Modi's supporters abroad haven't wanted to heed his past.

Photographer: Sergey Guneev/Host Photo Agency/Ria Novosti via Getty Images

We've Seen the Real Modi

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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Eighteen months ago, Narendra Modi won a major election victory in India and appeared to many abroad as an economic modernizer and developmentalist: someone who could raise sagging growth rates and restore India’s pride. Originally built up as a national savior by some of India’s biggest corporate leaders, he generated and still enjoys enthusiastic support among the international business community. Rupert Murdoch summed up the conventional wisdom with a recent tweet: “Best leader with best policies since independence.”

QuickTake India's Aspirations

In recent weeks, a rising tide of Hindu supremacism has damaged India’s reputation globally, provoking anxiety and concern among a range of personalities and institutions from Bollywood superstar Shah Rukh Khan to India’s respected central banker Raghuram Rajan and Moody’s Analytics. The humiliating defeat on Sunday of Modi’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) in Bihar, one of India’s largest and poorest states, is a much bigger setback.

Modi tried to polarize the electorate; he accused his opponents of promoting beef eating and terrorism, and of preferring Muslims to Hindus. But voters overwhelmingly spurned his party, giving a two-thirds majority in the state parliament to a coalition between the opposition Congress and local parties led by Nitish Kumar, a former Bihar chief minister.

With the opposition now rejuvenated, Modi will now struggle even more to push his economic reforms through Indian parliament, especially its upper house, where his opponents have already stalled business-friendly legislation, including a nationwide goods and services tax.

What explains this reversal of fortunes for Modi? The businessmen and commentators who had bet on him could do worse than heed the apparent fall and rise of Nitish Kumar, Modi’s victorious opponent, who was until last year a staunch ally of the BJP.

Kumar also promised his voters rapid economic development. But the crucial difference between him and Modi is Hindu chauvinism: a hugely complicating and disruptive factor that many of Modi’s supporters abroad deliberately ignored or failed to notice.

Kumar broke his alliance with the BJP soon after Modi became its official candidate for prime minister. He claimed that Modi, accused of complicity in an anti-Muslim pogrom under his watch in 2002, was a divisive figure.

At this time of universal Modi-mania, some economic liberals attacked Kumar for his stance. He had, after all, given Bihar a glimmer of hope with his astute stewardship. Why squander it for the sake of some abstract liberal values?

They seemed to have been proved right when Kumar’s party was mauled by the BJP in the 2014 elections that brought Modi to power. In retrospect, however, Kumar made a wise move, as pragmatic as it was principled. He knew that a degree of social order and civility was a prerequisite for any kind of progress. He recognized that Modi’s declared agenda of “development for all” was subordinate to his entrenched ideological beliefs and could be quickly derailed by the latter.

Modi is a lifelong and loyal member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, a Hindu supremacist organization that is the parent body of the BJP and has been frequently involved in violence against minorities. The RSS, inspired by European fascist movements and dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has never disguised its goal of transforming India from a secular into a Hindu nation.

Its ideology and practice reveal all the fundamentals of European far-right parties and regimes, including grand myths of ancestry, and a programmatic hatred of minorities, as well as “rootless” secular and cosmopolitan people.

For decades, the ambitions of the RSS were frustrated by India’s immense cultural diversity. The runaway electoral success last year of Modi’s slogan of development opened up a new opportunity for Hindu supremacists in Indian politics and culture. They grabbed it eagerly, purging Indian institutions of higher education, reconverting Muslims and Christians, mobilizing and unifying Hindu sentiment by murderous assaults on minorities and demonizing critics and dissenters.

And they are likely to go on fueling sectarian animosities over beef eating, terrorists, liberals, Westernized women, Pakistan, the Ford Foundation -- whatever. Modi is far from realizing his promise of creating jobs for the one million people entering the workforce each month. Fresh distractions have to be created for a cheated and angry electorate.

Modi’s disappointed admirers abroad may insist yet again that he choose between Hindu nationalism and economic reforms. Unlike them, Nitish Kumar has always known that this was a false choice. For Modi chose early and decisively in his career. It seems too late for him now to sacrifice ideological fervor to economic pragmatism.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

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

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