‘We Need a Dictator With a Gun and a Hoover’

Can India's likely next prime minister unleash his country's economy without allowing his Hindu nationalist base to run free?


KANPUR, India — S. P. Singh is a professor of history at Christ Church College in Kanpur, a grimy and charmless industrial city in India’s biggest state, Uttar Pradesh (UP). He has, he says, "politics in the blood": his father was a state assemblyman from a rural area outside of Kanpur, a member of the anti-Congress Janata Party whose career came to an end in 1980 when Indira Gandhi made a secret, last-minute deal with a Janata ally, whose poll workers abandoned their posts on election day. Singh recalls the skullduggery with professional delight; he remembers the exact margin of his father’s loss, as he does the outcome of dozens of state and local races in UP.

Indians love politics, and they make sure to have a great deal of it. The country holds fiercely contested elections at the village, district, state, and national levels, and they all feature tumultuous spectacle and cynical hugger-mugger. During two days I spent in Kanpur earlier this week, I tried to get someone to show me around the city. But everyone wanted to talk instead about the upcoming parliamentary contest in the city, the state, and the country. Above all, they wanted to talk about what it would mean for India if Narendra Modi, the leader of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), the modern outgrowth of Janata, becomes prime minister.

It is very far from certain that that will happen. While very strong in the "Hindi heartland" of India’s north and west, BJP has little following in the east, northeast, and south. But the "Modi wave" is gathering force even in places where the party has historically been weak. Modi’s own favorability ratings dwarf those of Congress’s leaders — including Rahul Gandhi, the party’s diffident champion — and some polls have shown a BJP-led alliance gaining a majority of seats. Modi is strong, and the Congress and Rahul are weak, though regional parties may wind up holding the balance of power. 

And it is Modi, not his party, that is surging among voters. In the past two national elections, "the BJP focused on the party," says S. P. Singh. "Then they realized that the brand BJP is not selling. As a result the super-brand Modi took over the party." Modi has sidelined the old lions of the party and centralized power in his own hands. The campaign is a non-stop glorification of his record as chief minister of Gujarat state and his humble beginnings as a chai-wallah selling tea from a stall in a railway station. As Satya Dev Pachauri, a grizzled BJP state assemblyman from Kanpur, explained to me, the local candidates have become immaterial: "All over India, in every constituency, it is Modi who is fighting the election."

This has made for some piquant drama in Kanpur, where one of the founders and chief ideologues of the BJP, the 80-year-old Murli Manohar Joshi, is contesting the seat for the parliament, known as the Lok Sabha. Joshi had previously represented Varanasi, but when Modi decided that he wanted to stand for election in the city that is the incarnation of India’s Vedantic — and pre-Islamic — past, Joshi had to settle for Kanpur, where he has no roots. Joshi has publicly grumbled that the party should come first. As you drive around town, you can see the billboards that say, "This Time, Modi Government," as well as the ones Joshi has put up: "This time, BJP Government." When Pachauri said that the candidate is "immaterial," he was referring to the candidate in Kanpur.

Joshi is the chief author of the BJP manifesto, which came out weeks late, allegedly because of internal disputes. Joshi has strong ties to the RSS, the party’s grassroots organization, which has provided the shock troops for sectarian demonstrations and riots across India. The body of the manifesto promises good governance and a moderate foreign policy, but Joshi was apparently given free rein with the preface, which declares, "Historical records establish the level of progress and prosperity attained in India before the advent of the Europeans. Indian advancements in mathematics, astronomy, physics and chemistry along with the biological sciences has been well recognized. India was a land of abundance, prosperity, affluence, a land of sharing and caring…."

Modi himself has steered clear of almost any talk of the Hindu nationalist ideology, "Hindutva," or any reference to the party’s hot-button issues. Sharat Pradhan, a veteran journalist in Lucknow, UP’s capital, told me that when Modi learned that he was to be joined on a dais by two party activists accused of involvement in Hindu-Muslim riots last year, he stalled at the airport while the men were garlanded by minor party officials and then swept off the stage.

Modi is single-mindedly focused on development. The party manifesto, however, calls for the rebuilding of the Ram temple in Ayodhya, halted by court order in 1992 after RSS activists tore down a mosque on the site brick by brick, an episode which gave birth to the modern, deeply ideological, BJP. The manifesto also calls for the elimination of Article 370 of the Constitution, which provides a special status for Muslim-dominated Kashmir.

