The Narendra Modi effect

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, say all pundits, will get “easily” re-elected. Maybe he will. But even if he does not – as easily or even not at all – he has earned a special place in the history books through the dint of his work, his personality and his breathtaking, almost-anointed, arrival on the world stage.
Punditry is cheap and often wrong, even predictably so. But this time, surely, they cannot be wrong? And so it continues till the next time.
Modi himself is, without doubt, a religious man for all to see. It is claimed by his acolytes, some media watchers, party workers and people who have had the opportunity to judge him at work that he practises the highest precept of Hinduism viz detachment. Or, it is claimed, follows the central teaching of the Bhagavad Gita, which declares that actions must be carried out without “attachment” to the “results” they yield.
But with all his Hindu paraphernalia on display, Modi may not be as unique as he would like to believe. While the Indian State adopted a clearly stated secular policy and defined itself as a country for all religions, the founders of modern India never eschewed its Hindu roots.
After Partition and the visceral worldwide reaction against religious or ethnic nationalism after World War II, India could ill-afford to open those wounds. Today, the passage of time has at least partly cooled religious passions, allowing a man like Modi to unapologetically seek to represent the religious majority.
But his first five years have evoked unpleasant memories. There is much more menace behind displays of religious power now because the power of the State is perceived to be behind ordinary citizens who happen to belong to the majority. The mighty Indian State is being made to provide cover to
lawless saffron tilak-bearing gangs of youth. If he does win, Modi needs to control these forces far better than during his first term.
There is a great deal of confusion within the BJP about the place Modi, as a product of the RSS, occupies in post-Independence politics. While it is true that the Independence struggle was led by highly-educated men and women schooled in modern thought, independent India never denied her Hindu heritage.
It is no accident that the Ashoka Chakra is at the very centre of the national symbol. Ashoka in 2500 BC was among the last generation of great emperors to rule all of India, command dominion over Afghanistan, and change the face of China forever by endorsing and proselytising the Buddha himself. Satyamev jayate, (Truth Shall Prevail), a mantra from the Mundaka Upanishad, is the national motto, inscribed at the base of the national emblem.
It is well-known to historians in the West that 500 BC was also when Alexander the Great dreamed of an Indian conquest and was roundly defeated by a mere local king in the Punjab, an outlier of the Empire.

It is equally well-known that the Father of the Nation freely used Hindu religious symbols, like Modi. He also famously followed the Gita. And both Modi and the Mahatma hail from Gujarat. But that is where the parallel ends. For one thing, the Mahatma, a lawyer trained in British law, followed the Song Celestial by Sir Edwin Arnold in English. Modi, a son of the soil in the true sense of the word, learned his religion while selling chai — and at his RSS shakha, a very hard life for a young boy.

The Mahatma was thrown out of a train compartment in South Africa and was deeply outraged — not by apartheid so much as by the unfairness of being thrown out despite being a lawyer and a “brown” gentleman. He trusted British “fairness” and won great victories for India appealing to the conscience of the British while disobeying their unjust laws.

Modi has won a place in the history books by his national vision, primarily by being a Hindu-Indian nationalist but also by his leadership in his laudable attempt to drag India and its policies into the 21st century. It is a happy coincidence for India, not so much for old foe China, that President Donald Trump is made from the same nationalist cloth, though dyed with the stars ‘n’ stripes.

On a visit to Singapore last year, the young Rahul Gandhi took questions from the audience. To an irate older man, an academic who launched on a lengthy rude rant against Congress’ history of  misgovernance over decades, he responded with a question. Rahul asked: “So are you saying the Congress made no contribution after Independence? At all?”

It was the right question but Rahul could have easily pressed on about Nehru’s foreign policies, Indira’s Green Revolution, etc. But he did not, choosing to offer “love” in exchange for a slap in the face. Even Lord Jesus never advocated passive tolerance. Let alone the great Mohandas Gandhi who brought down an Empire with no weapons.

It is possible that Modi is justified in being overconfident. Rahul may have “erudition” or “good intentions” and a fabled family background but may lack fire.

Article by Ravi S Buddhavarapu
– Ravi is a senior journalist based in Singapore. Write to him at [email protected]

NT Bureau