"Both leaders with an authoritarian streak, Modi is a lot like Nehru"

Andersen, who has analysed the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s organisational structure from an academic perspective, points out that the BJP is going through a transition from an upper caste party to a mass-based party, comprising mostly OBCs and dalits.

Ajay Singh and Ashish Mehta | August 14, 2014




Prime minister Narendra Modi is like Jawaharlal Nehru who also had an authoritarian streak in him. Nehru had controlled the government and the party. Modi is doing the same.”

This description of Modi from Walter K Andersen, a leading expert on the Hindu right-wing, would not come as a surprise if one looks at his prognosis about Indian democracy. In his view, Modi was the need of the hour for India, a country with a vast potential which remains untapped due to faction-ridden politics. “India needs a decisive leadership and Modi would hopefully live up to the expectation,” he had predicted before the elections.
We had met the American professor (who once advised the US state department on south Asia) in January for an interview for Governance Now anniversary special. That was when the media used to refer to Modi as “widely perceived to be leading the race” – with several ‘ifs’ and ‘buts’. There was an uncertainty about the scale of his victory.

Now with Modi firmly ensconced in South Block and set to go to the US in September, Andersen’s visit to India coincided with the visit of several American delegations, including one led by secretary of state John Kerry. Though Andersen met several key figures in the Sangh Parivar apparently to revise his authoritative book on the RSS and its adjuncts, ‘The Brotherhood in Saffron: The RSS and Hindu Revivalism’ (co-authored with Shridhar Damle), he also tried to size up Modi’s personality as the country’s prime minister for his audience in the US.

It was in this context that we wanted to sit down with the professor to re-evaluate the long-term trends. Unlike the cold days of January, we were meeting him now on an unusually humid afternoon at a hotel in Gurgaon where he usually stays during his
Delhi visits.

To begin with the election results, Anderson maintained, “I wasn’t surprised that Modi won. It was a kind of quasi-presidential election, between Modi, a man who has fire in his belly, and Rahul Gandhi, who doesn’t have it in him. Indians were sick of corruption, there were no jobs. Modi appeared on the scene at the right time and the alternative was Rahul Gandhi, who was no match.”

Asked if he saw any alternative to Modi in the opposition, Andersen said it quite categorically that there is no alternative to Modi at the moment. “There is a possibility that regional parties may coalesce in future to counter Modi but that too would be a difficult proposition given the fact that the Congress is totally decimated.” Explaining it further, he said, “There is only one national party left and I would not be surprised if he completes two or even three terms, as he has been indicating, provided he takes care of his politics. He is very lucky there (now that the Congress is gone).”

Contrary to what a liberal would argue, Anderson believes Modi’s TINA (there is no alternative) factor is a good thing for Indian democracy, and he has a predecessor there – not Indira Gandhi but her father. To Anderson, 2014 is not very different from 1947, “when the Congress was the sole party with
a national base” and Nehru was the top leader.

Wouldn’t concentration of power in a single individual lead to dictatorship? Andersen sharply reacted, “Those who ask such questions seem to have no faith in the Indian democracy and system. It would be wrong to construe his decisiveness as a tendency to become a dictator. He cannot be a dictator.” Moreover, in Andersen’s view, the Indian system would not allow that and the society is too complex to let that happen. “Modi knows it too well,” he surmised.

With reference to evolution of relationship between the RSS and the BJP, Andersen maintained that Modi unambiguously acquires tallest stature in the Sangh Parivar. “He practically overshadows the RSS but that would not lead to frictions within the saffron family,” he said, adding that the RSS would be strengthened because of Modi as his personality would only complement the overall project of the parivar. Look, for instance, at the manner in which he talks about “development for all” and “Karma Yoga” – the concepts that gel with the Sangh Parivar’s philosophy.

Admitting that Modi’s challenge would be to spread geographical areas of influence of the party, Andersen justified the appointment of Modi’s trusted lieutenant Amit Shah as the party president. “He has to expand the party’s geographical and social base for further consolidation of their position,” he said. Andersen, who has analysed the Sangh Parivar’s organisational structure from an academic perspective, pointed out that the BJP is going through a transition from an upper caste party to a mass-based party, comprising mostly OBCs and dalits. His suggestion to the BJP is that the party can be reinvented along the lines of the Christian democratic parties of Europe.

“Amit Shah could play a crucial role in the evolution of the party,” he said. However, Andersen dismissed the notion that Shah’s appointment as the BJP president was a reflection of Modi’s authoritarianism. “Shah displayed an unflinching loyalty to Modi and that is what a leader wants,” he said in a matter-of-fact tone. But is there any difference between loyalty in politics and loyalty in organised crime, we asked. “Politics also demands the same kind of loyalty,” he said. Anderson made an interesting analogy: “Shah is to Modi what Rahm Emanuel (White House chief of staff during 2008-10) was to Obama. Both are known to use foul language, both are tough, but they have delivered.”

We turned to discussing the Modi administration so far. “I am told he is a hands-on man. He doesn’t form committees, he wants to see action. Also, his emphasis on cleanliness is aimed to improve efficiency. His performance in office so far has been very good. It all started with the majority (he delivered for the NDA in the elections). Then there was the splendid oath-taking ceremony, and all the Saarc leaders, especially Nawaz Sharif, came for the occasion. Modi’s signal in this was very clear: regional relations are going to be important for him. That is why his first visit was to Bhutan (and not counting the multilateral BRICS) the second visit was to Nepal.”

As for the budget, “Yes, there has been a lot of criticism but he is new to office. He is not a revolutionary, he is not shaking things up overnight, but there have been ideas, such as labour reforms, which are important for growth. Meanwhile, he had the image of a pro-business and somewhat ‘anti-poor’ leader, but in his stance on the WTO deal, he is batting for the poor. He is also giving the message that you can’t push India around.”

Anderson though had a word or two of caution for Modi and his government. “He has to contend with a couple of problem areas. Education should be beyond the right/left controversy; it should be beyond government.” Secondly, Andersen said the government’s overemphasis on Hindi would prove to be counterproductive. Hindi is not the only indigenous language here, and his stress on the use of Hindi may not go down well in the south. He and his colleagues should (also) use other regional languages in public.”

Our final query was, will Modi be able to sustain the tempo he has built? “I don’t know. He has to build the party. He will need luck, and the international situation has to be in his favour.”

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