BJP leaders are now well-drilled on the new party line. In Kanpur, I went to see Manoj Mishra, a physics professor and the state party spokesman, and asked about the manifesto. Mishra, who joined the RSS when he was 18 years old, told me that the destruction of the Babri Masjid (mosque) had been a spontaneous event which senior figures like Joshi and L. K. Advani had sought to stop. (In fact, the dismantlement was a highly professional job, and Joshi and Advani egged on the rank and file with fierce rhetoric.) In any case, he said, the Babri mosque was no longer in use, and had no reason for being. As for Article 370, he asked, "How can it be that people elsewhere in India cannot buy land in Jammu and Kashmir?" Abolition of the article, he told me, was in no way targeted at Muslims.

Modi was formed by the RSS, just as Mishra and Joshi were. He shares the Hindutva outlook, which every once in a while sneaks through on the stump, as when he accused India’s defense minister, A. K. Antony, of being one of the "agents of Pakistan and enemies of India" because of a single incident in which Pakistani soldiers attacked Indian troops, beheading one of them. He has refused to apologize for his failure to stop the anti-Muslim riots in Gujarat in 2002, soon after he took over as chief minister, an act which has lead the State Department to deny him a visa to come to the United States.

Modi rarely speaks to the press, and has never seriously addressed his own views of the Hindu-nationalist agenda. Indians can only speculate — endlessly — about how he would deal with Pakistan, with Kashmir, or with India’s family code, which allows Muslims and others to administer their own law on matters involving inheritance, marriage, and the like. Congress stalwarts profess to have no doubt on the subject: The central, and wholly negative, theme of the Congress campaign is "secularism versus communalism." Many people told me that, as prime minister, Modi will be taking orders from the RSS. And yet in Gujarat he has by all accounts brought the organization to heel. It was Modi, not RSS leaders, who determined the distribution of tickets for the campaign.

S. P. Singh argues that, "If Modi wins a strong victory, the RSS will be finished. The BJP itself will be finished." In 1970, Indira Gandhi used a strong electoral mandate to banish senior Congress Party officials who opposed her rise. They formed the Congress (S) and the Congress (O) and so on, all of which eventually disappeared, leaving her in sole control of the party. Singh believes that Modi will adopt the same model: his friends in the RSS tell him that they are deeply worried about Modi’s domineering ways. Singh took me to an RSS meeting where a local leader had agreed to talk to me off the record. However, the man turned out to be in his shop, and instead I talked to a very genial codger who said that, as Muslims had once been Hindus who had converted centuries ago, they, too, belonged to Mother India. He only slipped when he referred to the Babri Masjid as a "so-called mosque."

Modi seems to have in mind a fusion of religious nationalism and free-market capitalism — a peculiar, and quite possibly untenable, combination of past and future. Whatever that is, however, it does not appear to be democratic. Like Mrs. Gandhi, Modi appears to believe above all in himself, and to have little patience for critics or for party rivals. In an article I wrote about Rahul last year, I quoted Swapan Dasgupta, one of the BJP’s leading intellectuals, as calling Modi — admiringly — "a blend of Putin and Lee Kuan Yew." In Gujarat, Modi has long been feared and admired in equal measure. The question he poses thus may not be, "Can India be governed by a Hindu nationalist?" but rather, "Can India be governed by an autocrat?"

The millions of young Indians who seem likely to vote for Modi may care less about India’s ancient heritage, or even about threats from Muslims or from Pakistan, than they do about knocking over the obstacles to a good life that they feel lie in their path. I have been coming to India for almost 40 years, and I have never stopped hearing envious comments about China, which of course have only grown as China has boomed. Many Indians believe that only a Chinese-style autocrat can force the country’s wild energies into productive channels.

Rakesh Suri, a shoe exporter in Kanpur who despairs of the city’s shattered roads and spotty electricity, told me only half-jokingly that, "We need a dictator with a gun and a Hoover." He didn’t mean Modi, but a lot of other people do.

A Modi who has the mandate to shuck off his own party, and to rule with few if any coalition partners, could operate as a populist autocrat, in the mold of Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, if not as Vladimir Putin. I’m not convinced that India would accept such a figure; I hope it wouldn’t. Democracy is no fragile flower in India; it’s more like a banyan, whose branches sink back down into the earth to form new roots. Indians practice their freedoms with abandon, as they do their elections. Indira Gandhi’s attempt to rule by force majeure during the Emergency of 1975-1977 came to an abrupt end when she was voted out of office.* S. P. Singh may be amused, all these years later, by Mrs. Gandhi’s high-handed tricks; but he does not want to see Narendra Modi duplicate her assault on Indian democracy.

*Correction, April 28, 2014: This article originally misstated the years of the Emergency in India. The Emergency was from 1975 to 1977, not from 1977 to 1980. (Return to reading.)

James Traub is a regular contributor to Foreign Policy, a nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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