The Fundamental Trouble with Narendra Modi

by Kathleen Goodwin

Narendra-modiIn the spring of 2012, I spent four weeks in Delhi conducting interviews for my senior thesis, an analysis of the systematic massacre of 3,000 members of the Delhi Sikh community in the aftermath of Indira Gandhi's assassination by two Sikh members of her own security detail in 1984. While I had vaguely contemplated comparing the events of '84 to the pogroms in Gujarat in 2002, which entailed organized killing of over 1,000 Muslims, I found that every single interviewee was unable to discuss Delhi in '84 without an immediate comparison to Gujarat in '02. What is striking, as I comb through the transcripts of my interviews today, is the shared view of my interviewees that it was unlikely that Narendra Modi would manage to become Prime Minister of India. This list includes venerable political commentators including Madhu Kishwar, Hartosh Singh Bal, and Ashis Nandy, among others. And now as I click through the home pages of India's English language newspapers and weekly publications, there is an excess of articles already analyzing the effects of Modi's assuming the Prime Minister's office. The predictions of those in Western periodicals was most succinctly captured in Modi's inclusion on Time's list of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2014 that was published this week. Fareed Zakaria writes, “Narendra Modi, who — if the opinion polls are accurate — is poised to become India's next Prime Minister, and thus the world leader chosen by the largest electorate on the planet.”

Of course, Modi has not won yet, and stranger things have happened in politics than a last minute upset, but nearly all signs point to the May 16 announcement that the next Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy is a man who was unequivocally complicit, if not directly responsible, for mass murder of a minority group. This outcome was unfathomable to many acutely politically attuned (albeit left leaning) Indians just two years ago. What precisely has changed to allow the rise of Narendra Modi, whose taint from 2002 was thought to be crippling? The answer is that both circumstance and individual cunning have allowed Modi to exploit a deeply frustrated Indian populace. As Zakaria admits, Modi, “has a reputation for autocratic rule and a dark Hindu-nationalist streak. But those concerns are waning in a country desperate for change.”

There is a unsettling comparison to be made between Narendra Modi and Indira Gandhi, India's controversial Prime Minister of 15 years. Despite Indira Gandhi's central role in the events of 1984, it wasn't until reading Ellen Barry's article in the NY Times this week that I fully recognized the connection between Mrs. Gandhi, the embodiment of the incumbent and nominally liberal Congress, and Narendra Modi, the face of the right wing BJP. Gandhi capitalized on widespread dissatisfaction in the Indian populace with the status quo of stagnant economic growth and corrupt political systems. While her bloodline suggested she would have continued the legacy India's first Prime Minister began, Jawaharlal Nehru's daughter proved herself to be a radically different sort of leader both in theory and practice. She was an aggressive military commander, in opposition to Nehru's adherence to “non-alignment”, and actually suspended the democracy that her forbearers had worked so hard to build in the chaotic vacuum of post-colonialism. Barry writes of the current state of Indian affairs, “This yearning for an enlightened despot has emerged before in India. When Indira Gandhi introduced the Emergency in 1975, imposing harsh penalties for acts that ‘cause or tend to cause public disorder'.” Today, Indians are again seeking the “order” that comes from an uncorrupt government and a reversal of the slowdown in economic growth that has characterized the latter part of Mammohan Singh's tenure as Prime Minister. India also seeks respect on the global stage that comes from keeping up with the growth of their main rival to the north, China, and zero-tolerance for the terrorism that continually flares from their main rival to the west, Pakistan. Modi promises to address all of these desires head on and truth be told, his track record as chief minister of Gujarat shows that he is an effective leader when it comes to economic development at least, and his forceful personality implies a more pugnacious administration than Singh's largely passive one. Modi has also made a conscious effort to distance himself from the more extreme Hindu nationalist rhetoric that characterized his earlier campaigns in Gujarat, which leads some to believe that he has reformed his beliefs to allow for an inclusive Indian society.

