Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar spoke with Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, journalist and expert on right-wing Hindu politics, about the Modi phenomenon and his new book: Narandra Modi: The Man, The Times.

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay
Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay

“There is a general cynicism among the middle class about the government. Modi somehow manages to project the image of a leader who is firm and decisive – an image the new middle class admires.”

No individual political personality in the history of independent India has so sharply divided the nation ideologically, politically and emotionally as Narendra Modi, the Chief Minister of the western state of Gujarat.

His elevation to the role of chief campaigner of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has precipitated a split in the Hindu right wing-led opposition alliance, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), considerably damaging its chances of emerging as the frontrunner in the 2014 elections. Modi’s elevation has also caused internal dissension within his own party.

Modi shot to national fame in 2002 after his administration in Gujarat failed to protect minority Muslims from the wrath of Hindu fanatics in the aftermath of a train accident that claimed the lives of Hindu pilgrims in Godhra. There is no legal evidence of his involvement in the communal carnage, but his actions – or lack thereof – following the accident have made him an icon of Hindutva.

Who is Modi? Why does he polarize Indian opinion so strongly? Is the nation ready to be led by a man who challenges all the established beliefs – pluralism, inclusive growth and secular democracy – that define the idea of modern India?

Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a journalist and well-known expert on right wing Hindu politics, tries to unravel the Modi phenomenon in his new book, Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times. The book is a portrait of a man who has for the first time challenged the model for running the country established by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, which honors rule of law, religious pluralism, inclusive growth and secularism. The Diplomat’s Sanjay Kumar recently spoke with the author.

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Why have you chosen to write this book on Modi now?

I needed to write a book. The Hindu nationalist movement was the first subject I gravitated towards. Narendra Modi is the biggest thing to happen to this movement since the demolition of the Babri mosque in 1992. (Mukhopadhyay previously wrote a book on this subject, The Demolition: India at The Crossroads).

From my perspective, Modi is bigger than the National Democratic Alliance coming to power and Vajpayee becoming prime minister in the 1990s because he has completely turned around the Hindutva discourse in the same way the destruction of the Babri Mosque completely changed the discourse outside the Congress twenty years ago.

I consider Modi the first ever anti-Nehruvian political leader in India; the first mainstream political leader at the national level who has completely broken the Nehruvian mold of what we think a political leader should be.

How difficult was it for you to write a biography of a man who invites such extreme reactions across India?

The biggest challenge I faced was convincing myself to do it, as I do not agree with his politics. But in several areas I find his administrative method praiseworthy. So in the end I decided to write a classical biography, not an essay, on Modi. I had to look at his life not as a political scientist, but purely as a journalist – to look at his life as a continuing story.

It was challenging to be honest about my subject, acknowledging both his positives negatives. I knew the path I was trying to explore was largely untrodden. You are either pro-Modi or anti-Modi. I decided to try to find a middle path. I think I succeeded because I have been criticized by both his admirers and critics.

Who has given a harsher response to the book – Modi’s supporters or his detractors?

I think the pro-Modi group is harsher on me in terms of sending me hate mail. The moment I write something online there is a barrage of criticism against me. Some people have gone as far as questioning how Modi could allow a dimwit like Nilanjan write a book on him. I have been called all kinds of names.

During the recent book release event, the main question addressed in the debate was whether India is ready for Modi. What do you have to say about this?

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That has to be decided by the electorate. I am not competent to say what the electorate will do. But you can ask: Do you want Modi to lead India? Maybe not.

I don’t think that the vision of India which he has at the moment is the vision of India I have. Unless he becomes more inclusive, less totalitarian, less majoritarian and more a leader in the Nehruvian mold, I don’t want him to lead the country.

How would you describe Modi in person?

He is an extremely warm person. I was meeting him after a decade and he treated me very warmly. At the personal level there is no problem. While talking about his personal life, his childhood and his initiation into politics he is extremely lucid. But the moment you start asking him about 2002 he recoils.

He does not realize that a journalist writing about Modi cannot avoid asking about 2002. His entire political career is built on 2002. If there were no riots in 2002, Modi would not have won the 2003 elections in Gujarat with the kind of majority he managed.

The NDA is breaking away now. What do you think the future is going to be for the BJP?

Modi has succeeded so far in achieving what he wanted. The first goal was to be appointed as the head of the BJP. Now he has leads an army. In ten months it will depend on him how he manages his army. He is trying to secure as many seats as he can so he can make allies.

Once they have seats then they will have more allies. So his task is to increase the chances of the BJP in those states where the party is already comfortable and does not need allies, where they have allies who are not going anywhere.

By and large, the BJP is going to fight the next parliamentary elections without any pre-poll alliance partners. If they emerge with a sizable number of seats they will start cobbling together a coalition government with support from others. Whether Modi becomes the PM or not depends on the number of seats the BJP gets. If the party gets the same number of seats it got during the Vajpayee era (182) then it would be difficult for Modi to become the PM. If it is more than 200 seats it would be rather easier for Modi to take office. This is how I see it currently.

Do you think Modi is capable of helping the BJP reach these numbers?

It’s very difficult to say whether he will manage to achieve those kinds of numbers or not. But I can tell you about the strategy. The strategy would be to polarize Modi versus the rest. He wants to become the fulcrum of Indian elections in the states where the BJP has a significant presence. In states like Bihar, Madhaya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh and Himachal Pradesh he wants to be a polarizing figure, the single largest issue in the elections.

It’s like the way the riots of 2002 became the single largest issue in Gujarat’s 2003 elections, similar to the way the campaign to demolish the Babri Mosque dominated the 1991 elections. It’s like the old phase of the BJP, “splendid isolation”, coined by Advani.

How would you describe Modi as a politician?

Modi is a totalitarian leader. He believes that unless you are with him 150 percent you are not with him. He is a person who requires complete allegiance.

Suppose he fails in the 2014 elections. What would his future likely be?

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Something I learned from Modi – one of his most oft repeated quotations – is that there is only one full stop in life, which comes from above. The most important thing is how Modi evolves between now and next year’s election.

Do you think Advani will continue to be a hindrance for Modi?

Advani definitely can be a hindrance. Advani is not a man who is going to surrender that easily. It is not purely a power struggle, but also an ideological struggle. It is the same kind of struggle that made Advani hand over leadership to moderate Vajpayee in the 1990s when he was told by the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organization of the BJP) that an extreme Hindutva agenda is not going to work. You have to work under the Nehruvian framework.

Modi thinks that he can break away completely. Advani feels that his path in the 1990s was wrong and it was Vajpayee’s path that was right. Advani has completely taken over Vajpayee’s mantle. Modi is not willing to tread that path. Modi says Muslims are welcome to come not as minority but as part of larger whole.

Modi says “India First” and does not want to give any leeway to minority communities. How do you view his idea of India?

Modi says “India first” at the cost of identity. The Nehruvian understanding is also India first, but it adds that you should be aware of your identity. For Modi, in the public sphere you are just part of the whole, but in your private life you can maintain your individual identity.

How do you account for Modi’s popularity in urban India?

Modi has a great following among the urban middle class in India. He is promising a new India for these urban Indians who belong to the majority community. However, Modi is highly untested in rural India outside Gujarat. We don’t have any data from Gujarat either about Modi’s support base among the rural populace.

There is a general cynicism among the middle class about the government. The middle class is hooked to the idea of corruption. This is reflected in the support that the Anna Hazare movement drew in its initial phase.

Modi somehow manages to project the image of a leader who is firm and decisive – an image the new middle class admires.