at his mother's residence en route to the airport, a one-hour flight to the national capital, and then a cavalcade car-ride to the Bharatiya Janata Party headquarters in central Delhi.

It's a measure of the man's political acumen that Modi squeezed the maximum mileage even out of this otherwise humdrum logistical undertaking spanning but a couple of hours. And he did that by ensuring that the symbolism he invested in every little act along the way did not escape the millions of viewers glued to their television sets that morning.

Blessing the victorious son after he'd bowed low and touched her feet, Heeraben Modi fed Narendra his favorite sweet and wished him well - a traditional pre-requisite for Indian mothers bidding farewell to their sons embarking on a momentous mission.

But the meek and respectful traditionalist of the Gandhinagar photo-op transformed into a fearless adventurer on the streets of New Delhi. On the ten-mile ride to the party office from the airport, Modi threw caution and protocol to the winds, standing up and literally hanging out of his SUV throughout the slow, winding journey so he could reciprocate more fully the adulatory chants of supporters running alongside or following his vehicle. For those gnawing minutes, he was a sitting-duck target for any assassin, vulnerable to any strike. It was a veritable security nightmare - especially considering that Narendra Modi, blamed for collusive inaction by the state police during the 2002 post-Godhra riots which killed innocent Muslims in Gujarat, continues to be a prime target for Islamic terrorist groups and several others who have vowed retribution.

Even after reaching the office gate, the consummate populist wasn't done yet. Told that the party workers and supporters gathered on the street for his welcome could not be accommodated within the premises of the BJP national headquarters, Modi grabbed a microphone, climbed atop a make-shift platform on the street itself, and thanked them personally. He was, in the process, subliminally reiterating his common touch. Without actually saying so, Narendrabhai had conveyed to the rank-and-file and convinced them that they meant as much - if not more - to him than the party bigwigs waiting inside.

Whatever the nay-sayers may think about Modi's electoral victory and however vociferously question his credentials for leading India as its Chief Executive, there is no denying that the 2014 parliamentary elections have conclusively thrown up a national-level leader whose acceptability - if not popularity - has breached the barriers of region, gender, class, and even faith. The results made the election unique and path-breaking in several ways, and may even have brought some of the electoral system's built-in anomalies into sharp relief (see Sidebar: Election 2014-An Astonished Glance).

The real "tectonic shift" - a favorite election-coverage phrase among television news anchors in India - however goes beyond the impressive numbers. For the first time since the 1971 general elections in which Indira Gandhi trumped her opposition with the quasi-socialist "Garibi Hatao" or "Banish Poverty" slogan, an Indian leader has captured the imagination of the electorate with the hope of a better future - supported by little more than the courage of his conviction and the sheer confidence exuded by his authoritative personality.

Of course, external events and trends - Indira Gandhi's decisive victory against Pakistan in the Bangladesh War earlier that year, and Modi's performance as a facilitator of economic growth in Gujarat in the face of a countrywide downturn under the Congress administration - played their marginal part. But unlike Rajiv Gandhi who was catapulted to the prime minister's post on a sympathy wave following his mother's assassination in 1984, unlike V.P. Singh whose elevation was a direct fallout of the public ire over the Bofors scam which linked Rajiv Gandhi to kickbacks, and unlike the numerous interim PMs who were largely compromise candidates, Narendra Modi has emerged from Election 2014 as the unmistakable embodiment of an idea whose time has indeed come. Which therefore makes its result the most significant in recent history.
What are the broad contours of that idea, its notable salient features? In other words, what can one expect in a Modi-fied India?

