Narendra Modi’s rise and the failure of liberal politics in India
By Barkha Dutt March 17 at 4:59 PM
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses his supporters at Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) headquarters in New Delhi on March 12. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)
“I can see the glimmer of a New India” proclaimed a triumphant Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi a day after last week’s election victory in the country’s most politically significant state; at 200 million people, Uttar Pradesh has as many people as United Kingdom, France and Germany combined. If it were a country, it would be the world’s fifth most populous.
Modi is right. Not since the 1970s and (former prime minister) Indira Gandhi — of whom it was said “India is Indira and Indira is India” — has an individual defined and dominated politics in this manner, defying all conventional assumptions, disrupting politics-as-usual and permanently smashing the elitism of India’s erstwhile liberal consensus. Above all, and bypassing the mainstream media for the most part, he has emerged as a supreme communicator.
Even his most contentious and audacious decisions — like the move to ban 86 percent of India’s cash overnight last November have come at no political cost; instead, the big gains in India’s heartland prove that his decision to ‘demonetize’ high-value currency notes ultimately played out as a distinct advantage. In the cinematic plot of the Uttar Pradesh elections, Modi was cast as the vigilante action-hero, a sort of Robin Hood figure whose uncompromising toughness forced the rich and powerful to queue up at banks and suffer discomfort just like the poor. Unfazed by criticism — from opposition parties, eminent economists and large sections of the global and national media (I am on record as a skeptic of the move’s economic wisdom) — the prime minister positioned the currency ban as a patriotic purge of toxins from the body politic.
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As elsewhere in the world, from the Washington, D.C., Beltway to Brexit, the spectacular consolidation of Modi’s hold over India — as well as how Indians think — underlines the equally spectacular failure of liberal politics, its echo chambers and its elitism trap.
His enormous victory in Uttar Pradesh has been touted as his Indira moment; not just for the complete command he enjoys three years into his term, but for his commonality with the former prime minister as an absolutist strongman. But if Indira was the daughter who inherited power from India’s first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, Narendra Modi is the son of a tea vendor who rose from abject poverty and hardship to earn his influence. His success in pushing back against India’s old liberal elites catches the global anti-liberal undercurrent. That he is entirely self-made — unlike Indira Gandhi and the dynastic lineage her family spawned — empowers him to mock the pedigree of liberal elites, public intellectuals and the institutions they represent. During the recent election campaign Modi could not resist taking a swipe at Harvard, which he said mattered a whole lot less than hard work. At the same time, Modi referenced himself as a “poor mother’s son” in a speech widely believed to be a dig at the lofty criticism of his demonetization policy by Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen, among others.
Yet, Narendra Modi exemplifies how the old labels of ‘Left’ and ‘Right’ do not apply. There is no doubt that among the many different elements that won Uttar Pradesh for Modi were state subsidies such as those for cooking gas (hugely popular among woman voters) and microfinance loans — all of which helped the prime minister cement his pro-poor credentials. In many ways he is not a free-market reformist — as fiscal conservatives may have imagined — but rather a new-age welfare-capitalist for the country’s poor, who believes that the government is the vehicle for change.
There is a curious and uncanny similarity between Narendra Modi’s rise and Donald Trump’s ascent to power in the United States. Even if President Trump’s temperamental outbursts make him seem like an adolescent compared to Modi’s measured prime ministerial style, there is a reason so many Modi supporters admire Trump and are contemptuous of politicians like Hillary Clinton. For their proponents, the common thread that binds the two men together is their open mocking of establishment politics and their ‘outsider’ status, which has enabled them to claim a more unvarnished and honest politics. Of course, when compared to the glitter of Trump’s gold-plated glamour, Modi’s humble origins give his political positioning much more heft.
There is also some similarity in how Trump supporters and Modi’s voters view the liberal media — as the biased enemy. Modi as prime minister has never been openly coarse and argumentative about journalists in the way Trump has been in the United States; his style is to simply ignore journalists, who he sees as prejudiced, and engage directly with people via social media. But like Trump, Modi believes that the liberal English-speaking media has always critiqued him unfairly.
And much as Trump supporters mock the Democrats’ obsession with transgender toilets as an example of their preoccupation with the most trivial of issues, in Modi’s India, the political opposition finds itself hapless, confused and unable to choose which battles to pick. On nationalism or secularism especially, Modi has put his challengers on the defensive. In the current anti-elite, anti-liberal mood, the halfhearted counterarguments of Modi’s political opponents have few takers in an India whose center of gravity has moved firmly rightward.
Barkha Dutt is an award-winning TV journalist and anchor with more than two decades of reporting experience. She is the author of “This Unquiet Land: Stories from India’s Fault Lines.” Dutt is based in New Delhi.
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