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Charisma and politics

Modi — fulfilling India's new objectives

Charisma and politics

Narendra Damodardas Modi, 63, will be sworn in on May 26, 2014, as the 12th prime minister of the ‘world’s biggest democracy’.

The strongman from the state of Gujarat, in whom the hopes and aspirations of business magnates like the Tatas, Ambanis and Bajaj, and of middle-class Hindus have converged quite spectacularly, has laid waste to Nehruvian charisma.

Max Weber writes that charisma is the result of extraordinary gifts of body and mind in a leader that are acknowledged by others in anticipation of participating in his/her unusual and exceptional programme. The leader’s popularity and programme depart from the everyday rational and even traditional. In this way, charismatic authority becomes revolutionary. It rejects everything hitherto established and, in extreme cases, even shatters ideas of sanctity.

Here, one may assert that Nehru’s charisma outlasted him and manifested in his daughter, Indira Gandhi, and his grandson, Rajiv Gandhi. His charisma survived partly because of the laurels he won as a ‘freedom fighter’.

Nehru was romantic-westernised. He was erudite, cultured and blessed with a sense of propriety, a trait that distinguishes him from the likes of Modi.

Sadly for Congress, Nehru’s great grandson Rahul Gandhi did not prove to be a worthy bearer of the name. Nehru espoused and stood for socialist ideals, where the state’s impregnability in the realm of the economy was the starkest of its characteristics. In the post-partition period, Nehru championed the politics of inclusion, embedded in the Indian variant of secularism and, indeed, it was because of the first directive principle proposed by the Congress party that the word secular was inserted into the Indian Constitution.

Nehru tried to instill unity in diversity among the people with a level of success. The development model that he tried to pursue was based on industrialisation and massive investment in the public sector. This was despite Congress’s proximity to Birla, Dalmia and other business houses.

Here, it should be stressed that the objective conditions responsible for Nehru’s ascendancy as a charismatic figure have long since passed. Ideological politics, with focus on ameliorating the condition of peasants, is now just a flicker.

In post-cold war era, the need for a different set of political priorities can hardly be overstated. India of today represents corporate interests, and voices global ambitions. That requires a change of objectives, calling for a different sort of charisma, and our protagonist (Modi) fits into the role quite immaculately.

His emergence on the Indian political scene was made possible by the policy of economic liberalisation spawned by Rajiv Gandhi and Modi’s predecessor Manmohan Singh was its chief exponent as the finance minister, not to mention Congress’ role in encouraging Hindutva, starting with Shilanyas and placing of idols in the Babri Masjid.

Modi, despite being nurtured and trained under the wings of Rashtriya Swayem Sangh, can be designated as the political progeny of the Indian National Congress. It does not seem plausible that in the controlled economy, prior to the 1992 reforms, Modi and the ideals that he epitomises could have catapulted him to any position of political prominence. He started off as the son of a backward Teli Ghanchi (oil-presser) community and as a child helped his father selling tea at Vadnagar railway station.

He was involved with the RSS as a volunteer from the age of eight but, in 1970, he became a full-time pracharak (propagandist) and was subsequently put in charge of the RSS’s student wing Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad in his native state. His rise to prominence was gradual but steady till he achieved the coveted position of Chief Minister of Gujarat on October 7, 2001.

His idea of governance, in an absolute contrast to Nehru, revolved around privatisation and small government, which ironically stands at odds with the anti-privatisation, anti-globalisation agenda of the RSS. Thus, Modi’s projection as a spineless figurehead to be constantly stage-managed by the RSS or by Hindu fundamentalists is far too simplistic a conclusion. Being ambitious and authoritarian, Modi is likely to drift away from any ‘fundamentalist’ prescription.

Thus, unlike Nehru, Modi is an aberrant politician who may flout any law or even the constitution for political gains.

Aditya Chakrabortty, in a column in The Guardian, has compared Modi with the values laid out in the Indian constitution, that it will be a ‘Socialist, Secular, Democratic Republic’. As has been said above, Modi is no socialist.

India’s renowned intellectual Ashis Nandi, after interviewing Modi in the 1990s wrote that “I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist. I came out of the interview shaken and told his companion that, for the first time, I had met a textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer, perhaps even a future mass murderer. A few years afterwards Godhra happened, and more than a thousand Muslims were massacred.”

Same was repeated in Muzafarnager in UP where the carnage of hundreds of Muslims was carried out at the behest of Modi’s hatchet man, Amit Shah.

The charisma of authoritarian political leaders is more often than not sanctified by blood. Nehru’s ambition of coming to power was cemented after one of the biggest genocides of human history.

Modi abetted communal violence singularly directed against Muslims and other minorities to prove the extent of his power. Indeed, politics that is propelled by the lure of power leads to a charisma that has written some of the bloodiest chapters of human history: be it Hitler’s Nazi or Mussolini’s fascist dispensations, Stalin’s totalitarianism or Mao’s authoritarianism. All four of them, like Modi, rose to power with popular mandate from the lower levels of their respective societies and then brutalised them with a vengeance that history bears witness to.

I hope Modi’s charisma is not a sign of things to come.

Tahir Kamran

tahir kamran
The writer is Professor in the faculty of Liberal Arts at the Beaconhouse National University, Lahore

One comment

  • Shailesh Ratnaparkhi

    The so called intellectuals who use the term of mass murderer for Modi are the ones who never visited Gujarat after riots of 2002. All the hulla gulla about Gujarat riots was raised by the outsiders who acted and still act as self proclaimed saviours of muslims in Gujarat.

    Another point is whether the westerners derive an absolute right to evaluate Modi on the basis of human rights as defined by them. The Doctors of Human Rights have provided outstanding solutions to Iraq where the entire country as bombed merely on the suspicion of possessing chemical weapons and after messing up the situation beyond control, have coolly walked out leaving other to sort out the mess.

    They should first look in their backyard rather than preaching others about democracy and other paraphernalia.
    to those who do not really want any such advice.

    we are doing better without an in spite of their their contribution to the cause of preaching virtues to Indians. we have enough problems on this front which we will sort out. However if the intellectuals from western universities come to India and see the progress / peace in India in general, and in Gujarat, in particular, themselves, they will reach quite different conclusion. The question, are they really willing?

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