Narendra Modi

Ever wondered how Modi reached the top of the political ladder in the world’s largest democracy?  What’s in his personality that compels his voters to trust him so much despite his recent failures? And how has he, almost single-handedly, managed to undermine the popularity and power of the Congress party? One thing that can be expected from Modi is to always do the unforeseeable and add an element of entertainment to Indian politics, albeit not to everyone’s approval. But the question still lies: should these two things be avoided by a politician? Do they take away from the essence of efficient policymaking?

Known for his active policy-making and dynamic leadership style, Narendra Modi rose to fame as a member of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Modi is currently serving his second term in office as the Prime Minister of India. The fact that needs to be applauded is his single-party majority win in both the elections, assuring the implementation of his controversial Bills with minimal opposition in the Indian Parliament. Throughout his professional life, Modi has stressed upon his intolerance towards corruption and nepotism, two characteristics he stated were present in previous governments. Moreover, his previous membership in the RSS, a far-right Hindu nationalistic party has also shaped his ideological and political beliefs. Modi wants to be recognised as a global leader and India, as a superpower. While he has engaged in a more seemingly active foreign policy, a few of his domestic policies have tainted his reputation internationally.

The terms ‘Hindutva’ and ‘Cow Politics’ have become very frequent in Modi’s term; he has also been accused of appealing to the Hindu-majority in the country. In his first term, Modi came into office focusing largely on economic policies, many of which he did implement. But India saw a shift in his second term to issues on national security, immigration and cultural disputes.

The traits of a showman run in Modi’s DNA and he knows exactly how to engage his audience to win them over. Indirectly targeting the Hindu population with Hindu inuendos and pro-Hindu policies has led to a barrage of criticisms from those who deem him anti-secular.

Modi’s arrival to national politics changed the rules of the game which had been previously set by the Congres Party. From now on, if the Indian voters don’t identify with them, political leaders will find it tough to maintain their power and relevance.

Initial Years: the shaping of Modi's political ideologies

Narendra Damodardas Modi was born in 1950 in Gujarat to Damodardas Mulchand Modi and Heeraben Modi. He was amongst the six children that the couple had. The family belonged to a lower socio-economic class and struggled to make ends meet. To help his family, Modi would sell tea at a railway station often to Indian soldiers which allegedly instilled a sense of patriotism in him from a young age. This story became extremely popular especially during his first election campaign in 2014. He was termed as the ‘chaiwala‘ or the ‘tea vendor’ which gave him the credibility to appeal to the majority of the Indian population who still comprise the lower economic classes and understand their struggles. But this was also used against him as his opponents went on to say that a tea vendor cannot run such a large country.  Yet, contrary to popular belief, Modi does have a degree in Political Science, although he may not be as educated as many other Heads of State across the world.

Modi’s political career began at a surprisingly impressionable age of 8 where he began attending youth meetings of RSS. The influence of such an environment would have shaped Modi’s ideological beliefs to a large extent.

A fact that was kept undercovers for a very long time was that Modi was married to a woman named Jashoda since the age of 18. However, soon after, he left her to build his political career.  Although he is still legally married to her, Modi has shaped his image as a single, independent leader. Contrary to Indian culture, the citizens of India deem individualistic leaders more competent than their married counterparts and tend to vote for the former; this could be one of the reasons Modi had unhinged himself from Jashoda.

But it is not only his wife that Modi isolated himself from. He also does not associate himself to his family, including his parents and siblings. This is contrary to the Gandhi family which has been heading the Indian National Congress and the Indian government for several decades ever since independence. The reason Modi chose to do so from a young age itself was that RSS required their members to become ‘pracharaks‘ and distance themselves from their families to live a celibate life. Modi has repeatedly said, “I am single, who will I be corrupt for?”. Modi’s distance from his family is evident in that his family has received no benefits from him in the past few decades while still falling in the low-income group category.

From a young age, Modi has been very religious and spiritual. Apart from becoming a ‘pracharak’, he went for a pilgrimage in the Himalayas. Modi identifies himself as a Hindu and his membership in the RSS and later on in the BJP would have played a major role in his political career, especially with regards to social and religious policies.  Modi’s early years act as a foreshadowing to the policies he would implement as the Prime Minister of India.

