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Three reasons why Modi took the path of social reform instead of economic reform

Many saw Narendra Modi as an economic reformer in 2014. Instead, he chose to become a moralistic father-figure.

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When Narendra Modi campaigned for the top office in 2014, many intellectual and business elites saw him as an economic reformer. After five years, almost all of them have lost hope in that Modi. Instead, the Modi that India got is not interested in economic reform, but in a particular kind of social reform.

Since 2014, Modi has invested much of his political capital in various social campaigns, and projected himself as a moralistic father-figure driven to bringing order, discipline and honesty to the chaotic Indian society.

Shattering perceptions

This dissonance in expectations became clear to the urban elite Modi supporters in the first term. Liberal economist Vivek Dehejia, a prominent early backer of Modi, castigated Modi for “full-blown embrace of old-fashioned, centre-left style populism with an ‘Indic’ twist.” He admitted that this particular liberal cohort of Modi supporters had been “perhaps too naïve”. Another liberal columnist, Sadanand Dhume, who had earlier mentioned Modi in the same breath as Reagan and Thatcher, later compared him to a “tub-thumping Latin American populist”.

Here is a  government, acting as a tutor and a guide, which is seeking to reshape Indian society according to its vision. And what is this vision? One aspect of it is ‘Hindutva’, which has already been written about and debated much. But there is another aspect to this moulding of society. Writer Manu Joseph considers the recent massive hikes in traffic fines under the amended Motor Vehicles Act as “part of an on-going reformation of Indians. Keep the nation clean, pay taxes and don’t drive like a moron”.

Campaigns such as Swachh Bharat and Beti Bachao Beti Padhao are not just popular with voters, but they had largely defined the Modi government’s first term. Even the fight against corruption and tax collection campaigns were framed as social reforms, seeking to impose the value of honesty on a reluctant society.

Also read: In his second term, Modi govt has moved from Deen Dayal Upadhyaya to Veer Savarkar

The shift to social reform

There are three reasons why Modi took the path of social reform instead of economic reform.

First, economic reforms entail a necessary erosion of power of the State. Freeing the market means liberating it from the regulatory whim and arbitrary control of the government. Adopting this would have gone against the grain of Modi’s style of governance, whose defining feature, right from his days as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, is the concentration of power in his own hands. This power is the very prized leverage Modi holds over the corporates. It is also useful in indirectly keeping the media in check, through its corporate backers.

Social reform, on the contrary, not only allows the State to centralise its power, but also to expand it. To enforce discipline on the society, the government needs coercive power to punish the wayward. This is why in the Western conservative tradition, any kind of social intervention by the government is reflexively opposed. Such intervention would, in their view, necessitate the creation of a powerful State that would then lord it over the public.

In an interview soon after Modi’s first Independence Day Speech in 2014, political philosopher Pratap Bhanu Mehta was asked about Modi’s emphasis on social evils and whether “a prime minister can also be a social reformer?”. Mehta replied that “there are limits to how much the state can alone do” because “the only way you can micromanage that (social issues) is by becoming a draconian police state.”

We are not a police State yet, but the raids and hefty fines unleashed on people to reform society certainly reflect a more powerful State.

Second, economic reforms are politically risky, because they can adversely affect certain groups of voters. An inflection point for Modi’s economic reform zeal, to the extent it existed, came in 2015 with the failed land reform bill. For someone who rarely backs out of a fight, Modi tamely withdrew the bill after repeatedly trying to push it through Parliament. The bill risked angering displaced farmers, and after the “suit boot ki sarkar” jibe from Rahul Gandhi, Modi realised he risked coming across as a leader out of touch with the concerns of the poor. The defeat in Bihar assembly elections in November 2015 further reinforced the need for a course correction in publicising his image as a welfarist leader. For the same reason, demonetisation, was also framed primarily as a social reform.

Which brings us to the third reason. The emphasis on social reform as opposed to economic reform resonates with the charismatic image that Modi has constructed of himself. Pursuing a popular social reform agenda, meanwhile, can be a powerful source of garnering popular legitimacy and public respect. The pro-business image that Modi had presented during his rise to the top, directed by the mantra of ‘minimum government, maximum governance’, was crucial in gaining the endorsement of the business and intellectual elite in 2014. But it had limited appeal beyond the cloistered elite in a predominantly poor country. So, once Modi cemented his position in the highest corridors of power, this image had to necessarily sublimate itself to the much more politically powerful image of an ascetic social reformer.

Also read: Aparna Sen & Ramachandra Guha should know sending letters to Modi only makes him look good

The cultivated ‘fakeer’

Modi has always projected a persona of himself not as a politician but as a selfless social worker — a ‘swayamsevak’ (RSS volunteer) who entered politics at the behest of his organisation. He has cultivated a saintly image of a ‘fakeer’ whose single-status makes him ‘incorruptible’ for his followers.


The fight against black money and corruption, crystallised by demonetisation, was thus deliberately framed as a moral crusade of good vs evil. These were not economic problems that could be fought by reforming policy or reworking incentives; they were social diseases that had to be fought by destroying the corrupt. Modi even called it a purifying ‘yagna’. Even though demonetisation hurt almost everyone, the goodwill it generated for Modi was immense, which was reflected in the subsequent sweeping victory for the BJP in the 2017 Uttar Pradesh assembly elections.

Also read: New data explains the unwavering support for Narendra Modi despite sagging economy

The legacy Modi is after

Vivek Dehejia had lamented that Modi did not “claim ownership over the reformist legacies of former PMs P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee.” But Modi is shrewdly laying claims over much more powerful legacies. To a small extent, he is claiming to continue the legacy of Gandhi with the cleanliness campaign.

