Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Emperor Modi Ended the Gandhi Dynasty

India managed to overthrow its founding family — but replaced it with a new form of personality cult.

ALLAHABAD, INDIA - JUNE 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at public rally marking the end of Bharatiya Janata Party's two-day national executive meet on June 13, 2016 in Allahabad, India. Setting the tone for BJP's poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi  launched a scathing attack on the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the State and cautioning his party men that the time for sloganeering was over. (Photo by Sheeraz Rizvi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
ALLAHABAD, INDIA - JUNE 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at public rally marking the end of Bharatiya Janata Party's two-day national executive meet on June 13, 2016 in Allahabad, India. Setting the tone for BJP's poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a scathing attack on the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the State and cautioning his party men that the time for sloganeering was over. (Photo by Sheeraz Rizvi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)
ALLAHABAD, INDIA - JUNE 13: Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at public rally marking the end of Bharatiya Janata Party's two-day national executive meet on June 13, 2016 in Allahabad, India. Setting the tone for BJP's poll campaign in Uttar Pradesh, Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched a scathing attack on the ruling Samajwadi Party and the Bahujan Samaj Party in the State and cautioning his party men that the time for sloganeering was over. (Photo by Sheeraz Rizvi/Hindustan Times via Getty Images)

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut a regal figure while campaigning for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s recently concluded round of regional elections. At a typical rally in the Indian state of Assam, whose 31 million people make it almost as populous as Canada, his face dominated the painted backdrop, so that he commanded the stage even before he appeared in person. Delegates bowed low as he walked to his seat. Some dove to touch his feet. He laid an occasional hand on their head or shoulder in blessing.

When he spoke, it was not to describe his party’s platform, but to offer his personal ruminations on the future -- which, in this case, amounts to the same thing. “I have a three-point agenda for India,” he told the cheering crowd. “First, development. Second, development at a rapid pace. Third, development everywhere.”

When the votes were counted in Assam in May this year, the Hindu nationalist BJP jumped from fifth to first place, and formed the regional government there for the first time. The winners in other states were regional parties. The loser across the board was the centrist Indian National Congress. Congress, which led India’s transition to independence in 1947, appears now to be in terminal decline. The BJP, meanwhile, has a secure hold on power nationally.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi cut a regal figure while campaigning for his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India’s recently concluded round of regional elections. At a typical rally in the Indian state of Assam, whose 31 million people make it almost as populous as Canada, his face dominated the painted backdrop, so that he commanded the stage even before he appeared in person. Delegates bowed low as he walked to his seat. Some dove to touch his feet. He laid an occasional hand on their head or shoulder in blessing.

When he spoke, it was not to describe his party’s platform, but to offer his personal ruminations on the future — which, in this case, amounts to the same thing. “I have a three-point agenda for India,” he told the cheering crowd. “First, development. Second, development at a rapid pace. Third, development everywhere.”

When the votes were counted in Assam in May this year, the Hindu nationalist BJP jumped from fifth to first place, and formed the regional government there for the first time. The winners in other states were regional parties. The loser across the board was the centrist Indian National Congress. Congress, which led India’s transition to independence in 1947, appears now to be in terminal decline. The BJP, meanwhile, has a secure hold on power nationally.

This widespread transfer of power from one Indian party to another is momentous — not least, because it marks a transition from dynastic to non-dynastic rule at the apex of Indian politics. For decades, Congress has been led by a single family, the Gandhis. By contrast, no BJP prime minister, including Modi, has come from a family with a political background, and the party doesn’t use dynastic ties as a principle of succession for its top leadership.

For a young country like India, this is a rare transition. One need only consider its neighbors in South Asia to learn that, if post-colonial countries have democratic systems at all, they rarely survive the succession crises engendered by the death or defeat of their founding dynasties, let alone their founding political parties. And when they do, the replacement is often a new dynasty. The emergence of a strong non-dynastic ruling alternative in India also stands out among established democracies worldwide. This includes the United States, where two recent presidents have come from the Bush family and Hillary Clinton is campaigning for the office held earlier by her husband. It also includes Canada, in which Justin Trudeau, the son of former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau was elected prime minister in 2015, and Japan, where Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is the grandson of a former prime minister.

But one could be forgiven for forgetting that India’s transition has taken place at all. That’s because, while Modi is not a hereditary ruler, he is certainly an imperial one. Like an emperor, he towers above the ordinary citizen, personifies party, government, and nation, and governs through decree rather than persuasion. The shift from dynastic to non-dynastic rule in India then marks not a shift from hierarchical to egalitarian modes of representation but from one hierarchical mode to another. Where the Gandhi dynasty relied upon the family’s association with the Indian nationalist movement, Modi’s brand of hierarchy is legitimized by his personal charisma and consistent ideology, and the promise of some future redemption, rather than any shared struggle in the past. 

