Monday, June 17, 2013

Narendra Modi's right-wing populism makes him a dangerous democrat

Indira Gandhi used a clever kind of left-wing populism in the 1971 to counter the sheer envy and anger of her opponents in Congress (O), the Swatantra Party, the socialist parties and the Bharatiya Jana Sangh. They did not like the way she outmanoeuvred her opponents in the Congress and outflanked those outside.Gujarat chief minister and the BJP's campaign committee chairman for the 2014 Lok Sabha elections seems to be playing the Indira Gandhi game of 1971 in 2013-14. Indira Gandhi then said, "They say Indira hatao. I say gharibi hatao". Modi can almost say that every one else is taking a stance against me, while I am taking a stance about the development of the country. Modi is practising right-wing populism, which is not understood much in this country because of the intolerant liberal intelligentsia, who consider their kind of populism to be be right and the right-wing populism like the one that surrounded the Ayodhya temple agitation and the one like Modi's nationalist and developmental rant. Nationalism is a lovely sentiment in the hands of sensible and decent people because such sensible and decent people know that there are other nationalisms which need to be respected. Right-wing populism easily degenerates into pathological lynch-mob xenophobia. Modi's rhetoric is always on the brink of degenerating into dangerous xenophobia. Apart from this, the other problem with Modi's democratic credentials is about his ability to accept defeat in elections gracefully. So far, Modi had won three elections in Gujarat -- 2002, 2007 and 2012. All these elections were won with him remaining in the chief minister's post. Given the peculiar political situation in Gujarat, where most of the electorate seems to be blinkered or it has been hampered in making a choice because Congress does not represent a credible alternative in the state, Modi had a good run and one gets the impression that Modi, his admirers -- they are on the verge of becoming sycophants -- and the BJP seem to believe that he is invincible. It is difficult for people who consider themselves invincible to accept defeat gracefully. So Modi and his followers will have to face this litmus test of democracy. It is true that populist leaders are intolerant and dictatorial. They believe that they derive their mandate from the masses and therefore they are not answerable to critics who are few in number and who are articulate and who do not have much following. But they could be speaking the right thing, the moral thing. This is thee inevitable tension in a democracy. If a majority of people subscribe to a demonic ideology, it does not become morally right. Indira Gandhi had committed follies on this count, but she could pull herself back. She, and even the liberal Jawaharlal Nehru did not like critics. Nehru may not have liked sycophants but he ended up by surrounding himself by them. The moment of truth came during the Chinese attack on India in October 1962, when the loyal Congress Party rose up against him. He changed. In 1969 and again in 1978 Indira Gandhi was able to fend off opposition from within the party because those who were opposing her were party hacks and not leaders of any significance. Modi has shown the required aggression to be a leader. He grabbed the numero uno position. It was not given to him gratis. He is not indebted to the party leadership for pushing him into the front rank. He is aware that the others did not stake their claim because they did not have the gumption he has. And like all leaders he is intolerant of critics and criticism. He does not even hide. He is arrogant because he knows that he is a self-made leader. He is contemptuous of the media like all true leaders because he knows that he does not owe his position and popularity to it. Jyoti Basu who ruled West Bengal for 21 years knew that it was bad manners to flaunt invincibility. He too did not care for the media. The others who did not care for the media were Indira Gandhi, M.G.Ramachandran and Atal Bihari Vajpayee. P.V.Narasimha Rao was one of the politicians who was not a leader but who had utmost contempt for the media. Unlike these leaders, he will not stomach media criticism if he has the power to shut them down. His intolerance does not end with contempt for the media. The other problem with Modi is that he never fought an election from the ground level, the way Vajpayee did, or Advani did. He is not a democrat risk-taker. He did not become Gujarat chief minister by virtue of winning an election on his own and on the basis of popularity within the party. Much like the Congress party culture of nominating chief ministers, Modi was parachuted into Gandhinagar. He won his first election as a chief minister. It is another reason that one is suspicious of his ability to accept an adverse verdict in the polls. He believes that he is the man who would be the prime minister of India. But he does not want to take the risk of resign as the chief minister of Gujarat and plunge into the parliamentary electoral fray. It is not that he is displaying the Ceasar's syndrome of denying the crown thrice though wanting it. But he does not seem to be sure that he can pull it off. He wants to retain his perch as Gujarat chief minister. The late Shiv Sena founder Bal Thackeray too never fought an election. He was a timid man who did not feel sure that he would win an election though perhaps he would have. But he did not dare. Modi fares slightly better. He fought an election as chief minister.

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