Readers Write In #417: Decoding the Modi Phenomenon

Posted on October 29, 2021

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(by Aman Basha)

As the highly popular and deeply divisive prime minister visits the White House, understanding his rise and relevance.

Morning Consult conducts global surveys to determine the popularity and approval ratings of leaders across the world in their home countries. Through the ensuing chaos of 2020 and 21, one could see wild swings in ratings of all leaders, except for one standing out like an outlier. Not only did this approval rating stay more stable than anyone else but was also the highest. This was the approval rating of India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi whose latest approval, even after the carnage of the Covid second wave in India, stands at 71%.

The polling firm is not alone, as Indian psephologists too have reams of data pointing to what seems to be a Prime Minister cast not in Teflon, but Titanium. Under him, his party, the BJP, seems to be an unstoppable force winning election after election at the national, state, local levels with Modi himself winning his second election with a significantly higher margin in 2019 (also the largest mandate both times since the last 30 years of Indian elections).

Yet it is this very same man who rode a landslide to power in the world’s largest democracy that Time labeled India’s Divider-In-Chief. One hears an assortment of labels bestowed on Mr. Modi on Op Ed pages and columns in prominent liberal and leftist newspapers; fascist, authoritarian, majoritarian, tyrant. For someone leaning left, the horsemen of the far right Apocalypse are Netanyahu, Bolsanaro, Orban, Modi, and Trump.

It gives me no pleasure to inform the left that the labels used in the paragraphs above, the description attributed to Narendra Modi is right on point but the comparisons invoked and the conclusions thus drawn are so off the mark that they only tighten the titanium.

The complex nature of Indian politics does not deter many, especially our foreign educated, out of touch with the soil dynastic leaders to make all the wrong assumptions and when disproved with the rejection of voters, to simply double down further. It is a chicken egg situation with these leaders and the foreign presses as both miss the point misguided by each other into dangerous failure. 

As stated earlier, the descriptions of Modi are quite accurate; he traces his political origin to the Hindu supremacist group RSS, itself founded with inspiration from Brown shirts and its founders being both inspired and praising, at instances, the racial superiority plans of the Nazis. As a low level functionary, he was interviewed by the sociologist Ashish Nandy who subsequently diagnosed him a “classic, clinical case of a fascist”.

Modi’s style of functioning and cult of authoritarian supreme leader is not his own innovation but quite similar to the famous Congress Prime Minister Indira Gandhi under whose emergency Modi and his generation earned their political stripes, yet Indira herself rarely attracts criticism from Modi, his vitriol is reserved for her father, as Nehru’s vision for the nation is the opposite of everything for which Modi stands for.

There are parallels between Modi and Trump’s rise in how they, despite their failings, enjoyed a boost when contrasted with an uncharismatic dynast set up for a coronation. For Trump, it was Jeb Bush and (arguably) Hillary Clinton, while for Modi, it was Rahul Gandhi, descendant of three Indian PMs, two assassinated in Rahul’s youth. The political gifts in the family were amiss in the new Prince with his gaffes and poor communication. Modi was no brighter, but has oodles of charisma and oratorical skill which abetted by a well developed online ecosystem that systematically destroyed the image of his opponent beyond recognition to make Modi seem beyond reproach, as the constant refrain built up, “If not Modi, who?”.

Similar to Israel under Netanyahu, India under Modi has shifted significantly rightward on a number of cultural issues while defining his country exclusively in terms of one religious community under attack from enemies of his choosing. And like Bolsanaro, Modi was bolstered by corruption scandals that rocked and embroiled nearly all of his opposition.

Despite these similarities with his fellow right wing authoritarians, Modi differs from the rest of the pack due to the general circumstances of his rise. These contemporaries rode the backlash to globalization to the contours of power and were preceded by recessions which led many others to diagnose the same set of circumstances for the Modi malady as well. To outside observers who see the effects of Modi in India as not too different from the rest of the pack, the causes are considered to be the same too, that liberalization, privatization and globalization (LPG) have broadened inequalities and brought millions in deprivation whose discontent fueled the rise of the Indian right wing, and in this assessment they have gone wrong, inspiring the wrong campaigns and efforts from the opposition that have only solidified Modi Raj.

