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Narendra Modi Is a Dangerous Cliche

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg View columnist. His books include “From the Ruins of Empire: The Intellectuals Who Remade Asia,” “Temptations of the West: How to Be Modern in India, Pakistan, Tibet and Beyond” and “An End to Suffering: The Buddha in the World.”
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In 2005, Narendra Modi, then the chief minister of the Indian state of Gujarat, was prevented by a State Department visa ban from attending a rally at Madison Square Garden. On Sunday night, Modi finally made it there with a Bollywood-style extravaganza. All had been apparently forgiven as he stood against flickering videos of Indian robots and mansions and reminded his audience in Hindi of his humble origins as a "tea vendor." Here was a "small man," who can "do big things," nevertheless, such as building houses for all Indians by 2022, and restore a sense of self-esteem among Indian-Americans battered by years of shameful identification with a country known for "snake charmers."

His audience -- more than 18,000 Indian-Americans, according to a controversial blog in the Economist, and "as prosperous and upstanding a diaspora as you will find from the Redwood forests to the Gulf Stream waters" -- shouted "Modi, Modi, Modi" while "wearing T-Shirts bearing his face."

Some of them also abused and heckled a famous Indian television anchor, who had extensively covered the 2002 killings of Muslims in Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister. He was reduced to pushing and shoving his affluent tormentors and shouting that wealth does not bring class.

Modi's admirers have subsequently censured the Economist for denouncing their beloved leader as a "pain in the ass" (the magazine had actually referenced a widespread disdain in New York for traffic-stopping dignitaries), and his supporters as victims of "obedient hysteria." One of Modi's biggest fans in the Indian media, the former editor of a now-defunct Indian magazine called Gentleman, went as far as to denounce the article as "racist."

To an outsider, the gap between the apparent silliness of the event -- with its dancing girls and its caricature artist live-painting on stage -- and the crimes of which Modi has been accused must seem vast. It is hard to think of another world leader who might think this was an appropriate response to a visa ban. But to dismiss Modi's stage show as just tasteless misses the point.

Not for him the barely audible speeches of his Oxford-educated predecessor; he brought a Bollywood fantasy to Madison Square Garden because that's what his admirers have voted for.

It actually reminded me of "Raju Ban Gaya Gentleman (Raju Becomes a Gentleman)," one of many Bollywood films to assert that rising Indians can conquer the world in their own style.

In one of these movies, a song mocking the anglicized Indian -- that in rough translation goes something like this: "I have become a gentleman, and started to strut, look at my suit and boot, like a white man from London" -- stresses that the small Indian who starts to do big things does not have to renounce his origins or follow the rules of the game set by already rich and powerful foreigners. Rather, the latter have to acknowledge his particular identity, dignity and integrity.

One of Modi's political feats is to have tapped into the complex insecurities of rising Indians with his potpourri of fantasies tinged with defiant, if under-educated, Hindu nationalism. Thus, climate change, on which India rejects all compromise, can be tackled with the help of yoga, as he put it in his speech at the United Nations, and India, which was a "golden bird" before being enslaved for a thousand years by foreigners (read Muslims and the British), will regain its glory with "make in India" manufacturing.

As the obediently hysterical crowd in New York showed, his most devoted constituency is not so much the lower-middle-class Indians waiting impatiently for jobs in manufacturing -- 1 million enter the workforce every month -- as many Indians who have partially fulfilled the American dream.

Having escaped the humiliation of poverty and austerity (which they tend to blame on snooty dynasts of the Congress Party), they bump up against the glass ceilings of the white man's world, and seem to be seeking dignity and status on their own terms -- what the TV anchor imprecisely called "class." It is a condition sympathetically evoked in Jhumpa Lahiri's fiction.

The problem is that many in the country they do not live in can only suffer greatly from the extravagant schemes of self-proclaimed small men. Among many others in the last century, the provincial from Hunan, also known as Mao Zedong, sold himself as the creator of a new utopia for people cruelly excluded from the world's great banquet of wealth and power.

But such ostentatious plans as the Great Leap Forward were doomed to fail; scapegoats were soon sought among intellectuals, artists and other traitors.

It is not too early to worry about the pernicious fall-out from the ambition to turn India into a golden bird in double-quick time. For Modi's plan to redeem India's thousand years of slavery through labor-intensive manufacturing may be about as realizable in these days of increasing automation as Mao Zedong's project of overtaking America's industrial production by making steel in backyard furnaces.

Scapegoats are already being sought in India just three months after Modi's ascent. A member of Modi's own coalition protested last week that while "discrimination and the distrust of the Muslim were covert" in the past, "now the gloves are off and the hatred is in-your-face."

Real or perceived critics of Modi in the media are under sustained assault from his devotees. Their sheer preponderance and rowdiness elicited a memorable editorial emendation: "The Economist does not consider Mr. Modi to be a pain in the ass."

The corrosive irony hints that strong-arm tactics can alienate even those inclined to give Modi's economic policies a chance. The Economist may have seemed racist to some by recording the gap between the fantastical quality of Modi's promises, which included an Orientalist reference to snake charmers, the obedient hysteria of his supporters, and the seriousness of his tasks. But anyone with a sense of history can only be wary of the blind worship of raw power.

"You are a cliche, Modi," John Oliver charged on his Sunday night show as he replayed a clip of the Indian prime minister intoning to a baffled New York audience, "May the Force be with you." The powerful Indian leader may actually be the most dangerous of cliches, since the force unleashed by him can swiftly turn malevolent.

India desperately needs a vision other than that of the vain small man trying to impress the big men with his self-improvised rules of the game.

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:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net