NEW DELHI – A year has passed since Narendra Modi took on the oaths and office of prime minister of India. It’s a good time to take stock of how Modi has changed India, and India its view of Modi.
Last year, many liberal voices in India were dismayed, even deranged, by the electorate’s verdict. How could a man so clearly linked to religious prejudice, even outright bigotry, be entrusted with providing political stability and intellectual direction for one of the world’s most youthful societies? But in time, even they have come around.
Purely in terms of political arithmetic, few Indian politicians have earned the post of prime minister as much as Modi. Despite its vast cadre, Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party needed his charisma and crossover appeal to even imagine winning a majority in such a diverse country. Even the tag line of the BJP’s campaign emphasized the person, not the party: “Ab ki baar, Modi sarkaar” — this time around, a Modi government.
Modi’s main challenger, the undeserving Congress Party princeling Rahul Gandhi, was and probably will always be a political lightweight. While Modi appeared to transcend his own party’s limitations, Gandhi seemed, more than anything else, to incarnate his own.
There was no looking away, then, from Modi, or from the challenge this choice presented. For India to move ahead, it could not go past Modi — it would have to go through him. A candidate for prime minister has the advantage of being a relatively free, unpressured, untested agent; a prime minister is a combination of his person and his office, of fulfilled power and onerous responsibility. Even voters skeptical of Modi the personality hoped that he would not only be disciplined by the demands and precedents of his office but also schooled by it into a more creative vision of and for India. After all, which window in India offers a better view of the land?
And it is on this front that Modi has been found wanting.
Much has been said in the last week about Modi’s difficulties in implementing his promised economic reforms thanks to the legislative and political roadblocks in his way. It seems fair to say that no firm conclusions can be drawn yet on his stewardship of the economy.
But when it comes to his engagement with other fundamental Indian principles, Modi’s personal and intellectual limitations have been badly exposed.
Late last year, right-wing Hindu nationalist groups with strong links to Modi started campaigns to convert Indian Muslims and Christians to Hinduism, then to celebrate the anniversary of the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi as Heroism Day. Modi, otherwise the most declamatory of politicians, remained a silent onlooker for months.
If he took any steps to contain these disruptions, they took place in private and should be thought of as crisis management, not leadership. When in February he declared, belatedly, that his government was committed to secularism, he earned no great credit for it. His long silence had already spoken for him, and before him, and against him.
Modi’s great delusion is to believe that merely by opportunistically endorsing Indian secularism, he carries out the responsibilities of his office. For the job of the Indian prime minister is surely not to repeat an already enshrined principle, but to interpret it and advance it.
In the case of secularism, this is especially necessary: The word is so integral to modern India’s sense of itself, and yet, as political scientist Rajeev Bhargava points out, so resistant to clear definition, so distinctive in its Indian incarnation. A great leader stands or falls by the quality of his thinking on grand themes. Modi draws a blank on this one. And there is a larger point to be made: Modi is out of tune with the time itself.
From around the time Modi was born, in 1950, the play of democratic rights and freedoms and religious liberty have churned traditional Indian society almost beyond recognition. Young Indians today routinely shatter the taboos of hundreds of years of history by marrying outside their religion or caste. They daily perform acts of empathy and imagination in arguing for gay rights or for a better deal for women. These are gestures more creative and more liberating than anything Modi — unable even to say the word “Muslim” in public without his face tightening, and preferring to speak only of the model “micro-minority” of Parsis — can manage.
Large-scale migration from villages to the cities, and from India to other countries, in a connected world has made the great mass of Indian society newly experimental in big ways and small. People have not turned their backs on tradition, as some scolds claim. But most Indians under 40 today look to the past pragmatically for truths, not — as Modi and his cohort of ideological warriors turned political realists do — for Truth. Trained ideologically from his youth by the rancorous Hindu nationalist movement to dream of a revival of the golden age of Hindu power and purity, he is a man whose originality on some questions lies only in the moves by which he finesses them. He is as much a prisoner of history as an agent of history.
The paradox is that it was precisely the great recent flowering in Indian history that Hindu nationalism looks past (or resents) that enabled someone like Modi — born to a poor family in the traditional Hindu caste order — to rise to the top. The mythical Hindu order he looks back to would never have allowed that. Having achieved what he has, he could have taken advantage of his office to upgrade not just his skills but also his mind, and to face up to his own prejudices, natural to a man of his place and time. But his personality — a mixture of the stern, controlling patriarch of the Hindu joint family and a Nietzschean uber-mensch holding fast to a private vision — will not allow him to take pleasure in India’s diversity.
Some believe, or fear, that Modi is so powerful that he is a shoo-in for a second term in 2019. But a year in office has made it apparent that Modi’s mind is too old for the composite mind of India. In 2014, a youth wave voted Modi into power. It does not seem impossible to believe that if a reasonable political alternative takes shape, another youth wave in 2019 will vote him out.
Chandrahas Choudhury is a novelist.