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Portrait of Narendra Modi - Prime Minister of India

BLOG - 21 November 2018

The personalities our previous portraits explored were all from the Middle East. We are now entering a less familiar territory with the Indian Prime Minister, Mr Modi. In contrast to the personalities analysed previously the latter cannot be categorized as a dictator. However, Christophe Jaffrelot, a great specialist of India, explains how Narendra Modi, in the name of Hindu nationalist ideology, tends to establish an "ethnic democracy", in which members of ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities would be labeled as second-class citizens.

Michel Duclos, Special Advisor, editor of this series.


Prime Minister of India since 2014, Narendra Modi is first and foremost the herald of Hindu nationalist ideology, Hindutva, which crystallized in the 1920s. Since 1925, this ideology is incarnated by a martial movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS - National Volunteer Organization), which fought against the territorial definition of the Indian nation borne by Gandhi (whose assassin, in 1948, was a member of the RSS). For the RSS ideologues, the Hindus, as sons of the soil, embody the Indian national identity to which minorities, including Muslims (14.5% of the population today) and Christians (2%) should pay allegiance.  
 
Narendra Modi is a pure product of the RSS, which he joined as a child in his native Gujarat. First a local cadre of the organization, he was then appointed to its political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP - Indian People's Party), which led him to become head of Gujarat in 2001. A year later, one of the most deadly episodes of violence against Muslims since the Partition in 1947 took place in Gujarat, under the initiative of the Hindu nationalist movement. Yet Modi’s populism differentiated him very early on from his RSS peers: while the RSS cultivated dedication to the organization and a keen sense of collegial action, Modi sought to mobilize the Gujarati people by promoting a true cult of personality. Not only Modi tried to relate to "his people", in particular on the social media, but during the 2007 Gujarat election campaign, his supporters were encouraged to wear a rubber mask of his own face to better identify with him. Thousands of "Modis" thus marched through the streets by foot, bicycle or motorcycle.

He presented himself not only as a pious man, punctuating his campaign with visits to temples, but also as a man of the people, against Rahul Gandhi, the heir of a dynastic lineage in his view.

These communication techniques, perfected thanks to the support of US-based public relations firms (such as Apco Worldwide), fueled Modi’s national-populist narrative during the 2014 campaign, when he was inducted as the BJP's candidate for Prime Minister. He presented himself not only as a pious man, punctuating his campaign with visits to temples, but also as a man of the people, against Rahul Gandhi, the heir of a dynastic lineage in his view. Modi took advantage of his popular origins: unlike other BJP leaders, he came from a lower caste and began his "career" as a chaiwala (tea seller).

He thus appeared as a novelty, an alternative to the Congress party’s "establishment", not only because he did not have any national post before, but also because he could claim he was clean, in contrast to the leaders of the Congress the 10 years of rule of which were tarnished by corruption scandals. Modi was however close to the business community, which funded a very expensive election campaign (the expense is estimated at $2 billion, in particular because of the frequent use of holograms that allowed millions of voters across India to "see" a 3D version of Modi).
 
Modi did not only win these elections because of his charisma, his image of probity, his "outsider" figure and his religious piety. He also promised to extend the economic successes he boasted in his own state to the whole of India. The "Gujarati model", to use the formula echoed during the 2014 campaign, was expected to create millions of jobs. This commitment significantly helped Modi to win the votes of those he presented as members of the "neo-middle class", a milieu of newly urbanized villagers who aspired to enter modernity through a job in the industry or services.

Once in power, Modi continued to resort to populism. First, he did his best to maintain a direct link with his "family", his 1.2 billion of "brothers", "sisters" and "friends". He thus launched a monthly radio talk called "Mann ki baat" (heart’s voice) - yet refused to attend contradictory debates and press conferences: his word, delivered in the name of the people, could de facto not be challenged.

His word, delivered in the name of the people, could de facto not be challenged.

He in fact even abstained, for the most part, from participating in parliamentary sessions. An excellent speaker, he continued to campaign for the BJP in all the states of the Union of India that went to the polls for regional elections. From then on, the party stopped designating regional leaders to head these campaigns, thus breaking with one of its old habits. The centralization effect was even more dramatic in the New Delhi government, where only a handful of Ministers were allowed (and indeed able) to speak to the public.
 
