The Talented Mr Modi

An essay on Narendra Modi, India and democracy

One of the most fascinating political events I have followed so far this year was the Indian general election, taking place earlier this spring. The operation of the democratic machinery that saw 814.5 eligible voters determine the leadership of the world’s second most populous nation was majestic and bizarre in equal measure. The numbers and figures characterising the process, from the financial cost to the very fact that it lasted for more than 5 weeks overall, were staggering. The same can be said for images of electronic voting machines being transported on the backs of elephants. And yet the primary discussion surrounding the event was not one of pure celebration at the sight of mass democracy in action. The debate, especially in the West, had an air of concern and worry.

The frequently posed question was what it meant that Narendra Modi, the leader of the BJP (Indian People’s Party) and self-proclaimed Hindu nationalist, was looking like a front-runner throughout. The election culminated on May 16th, when the result – victory for Mr Modi – was announced. The BJP claimed 51.9% of the seats in the Lok Sabha, the first time since 1984 that a single party has managed to win enough seats to govern alone (parties contest the election as members of alliances). It seems that a clear democratic mandate is Mr Modi’s to invoke as prime minister. The issue in the eyes of commentators is not that he should not have been successful, or even that he was a poor candidate.

The principal problem with Mr Modi is that he has an uncertain and shadowy history with sectarian violence. The fact that his support base was and is massively derived from nationalistic sentiments, and his capacity for rhetoric, and his popularity becomes troublesome. Outspoken voices decrying his rise have quietened somewhat since his storming victory, but the feeling of discomfort with the direction India has chosen remains, below the surface of current commentary. Yet I feel that for all the promise Mr Modi brings to the premiership in terms of economic rejuvenation and a fresh, deeply anti-corruption outlook, the threat posed by his uncertain tendencies remains and thus must not be forgotten. While I cannot possibly hope to predict his behaviour in office with any accuracy, nor say whether or not his intentions have become less dubious, I find that the most interesting fact about the election is that India has, in essence, undertaken a decision under uncertainty on a massive scale. Unfortunately for many – predominantly Muslim – Indians, the risk in potential outcomes has not been shared equally.


Without trying to be purely descriptive in this post, facts are necessary: Mr Modi was born the third of four children to Damodardas Mulchand and Heeradben Modi. An oft-cited fact is that his childhood saw him selling tea from a street stall for his father. This occurred before he was recruited into the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a right-wing Hindu organisation. It is this background that has led to many commentators labelling him as a far-right nationalistic leader. The RSS embodies questionable values. Marching and saluting in uniform, its members strive to organise ‘the present-day Hindu Society into an organised and invincible force’ (taken from the ‘thought for the week’ on the organisation’s website). Suspicion in where the boundaries of reasonable action to achieve this mission/realise this ‘invincible force’ lie is understandable.

Mr Modi’s connections to the group now are in shades of grey. He leads the BJP, which is viewed as the political wing of the RSS, and clearly has deep respect for the group thanks to his time spent with it. But he has come a long way since then, including his notably divisive governance of the state of Gujarat,in the north of India. The primary lessons from this state-level premiership are that Mr Modi is good for business and bad for the Islamic population. An accusation of misrepresentation prepares itself – do not hastily dismiss this point, for while it is simply stated, it is worth considering what he himself would think of such a description. I doubt he would have objections. As a Hindu first and foremost, the ambitious social outlook Mr Modi conveys, promising advancement and ‘doing good for the poor’ (as he believes the RSS desires) is principally directed towards a Hindu community. This somewhat short-changes the population of Muslims who call India their home. If this explanation appears distasteful or dishonest, consider Gujurat in 2002.

After a fire on a train wagon that killed fifty-nine Hindutva activists in the state, Mr Modi was strongly implicated in riots that left thousands of Muslims dead in the residential complexes where they took place. The implication is that Mr Modi did nothing to stop the violence, and in fact may have condoned it. The most harrowing citation from the crisis is the excuse supposedly offered by the police to victims at the scene, for not preventing the violence: ‘we have no orders to save you.’ A man who presides over such a crisis would surely have his career and prospects forever tarnished by the blood of the victims. Clearly this has not been so for Mr Modi. It is this legacy, however, that has led to criticism and debate in the West.

