Narender Modi is a charismatic leader. In the range of his influence, he is undoubtedly the most charismatic political leader India has ever seen since Indira Gandhi. His tricks and tips of social communication are unmatched. But more than his oratorical skills-which may be just above average-what is overpowering is his endless energy which makes his presence felt pan-India. Such a pan-Indian presence is found in very few leaders. I would cite Indira Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru in post-independent India in this league. But I would compare Modi with Indira as Modi does not have the intellectual rigour and moral qualms Jawaharlal Nehru had, but has the street-smart cut-throat politicking skills Indira Gandhi was known for.
Indira emerged as a leader all by her alone after being ousted from the party bigwigs who had retained the Indian National Congress as Congress –organization (Congress O). She was called a ‘dumb doll’ by her detractors. But in the ensuing general election, she made a massive come back, virtually replacing her Congress (I) as the mainstream success of the Indian National Congress.
Indira had her negatives and positives. The direction Indian politics took since the 1960s can be largely attributed to the handiwork of Indira Gandhi’s political maneuvering. Indira promoted a cynical network of expectancy politics that gave importance to loyalty to her than to the merit of the individuals. She gave room to reactionary elements to neutralise her rivals- Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale in Punjab against the mainstream Akalis and Bal Thackary’s Shiv Sena against the communist in Mumbai are examples. She helped quicken LTTE as a militant organization and cultivated RAW in creating countervailing sessionism in Pakistan. She kept a blind eye to corruption as long as loyalty to her leadership is not disputed.
On the positive side, she was a steadfast nationalist. She groomed India to the cynical manners of the International realpolitik (unlike her father Nehru who advocated a moral stand), made alliance with Soviet Union and challenged the American Hegemony. She was decisive in her East Pakistan campaign, and developed RAW as a formidable agency for offshore intellegience activity. Her government initiated the Green revolution that took India away from the scourge of cyclical famine and external dependency, and developed protectionism that allowed Indian pharmaceutical companies to come of age to compete the global giants ( cf Pakistani pharma industry which cannot compete the Western companies). She pushed her with the nuclear agenda and forced Pakistan to create its own bomb (in the words of Zulfiker Bhutto, “even by eating grass”).
Unlike her father, she was not an astute institution builder. On the contrary, she tried to defang many constitutional mechanisms to subscribe to her power machinations. She tried to install puppets in important constitutional offices so that her authority is not challenged. She succumbed to the pressures of her son Sanjay Gandhi to impose Emergency when she felt that her authority is being compromised.
Her paranoia for personal allegiance is the key factor that promoted Sanjay Gandhi and later Rajiv Gandhi to politics. Now, this evolved as the Congress dynastic practices that were simulated by many political families throughout India. Dynastic politics created huge disarray in the political system. It created a system of familial privileges that sidelined merit in the upward mobility of political leadership.
Freezing of mobility is a negative trait. It’s a feudal behavior, inheritantly anti-democratic and anti-liberal. Congress, while representing centre-left policies has a deeply engrained feudal trait. On the contray, BJP while anachronistic in its cultural beliefs is ‘liberal’ in its leadership mobility, an important trait that has to be appreciated. This is the internal contradiction in the organizational and ideological structure of these two parties on either side of the political divide.
Narender Modi who evolved up the ranks of RSS is an anti-dynast. But he follows ideas that are old-fashioned by the standards of global politics. He believes in an Indian ‘golden past’, in its mythical legends and in many ways share a kind of ‘mythical’ thinking that made in many times comical or even outright stupid.
But Modi share with Indira, the zeal and dynamism of purpose that make him cut above all. He knows how to cultivate patronage and allegiance and communicate to the people in their own standards. He positions himself as a protector of Hindu interests against external and internal threads. He effectively uses the anxiety of Indians about Muslims and Pakistan by showcasing his exploits with regards to ‘thread to the nation’. Indira used her pan-Indian appeal to champion the cause that she is the sole protector of India against all external threads, irrespective of the facts that many of the threads where her own creation. Modi, just like Indira, uses puppets in consititional offices to grease his exercise of power. Indira and Modi are both adapt at catchy phrases which they mostly fail to deliver ( India’s gharibi hatavo and Modi’s 2014 development agenda).
Narender Modi’s victory in May 2019 general election installs BJP into the position Congress (I) under Indira held since 1970s. It liquidates his opponents and created a ruling party that does not have a monolithic alternative in the near future. BJP is now posed to play the ‘no alterative’ card which the Congress of used to propound as its trump card since the 1970s.
On the ruling front, we don’t expect a drastic change in governance. Modi will continue the system, which Congress under UPA has developed. He would appropriate the social security and institutional measures the UPA developed like the MNREGA and UHID. He may even adapt the ‘Nyaya’ scheme of basic universal income the Congress manifesto had envisaged.
Indian economy would grow in the rate commensurate to its human resources. Modi won’t be able to apply any magic want here beyond that UPA had already achieved (7-8% growth). UP, Bihar, and West Bengal will continue to remain in squalor and poverty. Kerala, Tamil Nadu and South Indian states would continue to be the lead performing states.
Narender Modi has reset Indian politics to new power equation. In it he closely mirrors Indira Gandhi. What he brings to the nation would determine the destiny of the nation for decades to come, just as what Indira brought to the nation had determined the political style of the nation since 1970s.
Political commentators who have an evidence-based approach to politics need not be too much worried about the turn of events. Modi is not going to take the nation worse than a situation Indira Gandhi had not. BJP is liberal to the extend it is allowing upward mobility, while Congress is conservative to the extend that it is froze mobility in its rank. BJP is conservative to its ideology in that it shares the ‘cultural nationalism’ of the early 20th century Europe. But Congress is conservative to the extend it kept feudalism in its fold. Both are conservatives in their own ways. The vast majority of our population and intellegentsia have not achieved the intellectual and emotional equipoise to understand what constitute true liberal democracy. Indeed, we as a nation , have miles and ages to go before we reach the intellectual maturity of the present day Europe.