Populists often have a propensity to promise a lot, without really acting upon economic and social structures. Although he came to power thanks to his anti-system narrative, Modi was very comfortable with hierarchies and power relations, as long as he was able to use them. In fact, he did not launch any major reforms. He did not liberalize the Indian economy - contrary to the hopes of many economists who supported him back in 2014. His only significant success was the introduction of a uniform tax on goods and services across India, which put an end to decades of fiscal inconsistency.
 
The fight against corruption in Congress, a key theme of the 2014 campaign, hardly bore fruit. Not only were politicians involved in some of the big scandals that made headlines in the early 2010s (such as the 2G telecoms licensing scandal) released, but the billions of rupees in foreign accounts, which Modi had promised to repatriate, have not budged. Finally, the demonetization of the 500 and 1,000 rupee notes, decided by Modi in 2016, destabilized the economy without getting rid of black money, which had long been invested elsewhere (notably in real estate). Yet Modi managed to present demonetization as a national sacrifice agreed upon by the people to purify "the system" established by Congress since Nehru - his pet peeve.

In fact, what has really changed in India since 2014 is the place of minorities, which have been relegated to the back seat in the name of Hindu nationalism, from which Modi draws much of his popularity.

The aspiration to purity, as a necessary condition for India's unity and grandeur, is the guiding principle underlying Modi's discourse, and explains his desire to rid the country of Congress. His goal is to create a "Congress-free India". This slogan, constantly repeated during regional elections - which the BJP has been winning one after the other since 2014 - reflects the rejection of pluralism inherent to populism. It is also linked to Modi’s attempt to depict Congress as a "Muslim party".

In fact, what has really changed in India since 2014 is the place of minorities, which have been relegated to the back seat in the name of Hindu nationalism, from which Modi draws much of his popularity. Not only, for the first time in the history of independent India, did the ruling party not elect any Muslims to the lower house, but its Hindu nationalism translated into a couple of laws enforcing "majoritarianism". In Maharashtra and Haryana (two of the BJP’s recent conquests), a law criminalized the sale and possession of beef in 2015. This "beef ban", which refers to cows’ sacred status in Hinduism, especially penalized Muslims, many of whom are trading meat. Furthermore, Maharashtra passed a law making religious conversion very difficult, thus following the example of other states already under the BJP’s control, such as Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. In each of these states, these laws aim to counter the (very slow) demographic erosion of the Hindus who are still 80% - against 85% in 1951.
 
Yet assessing the Hindu national-populism in power since 2014 cannot only be achieved through the analysis of the law: the atmosphere created by rulers' discourse must also be evaluated. Among the xenophobic diatribes that scatter their speeches, the interventions of the Minister of Culture, Mahesh Sharma, deserve special mention. Indeed, as he was changing the name of a street in Delhi that bore that of Aurangzeb - the Mughal Emperor loathed by Hindu nationalists - he declared that the man whose patronym would henceforth honor this street would be the former President of the Republic, Abdul Kalam, who "despite being a Muslim, was a nationalist and a humanist".

Beyond words, the Hindu nationalist movement has resorted to mobilization campaigns targeting minorities more or less directly and spearheaded by real militias. Since 2014, not a month has gone by in India without a campaign on a Hindu nationalist topic being launched across the country. In the aftermath of the 2014 elections, the RSS movement started a campaign called ghar vapsi or "home coming" to (re)convert Muslims and Christians, in response to Christian and Muslim proselytism.

Since 2014, not a month has gone by in India without a campaign on a Hindu nationalist topic being launched across the country.

This campaign was followed by another, promoting the defense of cows, and spearheaded by the Gau Raksha Dal (Indian Cow Protection Organization). The latter benefited from the support of the RSS leader and of the BJP heads of several Indian states, including Uttar Pradesh, which is ruled since 2017 by a Hindu priest with a sulphurous background, Yogi Adityanath. These Gau Rakshaks patrol day and night and stop trucks likely to transport livestock. When a Muslim carries cattle, he is beaten, and, in some cases, lynched. According to the macabre work of journalists and whistleblowers, over 50 cases of lynching have led to death. To this day, very few suspects have been arrested and a handful only have been charged, which reflects the police’s - and even the judiciary’s - notorious anti-Muslim bias.
 
Narendra Modi's national populism has set India on the path towards what some political theorists have defined as an "ethnic democracy": a regime where rulers are elected, where the judiciary enjoys a certain independence and the press a certain freedom, but where ethnic minorities (religious and/or linguistic) are de facto, if not de jure, second-class citizens.

 

Illustration : David MARTIN for Institut Montaigne

 

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