If there is such a problem, then why did his party receive so many votes? Here, the ‘good for business’ element becomes relevant (Gujarat became a prosperous state due to his industry-friendly conduct and style), as well as the dissatisfaction of millions of Indians with the current state of affairs. The crux of the matter is that Mr Modi is a fantastic leader and speaker, and has a wholly positive vision of what he wants for India. Add to this the fact that the formerly incumbent Congress party (INC) is generally considered to have run India into the ground through corruption, redundant economics policies, scandals and general incompetence at the helm, and the conditions ripe for a sweeping nationalistic movement are created. Mr Modi seems like a worthy candidate to supersede the current establishment – he should aim to reinvigorate India’s public infrastructure, battle poverty and corruption in government. His pledge to build ‘toilets before temples’ bodes well. The task ahead, economically, is a tall order, and the new PM’s intentions vis-à-vis effectively helping the staggeringly poor majority of Indians (including those from rural regions, casting crucial votes in the election) are uncertain, but the chance is there as it has not been in an exceedingly long time.

But, finally, we must examine the election as it is – a collective decision process with spectacular scope. Those pundits examining the outcome of the election as a chance for positive change, as I have done, are in essence extending his industrial track record in Gujarat to the larger stage of the Indian government. Yet if we are to take precedents and expand them, then the same process will lead to very worrying conclusions over the likelihood of sectarian belligerence. I find that this direction of thought points us down a road of reflection on the meaning and aims we attribute to democracy itself.

My aim here is to point out that Mr Modi is surely far more desirable to some citizens of India than to others. This seems obvious, but consider it a moment further. This desirability is not just a question of ideological preference. The outcomes that could stem from his leadership would be catastrophic should there be some kind of nation-wide crisis involving religious clashes of the style seen in Gujarat. Muslim voters are now under an enormous risk. An article in the New Statesman by William Dalrymple concluded by stating that ‘India is knowingly taking a terrific gamble on its future, in effect choosing to ignore Modi’s record on civil liberties and human rights’ (emphasis added). While starting perceptively, this comment becomes muddled. Mr Modi’s record has (hopefully) not been ‘ignored’ by anyone. ‘India’ (if we can amalgamate voters in such a way) has recognised the costs and benefits of his track record, and has decided that the economic and reformist promise he brings outweighs the sectarian risk. And here the majoritarian cracks begin to appear.

If voting in a democratic election for a prime minister should work/is a process we desire, for the commonly conception of preference aggregation, then all that has happened is that the preferences of millions of Muslim citizens have lost out. Yet these preferences are surely extremely intense, given the lessons from Gujarat. That infamous bane of democratic theory, the tyranny of the majority, raises its ugly head under such conditions. Democracy cannot always work as collective risk-sharing, because a solid leader for some citizens will load enormous risk onto other factions.

But is this even how democracy, and especially the democracy of theory, should manifest itself – majoritarian preference aggregation? The notion of democracy is taken especially seriously in India, a far cry from the voter apathy we see so often in European countries at the moment. I strongly recommend reading this debate on why Indians vote. The competing ideas are: firstly, that they are compelled by a dramatic variation in personal motivation and preference; and secondly, that there is a ‘complex understanding’ of voting as a ‘duty and right as citizens.’ I hope that democracy means enough to citizens there that they take this duty further, to such a point that perhaps factional rivalries are shunted aside for the solidarity of the community. This is what enlightenment theorists would tell us – that the ‘general will’ of Rousseau’s Du Contrat Social will direct society, through the voting procedure, towards a harmonious, responsible outcome, when citizens vote based on what they think is best for the society, not just for themselves. My fear is that sectarian, religious belligerence has a formidable track record of overpowering any such civic bond and propelling communities into violence.

