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Narendra Modi and the art of being a Right-wing messiah and left populist

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Modi is a unique leader who has learnt the art of combining left populism with right populism. In the process, regressive tendencies flourish.

Is Narendra Modi a leftist or a rightist? A large number of rightist intellectuals, centre-right liberals, anti-Nehruvian and anti-welfare state writers hugely supported Modi in Gujarat, and later for prime ministership, because they thought he would be Indian version of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. That he would privatise the “Navratna” public sector corporations, abolish MGNREGA and Right to Food type pro-poor initiatives, thereby unburdening the economy.

Modi had frequently ridiculed MGNREGA as a monument to the bankrupt socialist policies of the Congress. Modi’s supporters had convinced themselves that he would liberalise land and labour policies, giving freedom to business and industry to expand and make a profit. Nothing substantial has been done so far; the private sector has learnt to suffer silently.

Right-wing commentators and loud TV panellists had thought that the “povertarianism” that defined the Congress approach would be consigned to dustbin. That Sonia Gandhi’s “bleeding heart” activists in the National Advisory Council would be sent to oblivion. A new era with neo-liberal economics would dawn, and India would join the club of capitalist America and Europe. All the pro-poor rhetoric would disappear from the political discourse.

Just three months after becoming Prime Minister, Modi made the dramatic announcement of abolishing the Planning Commission, supposedly a symbol of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian vision. The burial of the commission was regarded as a proof of his rightist conviction. The very idea of the Planning Commission was always condemned, from its inception, as an institution of controls and licence-permit raj.

During the Cold War years, the Planning Commission was seen as the “Soviet model”, and the pro-American lobby in India, generally represented by the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh (which evolved into the BJP) argued that it was an anachronistic fad. So the idea of the NITI Aayog was welcomed by this political class.

But within two years, Modi changed his tune and text. He not only doubled the sum for MGNREGA, but also began to speak the language of “woolly-headed socialists”. In his speeches, he started attacking the rich and later even claimed demonetisation as “pro-poor”. Almost overnight he had an image makeover – from right-wing messiah to Robin Hood, who wanted to get black money back and distribute that wealth among the poor. But he never appointed a Lokpal to identify and punish the corrupt.

The BJP had vociferously joined the Anna Hazare bandwagon, along with the left, for appointment of the Lokpal. Now all are silent on the issue. The Anna Movement in 2011 had paralysed the Manmohan Singh government, something from which it could never recover. The image of the Congress as a corrupt party and Modi as the braveheart fighting to destroy evil had been sold effectively. But the so-called fight against black money was clearly an eyewash. Anybody could see, particularly in the election campaigns in UP and Gujarat, the way BJP was recklessly spending money to seduce voters. Obviously, it was not white money!

India’s phony and crony neo-liberals never criticised Modi for projecting himself as pro-poor and playing the same “povertarianism” game. He did not privatise any of the “Navratna” public sector corporations. Only last week, he marginally privatised Air India. He did not carry out any fundamental structural reforms in the economy, and yet the right wing maintained cunning silence. The rightists were happy singing paeans by displaying Moody’s or such certificates, though Modi in his speeches was clearly sounding like the socialist left (though there was no direct policy attack on the capitalists or rich).

The so-called secular rightists did not strongly come out against the vigilante gangs lynching and killing the Muslims for allegedly storing or eating beef or carrying cows in trucks. They also maintained a stony silence when patriotism was defined by standing for the National Anthem in cinema halls. The brazen anti-Muslim campaigns in the elections did not disturb them. The communal right had overtaken the economic right.

The BJP always had these two distinct but “dialectically integrated” right wing trends: the religious right and the free market right. Modi wants to ride both the man-eaters. He knows that the urban upper caste middle-class has acquired enough wealth as well as social clout, and would very easily support and even encourage a strident anti-Muslim campaign.

Neo-majoritarianism can bring in its fold even the middle castes, the OBCs, and a section of Dalits. The religious right propaganda can be easily mixed with populist left speeches in a deadly cocktail.

The renowned thinker and scholar Ashutosh Varshney put it succinctly and profoundly in his speech in Mumbai last week, when he observed that Modi is a unique leader who has learnt the art of combining left populism with right populism. In the process, regressive tendencies flourish and also become dangerously violent, even as the so called progressive “pro-poor” sloganeering covers the mass mind like an opiate.

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  1. Last para is classic example of the tactics used by these leftists. Ashutosh Varshney becomes renowned thinker and scholar. Now in some other article, Mr Ashutosh will praise someone Mr. X as renowned thinker and that Mr. X will then praise MR. Kumar Ketkar as renowned impartial thinker and scholar and eminent person. This cycle is an old tactic used (unfortunately successfully) by these Marxists for so many decades that there was virtually a monopoly on eminence by these guys. Alas, now people see through these games easily.

