The Rise of Narendra Modi


India has the full formal apparatus of a liberal democracy: frequent elections that are mostly free, an independent judiciary, a free press, and perhaps most importantly, autonomous centers of economic and political power. These formal institutions exist alongside informal institutions that are simultaneously supportive of political pluralism and micro-authoritarian in nature. The diffuse nature of political power in India implies that the Indian state is resistant to a military coup, almost uniquely so in the Third World.

This vibrant plural polity and extensive apparatus of formal democracy sits atop a local power structure that is deeply authoritarian and clientistic. The micro-authoritarianism of the Indian state is manifest in the quasi-military setup of district administration. The fundamental interface of a private citizen with the state is with unelected local authorities. A district is ruled by the Collector, a career bureaucrat usually a member of the elite Indian Administrative Service, in conjunction with the Superintendent of Police, usually a member of the Indian Police Service. Both of these officers are appointed by the provincial government, which endows the political bosses with an enormous degree of control over the coercive apparatus of the state at ground level.

Gujarat, possibly the most economically vibrant of the Indian states, has been extraordinarily receptive to Hindu nationalism. This is not surprising. The socio-economic group most receptive to Hindu chauvinism is upper caste businessmen and traders. It is precisely the dominance of the latter that makes Gujarat such a fertile ground for the most virulent form of Hindu nationalism.

In 2002, as the wave of Islamophobia crested in the aftermath of 9-11, India saw the worst pogrom since the butchery of the Partition. Ahmedabad, the capital of Gujarat, witnessed the slaughter of nearly five thousand Muslims over three days. Communal riots have been fairly frequent since the eighties (as a consequence of the breakdown of the Congress party’s umbrella system which opened the floodgates to ethno-religious mobilization), but none has been as murderous. The wave of communal riots following L.K. Advani’s rath yatra to construct a temple at the site of a defunct mosque which was claimed to be the birthplace of the Hindu god Ram, culminated in 1993, with the slaughter of a thousand Muslims in Bombay and the serial bomb blasts that shook the city. Why was the 2002 event so much more violent?

The reason is simple. This was a state-led pogrom. The only comparable incident is the anti-Sikh riot in Delhi in 1984 after Indira Gandhi was killed by her Sikh bodyguards (who were avenging the storming of the Golden Temple to flush out Sikh extremists). Just as then, politicians and party workers led mobs to the slaughter, even as the police was told to stay away. There was a crucial difference however. In Gujarat, the militias affiliated to the Sang Parivaar, prominently the goons of the Bajrang Dal, were supplied with voter rolls and registration lists to identify Muslim shops and residences. Moreover, the police, in fact, participated in the carnage. This followed a key innovation in the management of the state. Modi handed out the appointment of local police station chiefs to members of the state assembly elected from that locality. This led to an unanticipated politicization of the coercive apparatus of the state to a degree unimaginable even by Indian standards.

Modi_RSS brass

The complicity of Narendra Modi and the top echelons of the state leadership has been amply documented. For instance, by the National Human Rights Commission and Citizen’s tribunal led by retired Supreme Court Judge Krishan Iyer. A permissive condition of the events of 2002, was the fact that Modi’s own party, the BJP, was in power at the center. Prime Minister Vajpayee refused to send in the Indian army to quell the riots, which is what a secular government would’ve done. In the aftermath, Narendra Modi came back to power after winning the election in a landslide. He then proceeded to promote and reward officers who had been instrumental in the carnage. The Muslims of Gujarat were ghettoized and reduced to docility.

After getting trounced in the last general election, the BJP has developed a power vacuum at the top. Narendra Modi is now positioning himself to become the Prime Minister. He is hailed as an efficient administrator who is largely behind Gujarat’s stellar economic performance. He faces some daunting challenges and also significant opportunities in the year between now and the general election.

The urban middle class is fed up with the ineffective rule of the Congress party. They want a strongman to impose the Beijing consensus: less democracy and higher growth rates. Anyone seen as getting the job done is a hero, however authoritarian. Indeed, Modi is seen as uniquely authoritarian, whose personalized style is exactly what is needed to root out corruption in India.

On the other hand, the rise of the (lower) caste-based and regional parties continues unabated at the cost of the two national parties. The results of the recent state elections, especially Uttar Pradesh, underscore this trend. More often than not, these parties are loath to support Narendra Modi’s rise to the helm. This includes the BJP ally JD(U), which has ruled out forming a government with the BJP if Modi is the candidate for PM. The Congress is set to lose seats, not only because of the anti-incumbency factor, but also because they are now trying to project Rahul Gandhi as a candidate for PM. This is a major strategic blunder. Rahul is a terrible orator and a highly ineffectual political manager. His sister, Priyanka, had much more potential, but she has been totally marginalized.

Ultimately, the question boils down to the following calculus: how many seats will the Congress and its staunch secular allies lose, and how many of these will be won by the BJP and its dependable allies on the one hand, and how many will go to regional parties opposed to Modi on the other. There are thus three probable outcomes: BJP et al win big, regional parties win big and a viable third front emerges to power perhaps with the support of one of the national parties, neither obtains and we have a hung election. The instability generated by a hung election or a short-lived minority government will increase the probability of an outright BJP majority after reelection. As of now, the three possibilities are equiprobable.

Even if the BJP and its allies win a majority in 2014, Modi’s path to 7 Race Course Road is not immediate. The RSS – the parent organization of the Sang Parivaar of which the BJP is the political wing – is deeply opposed to Modi and his tendency to personally hold all the strings. But, unlike other observers, the policy tensor does not see this as a serious impediment to Modi’s rise to power. Indeed, with the current wave of indiscipline and infighting in the BJP, the only way they can win outright is via a massive ethno-religious mobilization, which if it obtains will, by necessity, be led by Narendra Modi. In the event, the RSS will have to accommodate itself to Modi under pressure from their cadre. Modi will have emerged stronger than the Parivaar, a Frankenstein monster, no longer in control of the creator.

