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Why is Narendra Modi such a polarizing figure?

I have lost count of the number of people who, as the rupee touched a historic low this week, referenced that notorious tweet from Sri Sri Ravi Shankar in which he said that the dollar would be worth Rs 40 if Narendra Modi came to power.

In fact it takes over Rs. 77 to buy a single dollar now which tells us how wrong Double-Sri was.


And then there have been the comparisons with the chaos in Sri Lanka. We are headed that way, I have heard it said. The economy is in really bad shape but the media are covering this up.


   The state of the economy reminds me of the story of the six blind men and the elephant. Each touched a different part of the animal and came to a different conclusion about the shape of the elephant. So it seems to be with the economy: different people seem to see it very differently. For all the doom-laden warnings, there are enough people who point to other indicators that suggest that it is not so badly off.


   I am not an economist but I find it very hard to believe that we are on our way to becoming the next Sri Lanka. Yes, we have our problems: a weak rupee, inflation, depleting foreign exchange reserves, etc. But you cannot compare an economy of our size to Sri Lanka.


   The doomsday warnings are symptoms of the polarization of today’s India. At the centre of the polarisation is the figure of Narendra Modi. Just as the Prime Minister has his fans, who believe that he can do no wrong, there are also people who believe that his rise to power is the worst thing to happen to India in decades.


   When you speak to those who are profusely anti-Modi they offer many reasons for their concerns. The first is the state of the economy which, as we have seen, can be overstated. Since the government abandoned crackpot schemes like demonetization, there is no evidence to suggest that Narendra Modi’s handling of the economy is so terrible that it threatens the very future of India.


   Others complain about the Prime Minister’s autocratic and dictatorial style. This may be a valid complaint but the way it usually works in India is that if you can win an election for your party, almost singlehandedly, then you can do pretty much what you want without bothering about your colleagues. That is how it was with Indira Gandhi. And that is how it is with Modi.


   There are also complaints about the atmosphere of fear unleashed by the government. Agencies are used for political purposes and the media are terrorised into submission.


   These are valid criticisms but they are not entirely without precedent. Agencies have been used for political purposes by governments before. Remember the hawala case when LK Advani was framed?  Even HD Deve Gowda weaponized the agencies to try and prolong his stay at Race Course Road, targeting political rivals.


   As for the media, yes there are problems. The mainstream press is so terrified of offending the government that editors and proprietors have been transformed from the Rottweilers they were during UPA2 to poodles who are eager to seek approval.


   But this is not the first government to act against the media. In AB Vajpayee’s time, the owners of hostile publications were raided. Rajiv Gandhi filed scores of cases against the Indian Express. And Indira Gandhi imposed press censorship. Nobody can be pleased with the state of the media today. But there are precedents and the difference is one of degree.


   If you talk to critics of the Prime Minister, you discover that almost all of their concerns, while often valid, are not enough to justify the horror and fear with which they regard him. It is not till you get past the stuff about the economy, relations with China, misuse of agencies etc., that you get to be heart of the matter.


   The real reason why the Prime Minister is such a polarizing figure is none of the things that are said about him on TV debates and in the press. It is because Narendra Modi‘s government seeks to overturn the consensus on which India was founded.


   If you go back to the things that RSS leaders and ‘thinkers’ said in the years before India became independent (and for a while afterwards), you will find stuff that even the RSS is embarrassed about (a generous view of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, for instance). But you will also discover a view of India that is totally at odds with the India that Gandhiji, Jawaharlal Nehru, Vallabhbhai Patel and BR Ambedkar wanted to create.


   The difference between the two views can be summed up in a single phrase: ‘Hindu-Muslim’.


   While the fathers of our Constitution opted for an India where Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Sikhs, etc. all had equal claim to the country, the RSS wanted India to be a Hindu nation.


  "People often confuse this sort of re-imagining of India with Hindu-Muslim tensions. It is not the same."

   To be fair, contrary to the caricature that is now being spread, the RSS did not want a genocide of Muslims. It merely wanted them to accept that they were living in a Hindu country.


   Consider this quote from MS Golwalkar, the RSS chief who regarded Muslims as descendants of invaders. “Foreign races must lose their separate existence to merge into the Hindu race, or may stay in this country wholly subordinated to the Hindu nation, deserving no privileges, far less preferential treatment - not even citizen’s rights.” There is more in a similar vein.