For starters, India is one of the few countries where the LPG policy slate can be called a success (with qualifications). The policy had complex effects with high growth rates, an emerging upwardly mobile middle class that broke the traditional caste barriers with widening inequality and a long standing agrarian crisis. The LPG policy never let the welfare state be weakened as it was in fact expanded by anyone in power, with greater proceeds in hand. A contrary argument could be made that those governments, one of the Congress and the other of the BJP, which initiated and expanded this slate, experienced electoral defeat. In 2004, it was widely said the ignorance of rural distress defeated the popular, respected and social moderate BJP leader Vajpayee.

This surprise defeat that gave power back to the Congress and the Left was immediately followed by India’s most prosperous years, where it grew by 40% in 4 years. In fairness to the BJP, it was their policies continued by the Congress along with the dividends from the massive infrastructure program they envisioned that drove this sharp growth which raised enough revenue for the Congress government to address the agrarian crisis. Under Manmohan Singh, the LPG slate’s architect installed by Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi due to the question of her foreign origin and his unquestionable integrity, experience and deference, a farm loan waiver and other programs were set off, the most prominent being an employment guarantee for rural labor. 

In 2007, India had a current account surplus, moderate inflation negated by high growth, declining fiscal deficit and debt-to-GDP ratio (even with growing state expenditure) and increased savings-to-GDP ratio, foreclosing any possibility of these times being a bubble. Yet the mass foreclosures and the Modi malady gripping India find their roots in the Great Recession of 2008 which India narrowly escaped due to its central banker being unwilling to allow real estate derivatives. Its narrow escape didn’t stop India’s growth rate to nearly halve and demand to dry up for the corporate sector which, right before election season, hectored the government for stimulus. As with foreclosures, making things no different was Barack Obama, who at G20, urged developing countries to take the bill for stimulus as the West imposed austerity on itself.

It was desperately needed stimulus going too small that led to the rise of Trump, it was unneeded stimulus too big that led to the rise of Modi. Unlike China which had enough infrastructure to absorb hot money, India’s infrastructure supply has always lagged demand, dangerously so with the economy running so hot. The deceleration was sharp, long and painful.

Picture this: Stagflation, rising unemployment, a general feeling of malaise, a head of State widely perceived to be a good and honest man but not efficient or inspiring as a leader, a geopolitical crisis where the country was seen as weak, a political dynast with a family history of assassination challenging his own party’s administration and gunning for the top job. This is not only Jimmy Carter I describe, but Manmohan Singh.

 A victory in 2009, not credited to the man running the country didn’t make matters easier for Singh who, this time, was further saddled with a non cooperative cabinet, an environment ministry dragging feet on clearances derailing all projects and creating the large NPAs plaguing India today.

Inflation hit double digits and the Congress’ bad luck doubled down as corruption scandals came tumbling out of the closet and public, irritated with price rises and scams on headlines, took to the streets. Amidst this slowdown, sustaining welfare commitments further weakened the economy, raised deficits and depleted the value of rupee further raising petrol prices. 

This vicious cycle landed India in the fragile five in 2013 and culminated in the landslide victory of a popular right wing leader, loaded with charisma and made for the camera, a state administrator with a controversial riot on his record. Narendra Modi is India’s Ronald Reagan, and India’s Muslims undergo in far worse degree what African Americans underwent in the 80s. The middle class perception colors both the 80s Democrats and the Congress today as a party for the minorities. 

He not only mirrors Reagan, but Reagan’s fellow traveler, Thatcher. Both of humble origin and the first of their backgrounds to occupy their offices, it can also be said that both were overrated on the economy as central bankers fought inflation Volcker lite, while their own policies were often counterproductive to their countries. Yet both Thatcher and Modi broke their opposition completely, cementing their positions with no strong adversaries. Rahul Gandhi picked up all the wrong signals and spoke about two Indias to a neo middle class that was increasingly comfortable with inequality and like Michael Foot in 1984, was rejected in a landslide for Modi, further buoyed by a surge of nationalism set off by fresh Indo-Pak tensions, working just like the Falklands War for Thatcher.

It remains to be seen if the farmers’ protests will be the air controllers strike/ miners’ strike to further this comparison or whether Modi will blink. But this comparison raises uncomfortable questions. Thatcher and Reagan never lost an election in their lifetimes, their less charismatic successors lost to Clinton/Blair. With the public still unwilling to trust the centre left and treat left wing promises (in 2019, a prototype UBI) as fanciful and till the mythic “centrist” does not arise, how long can India, the country on China’s frontier, the world’s largest democracy hold itself together in the divisive rule of the popular prime minister who visits the White House is a question yet to be asked and with no answer anywhere to be seen.