If the allies have more bargaining power than the BJP, it is likely that Modi will be marginalized. The ally most comfortable with a Modi government is the Shiv Sena which is likely to have limited number of seats for the foreseeable future. If power is balanced evenly between the BJP and its allies, the BJP might be able to push through Modi’s candidacy. More likely, the allies will demand and obtain that Modi not be considered for both the PM and the Home Minister positions. (The latter is responsible for internal security.)

If Modi takes the helm in India, something that is not that unlikely, what does this mean for the Indian polity? What will happen to India’s hundred and fifty million Muslims? What does it mean for Indian foreign policy? And finally, what does it mean for the growth of the Indian economy and the prospects for reforms? Let us take these questions in turn.

Modi’s brand of authoritarianism suggests that he will be an extremely polarizing Prime Minister. He will centralize decision making to a level not seen since Indira Gandhi. This is likely to isolate allies and foes alike leading to a more acrimonious polity, and an increasing use of strong-arm tactics on the part of the government. Many states in the south and the east are likely to revolt against Modi’s dictate. This may possibly lead to a second experiment with dictatorship.

India’s large Muslim populace already faces extreme discrimination. The downward mobility of the entire community is going to continue whether or not Modi assumes office. This is directly related to the rising chauvinism of the Indian middle class, and as the latter gains in wealth and power, this process will continue unabated. However, Muslims will face greater insecurity of life and property without a secular government. Larger numbers will leave for the West and the Gulf. In the event that there are more pogroms, we will see a further rise in the radicalization of Muslim youth, and home-growth Islamic terror. This will lead to further erosion of civil liberties, with more arbitrary arrests, torture and extra-judicial executions. Even without a rise in communal violence, for lack of opportunity, more and more Muslim youth will seek a life of crime in search of empowerment. Much depends on how much Modi will need to mobilize on ethno-religious grounds to secure and keep power.

Even though Modi is now a persona non grata in the United States and the EU, it is quite unlikely that he would be unwelcome in the West once he is elected into office. He is likely to seek a closer alliance with the US for reasons that I will come to presently. More importantly, India’s relationship with Pakistan can be expected to deteriorate sharply. Not because Modi will be more belligerent. Indeed, he will enjoy more political room to maneuver than a secular government since he will be under no threat of being outflanked from the right. Instead, the politicians in Pakistan will be under tremendous pressure to not play ball with the ‘butcher of Muslims’. The ensuing diplomatic hostility will lead to a more confrontationist security dynamic in south Asia. A limited military conflict would be on the cards. Lastly, Modi is likely to push for a faster military buildup, including a blue water navy, with full US support. Indian security ties with the United States are likely to deepen regardless of Modi’s election due to the increasing threat from China. However, Modi is likely to accelerate this trend.


Coming to Modi’s “forte”: the management of the economy. We need an accurate assessment of his record. Gujarat has been one of the fastest growing states in India. This has been the case since long before Modi took office, but a case can be made that it accelerated under his stewardship. At the same time Gujarat has underperformed in human development indicators such as those for literacy and health. These are, in fact, two sides of the same coin. What Modi has achieved is a remarkable transformation of the patronage network. Moreover, he has done so in a way that depends on his own presence at the critical node. As soon as Modi disappears from Ahmedabad, the old clientistic network will reassert itself. Let me elaborate.

Clientelism in India takes the form of a pervasive patronage network which just cannot be bypassed. Every approval from the state, every grant, every transfer of property or certificate of compliance, and so on, must pass through the desks of as many as a few dozen bureaucrats. Each one takes a cut. To get approval to set up a factory, a thousand hands must be greased. The amount of black money related to the land registry office alone is in hundreds of billions of dollars. Indeed, if you are buying land, the effective ratio is 50-50. That is, if the market price is a million, the receipt will say only 500,000. You will pay 500,000 in white money and 500,000 in untaxed cash: black money, and perhaps spend 300,000 to get the babus to clear the deal. The babus on their end will pass it up. Every rung gets a cut. The money goes all the way to the very top.

Narendra Modi pioneered a strategy whereby he took the responsibility to get all the paperwork done for big investors in exchange for investments, political support, and election funding. He thereby became the darling of corporations and the business families who appreciate dealing through “one window”. Furthermore, Modi has gone out of his way to cultivate ties with the oligarchs and the corporations. Given this highly advanced strategy, it is clear why Modi has to be authoritarian: the Modi solution does not allow for bargaining between different power centers, all of them have be overridden for the “one window” to work. Parenthetically, note that Gujarati capitalism is much more advanced than the rest of the subcontinent. Indeed, Surat was the biggest entrepôt of the Indian ocean for centuries. Whence, it is not surprising that Modi hails from Gujarat. The Gujarati merchants are the Genoese of the Indian world economy.

What all this means in practical terms is that a Modi government will be great for moneyed interests and perhaps the consuming middle class. Not so much for the vast majority of Hindus, not to mention India’s embattled minorities. Is a Modi government going to be a threat to Indian democracy? The executive may become more authoritarian but it is unlikely to lead to a reversal of political pluralism. Unless I am severely underestimating the threat of fascism, the power of the middle class, and the gullibility of the masses; the rise of Modi is unlikely to arrest the central tendencies of Indian politics.

Perhaps I am wrong and my homeland is staring at a precipice.



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