Narendra Modi’s dilemma: Mounting forward-looking ambitions on a backward support base

Most political battles in the public space in India are fought on ideological principles but there are few matters which are as nebulous — in terms of their actual importance to political action — as ideology is in India. The term ‘ideology’ in the Marxist sense is ‘false consciousness’ — false ideas which help to legitimise a dominant political power. As an illustration, ‘ideal womanhood’ is an ideological construct defined by a dominant group which wishes to hide the fact of the ‘ideal’ fulfilling a political function; an ideal woman in most conservative societies would thus be someone submitting to patriarchy. But ideology is commonly used in other senses which include ‘action-oriented set of beliefs’ and ‘identity thinking’.

No political party would evidently admit to propagating ‘false ideas’ and we therefore need to look at the other meanings to arrive at some understanding of how ‘ideology’ functions. If we were to associate political parties in India with the latter two definitions it would seem that only to the regional parties is ideology an ‘action-oriented set of beliefs’. The BSP is a platform for Dalits, and Dalit issues are at the forefront of its political programmes. The DMK and the AIADMK (not ideologically distinguishable) depend on language and cultural issues for their sustenance and issues like Jallikattu make them visible. The MIM is a party dedicated to the Muslim community and its well-being. It is only when we come to the national parties (Congress, CPM and the BJP) or those with national ambitions like the TMC that we find the issue of ideology difficult to associate with any action plan. Since none of them stand out in their economic agendas and all profess laissez-faire economic policies married to some form of populism, we could propose their ideologies revolve around ‘identity thinking’; to rephrase this, ideology is like a banner under which to stitch together a support base. This becomes especially clearer when we study Narendra Modi’s acts as Prime Minister in relation to the BJP’s ideology.

Narendra Modi. Reuters/File Photo

Narendra Modi. Reuters/File Photo

Where the BJP’s prior campaigns had been true to the party’s ideology (advocating a Hindu nation), its 2014 campaign emphasised an agenda of ‘development’. It is not pertinent here that ‘development’ was also rhetoric but only that the rhetoric departed from what it had been earlier.  ‘Hindu nation’ rhetoric may win strong adherents but not enough of them to win a majority, it would seem. A ‘Hindu nation’ does not also suggest an egalitarian one to many from the religion — like Dalits — who have suffered on account of its practices, and Modi’s 2014 campaign must have won over many not naturally drawn to the platform; there is no other explanation for its unexpected success.


When a cabinet needed to be sworn in Narendra Modi restricted its size and kept most party stalwarts out of it. One could suggest that candidates were chosen for their likely application to their administrative tasks; when Smriti Irani voiced shrill opinions on Twitter she was replaced in the HRD ministry. People like LK Advani and Murali Manohar Joshi may be considered more ‘secular’ by liberals today but they participated in the Babri Masjid demolition and they have since had to face court proceedings. One might judge from the evidence that Modi does not trust most party leaders to implement his developmental agenda because of their commitment mainly to the Hindutva plank; his choice of people with no constituencies for cabinet posts substantiates this. Within the present set-up he has tried to simulate a presidential form of government; those entrusted with responsibilities are those likely to deliver.

The BJP may describe itself as for ‘Hindus’ but it is a well-known fact that its support base was largely composed of the merchant class, and its agenda in the past (like its ‘swadeshi’ emphasis) was driven by it. Narendra Modi’s two most dramatic acts since he assumed power — demonetisation and the speed/haste with which GST was implemented — have both hit this constituency hardest and one cannot be certain that it is strongly with him any longer. Both decisions were implemented with lax planning but if one were to ascribe a motive to their haste/suddenness, one might say that it was with the expectation that things would eventually settle down, if after some tweaking towards rationalisation, since ‘perfect planning’ is impossible in India. While it may be too early to make predictions, if one were to rely on surveys, there does not seem to be any great erosion in his popularity on account of these doings.

Neither of these decisions has gone down well with the liberal intelligentsia but pundits have not explained what Modi’s motives might have been — if they were problematic. Most intellectuals continue to associate both doings with Hindutva politics (and the harassment of opponents), though feebly. Former finance ministers and RBI governors have not done better since they focus only on the economic side. But if one were to look only at the gains from the moves, GST will improve tax collection in the long run and make tax fraud less easy. Demonetisation has apparently yielded information about sources of illicit cash generation for future action. Black money may be mainly held as real estate and merchandise but subverting the ends of state action through bribery needs cash. In effect, therefore, both moves may be interpreted as efforts to strengthen the state machinery, guard against its future subversion. The consequent economic downturn may be very real but there are few indications that the economy is on shaky ground; the government has money in its coffers. State BJP campaigns at election time promised farm loan write-offs but the centre refused to bear the cost. Containing budgetary deficits appears to be of much more primary importance.

Corruption may be a smaller issue than ideology to members of the left intelligentsia but it subverts the ends of state action. Moves like NREGA look good but if leakages are not plugged they do not yield the anticipated results. Good people in popular films are inevitably those who look good but social welfare schemes cannot be judged thus; their effects should be assessable. As far as Modi’s populist gestures are concerned, cooking gas delivery and rural electrification are more measurable in their successes than cash transfers, more favoured by the UPA. It is easier to monitor the flow of funds when the effects are measurable. Schemes announce ideology while making governmental action effective is the task of the administration; Modi seems more attached to administration/governance than to ideology.