All that can be done now is wait for whatever developments Mr Modi brings from his position in government. Perhaps the constraints of high office – constitutional, diplomatic, economic, the desire to win re-election – will render him a less incendiary leader and orator. The invitation of Pakistan’s PM, Nawaz Sharif, to Mr Modi’s swearing-in ceremony, is perhaps a sign of this. Yet there are caveats; many say that the new talks are just noise, and Mr Modi himself even said (albeit mid-election) that no talks can go on while any terrorism is still taking place, leaving me puzzled as to how conflict is ever supposed to be resolved. We can merely hope that the new premier does not make dangerous nationalistic moves, for the safety of India’s Islamic population, as well as billions more, as the new (nuclear-armed) government conducts its negotiations with an old (nuclear-armed) rival in the form of Islamic Pakistan. If there was a glimmer of Rousseau in Indians’ motivation behind voting for Mr Modi in April and May, then all the better.

Photo/Narendra Modi


2 thoughts on “The Talented Mr Modi

  1. Really enjoyed this read, Rob! I just want to add that although I’m not Modi’s biggest fan it has to be noted that he has been acquitted of his involvement in the Gujarat riots on multiple counts by the Supreme Court. It is a fact that his critics both within and outside of India are quite comfortable to omit from their pieces and I feel it is a tad unfair to both Modi and the Indian judicial process. It is without a doubt that Modi is no friend of Islam and has a shady Hindutva past during his time in the RSS, but I hardly think that warrants an objective description of him as Islam’s enemy. As you say, this sensationalising of Modi’s involvement in the riots has been far more widespread in the Western media than back home. While Dalrymple’s headline accuses him of neo-facism and calls him a “tyrant”, the BBC similarly provides a one sided account of the man. Here’s one example of the BBCs alleged bias:

    Another criticism worth noting is that Modi’s economic record isn’t as black and white as it is made out to be, his so called “friend of the poor” mentality in Gujarat never delivered on its promise, and although the economy stands roughly three times larger than before he came to power, the numbers on malnutrition, poverty, inequality and literacy seem relatively unchanged.

    Anyways all in all I thought this was a brilliant piece and it was refreshing to read an article that provides a more balanced and nuanced stance on him than we have seen from the West in recent weeks. Without a doubt this is more publishable than Dalrymple’s article. Keep it up!

    PS. Sorry for sounding like a tutor grading an essay. But for what its worth this is a strong First 😉

    1. idealdiscord

      Thanks for the comment Abhi, the interest is much appreciated. I agree with you that the Indian judicial system’s decisions are the ultimate authority on how we should view the matter officially. Moreover, the point about the Western media’s portrayal of the entire issue being (I must add, extremely typically) one-sided and Western/liberalism-centric is astute and is my opinion also on the matter. It is far from the first time we have seen partial coverage of foreign affairs in the British and U.S. press in the past year.

      If some of what I have written here comes across in the same vein, it is regrettable and was not my intention – I thought it best to try and leave a review of the man himself, and his reputation, primarily to one side as background. After all, as I mentioned, I, and indeed most members of the press here, cannot possibly hope to know the truth about the riots and about Modi’s current intentions/position on issues etc. So I hope I do not seem to have attempted to paint him in a certain light (aside from one of lukewarm suspicion).

      I stand by what I say here that he is quite simply no ‘objective’, as you put it, friend of the Muslim population. I wouldn’t say he was an enemy – ‘enemy’ to me implies purposeful antagonism and, again, I don’t know the facts, and the Supreme Court’s ruling stands – but I think it’s fair to say that Muslims cannot feel safeguarded under the new government in the way Hindus might. That, for me, equates to risk, even if Modi himself would never act deliberately to harm their community.

      The economic point is worth making – and thanks for doing so! – but I felt it somewhat beyond the scope of what I said here, for the reason above – I was trying less to critique Modi and his policies and more to use what has happened in India as a springboard to talk about risky leaders. And in fact given the hubbub about inequality at the moment, especially coming from the British left, I find it disappointing.that few have chosen to focus more on his quantifiable, empirically demonstrable track record on those issues, relative to the number of sensationalist headlines about riots.

      Thank you for the praise and critique. To be honest, I didn’t really like Darymple’s article. To its credit it was hugely informative, but in an extremely loaded fashion, and ended in a biased, and therefore awkward, attempt to provide a fairly weighted conclusion. Glad you (seem to) concur.

      As always, thanks for reading!

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