The story of Modi’s ascension to Prime Minister says something about the nature of this shift. In Modi’s telling, this is a story of individual aspiration, rewarded by the opportunities afforded by Indian democracy. But more than either aspiration or democracy, Modi’s story is — as the journalist Vinod K. Jose put it in a profile tellingly titled “the Emperor Uncrowned” — the “story of a series of organisations under which he was nurtured and trained.” These organizations — the RSS and the BJP — both propelled Modi into power through a process of top-down anointment and shaped his imperial governing style.

The BJP’s parent organization, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteer Organization or RSS) was founded in 1925 and today presides over a large network of organizational affiliates created to further the cause of Hindu nationalism. The BJP, founded in 1980, is the RSS’s political affiliate. There are dozens of other affiliates, including student unions, trade unions, cultural organizations, welfare organizations, and research institutions. The connecting tissue of this family of organizations is a network of pracharaks — an elite bureaucracy of celibate Hindu men, not unlike Catholic priests or Leninist professional revolutionaries — trained in the RSS and deputized to key strategic and administrative positions in affiliated organizations.

Modi has been a RSS pracharak for most of his political life. He started attending RSS camps in his home state of Gujarat as a child of 8 or so. He became a pracharak in 1971, at the age of 21, and started humbly, sweeping the floors, serving the tea, and washing clothes. But he was progressively given greater responsibilities. By 1981, he was given the formal position of coordinator between the RSS and its organizations throughout Gujarat. In 1986, he took charge of the BJP’s election campaign in municipal elections in the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad. In 1987, he formally joined the BJP. He subsequently rose to the all-important post of the Gujarat state General Secretary in 1995 and then to top positions at the national level, where he remains today.

Modi was a successful pracharak, but not a contented one. RSS pracharaks in the BJP traditionally keep a low profile. They wear the simplest clothes, work the longest hours, and speak the least. They are usually found not in the reception areas where prominent BJP leaders parade before the press, but in the tiny rooms at the back or off to the side, where they keep custody of the files.

Modi chafed at the self-effacement. He wanted to stand out and above. He told the journalist Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay that as a child, he thought that pracharaks looked “kind of emaciated and their faces also didn’t display any dynamism.” He was attracted to his first mentor, a senior RSS leader Lakshmanrao Inamdar, known as Vakil Sahab (“Lawyer Sir”), because he was different. “Vakil Sahab,” he recalled, “was a towering personality — I was very impressed by him, he touched a chord in my heart.” Modi’s respect for Vakil Sahab’s “towering personality” suggested that he would not be content with anonymity for long. Modi let it be known that he wanted elected office.

Modi’s transition to elected office happened in 2001, at the intervention of the RSS in an internal crisis in the BJP government in Gujarat. A senior RSS pracharak and former BJP president and general secretary, Kushabhau Thakre, prevailed upon the sitting chief minister to resign and upon BJP legislators to elect Modi the chief of the BJP Legislature Party — and therefore the new chief minister. Modi had at that point never fought an election in his life. According to Indian law, the chief minister can be selected from outside the state legislature, as long as he or she obtains membership in it within six months. After being appointed, Modi obtained an electoral mandate in a by-election. A party stalwart was made to give up his position in a safe seat, so that success was a foregone conclusion.

Modi became prime minister in a similarly top-down fashion. In September 2013, he was named the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, the first time the BJP had named a prime minister before the election. This would not have happened without the support of the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat, who had intervened some months earlier to quell an internal rebellion in the party over Modi’s impending elevation. Once anointed by the RSS and then the BJP, Modi went on to lead the BJP to a spectacular victory.

The combination of anointment and election in Modi’s career invites an obvious comparison with Rajiv Gandhi, the quintessential dynastic prime minister. Zail Singh, India’s then-president and a Gandhi family loyalist, appointed Rajiv Gandhi to the position of prime minister immediately after the 1984 assassination of the sitting prime minister, Indira Gandhi. This was a controversial step: The Congress party was divided on the question of succession and there was no obvious constitutional precedent. Once appointed, Gandhi won the elections that followed immediately after by a spectacular margin. The difference is only that Gandhi’s anointment came about through his position in Gandhi family networks, whereas Modi’s anointment came about through his position in the RSS’s organizational networks.

