Narendra Modi's rule has been bad for India, says Shashi Tharoor; personality cult 'Moditva' scores over Hindutva

Shashi Tharoor has emerged as not only one of our most eloquent parliamentarians but also an erudite author who has written a series of well researched and insightful books. His latest Paradoxical Prime Minister provides insight into the enigmatic personality of our present Prime Minister Narendra Modi and just what makes him tick.

In an interview, the Congress leader said that Modi's rule has been bad for India. "...his inability to rise above his narrow-minded, mean-spirited, sectarian political origins to the levels of statesmanship and good governance that a country like India needs, that many hoped he could deliver and that he himself frequently had promised."

Edited excerpts follow

You have named your book Paradoxical Prime Minister. Why have you chosen this title? Would a variation of The Picture of Dorian Gray by Oscar Wilde been a more appropriate title! (Of course, Wilde’s protagonist was a much younger hero). Jokes apart, what are some of the paradoxes that you have found in Modi’s personality?

In 2014, when Prime Minister Modi had just been voted into a power, his liberal, inclusive and conciliatory pronouncements – sab ka saath sab ka vikas, for instance, and his promises to be a prime minister for all Indians – had prompted hope that we were possibly looking at a “Narendra Modi 2.0”: one who had moved away from his controversial role in the riots of 2002 and seemed ready to replace the incendiary identity politics of Hindutva with a politics of performance. In raising this possibility I also publicly pointed out that it was too soon to decide whether this was indeed the case. Within weeks my disenchantment set in, and within six months I had written of the central Modi paradox – making liberal statements while depending for political support on the most illiberal elements of Indian society.

Shashi Tharoor and Narendra Modi. Agencies.

Shashi Tharoor and Narendra Modi. Agencies.

I was initially prepared to give him – and those who had voted for him – the benefit of the doubt, and I felt that if he lived up to his statements made during the election campaign and immediately after his victory, it could have benefited the nation. Unfortunately, the statements and promises turned out to be hollow and the book reflects my disenchantment with the gap between rhetoric and reality.

In The Paradoxical Prime Minister, I judge Modi by the yardsticks that he had himself laid out by making such statements and claims. As he nears the end of his term as prime minister, the country is reeling on several fronts -- a fearful populace, an economy that has been hobbled by his foolhardy initiatives, a painful lack of jobs, a devastating number of farmer suicides, insecure borders, instability in Kashmir and the palpable failure in implementation of even laudable initiatives like  Swachh BharatSkill India and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.

In short, Modi’s rule has been bad for India, and it all rises from the Modi paradox — his inability to rise above his narrow-minded, mean-spirited, sectarian political origins to the levels of statesmanship and good governance that a country like India needs, that many hoped he could deliver and that he himself frequently had promised.

I don’t think The Picture of Dorian Gray is an appropriate analogy. That was about a man who remains youthful and clean-visaged while a picture of him in the attic ages, reflecting his dissolution. Modi’s cynicism and insincerity are sadly not hidden in an attic. They are visible for all to see – as my book demonstrates.

You have given a very balanced portrayal of his personal life including a gem provided by his personal tailor Bipin Chauhan that the three things Modi is not willing to compromise on are 'his voice, eyes and clothes' as told by Modi to his tailor.

There are others as well, including accounts of Modi provided by close family members and early RSS colleagues. Part of the reason why I have included incidents and anecdotes from his personal life is that the prime minister is still seen in some quarters as an enigma—particularly with regard to his personal life and to a certain extent discussing, if not unravelling, some of these mysteries add colour to the narrative. But I have tried to be objective: His rise from very modest origins is admirable. I also defend his habits of personal grooming and his giving away his salary to charity. I have also praised the energy with which Modi jet-sets around the world. But at the same time, I have questioned the results of all of his personal qualities: how have they benefited the nation?

I have also consistently (even in my criticism of Modi) tried to maintain a fairly reasoned and substantiated argument because I do understand that there may be an assumption that given that I am an Opposition MP I can only be critical. At the same time, however, I do have my own credibility as an analyst and writer to protect, and what my book seeks to do is to make a fair-minded and rational argument—I have actually laid out the yardsticks in terms of very specific things that he said he would do and he has not done. And I have gone through it in some detail with the wealth of evidence, research, facts and figures, anecdotes and footnotes.

Your book also highlights Modi’s ability to work hard, a quality imbibed from his father, though you have also quoted Ashish Nandy whose analysis of Modi based on a long interview prior to his becoming prime minister said he possessed a mix of puritanical rigidity, a narrowing of emotional life apart from possessing several obsessive personality traits.