But the legacy Modi is really after is that of Swami Vivekananda, the man whom Modi calls his ‘personal inspiration’. Modi has self-consciously modelled himself after the 19th century activist-ascetic in both personality and thought. The ascetic, celibate reformer who spent his early years wandering in search of spirituality, and later found his life mission in revitalising Hindu society and uplifting the poor.

According to political scientist P.K. Datta, Vivekananda also served as a ‘model’ to Modi on how to thrive as an Other Backward Class (or OBC) in a “largely Brahmin-dominated organisation”. “Vivekananda was himself not a Brahmin. He stood for Hindu unity and upholding Brahminism as an ideal,” Datta stated.

Much like Vivekananda’s version of social reforms, Modi’s social reforms are perfectly attuned to middle class and upper caste sensibilities and conceptions of society. People from these sections of India’s social hierarchy focus on order and discipline, and do not touch fundamental social issues like caste inequality. After all, Vivekananda, while criticising caste for its ‘rigidity’, merely advocated lumping all castes within the fourth-fold Vedic ideal with Brahmins at the top. Similarly, Modi has steered clear of making any adverse comment towards either the caste system or ‘Brahminism’. Modi, like Vivekananda, seems to believe in the inherent greatness of India and harks back to the Vedic age as the zenith of the Hindu nation. Vivekananda’s famous Chicago speech – taking Hinduism to the Western world – is mirrored by Modi’s yoga diplomacy and spreading India’s cultural capital across the world.

When people style themselves as Modi fans, they are not professing loyalty to merely a politician but to a beloved social reformer who is reinvigorating Hindu society. When people are asked why they adore Modi, many fail to name a single specific achievement of his but insist nevertheless that he is ‘cleaning up the country’ or ‘setting the country right’ or that ‘he means well’ and ‘we trust him’. It is this abstract allure of the saintly reformer that ultimately sets him apart from other politicians; and also explains why political challenges such as economic slowdown, that might sink any other political leader, seem incapable of damaging Modi.

The author is a research scholar in political science at the University of Delhi. Views are personal.

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  1. While I agree with the author on most of the things , when you look at the range of politicians , karunanidhi & family, laloo & family,mulayam & family, gowda & family,mamata& family, Farooq & family ,Pawar& family and all with ‘Italian’ marble does narendrabhai modi have to do anything at all to cultivate an image of an ascetic.

  2. First, one needs to know how many zero after 1 makes a trillion. The party spokesman Dr, Batra does not know on live TV, 99.99% of the population will know? What 5 trillion?who said it when? Another 15 lakh for all.

    • You know how many zeros in one trillion. But tell me what have you achieved in life? There are millions like you who memorize such facts and do nothing in life. Dr Patra will tell your Congress hero more about his human body than he himself knows. Can we then say Congress spokesperson does not know about his own body and is uneducated?

  3. The author’s primary goal is not economic analysis but insulting Hindus and Ram. Economy apart the pain of suffering anti Hindu, venal congress sycophants is worse than the bood loss at independence, which was usurped, when power was transfered to Ketkar’s cigar smoking masters. The corrupt oligarchy with a Finance and Home Minister sitting in Jail is insuffcient shame for Ketakar, whose deams of survival from the crumbs, derived of lacs of crores of NPA’s , bribes, defense scams etc seem to him to be enitlements of his corrupt privilege. If this were not Jai Shri Ram’s land he and his masters would be looking for sunlight from the high windows of a prison, instead of demagoguery on TV shows or bursts of literary flair in trashy publications.

  4. ”he is ‘cleaning up the country’ or ‘setting the country right’ or that ‘he means well’ and ‘we trust him’. It is this abstract allure of the saintly reformer that ultimately sets him apart from other politicians”. Modi is taking the people with him in his journey and he has earned the trust of the nation.

  5. The author seems to be writing a sort of ‘literature survey’ for his thesis on Modi!! He puts two things together and comes up with some results, whether it makes sense or not. What legacy Modi is seeking is a funny reading indeed. Modi is a social reformer now as he wants to consolidate his and BJP’s power and eliminate congress from the race once for all. BJP never had such an opportunity earlier and Congress and other parties were never in such a weak position before. Modi knows what he is and should be doing and I am sure he will surely turn economic reformer soon! We have given him another 5 years and let us trust him till then.

  6. ECONOMY …depends on 4 factors….! 1. Employment 2. Manufacturing (industrial output & services) 3. Exports 4. Income (aka Consumer soending). This makes the GDP of a Nation. In 72 years of freedom from British Colonial Rule, there is significant growth in Science and Technology in INDIA which is home today to World’s 20% POOR people.

    Also, INDIA is World’s biggest borrower from World Bank, growing its external DEBT to new high, while many public sector units like HAL, AI, Coal India, FCI etc are working in perpetual LOSSES. The domestic debt is also growing. India’s biggest advantage is its skilled human force, most of whom speak English and are World’s largest migrants today LEAVING INDIA (est 500,000/ year) to find their future in a foreign Country. USA gets over 100,000 Indians every year and it is highly visible when one sees their rapid growth. INDIA has est 500 Million productive work force (18 – 45) that is higher than population of all advanced Nations.

    Today est 32 Million INDIANS live outside INDIA. This number will rise to 50 million by 2040. But back home…INDIA will remain usual.

  7. I was expecting “author’s” own judgment giving valid reasons for his decision making.Instead he looks to various other writer.dys to prove his conclusions. I think he is finding reasons to justify his views formed already.

  8. Social reform ought to have been the cherry on the cake of economic transformation. Our per capita income is about one sixth of the global average. It is the sheer aggregation of over a billion people that gives us global salience. Consider Bihar – with 100 million people, not a small entity – as a member of the UN, what would be its role in the world. Of course, N K Singh would make for a fine Permanent Representative, with his taste in suits and ties.

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