Prime Minister Modi—What Gives?

by Raji Jayaraman

I know someone—I’ll call him by his initials, KR—who is a Modi supporter. I have known KR for as long as I can remember. He is an intelligent, well-educated, well-travelled man. Now retired, he has a successful career behind him. He is Hindu, but he actively participated in the traditions and practices of other religions. Personally, I have great affection for him. Politically, we are now like oil and water. I usually avoid discussing politics with him because it inevitably ends in an argument: his view of Prime Minister Modi couldn’t be further from mine. In order to understand why people like him continue to support Modi—even now, as India is ravaged by the pandemic—I did something that I hadn’t done before. I asked him, and I listened without arguing.

I have struggled to organize our hours-long conversation, but I think it can be distilled into three broad themes. The first is extraordinary reverence for Modi, which results in almost unconditional support for his policies. The second is visceral contempt for the opposition Congress party. The third is a suspicion of Muslims in today’s India. Although I mention this third theme, I will not discuss it in this essay because its perplexity warrants a separate treatment. Here, I focus on the first two themes.

First, the man himself: “People support Modi because of his honesty, integrity, and nationalism. Modi is not corrupt. He is not interested in personal wealth. He is a man of integrity and he expects that of the people around him. Modi is a shrewd politician too. He has extraordinary oratory capacity and his level of absorption of facts is amazing. When I say he is a nationalist, I mean that he is interested in the nation as a whole. He is interested in India’s welfare. He has powerful ideas. His policies [such as providing latrines and bank accounts] are aimed at development for the whole nation. Everything he has done, he has done for all Indians.” Even Modi’s fiercest critics would probably agree that he is not interested in amassing personal riches, and is a gifted politician and orator.

In terms of policies, I begin by asking KR about demonitization where, in 2016, Modi announced that in a matter of hours, 500- and 1000-Rupee notes—86 percent of the currency in circulation—would no longer be considered legal tender. This is a policy, which he knows I have strong objections to as an economist because evidence indicates that it missed its target of reducing corruption, and it hurt India’s poor, many of whom work in a cash-based economy. I also know that KR is deeply committed to the welfare of the poor, and that he abhors corruption. But his faith in Modi translates into faith in Modi’s policies.

He doesn’t believe that Modi would institute an ill-advised policy in the first place. “Will any person who is sane want to implement a policy if he knows that it is definitely going to fail? Why would he? [Modi] thought that this policy was going to succeed. I really thought that demonitization was a master stroke—that it would cut off all corruption.” KR defends the policy by holding Modi’s opponents responsible for its shortcomings. “Everyone had to be honest to make demonitization a success. Demonitization failed because people took advantage of the system. People used it to enrich themselves. The opposition and unscrupulous elements used it to convert their ‘black money’.”

On the current Covid crisis, where he has personally experienced loss, he defends Modi’s action and inaction as follows: “Did we have a textbook prescription to decide on what is right, what is wrong? Could anyone have been 100%, 80%, 50% perfect?  Besides, health, and law and order, are state government issues. The central government can only make recommendations; executive authority and responsibility lies with states. Also, you have to talk about the opposition when talking about the government’s failures. When [Modi] suggested that campaigns [for state elections, which are thought to have contributed to the spread of Covid-19] be done online, they refused to accept it.”

Our discussion of other policies followed a similar pattern, best described in Sudhir and Katharina Kakar’s book, The Indians: Portrait of a People, which was published in 2007, well before Modi became prime minister. In it, the Kakars remark that in India, leaders “take on an emotional importance independent of any realistic evaluation of their performance… In contrast to most people in the West, Indians are generally more prone to revere than admire. It is not that Indians are not sceptical of authority figures. Indeed, their cynicism towards leaders, especially political leaders, is often extreme. It is only that when an Indian grants authority to a leader, his critical faculties disappear in the waves of credulity that wash over him…[T]here is a complementary tendency to idealize the leader and look at him as a repository of all virtues, an almost superhuman figure deserving of their faith and respect.”

KR’s reverence for Modi and credulity for his policies go hand in hand with cynicism regarding Modi’s opponents. “Let me tell you why I instinctually support Modi. Because the people who are complaining, who are throwing this mud at him, are worth nothing. No matter what he does, everyone will criticize him. They are just waiting for him to make one major mistake and lose his popularity and support. Then, by default, useless nincompoops will get into power. That is what I dread more. The Congress Party.”

This dread comes from a conviction that, “Congress is corrupt and has no competence to rule the country.” Again, many will agree that corruption was a serious issue during the Congress/UPA regime, and that dynastic rule is not exactly meritocratic. “The problem lies with the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty. Nehru was not a democrat. He appointed his daughter as president of the Congress Party. He disbanded the first democratically elected communist government in Kerala. [Nehru] filled important posts with his trusted circle of elitist, foreign-educated, light-skinned people. He wanted international recognition and acceptance. He did not tolerate dissent or competition. Modi is trying to undo the damage the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty has done to India.”

In his view, the Modi government represents the first clean break from a millennium of colonial rule. “Hindus and Indians suffer from an extreme inferiority complex. What others think of us determines our sense of self-worth. One reason for this is our basic philosophy. ‘Vasudeva Kudumbakam’: the whole world is one. Let knowledge come from everywhere and be assimilated to our system and society. We had eight-hundred years of Islamic rule, and another two-hundred years of British rule. English was thrust upon. We lost our Sanskrit. We lost our identity. This realization dawned on me late in life, when I started learning from contemporary scholars—both Indian and non-Indian. Many of them are naturally Hindus.”

He speaks of his early career in 1960s India. “We were trained to be clerks and made to believe that this is all we were good for. But I knew that the mill manager [in the company where I first worked] had been a blacksmith in Yorkshire. He came here as a manager! Another British export manager didn’t even have a high school graduation. Many of the people that came here to rule us were riffraff. But we weren’t allowed to even think that.”

In many ways, the people who control Congress strike him as indigenous versions of the Yorkshire mill manager. They are a group of people who have been accorded privilege and power through no merit of their own; and they exude a sense of superiority and self-importance with which they try to mask their own incompetence. This makes KR contemptuous of their ill-gotten authority. The personal appeal of Modi, then, comes from the fact that he is cut from a different cloth. He was not born into privilege. He is not a blue-blooded Indian. He speaks English with a thick accent. He had nothing, he was no one, and yet, he has risen to the top of the country. He embraces his Indian, working-class origins, and is proud of being the Hindu he is. He carries himself with dignity. One doesn’t have to share all of KR’s positions, but reasonable people can sympathize with many of his sentiments.

If idealization of the leader is one leg, and odium for the current opposition is another, then his recently acquired suspicion of Muslims completes KR’s tripod of support for Modi. This third leg is the elephant in the room, because politically-fuelled anti-Muslim sentiment is arguably what catapulted Modi to national office in the first place. But it is complicated because KR comes from a family and a region of India that has not been marred by communal tensions, and he counts Muslims among his closest friends. Rather than give the topic short shrift, I’ll leave the Muslim question for another essay.

Let me conclude here by saying that listening to KR has made me pessimistic that India’s current crisis spells Modi’s downfall. Reverence breeds credulity, which means that Modi’s policy choices will not be questioned. Disdain for Congress and the absence of another viable opposition party means that he will pay no electoral penalty. Suspicion of Muslims persists. In other words, the tripod of his support remains largely intact even as India burns.