Narendra Modi, it may be admitted, is bossy in his ways and will not endure opposition but by all evidence he seems committed to modernity, perhaps secretly modelling himself after another authoritarian leader, Mustafa Kemal Pasha who made Turkey modern and westernised.  Kemal Pasha’s decisions — he lifted a ban on alcohol, adopted the Gregorian calendar in place of the Islamic one, made Sunday a day of rest instead of Friday, changed the Turkish alphabet from Arabic letters to Roman ones, mandated that the call to prayer be in Turkish rather than Arabic and even forbade the wearing of fez hats — were far-reaching, and traditional Turkish society must also have suffered from them. But Modi is dealing with Indian society, which is larger, more complex and more inequitable. But more importantly, the modernist Modi is shackled to a pre-modern ideology, as Kemal Pasha was not.

If one studies the two competing ideologies at the national level — Hindutva and secularism — there is little doubt that the latter looks better. But when it comes to where the ideologies lead in terms of political action one finds things very different. Hindutva led to the Babri Masjid demolition, rath yatras, riots and bloodshed while secularism led to the enactment of a retrograde law by the Rajiv Gandhi government after the Shah Bano case. Suave secular leaders initiated violence against a Muslim intellectual who disagreed with the banning of Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, though he was deeply critical of the book personally; being severely thrashed was the price of being liberal, it was declared. The secularists seem to have allowed illegal immigration from Bangladesh, enough to alter the demography of the North-East. It would also seem to imply to India’s secular political parties that the minority religions must be represented by their most regressive voices, which must also be allowed to gain political control over their communities unhindered. Where the secularists and Hindutva forces are in agreement is that only the most retrograde voices should speak for and represent their respective religions.


The two great divisions in the Indian polity owe to caste and religion but where caste is ancient and one sees justification in political parties catering to caste identity, the religious divide is arguably the creation of politics. The Hindutva right and the secular left are actually reliant on each other for provocations to galvanize their own respective constituencies. As an illustration, the wily Karnataka chief minister Siddaramaiah hit upon a Tipu Jayanti celebration to commemorate the ‘patriot’ Tipu Sultan’s birthday and this is staunchly opposed by the Hindutva forces on the grounds that Tipu was ‘anti-Hindu’. But if one looks closely at history, one finds that while Tipu converted Hindus forcibly to Islam in Malabar, he also restored the Sringeri temple after it was sacked by the Hindu Marathas. Some of his ministers were Brahmin and the Ranganathaswamy temple still stands at Srirangapatna. Tipu’s moves were arguably dictated by political strategy rather than patriotism, secular concerns or religious bigotry. Religious identity matters much more today and Indian nationalism and secularism were later day inventions. But I propose that regardless of how the Tipu Jayanti celebrations are visibly responded to, they serve the interests of both the ‘secularists’ and the Hindutva right, in that they polarize the public.

Religious polarisation has been the game played by most political parties at the national level and I have tried to show that Narendra Modi’s success owes to his not having played the same game. It may have helped him as chief minister in Gujarat but he seems to have quickly caught on that it cannot get him far enough in his ultimate ambitions. In fact all his pronouncements after he became prime minister have downplayed the Hindutva agenda. The only initiative of his which would also meet with Hindutva approval is his opposition to the triple talaaq, which no progressive political party could object to. But as he moves closer to the end of his first term the contradictions under which he is labouring are becoming sharper.

Narendra Modi evidently wants a strong, modern India because only leading such a nation will give him the global stature he craves for. Unfortunately, his success has also made Hindutva stronger, a group with no appetite for progress and clinging to age old practices and sentiments, adherence to which will drag him downward. His support base is backward but he must mount his forward-looking ambitions on them. The strengthening of the cow-protection groups is evidence of the likely disaster confronting Narendra Modi since they continually disregard his pleas. There are cow vigilantes and anthem vigilantes afoot but Modi making garbage clearance a patriotic task has not seen the emergence of garbage vigilantes.

The cow economy is important to India and if all cattle slaughter is successfully stopped it might become unviable to own cows, the leather industry might die out and milk prohibitively expensive. The streets would be teeming with abandoned cows competing with humans. But this is not the only impending disaster; enforcing drinking bans in Goa might hurt its tourism industry. Then there is also the rise of a political rival in Uttar Pradesh — Yogi Adityanath with his protectiveness of cows, eagerness for temples and ambivalence over the Taj Mahal, as backward-looking a leader as one might find but still icon for a campaign in Kerala, the most progressive of Indian states. It is apparent that Narendra Modi’s most threatening future enemies are now all in his own camp.

MK Raghavendra is a film scholar and author of seven books including The Oxford India Short Introduction to Bollywood (2016). He is deeply interested in social, political and cultural issues in India, an interest that informs his books on film. 


Published Date: Oct 29, 2017 01:55 pm | Updated Date: Oct 29, 2017 01:55 pm


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