Imran Khan and Modi are two very different politicians. Yet there are some commonalities. Both enjoy support from largely well intentioned white collar class and also other groups, who want better governance and control over corruption. Both politicians have a nationalist outlook with a stress towards “standing up” against the outside world. Both have generated a halo effect where their good reputation about financial honesty has created a positive impression about other attributes also and made the negative traits less important in the eyes of the supporters. And both have a cult like following with supporters who are not willing to question their leaders.
In India Mr. Modi and BJP enter the elections as hot favorites. Modi in the process has become bigger than the party and has started to enjoy a cult like following and outright fanatic support.
And this cult is not only the result of Modi’s PR team. Of course PR team is also responsible. I have seen so many videos which attribute mystic qualities to Modi. But this cult is also an outcome of the way liberal/secular parties have conducted themselves. For years their singular obsession with Modi has only resulted in giving him more space in the news. Once the spotlight was on him, then every deed and misdeed was amplified. And when Congress misgoverned and the biggest opponent was able to do even marginally better, then that difference was also amplified.
And when secular parties become incompetent and try to dissuade the voters by pointing out that alternative is communal Modi, then frankly it has that counterproductive effect. Modi became larger than life because he became anti- thesis of Congress. And Congress and related parties instead of improving their competence have merely tried to point to voters of the horrific outcomes if Modi is to get elected.
It is always more difficult to be secular and liberal/left in a country which has communal cleavages. Secularism and liberalism require a commitment from the majority to at times sacrifice some of the potential benefits and when the majority feels that they are being taken for a ride in the name of secularism, then it will revolt not only against secular parties but also against the concept itself. When secularism becomes “sickularism” and used as a jibe by middleclass then you know which way the wind is blowing.
Due to all the above factors, the support of Modi has grown and has become fanatic and blind. And the unfortunate part is that much of this support is actually ideologically diverse. It is not the hardliners, but ideologically moderates also who have been swayed. The latter turned towards Modi on the basis of promises of good governance and somehow or the other in the process, have started to collectively assume that there is some sort of a miracle happening in Gujarat which can be replicated on the national scale and only Modi can replicate it.
A singular obsession with governance has developed which has resulted in inability to consider other factors like social cohesion, necessity to compromise, equity in wealth distribution and of course communal harmony.
And the same Halo effect, which was evident in Imran Khan is even more prominent in Modi’s case. His reputation of being an able administrator ( though well founded but still hyped up) in the times where Congress’s name has become intertwined with corruption, has created an atmosphere where even his deficiencies are either being ignored and worst being reinterpreted in positive light.
His autocratic nature is being projected not as a handicap in running a diverse and complex country but actually a much needed attribute to “discipline” the lazy nation. His hard nationalist outlook- which by the way is not a very good attribute in dealing in international disputes which require delicate and balanced approach- is considered a virtue as it is being purported that India needs a leader who can talk eye to eye with China and USA and talk down to Pakistan.
It is not the support but the kind of support which is increasingly becoming worrisome. Hardliners are doing their normal routine but even some moderates are mimicking hardliners. To even question Modi arouses such strong reactions, that one wonders.
Today every concern and fear is being brushed aside as I am being told that India has always survived and will not change. Democracy has its checks and balances.
First of all, India has already changed somewhat. When you select the most divisive person as the leading candidate of a communal party which was looking set to win the elections due to strong anti-incumbency wave , then the change has already started. In the previous years, BJP used to put up a moderate person as the candidate, this time it has actually given the most divisive and controversial person the chance. And a huge part of India is extremely jubilant about it completely overlooking the fact that this nomination is not only creating insecurities in minorities but also raising concerns in the international arena.
Modi is a man who in the past has even been denied Visas. And even as late as 2013, Schools like Wharton were revoking their invitation to him for making a speech. And yet he is the candidate despite the fact that his party had very good alternatives.
Why select someone so divisive and controversial? Just because Gujarat is a better managed state? Is it enough to overcome all other concerns despite the fact that BJP has very good alternates in the party?
There is a kind of “ I don’t give a damn” attitude here, something which in the past had eluded India. There is development of that Pakistan like strange nationalism which is dismissive of concerns of minorities and outside world.
Even when reputed magazines like Economist ran articles forewarning India, they were accused of meddling in Indian affairs.
And then I hear a lot about checks and balances of democracy. Democracy works when the voter is vigilant and not when he is simply dismissing even a chance that things may go wrong. Simply saying that nothing will go wrong even if we elect the MOST divisive and controversial person with a cult like blind following, frankly reflects poor understanding of how democracy actually works.
Other checks and balances in a liberal democracy, like independent courts set limit to the power of executive; they do not prevent communal strain to enter into the polity. For that the voters have to be vigilant.
And I have already written, communalism is not only about riots. Everyone knows that Modi once in power will not start encouraging or abetting riots. It is also about the share in the pie and how you actually rationalize it.
I do believe that since majority is feeling alienated because of perceived minority appeasement, then some sort of rationalizing is in fact due. Fair enough and it should be done. Here comes the critical question: who will be doing it?
The problem with people like Modi is that due to their autocratic nature, communal background and need to fulfil expectations of the REAL voter (which is hardline), they may really cross that critical line. And worse they will still be able sell it to mainstream India as something essential for improving governance.
And that will be communalism but stealthy, imperceptible and yet effective, widening the rifts further.
And the worst part is that it won’t even register as one. It will be accepted in the name of good governance.
And then there is always that fear that in case of failure in economic deliverance, the Modi Sarkar will go to the “basics” which may include skirmishes with Pakistan and China or domestically actually doing something obviously communal to divert attention.
This has happened all over the world with parties that have communal outlook and there is no reason to believe that BJP under Modi will be any different. Yes, it will be different if all remain vigilant.
I am not trying to be condescending when I say: be vigilant. I really mean it out of utmost sincerity as I genuinely like India.
Remember the 1940s when communal strife led to the partition. The case against Pakistan by Congress was not that Muslims and Hindus do not have differences. It was not even whether Hindus and Muslims are two different nations or one nation. You can have ten nations within a nation state. It was the belief that despite differences, India could harmoniously accommodate all.
Remember, this belief is the very soul of India. It is this belief which makes India such an interesting country. It is this belief which connects me, a Pakistani to India, and makes him call himself a “Pakistani Indian”.
And above, it is this belief which makes India, India.
Be vigilant and do not lose the bigger picture.
Good luck to Modi Sarkar if it comes to power.