This also shows us the stark difference between him and the Gandhi family. Modi succeeded in portraying himself as an independent leader who has, in many ways, achieved his success on his own terms. However, the Gandhi family has years of nepotism and corruption attached to its name which have been difficult to detach from. Moreover, it would be very hard to isolate each member of the family and portray them as independent leaders since their credibility lies in the fact that they are members of the Gandhi family. This juxtaposition between Modi and the Gandhi family has allowed him to use these traits against them in his election campaigns to win seats.

Confused Populism = disorder within the population

Hindu Nationalist, populist, authoritarian, fascist. These are just a few of the many labels that have been slapped on to Modi’s name over the years; he has been blamed for fabricating a greater rift between the Hindu and Muslim communities which had already been hanging on to a thin thread for years, if not centuries now. Owing to the multifaceted aspect of Modi’s policies, it is often hard to pinpoint exactly why he is populist. While some call him populist for appeasing to the Hindu majority voters in India, others give him the same label for reaching out to the lower-income groups in India and creating a rhetoric of the injustice committed upon them by the previous Congress government that has left them with such low incomes. While he has the tendencies of a right-wing populist leader by challenging the elite (here, the previously ruling Congress party) and instilling nationalist sentiments in the citizens, he also has the traits of a left-wing populist leader who paints this picture of equality and justice for the low-income groups and the Hindu majority that had allegedly been neglected by the previous governments. But in all these instances, Modi keeps one thing constant: he creates this sense of identity that has voters, regardless of their economic backgrounds can associate themselves with. Although this is a common characteristic amongst populist leaders, experts have failed to come to a consensus on what exactly makes Modi populist – or if he can even be given such a label.

Pradeep Chhibber and Adnan Naseemullah argue that the grounds that make Modi a right-wing populist are based on two factors: populism of apprehension and that of aspiration. Apprehensive policies often stem from fear while aspirational policies create this idea of a utopian future that both the leader and his followers are walking towards together. Modi predominantly used aspirational populism in his first term with the slogan of ‘Acche din Ayenge’ (good days will come), the ‘Make in India Campaign’ ‘Swach Bharat Mission’ (Clean India Mission), Demonetisation and GST and an active foreign policy to name a few; by targeting socio-economic issues,  he promised a dream of a greater India.

Apprehensive policies, however, focus on making the nation great so long as the policies of the leader are followed. Here, trust in the leader would be key as the leader goes about implementing policies that could momentarily create political or economic instability within the nation. Throughout the years in office as well as during his first election campaign, Modi used both these tools interchangeably to his advantage, as every politician in India would have had they seen the weak socio-economic and socio-cultural system that India had the burden of. Although Modi, BJP and RSS are to blame for the hate-mongering in the country, the seeds of conflict had already been sown. Modi, unfortunately, chose to use this to his advantage

The Congress party that had been ruling India for nearly 60 years did help India develop but also had a history of corruption and bureaucracy that citizens found difficult to ignore. Modi used this as his first tool in apprehensive populism and created a sense of ‘them vs us’ by stating that the low-income groups, as well as the religious majorities in India, had been overlooked for years. Modi’s national security policies such as those regarding Uri, Pulwama, and Article 370 also had the fear of terrorism, and to a certain extent Pakistan, embedded in them.

Additionally, when a leader uses apprehensive populism, minorities often feel targeted. In his second term, the Modi government brought up the ‘Ram Mandir’ dispute to the Supreme Court which eventually passed a judgment stating that a temple would be allowed to be built in Ayodhya (the alleged birthplace of Lord Ram, a Hindu God) where the Babri Masjid had been previously demolished by a group of Hindus in 1992. Then came the CAA which was largely criticised by the masses for its anti-Muslim sentiment. Modi assured that those who were the citizens of India but Muslims, regardless of possessing valid national documents, were scared that their citizenship would be questioned.

The Delhi Riots which was a result of BJP allies aiming to shutdown peaceful anti-CAA protests was a clear warning for the Muslim minorities in India that they weren’t welcome there. Furthermore, Cow Politics also became largely prominent in Modi’s first term. Hindu mobs claiming to be ‘Gau Rakshaks’ or ‘cow protectors’ have carried out attacks against Muslims or lower-caste citizens who had been suspected of slaughtering cows which, in certain instances even lead to deaths. These cases mainly started showing up when the BJP state governments imposed a Beef Ban in some states but the number shot up when a nationwide ban was imposed on the prohibition of cow slaughter (but the Supreme court suspended this later). It was then that certain groups felt the need to take law in their own hands and ‘punish’ these ‘criminals’(It’s also interesting to note that Muslim political leaders have been looking to ban beef for around a century now to prevent this prejudice against Muslims for consuming beef and to bring the communities together but could not implement them due to bureaucracy).