  2. Modiji should pursue what he was voted for that is making India free from shackles and manacles of overt and covert state interventionism in peoples basic economic right. Instead of putting India into debt by buying poor peoples socks, he should aggressively pursue in creation of basic infrastructures, reform education, reform the police, solidify free market and also eliminate filthy bureaucracy that undermines India’s growth. I shall vote for him one more time so that he gets majority in the upper house as well as the lower house so that he can bring upon necessary changes. If he does not do well then I will never vote again. He must not ruin this generation pursuing impractical economic policies like congress did the previous 2 generation.

  3. @Aditi Mahajan – Every word you said is true. But you left your comment without suggesting an alternative like those frustrated ranters of the Left Liberal dispensation.

    To carry on from where you’ve left and in consummation, I would mangle Sherlock Holmes’ philosophy of “Science of Deduction” coined by Arthur C Doyle that goes “When all impossibilities have been eliminated, whatever remains, however improbable must be the truth.”

    So that leaves you with Modi and only Modi… Love him or hate him, you’ve got none else. So bear with him and by gnashing less, you can still have your teeth to bite into marshmallows if not hard cheese.

  4. Modi is a showman. He missed his best profession in being an actor in Bollywood. He is only after being in the limelight & easily manipulated by his Crony capitalists. Some believed that he would be a successful PM as he had come from the grass roots. These are the bhakts who after three years of Modi rule are still waiting for the incredible to happen. Anyone who displays the kind of hate that is displayed by Modi just can’t be a good leader. A good leader is one who has compassion, is willing to carry the can & take the rap on the knuckles for failures & also admit to mistakes & even give the devil his due. One so far has not seen any such traits in Modi. I only see him as a half baked one eyed Jack amongst the blind.

  5. waste of time. 1 or 2 more articles as such and I’ll definitely be not following this page anymore.

  6. Kumar has always been rabidly anti-BJP. Secularists and leftist liberals have viscerally hated Modi since 2002 and have been jealous of his success as he became Prime Minster in 2014 and continues to a mass, popular leader even after demonetization and GST! This group keeps on attacking him and his government just as a matter of habit. The latest wise crack is that Modi is both leftist and rightist at the same time! (unless this is their way explaining ‘Sabka Sath Sabka vikas’ !!)

    Modi is driven by his vision and ideas. Because of his sincerity and clean image, people at large find him acceptable. Modi has done great things in last 3 years but he is not without shortcomings. While he has done very well on foreign policy and strategic issues, he is surely under performing in areas which are domains of finance, home, agriculture,industry, labor, education and defense ministries. He needs much more capable ministers in these places. He should appoint experienced technocrats (like a project managers) who will deliver to him, with Modi giving the political cover for the various policy initiatives. These ministers could do public relations and take care of party and parliamentary work.

    No Prime Minister can be ten on ten; so long as his report card is mostly positive, India has found a right leader for this time, given that 10 years of UPA have been largely a waste of time.

    In the meanwhile, Kumar and Varshney (and their ilk) can keep inventing new ways to explain Modi phenomenon!! Modi and BJP are here to stay for a long time.

  7. The biggest mistake made by all manners of analysts is in thinking that Modi can be a “perfect” Anything! He is half baked in his wisdom, and really lacks any grip on anything that needs digging in heels and doing the unglamorous hardwork. He is a talker, and India got seduced by what is commonly called Bol Bachchan. Quiz him in depth about anything and he ll have no clue beyond the superficial. Even povertarianism needs some amount of conviction. This one sways in the winds like daffodils except it’s not a pretty sight. He will meet his match when he dithers on the temple, because he’s not particularly religious or sound in his knowledge of Hinduism also. From what he talks, he faffs a lot – any learned person who’s studied religion will tell you. He probably fancies himself as some sort of a Banking expert, considering his foolish daredevilry with a half baked plan for demonetisation. But otherwise, he’s seriously not very smart. It will pain young Indians to realise that a PM can be not-very-bright, but that’s what this is. He interferes too much to truly leave India to free market capitalism, and even his right wing religious philosophy banks on violence and goondaism. He’s not original. So wait for everyone to realise this after 7 years, and then thank him for all the toilets he builds – the only idea that has any worth. Any person of any ideological hue would be a fool to trust this one. Zero conviction. He’s just a cynical anti-Congress ranter — there’s a million like that in every nook and corner. Nothing special

  8. Left, right or centre, two things matter : effective governance and economic development. With the party controlling most states, barring the South, it must worry about the former. Rajasthan, Haryana, now Uttar Pradesh are giving a poor account of themselves. That will make reelection difficult locally and also undermine the national brand. As far as growth is concerned, the management of the economy has been indifferent. That will be the foremost challenge in 2019.

  9. Alas! no one barely reads or comments on theprint, and the bandwagon leftist media. But still they are able to foot huge bills. What colour is it, BLACK OR WHITE?

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