India through the Modi prism

Mumbai: Book: Making sense of Modi’s India

Author: Various

Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers India

Pages: 499

Rs: 208

Book: Modi and the world: The ring view inside out
Author: Yamini Chowdhury and Anusuya Diya Chowdhury

Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

Rs 499

317 pages

“Heroes and hero-worship is a hard fact in India’s political life, demoralising for the devotee and dangerous to the country,” Dr Babasaheb Ambedkar had said. Like many of his prescient warnings, this too went unheard by a nation given to worshipping its ‘heroes’ in cinema, sports and politics.

Never since Indira Gandhi has a politician occupied as much mind-space and media attention as Narendra Modi. His obsessive, presidential style campaign and subsequent rise to power have led to voluminous writings, ranging from biographies to hagiographies. In this landscape come two new books, Making Sense of Modi’s India and Modi and the World: The Ring View Inside Out.

In the first book – a collection of essays – Meghnad Desai sets the pace with a shining, well-rounded exposition on the contested ideas of India and what makes India a nation. Exploring the evolution of the idea of nationhood beginning with the French revolution, Desai notes that national consciousness began to appear in the 19th century among the products of recently introduced Western education and as a reaction to colonial rule.

Pointing out that the issue with Hindu nationalism is not its “bad history”, Desai says the nub lies in its notion of two classes of citizens – Hindus as the full members of a Hindu India vs other ethnic and religious minorities. “India is a union of many nations, not one. Each region with its own language has a national identity,” writes Desai, underlining the prevalence of sub-nationalities, some of them shifting, evolving.

Unlike the European concept of nationalism, which evolved gradually after the Westphalian treaties and is broadly based on homogeneity in language and religion, India with its multitude of religions, cultures and the (unnatural) phenomenon of caste and sub-castes, cannot have one identity, history or totem foisted on it. It is in this diversity that India’s survival as a national and administrative entity lies.

In an essay, provocatively titled Who Is The Real Narendra Modi: A Communal Czar or an Inclusive Icon, senior journalist R. Jagannathan tries to dissect the persona of Modi – a telegenic, almost made for television politician. “…how he is seen by the public at large is really, really important to him,” he says and adds that Modi wants “control over his image…”

Communication theorist Marshall McLuhan has pointed to how the “medium is the message”. But Modi – who had blamed his predecessor for being “Maun Mohan Singh” – has chosen to shun open engagements with the media, preferring to communicate in a top-down manner largely through social media.

Jagannathan notes that Modi (incidentally a powerful communicator) does not want to be surprised by unexpectedly embarrassing questions and “seems to need adulation a bit more than most of us”. More importantly, he says that “Modi does not like being controlled by anybody, least of all big business”. This makes Modi his own man in a party and organisation which believes that individual selves have to be subsumed into a larger identity for the greater good. Does this incongruence carry the seeds of future divisions? Only time will tell.

Senior journalist and former prime minister Manmohan Singh’s media advisor Harish Khare had once described the Congress as a “status-quoist” party whose “only conviction is to win elections.” However, this ability has come under a cloud after the party’s 2014 Lok Sabha debacle.

In her analysis of the defeat of the Congress, political scientist Zoya Hasan points to its structural dilemmas ranging from a weak organisation to ideological stagnation. For a revival, she notes, the Congress will have to address its credibility crisis, promote state leaders and function as a vigorous opposition.

Indeed, even as unease simmers in the middle-class constituency, which served as the incremental vote for the BJP, the Congress and its scion Rahul Gandhi with his on-off style of politics, is unable to tap this sentiment.

Andrew Whitehead, former BBC correspondent in Delhi, writes on how Modi has been received in foreign capitals but also notes that there remains “an undercurrent of anxiety about the BJP’s at times stridently assertive religion-based nationalism”.

In fact, the BJP has been able to expand beyond its core constituency, especially in the upwardly mobile middle class, only by going soft on its Hindutva ideology. Rabid comments by BJP and Sangh Parivar leaders may divert media and public focus away from the government’s development agenda.

Media commentator Sevanti Ninan hits the nail on the head when she notes that expansion of advertising-supported media which shaped the economic philosophy of owners and editors, rapid growth of the Hindi media and the growing influence of the new media (which is largely driven by right-wing discourse) on the cyber-savvy middle class have contributed to create an enabling media environment for a right-wing polity.

Senior journalist Sudheendra Kulkarni, who was a close aide of BJP veteran L.K. Advani, notes that most Hindus who voted for the party did so not because they were swayed by Hindutva but because they wanted to end the “corrupt” Congress regime. They were influenced by Modi’s development and good governance promises and because the Congress’ challenger Rahul Gandhi was outflanked by the Modi juggernaut.

This underlines the need for Modi and the BJP to focus firmly on development and result-oriented politics while shutting out shrill, hardline voices.

In her view from across the border, columnist and activist Beena Sarwar sounds a note of caution for India and points to how Pakistan’s experiment of injecting religion into politics has led to disastrous consequences. She draws chilling parallels between religious extremists from both countries. Though Pandit Nehru’s admission to French writer Andre Malraux that his greatest challenge was “creating a secular state in a religious society”, remains relevant today, India’s body politic remains secular versus that of theocratic Pakistan which by its very nature and evolution remains anti-minority, anti-secular.

V. Krishna Anant’s essay on the decline of the Left is a must read. With its focus on semantics and disregard for caste realities, the mainstream Left may be on the way to political fossil status. It’s inability to come up with a rooted, organic idiom to tap the youth and balance inherent contradictions between ideology and the conduct of its practitioners has exacerbated its decline.

Anant notes the rise of a “managerial class of leftists” which replaced a generation of committed workers and says it lost an opportunity to position itself as the platform of resistance against conventional politics, a la Anna Hazare and the AAP.

The second book, Modi and the World…, which is an anthology of writings on the Modi government’s foreign policy outreach, will be useful for readers, practitioners and students of geopolitics, diplomacy and international relations. It has a foreword by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley.

Analyst-consultant David Scott writes that India can compensate for the greater size and strength of China—the proverbial elephant in the room—by “concentrating its overall aid, economic diplomacy and military efforts more regionally to South Asia and the Indo-Pacific”.

Ali Riaz, professor at the Illinois State University, notes that there are lingering concerns about India’s intentions despite its South Asia initiatives. These stem from its Big Brother approach and overreach. Riaz also stresses on the need for India to formulate a clear policy on development cooperation. Farooq Sobhan, former foreign secretary, Bangladesh, provides a vital perspective on Modi’s Bangladesh doctrine.