A quintessential paradox! On one hand, even critics of Modi have begrudgingly accepted that he is a workaholic with an ability to work harder than most of his compatriots. At the same time, this stands in stark contrast to his taste in personal luxury, with Mont Blanc pens, Bulgari designer glasses, Movado luxury watches and expensive jackets. While none of these are ‘sins’, as I point out, there are other traits – lack of emotional attachments, a streak of intolerance, narcissistic personality, assertive masculinity, controlling behaviour, and so on, which are reflective of how Modi meets many of the criteria that psychiatrists, psycho-analysts and psychologists have set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He has most of the same mix of elements that Nandy describes -- all set within the matrix of some paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I lay them out for readers to see, without drawing any conclusion.

Your book mentions how during his campaign to power he portrayed himself as adhering to an inclusive philosophy but once he came to power he was seen to rely for support on communal right-wingers. But can’t we say that even about LK Advani whose Rath Yatra in 1990 saw the resurgence of a brand of militant Right-wing communal politics which continues to dominate our political scenario.

I do blame those leaders, especially Advani, for creating the environment that led to the destruction of the masjid, but they claim that was an unintended consequence of the movement. We know for a fact that both Advani and Vajpayee have publicly expressed their regret at the events that led up to the demolition of the Babri Masjid. Advani said he would have respectfully wanted to relocate the site and Vajpayee had also hinted at all sorts of compromises provided the Ram Temple could also be built, it could even be a joint wall between a mosque and a temple. Who knows what Vajpayee would have wanted? He is not here to tell us. But no, neither of them ever spoke in terms of demolishing the mosque and when it happened they both condemned it.

I have openly remarked that most good Hindus I know would want a Ram Temple at the place where they believe he was born. But most good Hindus would not have wanted it by an act of violence and barbarism, demolishing somebody else’s place of worship. And this is more or less what Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani also said.

The fact is that Modi is a product of the RSS as in fact is Amit Shah. But your book goes on to state how Moditva is much more than Hindutva doctrine. Is Moditva’s allegiance just cosmetic or is it integral to his personality/doctrine?

He spent a lifetime in the RSS and has certainly been groomed in its beliefs. There is no question that he does share the Hindutva mindset and worldview. But there is more to him than Hindutva – a sort of personal aggrandisement, complete with a Modi personality cult featuring assiduous image-projection from Bal Narendra comic books to holograms, that makes “Moditva” more than just Hindutva.

You have described Modi’s relationship with the RSS as akin to a scorpion sitting on a Shivling. Neither can they touch him with their hand nor can he be hit with a chappal. But isn’t that comparison a little far-fetched because the RSS has been getting their way in practically every field ever since Modi came to power? What are your views on this?

Again, to clarify yet again, the comparison is not of my own making. When I had brought it up, I had also clearly mentioned that I was, in fact, quoting what an unnamed RSS source had described to Vinod K Jose of The Caravan in an article published in 2012. The metaphor makes it clear that there is a certain element of frustration that the RSS has when it comes to dealing with the outsized cult of personality that surrounds Modi. Part of this frustration may also be a consequence of the differences between the doctrine of Modi, or Moditva, and the core principles of the Sangh Parivar. To take one example, Moditva has little patience for the economic autarchy traditionally espoused by RSS frontal organisations like the Swadeshi Jagran Manch. It seeks a globalised nation, deriving investment and profit from association with the wider world and allied with corporate interests within who share the same worldview. It derives legitimacy from evoking the glories of the past, but it seeks to update them with an eye on the future, reconciling Hindu temples with high-tech, marrying the ancient to the modern, and capturing futuristic technologies to serve its national mission. I say at one point that Moditva likes to project the image of a leader who can click a mouse with one hand while brandishing a trishul in the other! The RSS is unlikely to be comfortable with all that. Nor can they be happy with Modi’s abandonment of the self-effacing style the RSS requires you to cultivate. But they can neither remove nor attack Modi without threatening the basic Hindutva project.

As a follow-up, how does the RSS view the Shah-Modi duo?

You will have to ask the RSS! It seems clear that they work very closely together and it is striking that the BJP cabinet ministers troop regularly to Nagpur like schoolchildren to get their report card from the headmaster. I think this offers a very interesting clue to the relationship shared between the RSS and the Modi-Shah duo. The latter know that they depend on the former for ideological authority and organisational strength: the BJP cadres are really largely RSS cadres. Yet the scorpion metaphor is also reflective of a certain frustration some in the RSS seem to have with the duo, arising from their inability to control them fully.

You state that Modi is so steeped in the RSS ideology, that he does not hesitate to send his ministers on periodic visits to Nagpur to the RSS top brass to have their report cards checked by them.

I believe this is a reflection of a complex modus vivendi that Modi shares with the RSS. On one hand, he has abandoned the personal restraint they would have expected from him when he was made prime minister and has an outsized personal ego that they struggle to reconcile with. At the same time, by initiating a practice of annual visits by his cabinet to Nagpur, where they report on their progress to senior swayamsevaks, he has also made an outward show of institutional supplication to the RSS.