In elected office, Modi lost no time in shaping himself into the towering personality that he had once admired. The larger-than-life persona he adopted at the rally in Assam is typical of how he presents himself to the public. He inspires reverence and revels in it. The standard chant at his rallies — “NaMo” — is not only an abbreviation of his name; it is also a declension of the Sanskrit word namah, meaning to “bow in homage,” used in Hindu religious invocations to the gods. Modi’s official website enthusiastically documents headlines describing the use of the chant to greet Modi the world over: “‘Marhaba NaMo’… Dubai Gives PM Modi a Rockstar Welcome,” it proclaims, or “NaMo Wave During Rallies,” and even “US chants NaMo mantra post PM Modi’s visit.” In a sartorial incarnation of the “Modi mantra,” Modi once wore a suit with his name embroidered on it hundreds of times in gold thread. It was, in its sheer opulence, the modern-day equivalent of an ermine robe.

Like an emperor, Modi also fuses his personality with party, government, and nation. In a June 2016 television interview, he summarized the performance of two years of his government, by continuously using the word “I.” When he spoke of his government’s activities in building foreign relations, he spoke of himself: “The amount of respect with which I engage Saudi Arabia, I engage Iran with the same amount of respect. The amount of respect with which I speak to America, I speak to Russia with the same amount of respect.” When he spoke of development, it was a matter of personal largesse: “I need to give houses to the poor.” He did not associate any of his positions with those of his party, the BJP. Even on matters of economic philosophy — a subject which the BJP has devoted considerable resources to theorizing about — he spoke only of “my” economic philosophy. And when visiting the websites of key ministries of the Indian government, including Home Affairs, Defence, and Finance, Modi’s figure, mingling with the masses, clapping a young man on the back, or Modi surrounded by Indian flags, is the first thing you see.

Modi’s governing style is imperial too. He communicates through monologues, rather than conversations or interviews, mostly notably his monthly radio show Man ki Baat, roughly translated as “On My Mind.” He rarely subjects himself to interviews, and when he does, the questions are carefully scripted. He has also created a centralized system in which he rules by diktat. In a departure from previous governments, which gave cabinet ministers considerable decision-making authority, the Prime Minister’s Office now has the final say on most important policy issues. His government’s most momentous policy initiative so far — an amendment to India’s land acquisition act which would make it easier for the government to acquire land for infrastructural projects — was introduced not through legislation but through an ordinance, a temporary law which can be introduced by the executive in between sessions of parliament.

Modi’s subordinates — ministers, party associates and bureaucrats — are lieutenants and soldiers, but not colleagues, and he often disciplines them like errant schoolchildren. A cabinet colleague on his way to the airport in jeans was reportedly ordered to dress more formally (which the minister later denied); a district official wearing sunglasses in Modi’s presence was reprimanded for being improperly dressed; and the bureaucracy is routinely lectured on attendance and punctuality.

This is a style honed by many years of experience in a hierarchical organization, in which orders are given from above and obeyed from below. But it is hardly compatible with an egalitarian system of democracy that is supposed to involve pluralism, openness to debate, empathy for one’s opponents, and attempts to persuade them. These are skills that even Modi’s supporters do not associate with him.

It should be no surprise, then, that Modi’s successes so far have been administrative rather than legislative. His government has curbed corruption and put bureaucrats on notice. But it has been mostly unable to cut the deals required to get its legislative agenda through parliament. The land acquisition ordinance lapsed when Modi was not able to persuade parliament, including large sections from even his own party, to support it. New legislation drafted to replace it remains stuck at the national level. As Venkaiah Naidu, the BJP’s minister of information and broadcasting, puts it: “We are not able to move forward or go backward.” Finally, this week, the legislative deadlock that has characterized Modi’s government seemed to ease up a bit: On Monday, the Indian parliament unanimously passed a constitutional amendment introducing tax reforms. (It now awaits approval by regional legislatures.) That this would be the government’s only major legislative success after two years in power is testament to how difficult Modi has found it to operate within the negotiating procedures of a functioning democracy.

The switch from the Gandhi family to Modi then, from the Congress to the BJP, is a switch in the style of hierarchy, from a personal model of authority to an organizational one. This is not a trivial difference. But both styles have something in common. Modi has in the past called Rahul Gandhi shahzada, or “prince.” Sonia Gandhi has retorted by calling Modi shahenshah, or “emperor.” Both, in their own way, are right.

Kanchan Chandra is professor of politics at New York University.

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