Tuesday, February 24, 2015

The ‘Modi Wave’ and its Inherent Dilemma

Amitayu Sengupta

A lot is being written about BJP after the Delhi Vidhan Sabha elections. One stream of the discussions talks about the national impact of this result, the probable brakes on the ‘Modi juggernaut’, how AAP is the model for countering BJP, etc. A more interesting stream of discussion highlights the dilemma of the present BJP government that has so long been covered up by the euphoria of ‘Modi wave’.

Last time when the BJP led NDA came to power it was the result of a period of great political instability in India. The BJP had risen in prominence with the vitriolic Mandir issue and the following communal turmoil in the country. However, despite being the single largest party in 1996, the Vajpayee government had to resign within 13 days as it could not muster enough support in the Lok Sabha to form a stable government. A period of two failed United Front Governments paved way for the first BJP led NDA to power. Ironically, it lasted for only 13 months as AIADMK withdrew support, leading to another round of elections in 1999.

Finally, after three general elections over three years (1996-1999) and a lot of political mud-wrestling, the new BJP led NDA managed to garner enough numbers in the parliament to stitch together a successful coalition government. The nation was desperately seeking for political stability and BJP was seen as the TINA factor in Indian politics.

The RSS immediately took this as a mandate for its Hindutva project and along with its cohorts (Bajrang Dal, Viswa Hindu Parishad, and many more that suddenly sprung up given the favourable winds) started a period of social upheaval in the country. What really kept the NDA rolling was the economic boom that the country witnessed during this period where the upper and a sizeable section of the middle class was engrossed in their material benefits and thus remained silent to a large extent on the saffron brigade’s excesses.

Nonetheless, the first NDA had to lose power after just one term. This was because of two major factors. The RSS pushed the envelope too far resulting in the Gujarat carnage that was unpalatable for the large section of even the majority Hindu community. Secondly, the excess of neoliberalism was too hot to handle, and rising social inequalities gave rise to popular discontent that ripped apart the ‘India Shining’ campaign of the NDA.

10 years down the line, in between which it reached a political nadir, the BJP has once again managed to rise, and in greater strength than ever. The political revival of the BJP, that presently has an unprecedented mandate in the Lok Sabha, was based on the messianic rise of Narendra Damodar Modi. The Chief Minister of Gujarat who oversaw the Guajarat carnage has always been an extremely controversial figure in Indian politics over the past decade and his rise to power is perhaps the highest point of rightward shift in the Indian polity.

With the support of a powerful PR drive (funded no doubt by the large corporate lobby that saw this as an opportune time to dump the Congress and shift camps) and riding on the popular discontent over the UPA-2 government in a period of economic turmoil, the Modi mania managed to convince a huge section of Indians. His promise of achhedin and vikas rallied the nation which voted in numbers for his leadership, thereby giving BJP single largest majority in Lok Sabha.

The return of BJP to power, and that too with such majority in the Lok Sabha, was an ominous sign for all progressive and rational people in the country who remembered the excesses of the fundamentalists last time. Not surprisingly, the return of the BJP has also signaled a return of those various fundamental elements that have already started flexing their muscles across the country. The eight months following the arrival of Modi at the highest chair of power has been a period of uneasy calm, with Modi himself engaged in consolidating his dictatorial authority over the central administration while the fringe elements have been given leeway to test the waters continuously.

However, the support of Modi has two distinct sections. The first is the hardcore rightwing hindutva section, that has always been the mainstay of BJP, but which by itself cannot even today ensure a political majority for BJP. The real sizeable support comes from the upper, upper middle and middle class section that look upon Modi to revive the period of economic ‘development’ required to feed their aspirations. These aspirations rely heavily on continuing neoliberal economic policies, and this section has no qualms about it even if it ends up widening social inequalities as long as their interests are met. The success of the Modi phenomenon lies in the fact that both sections see Modi as the champion of their cause. For those seeking ‘economic development’, Modi is the charismatic CM behind Gujarat’s phenomenal development; for the hindutva brigade Modi is the pracharak who tacitly supported the Gujarat carnage.

Given the huge mandate Modi has, the expectations from him of both lobbies are sky-high. The first eight months has satisfied none, and the disappointment is being vented out in the aftermath of the Delhi elections. There are open accusations from both lobbies blaming Modi for the Delhi election defeat, but citing contradictory reasons suiting their interests. Thus, while one section accuses him of not doing enough to revive the economy while letting rogue fundamentalist elements have a free run; the other section complains that Modi has been neglecting the hindu cause, being too engrossed on economic issues, and thereby neglecting his real support base. The sudden outburst of such emotions just after a state assembly election reflect the impatience of both sections, and certainly adds to the pressure on Modi to act fast.

The real challenge for Modi is that delivering on both grounds will be quite tough for him. This is a typical problem that is faced by many who try to ride two boats at the same time.

Modi’s model of ‘development’ is nothing but blatant appeasement of corporate interests and an unflinching affiliation to the ‘trickle down’ theory. His idea of growth is quite apparent from the small but significant steps his government has taken in the form of diluting environmental norms and land acquisition norms to ‘facilitate’ corporate sector interests. Even in the recent meeting with other Chief Ministers in the Niti Ayog session, Modi has reportedly lectured them on the need for ‘growth’ to address problems of ‘poverty’ and ‘development’; arguments that are past their shelf life and already discredited globally. He fails to realize that (a) economic growth during global economic recession is not possible unless policies are taken to boost domestic consumption levels and (b) the neoclassical traits like ‘jobless growth’ and falling wage shares prevent even the limited economic growth from translating into economic development, thereby limiting the growth prospect itself. Overzealous imposition of neoliberalism will only end up worsening the woes of the marginalised section of society with very little economic wellbeing for the beneficiary class, leading to overall discontent.

On the other hand, pursuing hindutva fundamentalism in times of economic distress will only end up alienating the new found support base that helped his meteoric rise to power. The Indian polity, despite its dubious tendencies, has consistently resisted any kind of religious fundamentalism whenever such forces have tried to usurp moral hegemony in the society. It had little appetite for such obscurantism ten years ago, and has lesser patience for such things during troubled times like the present.

There are two possibilities before us in such a situation. Modi might fail to maintain the balance of assuaging both sections successfully together and soon lose some of his charismatic aura. The jumla over black money has infuriated many, and Modi can ill afford more such jumlas. Already the victory of AAP is being said to have exposed chinks in his infallibility and political oppositions are poised to exploit it to the end. The euphoria surrounding Modi might just cascade into a wave of resentment as his messianic image crumbles down while he desperately tries a balancing act.

Secondly, in his efforts to deliver on both counts, he might end up repeating the same mistake of double excesses that led to the ousting of the previous NDA. The real danger is that given the kind of mandate BJP has this time around, it is unfettered by political compulsion of coalition government (a factor that many in the erstwhile BJP lamented a lot) and the magnitude of damage it can do is alarming. Even in this quiet phase, Modi has revealed his fascist tendencies in glimpses. An overactive Modi or a cornered Modi is a danger that is the worst nightmare of all progressive people in this country.

The author is Senior Economist at Economic Research Foundation, New Delhi

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