I spent most of February in New Delhi, working in the archives, but also meeting friends old and new on the side. Naturally, much of the talk centred on the forthcoming general elections. Writers and activists I know — and sometimes admire — were nervous that the victory of a Narendra Modi-led coalition would lead to a period of authoritarian and even fascist rule in the country. They spoke of a return to the days of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency, when the press was censored, Opposition politicians were in jail, and there was an atmosphere of fear all around. Some worried about the persecution or harassment of the minorities; others about the possibility of an adventurist foreign policy that could escalate tensions with China and Pakistan.
These fears are not entirely invalid. In his ongoing campaign tour, Narendra Modi has regularly made nasty personal remarks about his political rivals. He is also extremely intolerant of dissent, as witness the intimidation of artists and writers in his home state, Gujarat.
His more alarmist critics speak of Modi as an Indian Hitler or Mussolini. In fact, a politician the Gujarat chief minister resembles more, at least in his personal style, is the late Hugo Chavez. To be sure, their political ideologies and economic models are at variance. Even so, Modi is akin to Chavez in presenting himself as a lone outsider taking on the Establishment, in his fusion of his State with his self, and in the demonization of his opponents.
The distinguished historian of Latin America, Enrique Kreuze, writes that during his many visits to Caracas “nothing saddened me more than witnessing the hatred Chavez hurled against his political opponents. That hatred was ubiquitous: It abounded in banners and billboards, in his stem-winding speeches and the rancid declarations of spokesmen on television. His regime used social media to spread conspiratorial theories and prejudices.”
Those who have visited Gujarat during Modi’s tenure, or who have studied his speeches and observed his social media propagandists at work since he declared his prime ministerial ambitions, will feel a sharp chill of recognition.
There is a vigorous debate on the achievements and failures of the so-called ‘Gujarat model’ of economic development. I am not an economist, but, speaking as a biographer, what strikes me is how the chief minister of Gujarat takes all credit for the successes (real or imagined) of his state. Listening to Modi speak, one is struck by how first person pronouns predominate — variants of I, me, myself, mine. None of his ministers, still less any official of the state government, is ever named or praised. Modi can even speak at length about Gujarat’s excellent record of milk production without once mentioning Tribhuvandas Patel or Verghese Kurien.
As a leader of both party and government, Modi’s tendency is to centralize and self-aggrandize. These traits are not entirely becoming in a prospective prime minister of a large and diverse country. Then there is the question of his ideology, which is somewhat at odds with the Indian Constitution. For he is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which has not yet disavowed or abandoned its desire to construct a Hindu theocratic state.
In the 1990s, the term ‘Hindu nationalist’ came into currency to describe the ideology of the Bharatiya Janata Party and the RSS. From the perspective of the Indian Constitution, however, the term is an oxymoron. Pakistan is in theory and practice an Islamic state. The United Kingdom is, formally speaking, a Christian country. But the Republic of India is not a Hindu nation. Its founders wisely — and bravely — refused to fuse faith with State.
I am myself a Hindu and a patriot. That is to say, my privatel ife bears the signs of my upbringing in a family that was reformist and heterodox, but unmistakably Hindu. And I love my country. Yet in my political beliefs and attitudes I follow Gandhi and Nehru in insisting that India is not, and will not ever be, a Hindu Pakistan.
One can be a Hindu as well as a nationalist, but to call oneself a ‘Hindu nationalist’ is, in definitional terms, to place yourself at odds with the Constitution of India. If you insist nonetheless that Hindus somehow have a prior, deeper, or more rightful place in this country, then the term I shall use to describe you is ‘Hindu chauvinist’. That chauvinism was intrinsic to Modi’s ideological and political formation. Has he, as some of his admirers now claim, now rejected it? Is he a lapsed Hindu chauvinist?
One cannot be sure. When Modi refused the skull cap at his Sadhbhavana Yatra, his body language was striking — it was as if he was repulsed by the thought of wearing a symbol of a faith he had always been taught to regard as alien and foreign. Note also that in his interview to Reuters, Modi described himself as a ‘Hindu nationalist’, which seems to suggest that he still subscribes to the RSS’s idea of a Hindu Rashtra.
Liberals and democrats are right to be worried about the personality and ideology of Narendra Modi. However, this fear of Modi has led some of them to think of the Congress, or, alternatively, of the Federal Front, as the last bulwark against fascism. To keep out the BJP, they are willing to overlook the cronyism and dynastic culture of the Congress as well as the fact that many regional leaders are extremely autocratic themselves.
Those who fear that, were he to become prime minister, Narendra Modi would inaugurate a period of ‘fascist‘ or even Emergency-like rule in India, underestimate the strength of our democratic institutions, and the robustness of our federal system. When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975, her Congress was in power in all but one state. Now, if a Modi-led BJP wins the next elections, the ruling party at the Centre will not be the ruling party in most state capitals. And even if some media houses shall obediently line up behind Modi, others will stay independent. Besides, social media will be impossible to control, or censor.
Modi’s campaign draws sustenance from two kinds of groups — a solid core of Hindutvawadis and a more amorphous grouping composed of those (rightly) disgusted with the (colossal) corruption of the ruling Congress. This latter group of supporters are often too young to remember the riot-torn decades of the 1980s and the 1990s and the perniciously divisive Ayodhya campaign. They think — or hope — that, once in power in New Delhi, Modi will tame his bullying, bigoted side and instead showcase his developmental ambitions.
If Narendra Modi does become our next prime minister, what kind of policies shall he promote? If the RSS asks, as they surely will, for their choices in the culture and education (among other) ministries, will he acquiesce in their promotion of chauvinist propaganda?
If the goons of the Bajrang Dal and the Shiv Sena attack independent-minded writers and artists, will he act against them? When the media criticize the policies of his government, will he seek to silence them? Will he allow civil servants and public institutions independence and autonomy or will they have to toe the party line?
These are all legitimate questions, legitimate both because of Modi’s track record in Gujarat and what the National Democratic Alliance regime of 1998-2004 did, under RSS influence, the last time they were in power. But to worry about the return of the Emergency or an era of ‘fascism’ is to succumb to a premature and unfortunate alarmism. It may be that in May 2014 we shall have an arrogant and sectarian prime minister instead of the weak and incompetent prime minister we now have. But Indian democracy, not to speak of India itself, will survive.