London, 17 May-2014,Jason Burke: Simple beginnings, ascetic ways and unapologetic Hindu nationalism help sweep BJP’s leading candidate to victory.Narendra Modi’s journey to the front step of the prime minister’s office in the heart of New Delhi has been long – and unlikely. Born in a small town in Gujarat, the western state two hours’ flight from the capital, Modi comes from a caste near the bottom of the tenacious Indian social hierarchy. His parents were poor and conservative and the future prime minister helped out on the family tea stall after school. At around the age of 10 he started attending meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a vast and influential Hindu revivalist conservative movement that has been banned three times in India. He only joined formally at a later date.
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His first job for the RSS involved sweeping for a senior official. Later assigned to the Bharatiya Janata party, the affiliated but independent political party, Modi forged his own path, ousting opponents one by one until he was appointed chief minister of Gujarat in 2001. He has gone on to win three elections there, largely rooted in the consistent economic growth in the state, and these victories have given him a platform from which to outflank the entrenched old guard of the BJP itself.
The charges that he allowed or even encouraged mob violence in 2002 in Gujarat – which he denies and which a supreme court investigation found were not supported by the evidence it was able to examine – reinforce his status as a man who is separate from the political establishment.
Hartosh Bal Singh, political editor of Caravan magazine, argues Modi’s record, in 2002 and subsequently, boosted his appeal to a large rightwing Hindu constituency who “are not unsympathetic to the view that [Hindu] culture has not received its due and that here is a man who can stand up for Hindus and assert that they can and will rule in their country”. If Modi largely escaped judicial censure, at least one close aide was convicted of having a role in the violence, and some campaign rhetoric fuelled fears that India’s likely new leader might either be prejudiced himself or happy to exploit the prejudices of others.
But there are many other factors that have contributed to Modi’s victory. There is the unprecedented organisation and technical proficiency of his campaign. There is the support of the RSS, which has mobilised its millions of members to canvass as for no other candidate. There is massive funding too, which opponents say is coming from businesspeople who are close to Modi or the BJP. And there is his opposition – a Congress party that is tired after 10 years in office, tarred by successive corruption scandals and faltering growth, whose campaign has been led by the uninspiring and inexperienced Rahul Gandhi, the 43-year-old great-grandson, grandson and son of former prime ministers.
Then there is Modi himself. The 63-year-old is celibate, has no children, and is ascetic and honest. He has had no powerful relatives looking out for him.
Few Indian politicians have these characteristics and none combines them like Modi. The rapid rise of this outsider from little-known provincial politician to a prime ministerial contender who launched an unprecedented effort to win himself the highest executive office in the land has rattled the Delhi power elite. Early in this election campaign Mani Shankar Aiyar, a veteran congress politician who was educated at the Doon school, St Stephen’s college and Cambridge, derided Modi’s origins as a tea-seller, saying he should serve Indian’s favourite beverage at party meetings. Aiyar, who styles himself as something of a wit, has defined democracy in America as “the right of the lower orders to be rude to their social superiors”. It is this kind of attitude – or the paternalism of the Gandhis – that seems increasingly anachronistic in India and is one reason for the space that has opened up for Modi.
Ashok Malik, a commentator, sees this election as determined by the intersection of two major changes: the flow of rural Indians into towns and the first impacts of the world’s biggest ever youth bulge. Both factors are drastically changing the country, bringing new values, behaviours and conflicts. They are also pushing up expectations, that the outgoing Congress-led government was unable to fulfill, to stratospheric altitudes. It is unclear whether Modi will be able to do so either.
But those expectations, and the fear that they may be disappointed in coming years, is why Modi’s fusion of nationalism, apparent executive ability and culture is so powerful. Each facet promises a different resurgence: of India as a great nation on the world stage, secure at home and respected abroad; of clean and competent government providing efficient services, honest administration and jobs; and of a particular vision of authentic local identity, of what it is to be an Indian, that does not necessarily fit perfectly with the old idea of a pluralistic, secular India. And, without it needing to be said, Modi’s message also includes social mobility, and the representation in the walled and distant city of Delhi of the patriotic poor provincial nobody.
Now in power, however, he will need a new narrative. [source: TG]
Editor’s Note: Jason Burke is one of the senior journalist of The Guardian who is an expert of South Asian political factors.