   It is no accident that so much of the Hindu Right’s rhetoric is about the Mughals. In that era, Hindus were in the majority and went about their business peacefully. But there was no doubt that the rulers were Muslims and often Hindus were denied rights and even taxed on the basis of their religion.


   In an ideal situation, the Hindu Right would want those roles reversed. Muslims would be made aware that they were ruled by Hindus and that Hindu ways would prevail. After all, they say, if Hindus could live like that under the Mughals, why can’t Muslims live like that in today’s India?


   Once you recognize this, then almost everything that the Hindu Right (from the loonies to the leaders) says follows that logic. That’s why no roads should be named after Mughal rulers. (The Delhi BJP now wants to change the names of Akbar Road and Humayun Road). That’s why no city should have a Muslim-sounding name. (Prayagraj rather than Allahabad and so on).


   That’s why Muslims should not be allowed to eat beef: they must follow Hindu ways. That’s why meat shops should be shut during Hindu festivals. That’s why monuments with an Islamic connection must either be ignored or have their origins questioned. The Taj Mahal will not rate highly on the UP government’s list of great monuments. And the Hindu Right will say that it was a Hindu palace anyway.


   People often confuse this sort of re-imagining of India with Hindu-Muslim tensions. It is not the same. There have always been tensions: India was created in the blood of the Partition riots and Hindu-Muslim violence is, sadly enough, a fact of life in our country. The fault lines have never been erased and politicians from all parties have tried to exploit them.


   But what is happening now goes beyond that. This is an attempt to use the power of the state to rewrite the consensus on which modern India was built.


   It is not clear that the BJP has the mandate to do any of this. The Prime Minister never even admits that this is what he wants to do. His speeches rarely, if ever, focus on communal issues. And when his followers go too far (cow-related lynchings, for instance), he waits a while and then sometimes speaks out against their actions.


   If the BJP and Mr. Modi came out and actually declared that this was their agenda, it is not clear that there would be widespread support for it. As Prashant Kishore keeps pointing out, even when it wins big, the BJP rarely gets the support of the majority of Indians, or even of Hindus. You can win a national election in India with 40 per cent of the vote. You might even win a landslide. But that does not mean that you have majority support. And certainly, not support for an agenda that is unstated.


   When you talk to the Prime Minister’s critics, once they have got past all the stuff about the economy and foreign policy, this is the issue that defines their opposition to Modi’s BJP. That is why the Prime Minister is such a polarizing figure.


   It is not, in itself, a bad thing to be a polarizing figure. FD Roosevelt polarized America. So did Donald Trump. Margaret Thatcher polarized the UK. So, I doubt if the Prime Minister cares too much about what his critics say.


   But it leaves us with three big questions.


One: why is Mr Modi doing all this? One possibility is that he is not doing it only for political gain. He believes in it. This is his view of India.


Two: if you took away Hindu-Muslim issues then Mr Modi’s BJP would be much more widely acceptable. As we have seen, the other objections people have to the Prime Minister are not that major. And he would probably still win Lok Sabha elections given the ineptitude of the national opposition.


   So why keep at it?


   And finally, question three: if he continues down this path, can India flourish in the long run? Will the rest of the world turn on us? Will the minorities quietly acquiesce in their marginalization?


   Your guess is as good as mine. But it bears thinking about.




  • Paul 04 Jun 2022

    You forgot to mention that he is a demagogue and he is really good at rabble-rousing. BJP's motto is: "rules for thee, not for me".

  • Rao 13 May 2022

    well, I would like to go back to the original para about the economy. Modi needs a better Finance ministry & make it EASY to do business in India. Think beyond stupid politics, increase exports significantly. That will happen only in patches as National & State elections keep coming up & people need to be reminded, polarized & elections to be won, which keeps taking priority. Almost the same issue as in the US.. constantly in elections mode. Pathetic.

  • Madhav 13 May 2022

    I am your severe critic, this one is an excellent analysis, but there are gaps. 1. While RSS continues to respect Golwalkar, it has moved ahead silently. 2. You endorse PK that those who are not with Modi do not buy Hindutva argument. Not necessarily, other factors may dominate. 3. 3rd question marginalization of minorities. Change the lens. Is it marginalization or modernization and who benefits? It is minorities only and then India flourishes. Looks dream. But see RSS journey of 100 years.

Posted On: 11 May 2022 10:30 AM
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