In what has been called a historic general election, India elected Narendra Damodardas Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to the highest echelons of power — the Office of the Prime Minister. Modi was elected by a nation of “aspirational Indians”. His victory is theirs. As he took oath as the country’s fifteenth Prime Minister, men rejoiced on the streets and women cried before their 24/7 news channels. Under Modi, India thinks only of the dreams of the future, not the history of its past.
But, as you may know, PM Modi is a polarising figure. He has been called a strongman by some and saviour by others. Many in India’s intellectual class have repeatedly drawn comparisons to Modi’s emergence and statesmanship to fascism. India’s liberal left-leaning intellectual class—which rightly rallied against him for the atrocities committed in Godhra and the muscular Hindutva propagated by the RSS and its nexus to the ruling BJP Government—has never been able to carry out a dispassionate analysis of Modi and his style of governance. In my opinion, while Modi’s brand of politics is not quite fascism, it definitely shares the same structure that fascism does. It closely resembles what Stuart Hall described as “authoritarian populism”, rather than European fascism of 30s and 40s. Gramsci evokes Machiavelli’s famous metaphor of a centaur from the Prince—half man, half beast—to illustrate the concept of power as a combination of coercion and consent. Modi is like the centaur that both Machiavelli and Gramsci describe: “half man half beast, a necessary combination of consent and coercion.”
The rise of Modi and the mood in India today is not unprecedented or historically unique. History is full of men who have ridden the populist mood, of people who wanted to be saved by an all-encompassing charismatic leader who could get the work done. One only need to look at India’s recent past, when Indira Gandhi was the ‘Empress of India’, to note a parallel moment of projected desire. With her slogan “Garibi Hatao” (Abolish Poverty) she won the 1971 elections with a popular mandate and landslide victory. One of her cronies declared ‘Indira is India, India is Indira’: one that isn’t that far from the slogan that accompanied Modi’s rise to power—”Ab ki baar Modi sarkaar“, which, crudely translated, reads, “This time, Modi’s government” (“sarkar means “The Government” and colloquially refers to a “political overlord”). To borrow from Twain, history might not repeat itself, but can certainly rhyme.
While the event of Modi being elected to the highest office in India not unprecedented, men with the magnitude of power that Modi possesses today will shape and influence the India in an unprecedented manner. What does all of this mean to the country, its foreign policy and its engagement with the outside world ? Predictably, there’s been a lot of huffing and puffing and disagreement about what Modi will mean to India. One camp feels that Modi is no revolutionary figure, and business will go as usual. The other camp feels the rumble of a colossal shift in economic policy. Prof. Manjeri Chatterji, in a recent Foreign Affairs article, stated that Indian foreign policy has been broadly consistent and any changes had little to do with the Prime minister’s political ideology. “Predictability,” she argues, this “also applies to foreign policy.” Prof. Akeel Bilgrami has argued that BJP’s election campaign based on “change” is mere “rhetoric and pretence” and states that “… what it (Modi’s government) proposes as change and novelty is entirely continuous with policies that Manmohan Singh and his economic advisers have put into place.” Prof. Ashutosh Varshney has argued the opposite, that Modi will “reshape the entire political universe of India” and economist Arvind Subramanian stated that “Modi could be India’s Deng Xiaoping”.
Oddly, there are some salvageable truths in all these pronouncements. While India’s foreign policy has stuck to a certain predictable course over the last few years, it is also known for having a powerful Prime Minister who left an undeniable mark on the country’s foreign policy. In the words of Nehru’s (India’s first Prime Minister) biographer, “In no other state does one man dominate foreign policy as does Nehru in India. Indeed, so overwhelming is his influence that India’s policy has come to mean in the minds of people everywhere as the policy of Pandit Nehru… Nehru is the philosopher, the architect and the engineer and the voice of his own country… that foreign policy may be properly termed as his own monopoly…”. If he aspires to mimic Nehru’s levels of global influence, it is likely that people everywhere will begin to see India’s foreign policy as the policy of Narendra Modi.
Modi ran a Presidential campaign in a parliamentary democracy and won. Siddharth Varadarajan, former Editor at The Hindu points outs, “his means of governance might also be Presidential.” For the first time in 25 years, India will be governed by a single party with no real opposition. Prof. Varshney is partially right: Modi with this overwhelming political capital and power, might reshape and expand the powers of the Prime Ministers Office, if not the entire political universe.
Domestically, however, much will remain the same in India, because political change seldom leads to or guarantees social change. Even the greatest of social revolutions and political revolutions hold on to more continuities than usher in immediate change.