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Nationalism is a powerful part of Modi’s appeal

Prashant Kishor has always put it best: people who see Narendra Modi’s success only in terms of Hindutva are making a mistake.

Yes, Hindutva is an important component of Modi’s appeal. But Hindutva alone would not have got him where he is today: the most powerful and popular Prime Minister in recent memory.


By focusing only on Hindutva we ignore, at our peril, two important constituents of the Modi platform. The first is welfare. Most Modi critics accept that the Prime Minister has revitalized India’s welfare state but because there is no argument to be made there, they don’t have much to say about it.


   More significantly, they ignore the nationalistic component to Modi’s appeal. It is usually dismissed as jingoism or Hindu nationalism which may or may not be valid but kind of misses the point.


   When Modi campaigned in 2013/14, nationalism was central to his platform. The world was laughing at us, he said. We had become a country of scams, run by corrupt politicians and (though he did not actually say this, his followers certainly did) governed by white people who treated Indians as their puppets. (Sonia Gandhi was cast as the ruler and Manmohan Singh as the silent puppet.)


   Vote for me, he suggested, and I will restore India to its rightful place in the world. I will make you proud to be Indian. The world will look at us and applaud our achievements.


   Modi has never once deviated from that central message.


   It is not an unusual strategy; it is often employed by populist leaders who win more votes on the basis of their own names than because of the parties they represent. When Vladimir Putin came to power, his platform focused on the diminution of Russia’s image on the world stage following the collapse of the Soviet Union. He would set that right, he promised. More recently, Donald Trump used the same sort of strategy when he said his mission was to ‘Make America Great Again’.


   The strongmen who use this approach usually retain the long-term loyalty of their supporters. Putin is still the most popular leader in Russia. Donald Trump may well be the Republican nominee for President again.


   As significant is this: liberal leaders who do not cast themselves as strongmen (or women) hardly ever make such claims. Barrack Obama did not find it necessary to say that the world had lost respect for America and that he would restore the country to its former glory. And in the UPA years no minister (let alone Manmohan Singh) said anything like this.


   In contrast, this has been the constant theme of Modi and his supporters. Early in his term the Prime Minister asked Indians living abroad if they felt better now that he had restored India’s pride. And BJP supporters always make the slightly mystifying claim that the world now looks at India differently; that Indians are much more respected globally today.


"The audience genuinely admired Modi for what it saw as his attempt to end decades of corruption and sloth to create a new India."

   Every person of Indian origin who becomes the head of a Western company is celebrated in a manner that suggests that his or her success is part of the Indian re-awakening orchestrated by the Modi government. India’s Presidency of the G20 (which rotates among members) is trumpeted as a personal achievement for the Prime Minister.


   It is easy for intellectuals or well-heeled urban sophisticates to laugh at these claims. But it is silly for them to dismiss them. Because the truth is that this strategy is working. In the minds of many of his supporters, Narendra Modi is a hyper-nationalist who rose to the top from nothing and restored the lost glory of India which had been destroyed by corrupt and lazy leaders.


   This narrative has helped damage the Congress which is, for obvious reasons, vulnerable to the charge that it is a party headed by white foreigners. When Sonia Gandhi was Congress President, she fought off this perception by embracing Indian-ness; except for her birth, there is nothing particularly Italian about her any longer.


   Rahul, on the other hand, has played into the hands of the BJP by taking frequent foreign holidays, allowing Modi-supporters to claim that like all European rulers, he is happiest holidaying in Europe  while the Prime Minister works day and night for the sake of Indians.


   When Rahul finally shrugged off this caricature with the success of the Bharat Jodo Yatra where he demonstrated a strong and genuine connect with the ordinary people he met along the way, the BJP waited for an opportunity to strike back.


   It found it in Rahul’s UK trip. While Rahul said much the same sort of things in Britain as he says back home in India, the BJP made out that he had gone abroad only to bad mouth India to other foreigners. With the support of a largely pliant media, it falsely claimed that he had asked foreign powers to intervene in India. This was deliberately designed to evoke memories of colonial rule over patriotic Indians.


   Not all of the nationalist sentiment that Modi generates is based on negativity. Much of it is positive. Last month, I anchored a session at the ABP New Summit with Ashwini Vaishnaw, the cabinet minister for Railways, Telecom and IT.  Vaishnaw is not only one of the most competent technocratic ministers in this government, he is also an excellent communicator.


   He had the audience in the palm of his hand within the first three minutes of the session. As he outlined the successes of the railways, the idea behind the Vande Bharat trains and his plans to transform railway stations, the educated middle class audience cheered. By the time he got to how the world was admiring India’s achievements in telecom, the audience was in a delighted frenzy. As he outlined each achievement, he praised the Prime Minister for having masterminded it and later, in the interview part of the session when I tried to give him credit for the achievements he had described, he refused to accept it, saying that all the credit belonged to the Prime Minister and his vision.


   Listening to the response to Vaishnaw it was hard to escape the feeling that the audience believed that a new India was being created, one where development was scam-free and where the world was applauding our achievements. It had nothing to do with Hindutva. The modern Modi mantra is that infrastructure is non-ideological; it’s just nationalistic. The audience genuinely admired Modi for what it saw as his attempt to end decades of corruption and sloth to create a new India.


   I don’t think the Congress gets this. Of course, there is terrible religious discrimination in India but even those who disapprove of it (and every Modi supporter is not a Hindutva lover) are entranced by the spectacle they are shown of a resurgent India on its way to becoming a super-power. Nothing Rahul says seems to be able to shake this belief.


   Kishor is right. Nationalism is a powerful part of Modi’s appeal. And until the opposition manages to counter his claims in this area, Narendra Modi will remain undefeatable.



Posted On: 22 Mar 2023 11:30 PM
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