Emperor Modi’s New Clothes

Narendra Modi is an unlikely success story of Indian politics. Five years ago, the were suggestion of his rise to premiership would have been met with widespread scoffing. Despite the economic progress of Gujarat under his stewardship, the man had unwanted political baggage of the Hindutva kind, and the ever-present Achilles’ heel of the 2002 Hindu-Muslim riots. No one gave him a chance on the national stage. Political pundits were certain Modi’s unabashed authoritarianism would not resonate with voters, patrons or his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

However change was simmering below the surface of a stalling Indian economy, and circumstances would slowly align themselves to Modi’s advantage. The long-ruling Congress government had become a bureaucratic dinosaur, which the vocal middle-class now wanted extinct. National GDP growth had nosedived from an annual nine percent to a mere five. Newspaper headlines screamed out a new multibillion dollar scandal every fortnight, and thousands took to the streets with veteran activist Anna Hazare demanding anti-graft reforms.

In these times of economic uncertainty and political disillusionment, anyone who had once dismissed Narendra Modi as a regional phenomenon did a double take. He was the Anti-Manmohan; a man who had started the Vibrant Gujarat initiative to attract foreign investors to his state, while fiscal indiscretions spiraled out of control nationwide. Whereas before he had more ticks in the cons column, India and the BJP now reappraised Modi’s inflexibility as good for efficiency, and his Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) roots as healthy patriotism.

Like every career politician, Modi had not survived a life of politicking without occasionally changing tack. Once the BJP confirmed him as its face for the 2014 general elections, Modi crab-walked his way to the center, appealing to a wider Hindu electorate not always impressed with right-wing rhetoric. Foreign policy issues, unusually for the BJP, became a mere footnote in his campaign speeches, as the primary sell was his spin on “It’s the economy, stupid.”

As with Bill Clinton and the US in 1991, the timing of Modi’s message coincided with the Indian national mood. He chose his words carefully to emphasize growth, jobs and leadership, and this resonated across all sectors of society. It was crucial that Modi had the economic track record in Gujarat to back up his promises. As Chief Minister of the state for well over a decade, he successfully courted foreign investment and oversaw GDP growth that well exceeded the national average.

From the outset, his 2014 campaign made few attempts to court the 150-million strong Muslim electorate. Modi knew he would never live down the massacre of a thousand Muslims in Gujarat on his watch, and simply chose to focus his energies elsewhere. He also proved he could mudsling with the best of them. Campaigning in Varanasi against the Aaam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) Arvind Kejriwal, Modi, in barely coded language, accused him of being an “agent of Pakistan and enemy of India.”

Narendra Modi

Ten years of Congress rule in India ended in May 2014, when Narendra Modi received a thumping endorsement of his economic agenda. The BJP also became the first political party in thirty years to have an outright majority in the Lok Sabha. L.K Advani, the senior BJP patriarch, who had outrightly opposed Modi’s nomination now decided to make peace with the premier-elect. Similarly, neighbor and rival Pakistan also got its wish fulfilled. In April 2014, the Daily Telegraph had reported senior Pakistani diplomats hoping for a Modi win, despite the BJP’s generally hawkish leanings.

Everything was going well for Modi and the BJP. They were awash in the afterglow of breaking up the status quo, and ushering in a new age of progress for India. The business community’s support for Modi was also validated, and stock markets rose sharply once his victory was confirmed. The US also reassessed its visa stance towards him. In 2005, the then Chief Minister had been denied entry into America while memory of the Gujarat riots remained fresh. Now the White House happily laid out the welcome mat.

Unfortunately the honeymoon period didn’t last very long. Modi’s right-wing past started catching up with him. Surjit Bhalla, once a firm supporter, wrote in a recent biting article in the Indian Express: “Ever since May 2014, India has been subjected to a barrage of actions oriented towards the encouragement of social disharmony.” His message was loud and clear, Modi’s indifference to racial tension was not befitting the Prime Minister of India. The spotlight had clearly shifted away from his cherished development agenda.

Racially motivated controversies in India, as is the norm, often start with the RSS. Its chief Mohan Bhagwat, Modi’s close friend, proclaimed “all Indians were Hindus,” and that his organization sought to “reconvert” Christians and Muslims to Hinduism. Wary of alienating his base, or perhaps secretly in agreement, Modi stayed quiet. Unaddressed, the situation escalated to a series of attacks on Roman Catholic churches in and around New Delhi. While human rights activists decried new pressures on religious freedom, the Prime Minister again remained nonplussed.

As it turns out, all Modi needed was to get hit where it hurt, and he would jump into action. In February 2015, the Kejriwal-led AAP swept the Delhi State polls in a crushing rout for BJP politics, less than a year after winning nationwide. The AAP garnered the overwhelming Muslim and Christian vote, demographics Modi had consciously ignored. When the Indian Prime Minister emerged as a born-again champion of interfaith harmony, critics were quick to dismiss this as reactive and politically convenient.

Later, at an event arranged by the Roman Catholic Church of India in New Delhi, Narendra Modi came out emphatically in support of religious freedom. He emphasized “mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions” and “equal respect for all religions should be part of the DNA of all Indians.” This coming from a man who had compared his regret over the 2002 Muslim massacre, to the sadness of running over a puppy, was widely labeled farcical.

Modi’s tardiness at addressing social issues aside, the Indian Prime Minister is a  political pragmatist. His public outreach efforts in the troubled state of Jammu & Kashmir recently led to the BJP winning state elections for the first time in history. As chief cheerleader for India’s infinite economic potential, Modi is likely uninterested in overt foreign-policy adventurism. This may be the best news beleaguered Pakistan has heard in over a decade.

Author: S.Mubashir Noor