Your book mentions how your own disenchantment with Modi as prime minister set in within weeks of his become prime minister. Your book mentions the killing of a Muslim techie in Pune as being the first in a successive series of knocks that our society has received since his coming to power. We are witness to cow vigilante squads and much worse. Why is that the Opposition has failed to nail this government down on his multiple failures?

I don’t think that is a fair assessment of the performance of the Opposition in these last four years. On the contrary, I believe that we have actually succeeded in raising the consciousness of the nation (whether in Parliament or elsewhere) when it comes to the mistakes of the ruling dispensation as well as the dangers it poses by providing a free rein to incendiary communal elements in the country. From the Ramzadein-Haramzadein controvery, mob-lynchings, demonetisation and the botched implementation of GST to the Vyapam and Rafale scams, the Opposition’s criticism of the present government has covered a vast spectrum of topics -- foreign policy, economy and socio-cultural aspects -- and I think we have done a convincing job of highlighting the perils of giving the ruling party a second chance, in the upcoming General Elections.

The fact is that so far the Opposition has not succeeded in combating this powerful RSS-BJP electoral machine. Why is that?

I think that the performance of the Opposition in state elections will tell you a different story. We have already seen the defeat of the RSS-BJP electoral machine in Karnataka and the results in Gujarat, though far from perfect, reflect a serious crisis of credibility in the ruling dispensation. I am also confident that the Opposition is likely to come back to power in Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and offer a stiff contest in Chattisgarh. All of this has been possible because we have regained the trust of the people by offering a credible alternative to the polarising autocratic rule of the present ruling dispensation.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Agency

Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Agency

You have paid special attention to Modi’s economic policies and how demonetisation followed by a faulty implementation of GST have been disasters. In fact your book has analysed his policies both in the domestic front and in foreign affairs you have written about how despite all his travelling and leader hugging, India’s relations have nosedived with practically all our neighbours. Why is that?

The book is meant to be a substantive and substantiated takedown of four years of Modi rule and everything that has happened in that time. Therefore, in order to put forward the most comprehensive argument possible, it was important to touch on all aspects of the Modi government and not just repeat the ideological differences that one might have with the ruling dispensation.

On the issue of foreign policy, I acknowledge that Modi has brought a significant new energy into India’s foreign policy, with his frequent trips to various countries across the world -- in his four years as prime minister, he has spent the equivalent of at least a year in other countries. On some specific policies, I have also applauded him -- I’ve acknowledged, for instance, that the International Yoga Day was a very clever exercise of soft power. But what has been the product of these visits? It would have been another matter if his extensive travels, the most by any Indian prime minister in history, had actually done the country much good. Sadly they have not. Our relationship with Pakistan is rocky, China is pushing us around, ties with the US are at a low ebb, Nepal mistrusts us and is moving towards China, the Maldives refuses new visas to Indians, and so on.

Why did this happen? In a nutshell (and my book delves into this in more detail), during these years, while India had a prime minister who served as an energetic salesman abroad for the Government of India, it was also clear that his own credibility was increasingly under question. After all, how long can a salesman impress by the sheer force of his oratory and cleverly designed international photo-ops if the package he is selling is empty? Foreign policy was conducted episodically rather than coherently; there was a sense of rushing from speech to photo-op without either vision or sustained follow-up. Moreover, worryingly there was inevitably a justifiable fear among many of us that these visits are merely ‘feel good’ trips that mask growing troubles elsewhere and the serious lack of a cohesive foreign policy blueprint for the country.

For me, the biggest paradox is how that the Indian voter continues to bestow trust in him. You make allusions to our being a parliamentary and not presidential form of elections and therefore pitting Rahul Gandhi against him is not okay but when will this hit home with the public?

I do believe that the Indian voter—crippled by the twin disasters of demonestisation and GST, the lack of jobs, a weak rupee and fuel prices at an all-time high—is waking up to the realisation that the last four years have been the playground for jumlas or false promises and the mandate offered to the present government in 2014 has been wasted. After all, why would a young man who voted for the BJP in 2014 believing that Modiji would get him a job, vote for Modiji again when he still has no job? As I have pointed out, the performances of the Opposition in recent by-elections and state elections have shown that there is certainly a groundswell that is developing against the current ruling dispensation. This is also reflected in the recent Lokniti-CSDS survey that predicts a loss of over 100 seats for the BJP in the 2019 General Elections. This realisation has permeated into the national consciousness in large part due to a united and spirited Opposition, one that is holding the government to serious standards of accountability for its failures.

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Updated Date: Nov 15, 2018 07:40:16 IST

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