Fearful India Sees a Savior in Narendra Modi

The rise of Narendra Modi seems the most revealing symptom and effect yet of India’s fraught attempt at economic liberalization since 1991.

Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh thinks he will be a "disaster" for India. Nobel laureate Amartya Sen deplores his administration's "terrible record" against minorities -- the heavy taint of an anti-Muslim pogrom and extrajudicial killings. His authoritarian traits have divided members of his own Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party.

Nevertheless, India's biggest businessmen want Narendra Modi, the chief minister of Gujarat, to be the country's next prime minister. As I wrote in my previous column, Modi's bountiful concessions to India's corporations at a time of political dysfunction in Delhi naturally make him seem like the right man to restart India's thwarted economic modernization. Bollywood celebrities who touch his feet (literally) may be hoping to buy themselves some insurance against the storm troopers of the Hindu right, who now routinely assault any artist or entertainer they deem offensive.

But a simple quid pro quo doesn't explain the effervescent cult of Modi among upper-caste urban Hindus, including some of my own friends and relatives, or the fervor among even a section of the intelligentsia for a leader whom Ashis Nandy, one of India's most respected public intellectuals, describes as a "classic, clinical case of a fascist," with "clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits."

The great national drama of Modi's ascent is not fully captured by economic history, political science, anthropology or indeed any specialized academic discipline, let alone by a corporate-owned news media wholly mesmerized by him; it still awaits a cultural historian, who can do justice to changing sentiments and self-perceptions as well as material transformations in India in recent decades. In the meantime, the phenomenon of Modi seems the most revealing symptom and effect yet of India's fraught attempt at economic liberalization since 1991.

Uneven growth has generated both wild fantasies of a "Global Indian Takeover" (the title of a regular feature once in India's leading business daily, the Economic Times) and deep resentments. Modi has in turn emerged as their shrewdest manipulator in Indian politics. This helps explain many apparently contradictory aspects of his program and appeal.

For instance, the reflexive fear, loathing and distrust of Muslims -- the country's most impoverished and depressed minority -- among Modi's well-off Hindu supporters may seem strange. But, as the New York University anthropologist Arjun Appadurai argues, such hatred helps stave off anxieties that even many recent beneficiaries of globalization feel about "their own minority or marginality (real or imagined)" in a time of "unruly economic flows and compromised sovereignties." Beating up minorities becomes another way of creating identity and rekindling a sense of kinship.

Modi has also played the periphery-versus-center card well by speaking of Gujarati achievements that are allegedly ignored, if not mocked, by India's arrogant and upstart rulers in Delhi. In this morality play, Gujarat's son-of-the-soil brave entrepreneurs are ranged against "foreign"-seeming dynasts (read, the Italian-born leader of the Congress party, Sonia Gandhi), deracinated pseudo-secularists and deluded socialists.

Modi's party has long advocated a backward-looking program of economic self-reliance. Yet, among an aspiring class of urban Indians, many of whom revere Adolf Hitler as a terrific organizer, Modi has effectively deployed the idioms of management, national greatness and security, fusing them with emotive appeals to racial and religious community. His retrograde Hindu nationalism looks contemporary as a result, an exemplar of technocratic skill.

Most important, Modi uses the most beguiling discourse in underdeveloped countries -- that of "development." Promising bullet trains and 100 "smart cities," Modi offers to the Indian middle class, which has long suffered from Singapore-envy, its utopia of a "neat and clean" urban environment in which the poor are miraculously absent.

Modi-mania is also an epiphenomenon of India's recent political and economic crisis -- particularly, the abrupt collapse of the Global Indian Takeover project. Many of those invested in this absurd delusion have suffered both material and psychic losses. They, just as much as Indians left behind or pushed back by uneven growth, are vulnerable to demagogues promising a national regeneration.

Of course, the pied-piper's tunes of national unity and purpose, the scapegoating of minorities, and the mobilizing of malcontents have also been witnessed elsewhere -- most prominently in countries that started much later than their peers the process of building strong nation-states and then underwent disastrous setbacks and crises.

Social unrest within Germany and Japan in the late 19th and early 20th centuries also generated mass veneration for apparent strongmen, and authoritarian-minded groups tried to forge a sense of community by intensifying hostility to people perceived as aliens and outsiders.

The great poet Heinrich Heine expressed early the overpowering German longing for salvation through a robust leader:

Chase out these clowns, and close the show,
Be their critics and chastiser;
Shut down this parody of the past --
Come soon, come soon, O, Kaiser.

Something like this savior-delirium seems to have infected many urban Indians today. It is too early to say whether "salvation" by Modi will also portend a catastrophic breakdown of social order and moral restraint. But, with elections just months away, it does seem the right time to be suspicious of his formidable cheerleaders and to redouble faith in the wisdom of Indian voters, and in India's great political and social diversity.

(Pankaj Mishra is the author of "From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia" and a Bloomberg View columnist. This is the second of two parts; read the first part here.)

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the author on this story:
    Pankaj Mishra at pmishra24@bloomberg.net

    To contact the editor on this story:
    Nisid Hajari at nhajari@bloomberg.net

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