THE RISE OF HMTs - or the Hindi Medium Types. A pejorative label used by the tiny coterie of the Oxbridge-type power brokers who had the ear of the First Family (read Sonia and Rahul Gandhi), and who therefore rode roughshod over their less "sophisticated" colleagues has now come to haunt them. During most of the ten-year-long Congress rule the troika of Congressmen-lawyers - P. Chidambaram, Kapil Sibal, and Salman Khurshid - headed a group that sometimes included the likes of Kamal Nath and Jairam Ramesh as well. Entrusted by the Gandhis with the task of governance, this group occupied key ministerial positions and enjoyed all the perks of power. Distressingly, its groupies hardly ever deigned to speak to - much less, consult or socialize with - other parliamentarians when it came to making laws and formulating policy. And the snooty elitist behavior extended to even those belonging to their own party, particularly if the parliamentarian in question spoke no English.

All this is on the verge of changing - and not only because there will be more farmers than lawyers in the new Lok Sabha. There's a palpable shift in the language of political discourse, a shift that reflects the deep and perhaps enduring transformation in the country's political culture. Narendra Modi himself personifies this difference more vividly than anybody else. Knowing well that his English is not match for his Hindi, the master orator and communicator prefers the national language and uses English phrases only to pepper his speech now and then with a dab of everyday English-Vinglish. The winds of this change in fact began blowing some time before the elections. And the Aam Aadmi Party leaders, led by Arvind Kejriwal, sniffed it first. Although they are all highly educated and proficient in spoken and written English, Hindi is their default mode of communication.

The small-town "provincial" vernacular-wallah may well have elbowed the suited-booted English-spouting gentry out of the corridors of power in New Delhi - at least for the foreseeable future. Was Modi only half-joking when he promised during his farewell speech in the Gujarat assembly that his Prime Minister's Office might see khaman dhokla and khakra (ethnic Gujarati snacks) being served to visitors, and might even hear an occasional word or two of Gujarati being spoken there?

THE FALL OF DYNASTIC POLITICS - or, to put it mildly, the eclipse of the Nehru-Gandhi family - is another major outcome of this election. Not that there aren't other father-son or father-daughter combines raking in the spoils of a career in Indian politics, but the Nehru-Gandhi lineage is doubtless its longest surviving showpiece. After presiding over a regime that's by far the most corrupt in independent India (attested by nearly a dozen high-value scams) and after inflicting on the average Indian an inflationary economy that rendered him hapless and reeling, it's a minor wonder that the Gandhis still nursed ambitions of their party returning to power. Worse, some Congressmen went around adding insult to inflation by claiming you could get a full meal at several places for a mere five rupees (8 US cents)! True, the Gandhis never said so themselves, but they never publicly debunked such statements from their spokesmen either.

It might therefore be tempting to speculate that the end of political elitism might have coincided with the fall of the First Family. But that would be a hasty and presumptuous assessment. Remember, both Sonia and Rahul Gandhi retained their individual seats - albeit with depleted margins - amidst the countrywide decimation of the Congress Party. This speaks of a certain lingering nostalgia for the family, which has encouraged party insiders to believe that Rahul's sister Priyanka Vadra might be able to work her charm and contribute to a possible Congress revival in time for the next elections in 2019. How far Mrs Vadra can carry the deadwood party with the albatross of her tainted husband's land deals already around her neck - is a point for them to ponder.