While Modi himself called these vigilantes anti-social groups and ‘fake cow protectors’, there was no legal action taken against them. In both these cases, the Delhi Riots and Cow Politics, Modi did not have a direct hand. However, questions have been asked whether the divide created between the population due to the Modi government possibly led to such incidents.

The rise of Hindutva and communal violence

This brings us to the concept of Hindutva, which has etched on to Modi’s perceived identity regardless of his actual opinions (but it is tough to clearly determine what he believes). The concept of Hindutva was coined by Vinayak Savarkar who defined Hindutva as the “quality of being Hindu in ethnic, cultural and political terms”. Savarkar stated that a Hindu is one who considers India to be his motherland, the land of his ancestors, and his holy land. A problem arose because Christianity and Islam, which were Abrahamic religions could not meet the last two criteria.  He went on to state that Hinduism was a subset of Hindutva as the latter also encompassed a political ideology. This, although just an ideology, has been dangerously misinterpreted by Hindu nationalists across India, not just limited to the RSS and BJP. Savarkar did believe in the idea of a Hindu Rashtra (Hindu Nation) with arguments based on Indian history. The RSS ideology, a party that Modi was formerly a member of, is rooted in this philosophy. Every philosophy has been subjected to diverse interpretations and Hindutva too, could not escape this.

This has predominantly happened in India as well. The first matter is that many Indians fail to distinguish between Hinduism and Hindutva. While Hinduism is a religious belief, Hindutva has a political aspect to it as well.  Any political idea that has its roots in a religious faith also has the potential to create disruptions especially if the community it addresses is not entirely culturally homogenous. While Modi has always defended himself stating that he has not pushed for Hindutva directly, it is hard to defend himself when three-quarters of his ministers in Parliament were also members of the RSS and would possess certain biases which would be hard to dispense even if they tried. It is usually these politicians, not Modi, who make blatant claims about a Hindu nation or about marginalising Muslims (and some even initiate violent attacks against minorities).

For many, it has become puzzling to distinguish between Modi’s sentiments towards this philosophy and that of his party. Yet, it is understood that any political party carries a sense of collective responsibility; for many, it would be reasonable to assume that the words of a BJP politician would also reflect that of his entire party and consequently, Modi as well. In many instances, Modi’s speeches have this rhetoric of brotherhood with the Muslim community; he wishes them on Eid through tweets and sometimes sends out other politically correct messages. Yet, the confusion has possibly risen due to the mixed signals he gives in his speeches as he continues to use Hindu innuendos.

Furthermore, back in 2018, the Cultural Minister, Mahesh Sharma had created a committee of six scholars to look for historical evidence as well as DNA to prove that the Hindus today are the direct descendants of the first inhabitants on the land thousands of years ago. This was done to strengthen the argument that Hindu mythology is based on facts and not myths. Walking on a fine line of pseudoscience and faith, the committee aims to rewrite certain parts of history to push for this ‘Hindu First’ ideology. Their goal is to update the Indian school curriculum with the newly gathered data and glorify the Hindu monarchs as well as current Hindu citizens. While Modi did not order the creation of such a committee, it is unlikely that he wouldn’t know of such happenings; if he did know, he did not try to prevent it. Over the past few years, discussions about the Mughals have come up again, demeaning them down to the labels of tyrants who were unkind to the Hindu locals. While this might have been true to a large extent, reasons for bringing up such arguments, especially when those of the British rule have stopped, is unclear.

Social media such as Twitter, Facebook and WhatsApp have also been key in promoting this sentiment as fake news spreads about Muslims committing ghastly crimes against Hindus to arouse this compassion for their fellow Hindu brothers and sisters.

Another issue is that religion has historically been politicised in India and used to the advantage of many, including the Congress, the British colonisers and the regional kingdoms. Modi has done no different except in a more direct manner. Modi has a striking and charismatic personality but only a few don’t fall for it. This has helped him retain power even after his economic failures in his first term.