Less than five months after a thumping victory in the Lok Sabha elections, the results of Maharashtra and Haryana assembly elections are bound to have a sobering effect on the BJP. Suhas Palshikar, political analyst and co-director, Lokniti programme, Centre for the Study of Developing Societies, in conversation with Bhavna Vij-Aurora, dissects PM Modi’s popularity, the possibility of Congress’s revival and the future of the RSS. Edited excerpts:
What do are the reasons for BJP not doing as well as expected in the states?
I think national issues like Article 370 that were raised in the state elections did not really work. It is not even about the economic downturn. It is a mandate on the performance of the state governments.
Modi’s popularity seems to be intact. Do you see any difference in him as a leader compared to his first term?
Successful leaders have the capacity to often remake—or at least repackage—themselves. Ever since Modi arrived on the national political scene, he has constantly presented himself as a true statesman and maker of ‘new’ India. History alone will rightly judge this. Contemporary assessments are bound to be contingent and mired in the present—the dreams floated, the fears associated and the possibilities missed.
Modi has probably surpassed Indira Gandhi in his ability to remain a pull factor continuously for over six years and that too despite a comparative disadvantage—he was not part of the national scene until 2013. He has expanded the base and probably also the depth of popular adulation he receives compared to when he first appeared on the scene.
But does this mean we have a different Modi now? I am afraid, in spite of the hype and popularity, the core Modi remains the same as when he led the Gujarat government—in his idea of what constitutes development, his deep commitment to a certain variant of nationalism and his very problematic relationship with the democratic process in general.
What do you attribute his popularity to? Is it nationalism, the Hindutva pitch or majoritarianism?
To the Indian society that was devoid of a strong personality at the national level for over three decades, the arrival of Modi signalled something dramatic. Democracies, by their very nature, are susceptible to plebiscitary and demagogic propensities. Particularly when you have had similar leaders at the state level without a counterpart at the national level, the traction such leadership would get is predictable. The chaotic UPA-II regime and the somewhat technocratic non-political personality of Manmohan Singh, coupled with the all-too-charismatic assault led by an outsider in the form of Kejriwal, provided a perfect backdrop for the Modi coup.
The acceptance of Modi abroad should not be confused with his charm. It is more a recognition of India’s power and markets, and Modi’s perceived ability to control democratic pressures.
Modi, however, offers a more complex phenomenon of mass leadership than mere demagoguery. He presents to the masses a combination of populism and majoritarianism. India has experienced both at state levels, but again, as an all-India project, this was something new. This becomes possible in the backdrop of economic challenges. Modi succeeds not in spite of but because of the stagnant economy. He personifies both an assurance through his populist appeal and at the same time, constitutes a way to escape—momentarily forget—those economic challenges. This is possible because of the conflation of development and nationalism, and an astute and invisible displacement of economic concerns by turning the idea of nationalism into a majoritarian cultural construct.
In Modi’s India, nationalism, Hindutva and majoritarianism are not different things—these are different names of the same project of new India that will be far removed from the original imagination of our national movement and the constitutional project.
Do you think Modi has got acceptance as a major world leader on the global stage?
The acceptance Modi receives outside India should not be confused with his personal charm. State policies are not necessarily tied to the appeals of foreign leaders. What Modi receives in international circles needs to be seen more as recognition of India’s power, its potential market and Modi’s perceived ability to domestically control the market and the tides of democratic pressures. Both international powers and businesses will surely want to push Modi into using his political capabilities for their advantage. A popular leader is required to constrain democratic pressures and give leeway to global economic players. If he does that brashly, Modi will risk his popularity, majoritarianism notwithstanding. If he does not do that, his international image, popularity and acceptability will be in jeopardy, which will also cast a shadow on his domestic popularity.
Do you think his promotion of social causes like Swachh Bharat and the plastic ban are resonating with people?
For someone aspiring to go down in history as a statesman, there is always a need to be seen as going beyond the partisan and political. Modi is aware of this and strives to present the public with ideas, symbols and programmes that should become matters of consensus. This does not happen in a manner of predetermined conspiracy; it is a natural part of shaping hegemony. Under Modi, a new hegemonic order is emerging in India—it includes some well-established elements of pre-existing consensus and many new elements which too have non-partisan acceptability.
So, programmes such as Swachh Bharat draw upon Gandhi’s legacy, the initiatives of previous national governments and an ability of the present leader to appeal to the masses. The unfortunate part about this, however, is that so far, Modi’s appeal has remained confined only to the political realm and there is not enough evidence that these much-publicised programmes have yielded significant change either in the normative approach or actual habits of citizens. This must be of deeper concern for Modi—while his political popularity is safe, his ability to turn popular imagination into something new has remained doubtful.
Where is the Congress placed in the country’s polity now? Is there any chance of a revival?
The decline of Congress has coincided with and been caused by Modi’s rise. Since 2004, Congress has had multiple opportunities to revive and redefine itself. It did so many things but only half-heartedly. Indeed, in the Modi era, it is difficult for the party because it does not have leadership with comparable political skills.
Beyond that, there is a complete ideological vacuum as to what the older ideas of Congress and India meant, how those can be made relevant today and how they can be popularised. Also, an organisational overhaul remains a pending agenda. It is more about deeper issues than merely the top—whether someone from the Gandhi family leads or someone else leads. So long as a leader does not have imagination and legitimacy, the leadership alone cannot sort out the party’s problem. Rahul Gandhi failed in deciding on both ideological and organisational issues partly because he did not come across as someone who is imbued with ideas and also because he lacked legitimacy in spite of being hailed as the leader.
Do you think the RSS too will have to reinvent itself as the Modi government is well on its way to fulfilling its agenda, with Article 370 abrogated, triple talaq crimininalised, etc?
As the RSS nears its centenary, its leadership might be happy that it is finally on the path of success. More than the instances you mention, the success is in terms of changing the national discourse and gaining acceptability for some elements of their ideological beliefs. As for its reinvention, one must remember that RSS already did that once, during the 70s when it became political and less orthodox. Before it further reinvents itself, it will face a major challenge: to redefine its relationship with the government. With the help of BJP governments, RSS has successfully penetrated many parts of the Indian state over the past five years. Nevertheless, under the Modi-Shah dispensation, there is always a possible tension between the party and government on the one hand and the RSS on the other.
Within the RSS, too, there would be groups with different ambitions. But supposing that the de facto Hindu state shapes over the next few years, the RSS might deepen the idea of a Hindu nation further because Indian society still contains possibilities of a more tolerant and democratic coexistence. Much depends on which socio-political forces take the initiative to enrich that potential or weaken it. That is why the critical arena of contestation in coming years is not just the political but the cultural arena.