AN OUT-OF-THE-BOX PM: In the list of doubts one may have about Narendra Modi's efficacy as Prime Minister, the ability to be decisive -even assertive - over contentious issues would certainly not figure. It's a measure of how ineffective and indecisive the outgoing PM Dr. Manmohan Singh was and how badly projects languished on account of his administration's policy paralysis, that this trait of Modi's has taken on the dimension of a rarely found virtue. All the same, should Modi the PM replicate in New Delhi how Modi the CM went about his business in Gandhinagar, the country should see a style of governance that encourages decentralized autonomy in decision-making among bureaucrats and technocrats while maintaining a tight rein on them for delivering time-bound results. In the run-up to his swearing-in and prior to his cabinet formation, Modi had already sent word to departmental heads to draw up and submit their plans to improve efficiency. And, if his close associates are to be believed, the man would not ponder too long over dismantling entire departments and even ministries or merging them in the interest of quicker decisions and speedier implementation of projects.
An example of Modi's out-of-the-box style of confronting adversity and neutralizing potential opposition was the decision to invite heads of neighboring countries in the sub-continent for his swearing-in ceremony. A master-stroke in political gamesmanship, it neatly weaved together a number of delicate strands. In his campaign speeches, Modi had made his hostility against Pakistan abundantly clear for exporting terrorism to India and for infiltrating into Indian territory. He similarly railed against illegal migrants from Bangladesh. Modi's critics felt he had overreached and jumped the gun by taking on foreign governments. What better way to demonstrate good-faith for resolving these problems and to prevent both those governments from capitalizing on their own people's hostility against Modi's xenophobic statements than to have Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif of Pakistan and Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina of Bangladesh or their representatives participate in his swearing-in? And what better occasion than one where the two leaders are invited as part of a larger multilateral group of SAARC country heads, without being singled out?

While accepting all these strengths, one cannot ignore the dark lining to the silver cloud. True, human nature is fickle and behavior eminently unpredictable. But if we can credit Narendra Modi for his perceived assets and achievements on the strength of his past performance in Gujarat, we need to take stock of his perceived misdeeds and personality flaws as well.

MODI, THE AUTOCRAT: Stories abound of Narendra Modi brooking no opposition, of targeting media persons critical of his administration in Gujarat and compromising their professional freedoms to a point where gradually he had no critics left for an objective evaluation of his development programs. Even outside the state, Modi has exhibited boorish behavior in the face of tough questions, walking out of interviews on national television. The same intolerance drove him to eliminate all potential opponents and rivals within his own party, his overwhelming majorities in the state assembly elections ensuring that opposition parties were rendered powerless by the voters themselves.
The same story threatens to continue in the national capital. In his victory speeches after the general elections, Modi strained to pay lip-service to bipartisanship with his talk of being inclusive in his governance plans. But the man just could not hold himself back from publicly ridiculing the opposition, pointing out that they might need to form a coalition to survive.

MODINOMICS: Modi's governance mantra of "Maximum Governance, Minimum Government" distantly echoes President Ronald Reagan's economic philosophy, which steered the U.S.A. toward a rightward course in the 1980s. Much like Reaganomics, Modinomics emphasizes economic growth and prosperity without concerning itself with their all-round distribution. We now know that the rich and the well-heeled were the principal beneficiaries of Reagan's so-called Trickle Down theory. So how much of the hype about Modi's Gujarat Model of development should one believe?

It might be instructive to heed the opinions of two independent foreign scholars who studied the Gujarat Model in detail. In an insightful essay titled "Development Is More Than Growth," Martha C. Nussbaum a professor with the University of Chicago, questions the primacy of economic growth as an adequate measure of development. Analyzing instead Gujarat's data under the Human Development index, Nussbaum concludes that Modi's overall record is at best "only middling" - "far worse than that of states such as Tamil Nadu and Kerala, which have been preoccupied, rightly, with the distribution of health care and education."

Christophe Jaffrelot, a French political scientist with research interests in South Asian economies, agrees with Nussbaum's "middling" ranking of the Gujarat Model, and attributes that to the "low pace of development in rural Gujarat." He points out that under Modi, the number of Gujarati families below the poverty line has increased and rural tribals and dalits marginalized.

However, Modi's policies, which have attracted huge foreign investment in several sectors, are approved by the Indian American economists Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya. The Columbia University faculty members believes the social indicators for Gujarat are lower in comparison with other Indian states, because they began their upward movement under Modi from a much lower baseline than those of others. Even so, they argue, the rates of progress in literacy and public-health indicators have been commendable.

