Blowout: The meaning of Modi’s historic mandate

Supporters of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) participate in the rally of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and BJP National President Amit Shah in Ahmedabad on May 26. (Getty Images)

Narendra Damodardas Modi is the colossus that straddles India today. With the sheer ferocity of his personality, he has not only single-handedly decimated his opponents, but also bent the country of 900 million citizens, its institutions and its destiny, to his will. Even his fiercest critics couldn’t grudge if Modi thumped his 56-inch chest and declared, “I am the State.”

Whether or not Louis XIV’s apocryphal statement personifying French absolutism is applicable to Modi’s India, there is no doubt that this is a watershed moment in Indian history. Modi has defied the predictions of his detractors and exceeded the expectations of his supporters. Politicos of every hue are still trying to deconstruct how he was able to not only increase the vote share of the BJP and its allies, but also extend their geographical influence beyond the traditional bastions. Not since Indira Gandhi’s triumph in the 1971 parliamentary poll has anyone held the entire subcontinent in such a thrall.

As Pratap Bhanu Mehta, one of India’s well-respected liberal thinkers and no shrinking violet when it comes to scalding the supremo said, “Modi convinced the voters that he could write India’s destiny.” And how did he accomplish this?

Mehta has a plausible explanation: “(Modi) managed to colonize our imaginations, our fantasies, hopes and fears, to the point where even resistance to him seemed to be entirely in his thrall. … Many leaders win because the public does not see an alternative. Modi won because he made an alternative unthinkable.”

Yes, there is merit in the widespread criticism of the way Modi has mobilized the masses — by appealing to their baser instincts, fears and prejudices; by cynical polarization, discarding civility and wantonly appropriating apparatus of the state and social media. But the liberal outrage at these stratagems seem self-serving considering that neither are they entirely alien to Indian electoral politics nor are they any different from those being employed across the Western world, gripped as it is by immigration-driven racism.

While the opposition parties were not able to capitalize on Modi’s economic missteps (including demonetization) and belied promises (20 million new jobs), they also underestimated the positive impact of Modi’s policies that transformed the lives of millions of poor people —through providing toilets, electricity, housing, and a host of other schemes. As the spectacle of globalization and economic growth plays out, people have decided to be patient about the trickle down. For the majority of people, Modi has remained a promise and a work in progress.

But the real failure of the opposition parties was sticking to their tested-and-failed attempt to rally the fragmented identities of the electorate, which is so last century, even as they carped about negative implications of whipping up nationalism in the surcharged atmosphere at the hustings. Nationalism, unlike patriotism, even if it is invariably negative and exclusionary, has an illusory idealistic and transcendent appeal that Modi craftily capitalized. As H.L. Mencken said, “No one has ever lost money by underestimating the intelligence of the great masses of people.”

However, the fears being expressed in liberal enclaves about the impending advent of illiberalism that will destroy the democratic fabric of India, are questionable. “The problem with this view” according to sociologist Sanjay Srivastava, “is that it assumes that apart from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance interregnum, Indian society has actually been marked with deeply felt native forms of liberalism, and it is the BJP rule that altered it. This is simply incorrect.”

Srivastava rightly asks if last five years of Modi’s rule was solely responsible for ushering “communal, casteist, intolerant, bigoted and chauvinistic” tendencies? He even questions if the larger Indian society has ever been fundamentally liberal or tolerant.

“Despite the long history of co-habitation between populations of different kinds, it is difficult to identify a consistent and organic belief system that might be identified as ‘liberal,’ he contends. “Indian liberalism, where it has existed, has primarily been a context created by the actions of the State. The larger environment has never really approximated liberalism,” he concludes.

If that were the case, Modi’s triumph is not an evidence of him bending India to his will, but an expression of the “actual will” of the people, untethered by hypocrisy. Whether or not this will fundamentally transform the liberal state into a Hindu state, is anybody’s guess.

But one thing Modi’s feat has accomplished is jettisoning caste — a variable that never really fit into the calculus of the Western State — as a factor in political socialization. That may be the most important and possibly most enduring legacy of Modi. He has virtually demonetized caste as the currency of power and minted Hinduism into political consensus. Given the fact that caste is the most insidious institution ever conceived by man, a Hindu Rashtra, in a dialectical sense, may be a progressive stage.

The electorate seems to have reasoned that if a state of homogeneity can offset the many other centrifugal forces that crippled India for millennia and provide the country with a social and political cohesion, it may be a chance worth taking.

As the New York Lottery ad says, Hey, you never know!

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