Narendra Modi's spectacular campaign for the hearts and minds of Indian voters, followed by the BJP's stunning victory in the 2014 general elections, render both the win and its architect a compelling subject for analysis. The BJP managed to do what no party had done since 1984: with a staggering 282 seats in the 543-member House, it secured a majority in Parliament.
Deconstructing Modi's magic
In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had pulled off a similar feat, riding a wave of national shock over Indira Gandhi's assassination. But what hoisted the BJP - reduced to just two seats in Parliament 1984 - to this breathtaking electoral height? Was it all about its leader, Narendra Modi, who conducted a presidential style election campaign centred round his person, his charisma, his rhetoric of development? What made the Modi package so irresistible, and what, above all, does it mean for our body politic?
Making Sense of Modi's India attempts to answer these and other questions regarding Modi's ascension as the Prime Minister of India. It brings together a range of scholarly and expert voices that analyse not just the socio-political context of Modi's rise to power and the attendant rise of the Right-wing BJP, but also throw some light on his performance so far.
In an interesting essay, Shruti Kapila argues that while conservatism has traditionally stood for the preservation of the old order, Modi's brand of conservatism stands for change and embraces a vision of an India of the future. In that sense, it is revolutionary, she says. Ironically, the Congress, which was traditionally identified with change and development, today looks like a party immured in stasis, intent as it is on protecting old privilege.
Kapila goes on to argue, and argue compellingly, that India's newfound conservatism is pivoted around the cult of the individual, as manifested in the figure of Narendra Modi – a strong, charismatic leader who looms over his party and the state.
But it's not just Modi who is reaping the harvest of the cult of the individual. The Aam Aadmi Party, and the BJP's complete rout at its hands in the 2015 Assembly elections in Delhi, suggest the rise of a "populist and modest counter-individual as a political stakeholder to the strident Hindu nationalist". In that sense, the aam aadmi – that ordinary individual, that quotidian sufferer – could well pose a populist challenge to Modi's own popular appeal, she opines.
There are other pieces in the book that posit the Modi phenomenon in the socio-political matrix of India today. Both Faisal Devji and Zoya Hasan point to the fact that the dizzying heights scaled by the BJP in 2014 elections had much to do with the decline of the organisational base of the Congress.
"... by the time Indira Gandhi's premiership came to an end, the once formidable social base of the Congress had been whittled away as the party chose to concentrate its power in the institutions of the state... Hindu nationalism, on the other hand, augmented its social power while keeping it separate from the fortunes of the BJP as a political party..." writes Devji.
Similarly, in an essay titled Collapse of the Congress, Hasan draws a direct causality between the steady haemorrhaging of the country's oldest party and the BJP sweeping the parliamentary polls. She offers a detailed list of all that ails the Congress – organisational weakness, ideological stagnation, shrinking social support, leadership crisis, and most damaging of all, the taint of allegations of corruption during UPA-II – a taint that engulfed the party owing in part to the relentless anti-corruption campaign conducted by Arvind Kejriwal and others. As against the spectacle of a dispirited, scam-ridden Congress led by a gauche princeling, it was but natural that Modi's lavish, high voltage, expertly communicated campaign won the day.
Needless to say, the media – the old and the new – played a huge role in disseminating Modi's message. Hasan feels that the bulk of the Indian media was almost in concert with the BJP's prime ministerial candidate, while Sevanti Ninan offers a finely balanced piece on the ways in which an enabling media environment has been created for a 21st century Right-wing polity.
"Modi's greatest success lies in his ability to refashion Hindu nationalism by adopting a developmentalist stance redefined as both aspirational and nationalist," writes Hasan. But perhaps R Jagannathan, a senior journalist, is closer to the truth when he says that managing perceptions is key to the Modi mystique. It's that which saw him transform himself from the "Communal Czar of 2002 to the Inclusive Icon of 2014". As Prime Minister, Modi has reinvented his image as a leader who works for all, not just someone who is cosy with big business. His own person is central to his vision of and commitment to making India great again. And to that end he will be as protean as he needs to be. As Jagannathan puts it pithily, "What you see is what Modi wants you to see."
An oft-repeated observation about Modi sarkar is that whether or not he manages to deliver on the promise of sabka saath sabka vikas depends on how well he pulls off the high wire act of balancing the Hindutva agenda of the Sangh Parivar, to which the BJP belongs, with the secular credentials of the Constitution of India. Sudheendra Kulkarni, a one-time BJP member, reiterates that point in his essay – after praising the Prime Minister for the many programmes he has launched since coming to power.
No analysis of what motivates Modi can, of course, be complete without an attempt to understand the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the ideological fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar. A sharp, scholarly piece by Radhika Desai argues that the RSS is a fascist organisation and that, by extension, the government in Delhi is fascist too.
Making Sense of Modi's India makes for a riveting read. You could argue that a couple of essays are somewhat rambling and weakly wrought – Meghnad Desai's offering springs to mind. Moreover, perhaps it could have been made more up to date by including a piece or two on the intolerance debate that rent the country last year. On the whole, however, this is a worthy collection of writing on the story of Modi so far.
The writer is a senior journalist based in Delhi