I have long struggled to understand Modi and
what makes him tick. First, as a ruthless and cunning provincial politician,
when he was CM Gujarat; and then as a phenomenon, when he came to straddle the
The support, adulation,
and devotion, he attracts from his base, but also others, surprised me. It puzzled me no end to see a person given to
fibbing, hype, and lies, as a way of life, could be so revered.
I always had an inkling that there were some
deeper reasons for his phenomenal popularity, that went beyond demagoguery, and
the binaries of adversarial politics. But the underlying phenomenon was
In this essay I propose explore
some of the insights I have gained in studying the person, the persona, and the
phenomenology that is entwined with what he stands for in the popular
imagination. Modi is the simulacrum of a
deeply held, and popular, aspiration in our collective psyche. Which is to
restore India, or Bharat, to its past glory and honor.
It is something thought to have been derailed
circa 1001 CE, when the Somnath temple was plundered and laid waste, by
invaders from the Northwest, and the many invasions since.
It includes the 200 years under British
Rule. Whether this perception is based
on our objective past or not, it is a deeply embedded theme in every Hindu
imagination. It is widely shared among liberals, and the illiberals. To deny it
is to deny your very self. Modi is not
merely a persona or a politician. He
embodies an indestructible idea, nay a deeply held faith, that the Indian
Civilization, warts and all, long denied its due, must be restored to a
respectable place under the sun.
You cannot view the Modi phenomenon as
something distinct from this collective aspiration. In fact, Modi has become
the embodiment of this popular yearning.
Modi championed the Hindu civilizational project long before it was mainstream.
He lived with ignominy of championing
something deeply unpopular, and contrary to the official dogma, for decades.
Until he was able to use the propaganda resources of the RSS, to turn the
tables on his detractors within the BJP, and outside. Modi owns the civilizational project through
his deep commitment to it.
This deep commitment, sustained over much adversity,
makes his ownership of the project unassailable. In popular imagination, Modi is this Hindu
civilizational project in person. And
Modi plays to this perception with consummate artistry. The shots of him
meditating alone in a Kedarnath cave are of a piece of this creative
Modi has created this
civilizational project riding on the success of economic reforms initiated in 1991. These reforms created the base for
accelerated economic growth. The explosion of software services exports to the
US, in late 90s, announced to the world that Indians had arrived on the Global
stage. As in the case of Japan, South
Korea and China, this initial success on the global stage, generated a euphoria
of “we can do it too” nationalistic pride.
Modi was able to tap into this
spirit of national resurgence and harness its potential as a theme for national
imagination. Very adroitly he captured
the momentum of this nationalist stirrings. The reforms that initiated this
resurgence were largely carried out by those who oppose him. Congress failure to own its own economic
reforms, and take visible pride in their success, enabled Modi to own and embody
this success as his own. He became the
leader of this triumphalism by default.
Congress intellectual ineptitude
helped. Since coming on to the national
scene, Modi has used his unusually brazen chutzpah, and demagoguery, to sketch
out his civilizational aspirations with a few strikingly vivid strokes. India is the fastest growing economy in the
world. It is the mother of
It has much to contribute to
the world such as Yoga. Its ancient
culture, philosophy, and science have played a large role in human
epistemology. The Aryan treatment of
autochthons was much more humane than that of the dark people by the Celts in
British History. India lives by Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
The point is not that these are wishful
myths. The point is that these are as
good a set of myths as those advanced by others. It is part of the process of the Hindu
civilization laying claim to a heritage of its own. The process can tolerate a few grand lies. The brazen chutzpah has won Modi many
laurels, even if his dubious claims ring hollow.
It shows his boldness in making such claims,
his deep commitment to the civilizational project that he champions, and his
imagination to carry it through.
makes the ridicule of his ridiculous claims look ridiculous is a masterly
achievement of his grasp of the idiom, a triumph of his demagoguery. Where liberals like me see fibs, myths, and
exaggerated claims, his believers see sincerity, commitment, and devotion to a
And commendable bravery in advancing such claims in the face of
withering scorn. We are truly in a
rabbit hole where value systems invert.
But the essential point to grasp is not one of value inversion, but of
commitment. Modi gets full marks for
trying to make up for the lost 1000 years. Never mind the incongruity of his
It is the determination to carry
forward the civilizational project, in the teeth of opposition at home and
abroad, that gives Modi immunity against his self-created disasters. The economic woes of demonetization, flawed
GST, incoherent IBC, lingering choke points in the banking system, abrupt
shutdown in the pandemic, delays in ordering vaccines, the floating corpses in
Ganga ji; these are all dismissed as the floundering of a sincere man,
valiantly trying to do his best, in the face of all odds. His critics at home are seen as the enemy,
trying to derail the holy civilizational project.
Hence every policy disaster is stoutly
defended; every blunder becomes an occasion to renew and reinforce faith in the
ultimate victory of the civilizational project; and to reaffirm allegiance to
the leadership of the messiah, chosen to carry it through.
In the process, his critics become insidious
saboteurs of India’s manifest destiny, the enemies of his Civilizational State,
the Cassandras who cannot bear to see India succeed. They must be put down by
any means available, fair and foul.
Modi’s success in carrying forward the Civilizational Project is
measured against internal parameters.
Demonstration of cultural dominance through a ban on beef, political
dominance by building the Ram temple, laying the foundation of claims to other
temple sites, establishing the supremacy of Hindus over all others by selective
application of the law, use of militias to enforce party writ, the toppling of
opposition Govts and brazen purchase of MLAs; are all part of the parameters by
which progress towards a Civilizational State is measured. What liberals see as flaw is really
If this leaves the liberals
perplexed and dazed, that is also design; part of the genius of being Modi; the
inevitable fallout of a Holy Mission to establish a Hindu Rashtra. There is bound to be opposition to such a
civilizational project. Who are those
opposing? Minorities, some Hindus, some
The Congress. They are to be ground to dust by means fair
and foul. Whatever the regime can get
away with is legitimate. So, there is
ruthless stomping on dissent. Selective application of the law is routine.