INTOLERANCE, HINDUTVA STYLE: Member-organizations of the right-wing Hindu fundamentalist-nationalist umbrella group - Sangh Parivar - have a proven record of brute violence against minorities and open hostility against dissenting opinions and lifestyles. In January 1999, a Bajrang Dal hothead Dara Singh led a mob that burnt alive a Christian missionary Graham Staines and his two young sons alleging that Staines was forcibly converting tribals in Orissa to Christianity and "corrupting" them with the trappings of Western lifestyles. Protests against the American scholar James W. Laine's book on Shivaji led to the burning down in January 2004 of the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute in Pune where Laine had done some of his research. Penguin Press, which in 2009 published Wendy Doniger's "alternative history" of the Hindus, was so thoroughly intimidated by the prospect of the protests against it snowballing that it agreed to withdraw and pulp all copies of the book as part of the settlement of a lawsuit objecting to its depiction of the religion.

That lawsuit was filed by RSS activist Dinanath Batra who, days after Modi's elevation to the PM post, wrote to him demanding "a total change" in the country's education system in line with "a new moral universe" reflecting Indian values so that it "inculcates a feeling of patriotism among children." In the forefront of the "saffronization" process in Indian school curricula when the BJP-led coalition last ruled the country between 1998 and 2004, Batra has clearly been emboldened by the party's return to power.

Narendra Modi has yet to respond publicly to Batra's letter, having his hands full trying to live down the image of the "Butcher of Gujarat." His blanket defence: Far from the courts convicting him of any offence, even the investigating agencies have found nothing to indict him for the post-Godhra riots of 2002. But the fact remains that they happened under his watch as chief minister. Curiously, soon after those riots, which reportedly killed over a thousand Muslims, Modi and his BJP won a comfortable victory (127 out of 182 seats) in the Gujarat assembly elections. Even more curiously, soon after the Muzaffarnagar riots in the country's most populous state of Uttar Pradesh in August and September last year, which killed at least 42 Muslims and left many more homeless, Modi and his BJP swept UP (73 out of 80 seats) in the 2014 general elections.

ATTITUDE TOWARDS WOMEN: Traditionally, the leadership of India's right-of-center political parties and organizations like the BJP and the RSS has been male-dominated. Few were therefore surprised when no statement came from them denouncing the spate of rapes that shamed the country last year, and when members of the Sangh Parivar offshoot Deshe Sena attacked women in Mangalore pubs.

Where does all of the above leave Narendra Modi and his model of governance - one that is as yet untested on the national stage? Will he be his own man and face up to the pressures from the Parivar? Or will we see him slide down the slippery slope of political accommodation with his ideological family members? To his credit, Narendra Modi as Gujarat CM insisted on demolishing dozens of illegally constructed temples in his state - much to the chagrin of the Vishwa Hindu Parishad. Also, he may have scored points with women when Anandiben Patel was inducted as Gujarat's first woman chief minister after Modi stepped down. Also, women accounted for 25 percent of Modi's senior cabinet ministers.

But Modi needs to convince his doubters that these actions are not mere flashes of deceptive tokenism. His hardship days as a political activist - travelling incognito from town to town and surviving frugally on the generosity of sympathizers - to avoid arrest during Indira Gandhi's draconian Emergency should have taught him that the line between being decisive and being autocratic, being authoritative and being authoritarian is a thin one. His voters - and his votaries - are hoping he won't cross it.
A round of khaman dhokla and khakra, anyone?

 

