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    South Asia
     Dec 13, '13

The implications of Modi's rapid rise
By Jiwan Kshetry

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing.

Following a rout of the incumbent Congress' party in provincial polls that had been dubbed a "semi-final" ahead of India's 2014 general elections, the right-wing opposition is even more focused on propelling its candidate, Narendra Modi, to the premiership.

Beyond the fog of rhetoric propagated by corporate media, there are genuine concerns as to how such a militantly communal state leader could lead a diverse country of 1.36 billion. In results announced on Sunday, Modi's Bharatiya Janata maintained control of the governments in central Madhya Pradesh and

Chhattisgarh states, and defeated the Congress party in Rajasthan state and Delhi.

Anti-incumbency is often a determining factor in any election, and the fall of the incumbents in more or less fair elections is thus not unusual. It often happens that the party or coalition which rides on the tide of opposition is overwhelmed by the very tide in the opposite direction the next time around, after a second term if not first.

When the exceptional circumstances and rulers of states like Sri Lanka and Afghanistan - and nascent democratic exercises in Bhutan and Maldives - are exempted, South Asia, with nearly a fourth of world population, has been reproducing this trend for fairly long period of time in Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan.

While the elections in Pakistan and Nepal over the past year have seen the spectacular defeat of incumbents, the Awami League in Bangladesh appears to be in a self-defeating mood after choosing a violent confrontation with the political opposition.

All this is a mere trailer as a larger real-life drama is about to start in India, the world's most populous and South Asia's most powerful democratic state, with the imminent general elections.

Most analysts now think it is a lost case for the ruling Congress-led coalition thoroughly battered by financial scams at the end of two terms. This feeling has now been strongly reinforced by the comprehensive rout of the ruling coalition in the assembly polls in four important states.

How much of the Congress' loss across the country will translate into general election gains for the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), is however, debatable, making it rather tricky to predict the outcomes of the 2014 polls; many think a fractured verdict, as seen in Delhi assembly polls, is as likely as a solid victory for the BJP-led opposition coalition.

In Delhi, the anti-corruption Aam Aadmi Party, formed less than a year ago, won 28 of the local assembly's 70 seats, just failing to top the BJP's 32 seats and pushing Congress, which has ruled the city for 15 years, into a distant third place with only eight seats.

India's disconnect with the electoral past
Even in a country that has become accustomed to electoral democracy over more than six decades, the imminent polls in India are not business-as-usual. For the analysts as well as the prospective voters, the differences between the elections of the past two decades and this one are profoundly perceptible.

Indeed, when one focuses on the fate of Congress alone, an eerie parallel can be noted between the party's approach to the polls in 1977 after Indira Gandhi's disastrous emergency rule and the scam-ridden Congress leadership now in 2014.

But there are other differences, too, between the past and the imminent polls in India. The tactics of the BJP have seen a profound transformation since the earlier polls.

From choosing Atal Bihari Vajpayee as the soothing coalition builder in the 1998 polls, BJP in 2014 has chosen the opposite extreme of projecting Narendra Modi, a highly polarizing figure, as its prospective candidate for the premiership. As many in the media have noted, BJP's Modi-centered election campaign resembles more a presidential than a parliamentary system.

While clean governance is nearly always pledged by any party fighting elections anywhere, the BJP is now playing its apparent strength from the track record of "good" governance in Modi-ruled Gujarat compared with the most sensitive weak spot of the Congress party.

The BJP is portraying the 2014 fight for power as one between distinctly corrupt and inefficient incumbents and an incorruptible and clinically efficient alternative.

With a large section of media in India knowingly or unknowingly reinforcing this dichotomy between the apparently "good" and the "bad" choices for the upcoming polls, Modi is now projected as the likeliest of the contenders for the premiership post.

Following the BJP's impressive show in the recent provincial polls, some analysts have been tempted into concluding that the BJP's electoral gamble of placing all the eggs in one basket in the form of Modi is paying off.

Others, however, have pointed out that the pattern is unlikely to replicate in majority of other states where regional parties are better placed than the BJP to harvest the anti-Congress sentiment.

Modi's iconic rise: A convergence of destiny with the BJP
Narendra Modi's past is no longer a mystery, not the least because he has often grabbed the media limelight for the wrong reason. Ever since the 2002 Gujarat pogroms that he presided over, and the apparently astonishing growth that he has achieved in Gujarat, he has been unable to avoid the situation in which a series of fake encounters have had to be instigated, leaving a bloody and gruesome trail along the track record of his governance.

Modi's image is also shaped by his unusually blunt rhetoric - unlike most of his counterparts in politics - exemplified by when he compared the Muslim victims of the 2002 carnage with a dog that is run over by a car.

What is less often discussed and hence easily missed in the whole Modi success story, however, is his rise in prominence within the party and the imperatives and implications of such a rapid rise.

As late as a year ago, when Modi was sworn in as chief minister of Gujarat for the fourth time, the talks of his aspiration for high throne in Delhi were mere speculation. Fast forward one year and whole nation is looking at this man with either awe and reverence or with dread and disgust as the potential prime minister.

On his way to the top, Modi has tackled some formidable obstacles, such as the steadfast opposition of his anointment in June as the chief election campaigner by party patriarch L K Advani.

That anointment also saw JD(U), one of the most dependable of BJP allies in Bihar, part ways with its ally of 17 years. Even then, some knowledgeable people said that making him campaign chief was no guarantee of making him the prospective PM candidate. But when the moment came in September, he was the only reasonable choice of the party for the position and he was duly announced the PM candidate.

When BJP last came to power in 1999, stability was the priority for everyone in a nation where people had voted for five general elections in a decade and projecting mild-mannered Vajpayee as the coalition-building PM made perfect sense.