Marginalization and delegitimization of minorities are the new normal.
Farmers are traitors. Workers are lazy good-for-nothings demanding
a free lunch. The jobless are drones. Lefties are saboteurs. Communists are the enemy. Liberals are wooly
headed, colonized, nay deranged minds; witless wokes under the control of an
insidious Western script.
opposes the civilizational project can be vilified, demonized, excoriated,
indeed extinguished. Any dissent that
can be construed as hindering the civilizational project is worthy of swift
At the same time, effort is
on to line up quislings from the minorities, to show the civilizational project
is not just Hindu, but truly civilizational. If it appears Hindu in character,
it is only because of the preponderance of sheer numbers. Hence, the thesis that all Indians are
Hindus. [And not all Hindus are Indians.]
The culmination of the civilizational project will be in declaration of
a Hindu Civilizational State before 2024 elections. The low hanging fruits of the Civilizational
Project have largely been plucked.
Internal domination of the polity using militias, carefully built up
over decades, was always easy.
being further strengthened. The
Civilizational State yields an unassailable political dominance. Institutional capture is complete, except for
a few pockets in the judiciary. The
civil service and police are always with the regime.
The military is seeing deep selection at
every opportunity. The intellectuals are
suitably cowed, and the popular media has been largely tamed, and
domesticated. In fact, the watchdog of
democracy has recruited itself as the regime’s ludicrous chorus. Voluble
imbeciles, who can do no more than amplify ruling party propaganda, under a
sanitized neutral label.
The tycoons who
own it, know what is expected of them.
Some exceptions soldier on, but I fear for their future. The only things not falling in place are the
economy, and the external environment.
While Modi owns the civilizational project, he has few ideas of his own
of what the new Rashtra will do, to lift its 1.3 billion citizens out of the
Malthusian hell in which they are trapped; never mind the high wage island in
which the elites live.
understanding of how a modern economy competes in the global marketplace is
deeply flawed. None of his policy measures betray the vision that powered the
90/91 reforms. None of his programs have the capacity to lift 40 million of
India’s poor above the poverty line as the reforms did.
Instead, Modi’s policies have created 75
million newly poor over last 7 years.
Modi has compressed real wage growth to near zero since 2014. We can brush away the economic failures as
minor irritants in a grand project, but hunger, poverty, and destitution, have
undermined civilizations before.
project is not immune to this malady.
Before long, the economy will have to perform at levels significantly
above current capacities. It is not clear how Modi plans to achieve that. Meanwhile, the huge flaw in the
civilizational project has not gone unnoticed by our adversaries.
You cannot be M K Gandhi abroad, and M S
Golwalkar at home. You cannot champion a
liberal Constitutional Democracy abroad, while laying the foundation of an
illiberal electoral autocracy at home. There are limits to national schizophrenia.
You cannot switch from Mr. Hyde to Dr Jekyll
by merely boarding the Indian Air Force I for an overseas sortie. You cannot demand free access to global
markets, and close off your own, to shelter the profits of your crony tycoons. You cannot dream of doubling your exports
through FDI, while pricing your domestic assets far above your
You cannot be out of all
trade pacts and grow your exports to attract the needed FDI to break through
internal constraints on savings of a hungry population. You cannot claim to be
Vishwa Guru, while your small neighbors beat you in such things as employment
generation and per capita income.
cannot strut as a great civilizational power on the global stage while you are
being ring-fenced out of the game in your own neighborhood. At some point even such a noble and
grandiose project as our Civilizational Mission, must be subjected to a reality
And it’s the reality check that
can cause the scales to fall off, exposing the fake hologram. Modi hopes to find solutions to our real
problems as he goes along, even as he creates new intractable ones that will
trap the polity.
In time, he and his
fellow dreamers in Nagpur, will discover that the true way to achieve their
Civilizational Mission is by rediscovering the path that Nehru launched India
on, with his tryst with destiny. One
that carries all citizens, without distinction or discrimination, to greater
wealth and prosperity.
“Sab ka Saath,
Sab ka Vikas,” cannot be a slogan to obscure the real process of ghettoization
of minorities. Realization will dawn
that there is life beyond the caste system; that liberty, equality, fraternity,
are not empty slogans, but the foundations of a polity that invites every
citizen to give off her best, in her own enlightened self-interest.
That it is the pursuit of enlightened
self-interest - by itself - that produces the greatest good and glory, for the
greatest numbers; and not some karma/dharma code wired into automatons, in
obscure propaganda factories.
many blunders but none as fatal as the ones Modi is making. Congress as a party
may have failed to live up to Nehru’s promise.
Much went right with Nehru’s vision; a lot went wrong. But none of it called for pursuing a grand
Civilizational Project while dividing Indians at home; and/or ghettoizing
minorities. Nor did it involve a futile attempt to shoehorn Hindu linguistic,
cultural, and ethnic, diversity into a monochromatic Abrahamian conception,
born of the blinkered imagination of a Brahminical priesthood in Nagpur,
renowned for its myopia.
India is not
China. Our Minorities are not Uighur. China did not launch its grand
Civilizational Project before finding decent and productive jobs for 80% of its
population. [Our employment rate is less than 40%.] Or creating the economic base necessary to
sustain such a project. It did not bare
its global ambitions before acquiring the hard power to back them up.
Our premature foray into pretend Greatness,
at home and abroad, threatens our very existence. No player wins matches by playing beyond her
game. Modi’s Civilizational project may yet falter again for the failings of