Election 2014

  • The size of the total electorate set a new record of 850-million, of which close to 550-million actually voted.
  • Administrative costs, excluding security arrangements, ran into Rs. 3,500 crore ($580-million). Political parties spent ten times that amount on their campaigns. The total expense, nearly three times that of the last general election in 2009, was second only to the $7 billion US Presidential Election of 2012.
  • 889 of the 8,236 candidates in this election had serious criminal cases pending against them. How serious? Try murder, criminal intimidation, assault on women, and hate crimes. The Bharatiya Janata Party, which won the largest number of seats, had the highest percentage of such candidates.
  • Two of the richest candidates — IT honcho Nandan Nilekani (assets: Rs 77 billion) and industrialist Navin Jindal (Rs 3 billion), both of the Congress Party — lost by margins of 230,000 and 130,000 votes respectively. The party’s seat tally stands at zero in 13 states, all six Union Territories and the country’s two largest metros of Delhi and Mumbai.
  • Not a single Muslim was elected from the country’s most populous state of Uttar Pradesh. The Hindu voter turnout in UP stood at 40% while that among Muslims exceeded 90%.
  • And here’s the ultimate anomaly of the first-past-the-post system that India follows: BJP and its allies bagged 336 seats in the 543-member Lok Sabha with a vote share of 31%. At second place, the Congress with its allies bagged a measly 59 seats with a vote share of 21%. Mayawati’s Bahujan Samaj Party, after getting the third highest vote share of 4.3% nationally, didn’t win any seat.

 

The Selling of Modi


3D hologram image of Narendra Modi
In June 2013, anticipating the announcement of his name as the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi attempted to cut a Rambo-like superman figure. He reportedly airdashed to the site of the floods in Uttarakhand state and “rescued 15,000 Gujaratis” stranded there. Among those who questioned the accuracy of the figure and the heroism of the act were top BJP leaders. Could the hilly location from where the people were evacuated even accommodate that many people? And, how parochial of a PM-aspirant to claim to have rescued only those from his home state.

The Modi image-makers abandoned that route, and stuck to something they could control. Like the candidate himself. Never a shabby dresser, Modi fine-tuned his wardrobe, adding color-coordinated jackets to his array of kurtas.

And like high-end information technology. Here they hit a jackpot — in the form of the campaign’s strategic brain, the NRI Prashant Kishor. His first significant contribution after coming on board was to set up the Modi-backed NGO called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG) which effectively played the role of a US-style public action committee in recruiting campaign workers and garnering campaign funds. Deploying technical innovations which maximize the reach of Internet, mobile apps and the game-changing 3D-Hologram, the yuppie public-health expert and former head of the UN mission in Africa has made Narendra Modi’s nationwide campaign easily the most tech-savvy in Indian history.

If a potential voter cannot attend a live public rally being addressed by Modi, he could dial in for a live broadcast of the speech. Another facility allowed voters to listen to pre-recorded excerpts from the Modi speeches categorized neatly into issues: corruption, inflation, development, and so on. Add to this, the goodies of the India272+ mobile app, the GPS-fitted Digital Raths, the Modi4PM donation drive were all synergized to cover — and draft — millions as supporters and voters.

The acme of Modi’s roadshow was the 3D-Hologram. It allowed him to make a speech from the CAG’s hitech studio and have his 3D image beamed simultaneously on multiple screens across several states. Its novelty apart, the ethereal quality of the presentation zapped audiences.

With his image-consultants playing a key role in his journey to the Prime Minister’s residence at Delhi’s 7 Race Course Road, it’s hardly surprising that an entire bungalow — one of five on the lawns — has been earmarked to house the Modi PR team.

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Politics | June 2014

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Narendra Modi’s invitation to Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to attend his swearing-in ceremony was an example of his out-of-the-box style of governing. Blessing the victorious son after he’d bowed low and touched her feet, Heeraben Modi fed Narendra his favorite sweet and wished him well. In the ten-mile ride to the party office from the airport, Narendra Modi threw caution and protocol to the winds, standing up and literally hanging out of his SUV. BJP’s aging leadership has been sidelined by Narendra Modi, seen with party patriach L.K. Advani. Narendra Modi with BJP President Rajnath Singh Narendra Modi may have scored points with women when Anandiben Patel was inducted as Gujarat’s first woman chief minister after Modi stepped down. Modi displaying the invitation to form the government from Pres. Pranab Mukherjee. Bowing at the steps of Parliament House. Paying respect to Mahatma Gandhi at Rajghat.

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