There are two obvious camps when it comes to condemnation versus support of Modi among the outpouring of articles that have been published in recent months. There are those who unequivocally oppose Modi because of his human rights violations and historical commitment to promoting the rights of the Hindu majority over minority groups in India—this group naturally tends to include non-resident Indians and non-Indians, as well as much of the intelligentsia of urban India. And then there are those predominantly resident Indians, who admit that Modi has an unsavory past but believe his demonstrated capability to establish order and growth will create enough positive change in India to “make up” for the death and destruction he may have perpetrated in prior years. However, as Ramesh Thakur argues in Tehelka this week, “The Indian and international cultural elite fears that Modi could unleash uncontrollable sectarian violence. The Indian masses clearly hope he will bring much needed probity, vision and competence to harness India's underlying structural strengths.” There is a sharp divide between the educated and inherently wealthy, who have the luxury of opposing Modi for ideological reasons, and the majority of Indians. For the most part, those writing scathing protests of Modi's campaign are the people who barely noticed the three day power outage that crippled the poor in 21 states throughout the subcontinent in July 2012. Upper class Indians generally own personal power generators and are thus largely unaffected by the regular power outages that characterize daily Indian life. But for those hundreds of millions of Indians who face the daily struggles of poverty in a nation with a corrupt and increasingly incompetent government, the stain of involvement in ethnic violence 12 years ago seems easy to overlook in exchange for even a chance at trustworthy governance, especially when no viable alternatives seem to exist.

Rather than condemn the views of either group, I argue that both are failing to recognize the importance of a fundamental detail: Modi is an authoritarian leader and regardless of his own personal beliefs in Hindu entitlement, he has demonstrated that he will do the unthinkable to achieve political power. This inclination is arguably more sinister than complicity in ethnic violence. As Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay writes in his 2013 biography of Modi, the sentiment among those he spoke to in Gujarat was that:

“Modi did not like to listen to any other viewpoints besides his own, that he was authoritarian and did not allow any of his peers to acquire a distinct identity and thereby even remotely pose any threat to him. Most people said…that he was using power to demand—and secure—subservience from those around him. On this matter, most people I interacted with felt that Modi was among the least democratic leaders.”

What is most troubling to myself, as an outside observer of Indian politics, is the idea that a democratically elected dictatorial leader is coming into the highest position of power in a nation of 1.3 billion people. From both a practical and ideological perspective, this is a chilling prospect. Ellen Barry's article compares Modi's current circumstances to the other fiercely polarizing leader in contemporary discourse, Vladmir Putin, when he came to power in the late 1990s. Today, we see the result of the assumption of office by a controlling leader when a populace demands radical change. As Barry writes, “Mr. Putin has more unchecked authority, arguably, than any other world leader” while the Russian people suffer from a corrupt and unequal society and neighboring nations struggle to maintain autonomy from Putin's encroaching hegemonic influence.

The argument that a man who was palpably complicit in targeted violence toward a minority group does not deserve to become a head of state has merit on its own. While I fully agree with the idea that Modi should not be Prime Minister solely because of his complicity in ethnic violence in the past, the even more compelling argument comes from his motivations—that he used ethnic violence as a means to consolidate power in Gujarat and that he is therefore capable of using human rights violations to consolidate power on a national level. As Mukhopadhyay wrote in the Sunday Indian last year, “in 2002…[Modi] realised that he must seize the opportunity. It was his moment of crowning glory. Whatever he did he allowed the situation to develop in a manner to politically benefit himself and the party.” That Modi allowed, or possibly even ordered, the murder of over a thousand Muslim citizens of his own state, was inspired not by Hindu devotion, but by the belief that sparking ethnic tension would unite the Hindu majority voting bloc in his favor in time for the next election— a strategy that unequivocally succeeded as Modi was elected Chief Minister immediately following the 2002 violence and twice more subsequently.

Today, Modi appears far closer to center and tolerant of minority communities than he did in 2002, but this is the result of a calculated use of image control meant to make him palatable as a leader of a diverse nation, rather than a man who has seen the error of his ways. When a political leader proves capable of violating human rights in pursuit of power, both constituents and the world at large should take notice. When a political figure proves shows both a blatant disrespect for human life and a fundamentally authoritarian dogma, constituents should take preventative action. Today, India finds itself at what appears to be a crossroads where fundamental change is direly needed. But if the appointment of Narendra Modi as Prime Minister leads to the suspension of democracy and despotic rule, India may wish it hadn't been so quick to accept the lesser evil of Modi's past transgressions.