This time around, the paradigm has shifted: most of the voters are fixated at the governance issue and the incumbents are clearly at the receiving end on the issue. Moreover, as the 2002 Gujarat pogroms recede in the public memory, the whole of the political right in India has consolidated its effort on projecting Modi as the messiah of good governance and not as the viciously communal leader as depicted by his critics. This phenomenon also fits with the on and off use of "Hindutva" - the promotion of Hindu nationalism - by the BJP as the political tool.

The implications of Modi as premier
First of all, while the electorate in India is justifiably worried about the issue of governance, good governance is only one among many priorities for a politician ruling a diverse country like India. Even in the governance issue, as I have often argued, the real solution to the plague of misgovernance lies somewhere beyond the fog of whims and rhetoric.

Without accountability from the highest level to the grassroots, a fight against corruption, poverty and slavery is mere farce. Unfortunately, accountability is not something for which Modi is known.

The impressive electoral gains for the BJP (and the newly formed Aam Aadmi Party in Delhi) in provincial polls are being widely portrayed as the outcomes of people's disgust towards the brazen corruption and political inertia of the entirely hollowed out Congress. But creating a positive track record of good governance in BJP-ruled states now will be an uphill task as things stand.

Second, the bulk of today's Modi wave in India (note that many respectable commentators doubt there exists any such significant wave, let alone of the magnitude portrayed in corporate media) is composed of a significant proportion of traditionally non-BJP voters who see Modi as the least of various evils.

Most of his young and educated supporters feel that so long as Modi can deliver good governance and robust growth, issues such as his role in the 2002 Gujarat pogroms remain immaterial, nuisances at worst.

But given that India is a functioning democracy and with extreme diversity and many faultlines (contrasted to China where an authoritarian government has been able to deliver impressive growth for decades), the trajectory of such a delivery in India is likely to be very different, both from China and a host of other East Asian countries.

Moreover, what is conveniently forgotten about the 2002 Gujarat violence in discourses today is that, for Modi's brand of politics, 2002 was not a point of time when things went out of hand. This was beginning of an era of a massive social engineering that molded the entire population into a particular shape, dismantling the tolerant and pluralistic fabric of the society.

If anything goes awry in future and a Modi-led BJP exchanges the apparently harmless developmental agenda with a less wholesome but potentially efficient alternative of another attempt at such social engineering, then that is likely to threaten the pluralist and secular fabric of the Indian state itself.

Evidence that this is likely is evidenced by the BJP's temptation to harvest the polarization and radicalization of people through communal riots during recent violence in Uttar Pradesh into political gains.

Third, while the glittering cities and rapid economic growth are understandably the ultimate desire of a highly vocal and socially networked middle class, an often hysteric endorsement of Modi's agenda has now drowned everything else out.

And there is little to believe that Modi will ever prioritize bridging this gap by any way other than waiting for the elusive "trickle down" to happen some time in future.

Although in the best-case scenario Modi as premier does have a higher likelihood of delivering a more robust growth than any of his alternatives, the rather bloated expectations that he will replicate Gujarat's growth story in larger India are unrealistic.

A significant part of the flood of money in the form of private investment in Gujarat has come at the cost to other states - as seen in the shift of Tata Motor's car factory from West Bengal to Gujarat following the rebellion of evicted farmers in the former.

Also, since his business-friendliness exacts a long-term cost from the state, particularly in terms of depletion of the natural resources and irreversible ecological damage, it will be much costlier for Modi to sustain the image once at the helm of the nation.

Ironically, most of the scams of the past three years relate precisely to such friendliness gone too deep in the form of illicit collusion between government officials (including state officials in BJP-ruled states) and business houses. As leader, Modi will be in the unpleasant situation of having to choose between good governance at the cost of friendship with the business houses and a fake good governance with such proximity intact.

Finally, now that the BJP as a party has been reduced to a mere shadow of Modi as a person, Modi's personality itself may dictate much of the future course of India. As the leading Indian psychoanalyst and social scientist Ashish Nandy has written in a poignant essay, the potential danger of having Narendra Modi as the helmsman of India may lie somewhere deep in his personality:
Modi, it gives me no pleasure to tell the readers, met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defense of projection, denial and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence - all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits.

I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told Yagnik that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer. [1]
As a matter of fact, Modi's swearing in as premier would be a de facto legitimization of everything he did, presided, omitted or committed over the past decades -expressed or otherwise - including the 2002 Gujarat violence. This means the Indian state will lose the moral authority to ask any of its future politicians not to indulge in similar acts.

As harmless as his developmental slogans may be, the occasional but highly significant metaphorical use of rhetorical tools such as a "puppy" analogy for a significant minority could make it difficult for Modi to reconcile his character or policies with large sections of the population.

And if he lives up to only some of his pledges to militantly project India vis-a-vis the country's neighbors - an unlikely but possible situation - the whole of the region may be off to uncharted territory in terms of international relations. I personally think that Indian democracy is not yet ready for that kind of gamble.

1. Obituary of a culture by Ashish Nandy

Speaking Freely is an Asia Times Online feature that allows guest writers to have their say. Please click here if you are interested in contributing. Articles submitted for this section allow our readers to express their opinions and do not necessarily meet the same editorial standards of Asia Times Online's regular contributors.

Jiwan Kshetry is a Kathmandu-based freelance writer. His primary areas of interest are corruption, violence and instability, particularly in South Asia. He regularly writes for his blog "South Asia and Beyond" (www.jiwankshetri.blogspot.com) and can be reached at jiwan.kshetri@gmail.com and can be followed in Twitter @jkshetry.

(Copyright 2013 Jiwan Kshetry)

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