Christophe Jaffrelot on What Makes Brand Modi Successful

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Christophe Jaffrelot on What Makes Brand Modi Successful

“Like many populists, Modi is a chameleon — this is his brand. Everyone can find in him what he or she is looking for.”

Christophe Jaffrelot on What Makes Brand Modi Successful

FILE – Workers put up cutouts of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi alongside those of Hindu deity Lord Ram to mark the opening of a grand temple for Lord Ram in Ayodhya, India, Thursday, Jan. 18, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Deepak Sharma, File

India is in the midst of its 18th general election. Almost every opinion survey indicates that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) will return for a third straight term in power. The BJP is expected to ride to victory on Modi’s popularity. Despite growing unemployment and massive corruption under his rule, Modi’s approval ratings rose to 75 percent in February this year. What explains the rise and rise of Narendra Modi? In his book “Gujarat Under Modi: Laboratory of Today’s India” (C. Hurst, 2024), Christopher Jaffrelot, a noted scholar of Hindutva politics, argues that communal polarization of society, deinstitutionalization of the rule of law, crony capitalism and a political style that mixes Hindutva and populism comprised the four pillars of Modi’s governance as Gujarat’s chief minister. When he became India’s prime minister in 2014, Modi implemented this “Gujarat model”’ nationally.

In an interview with The Diplomat’s South Asia editor Sudha Ramachandran, Jaffrelot explained how Modi constantly reinvents himself. He has projected himself as a protector of Hindus, a leader committed to economic growth, a strongman who secures India, and of late, the country’s high priest. “Whatever the role he plays, he never interacts with anybody—no press conference, no debate, no answering questions,” Jaffrelot pointed out. And although he is a “pure product” of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s ideological fount, Modi “is reluctant to take its advice.” In fact, Modi “dictates terms to the RSS” which is “an unprecedented development” in Sangh Parivar circles.

Modi began his political career in the RSS. How has his relationship with the organization changed over time? Does he take directions/advice from the RSS now?

Modi is a pure product of the RSS who, in contrast to most of his peers, emancipated himself from the organization rather early. He became a swayamsevak (literally, a volunteer; a member of the RSS) at the age of 7, a pracharak (a full-time propagandist) at 22 in 1972, a vibhag pracharak (propagandist in charge of several districts) at 28, and a prant pracharak (in charge of a state) at 31.

Things started to change in the 1990s; after Lal Krishna Advani — his mentor and protector — appointed him as the state BJP’s sangathan mantri (organization secretary) in 1987, Modi started enjoying politics—even more so after he was put in charge of the Gujarat leg of Advani’s Rath Yatra in 1990 and then of Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra in 1991. Relating with the masses was something Modi liked a lot.

He was then exiled from Gujarat because, as organizing secretary, he failed to keep the party united when Shankersinh Vaghela’s faction broke away, leading to the fall of Keshubhai Patel’s government. That was a turning point: the RSS, the organization to which BJP leaders reported, started to lose some of its legitimacy in Modi’s eyes. When he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2002, he simply built a parallel power structure with his own followers and PR companies. By the mid-2000s, he refused to report to the prant pracharak, Manmohan Vaidya, the son of M.G Vaidya, one of the foremost ideologues of the RSS. In 2007, many RSS leaders refused to canvass for Modi — but he won… and he won again in 2012. In 2013-14, the RSS chief, Mohan Bhagwat tried again to give him advice — in vain. Modi was not the RSS’ cup of tea, but he was so popular among the swayamsevaks and large sections of the Hindu majority that he received their support — and Advani was marginalized.

Today, Modi dictates terms to the RSS more than the other way around — an unprecedented development. But the RSS chief cannot say anything as Modi delivers and implements the organization’s agenda.

You have written that Modi’s capital-intensive, infrastructure-focused, crony capitalist economic model has resulted in jobless economic growth and widened the rural-urban gap. Yet India’s poor, including the rural poor support him. Why?

For four reasons. First, the poor do not necessarily vote according to socio-economic criteria: identity politics plays a role and the proponents of Hindu nationalism have blurred cleavages based on caste and class by promoting religion as a major rallying discourse. Here, the BJP — an upper caste-dominated party — exploits the rationale of the caste system: the imitation of the Brahmin, what sociologist M.N. Srinivas called ‘Sanskritisation.’

Secondly, Modi speaks to the poor as if he is one of them and it works because he has been one of them given his plebeian background and he finds the right words to help them recover their self-esteem, in particular during his monthly radio program, Mann ki Baat (Talking from the Heart), which he initiated in 2014.

Thirdly, Modi gives something to the poor, including gas cylinders, latrines, etc. Although this is not much compared to what former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh had done, these goods appear to be personal gifts (his photograph is on the gas cylinders, for instance).

Fourthly, among the poor who vote for him, there are many members of Dalit sub-castes, who resent the way other Dalit sub-castes have cornered most of the benefits deriving from quota politics and positive discrimination. The BJP has promoted these marginal groups by nominating people from their ranks during elections, for instance.

Could you share your insights into the building of Brand Modi?

Like many populists, Modi is a chameleon — this is his brand. Everyone can find in him what he or she is looking for (incidentally, he keeps changing his attire according to the place he’s visiting, the way former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi used to do). Firstly, he was the Hindu Hriday Samrat (the Emperor of the Hindu Heart) because of the way he presided over the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002. Then he claimed that he was a Vikas Purush (man who undertakes development work) because of his growth strategy in Gujarat. Then, he became the chowkidar (watchman) because of the way he protected Gujarat from Delhi and then India from Pakistan at the time of the Balakot strikes. He could repeat that he had a 56-inch chest and appeared as a strong man.

Lately, he has become the high priest of India during the inauguration of the Ayodhya temple in January this year, when he claimed to combine temporal power and spiritual authority. Previously, he had appeared in photographs, praying in the Ganga or meditating in a Himalayan cave, as an ascetic — and he claims that he does not fully belong to the world anyway.

This chameleon-like technique of communication relies on one thing that never changes: whatever the role he plays, he never interacts with anybody — no press conference, no debate, no answering questions. He delivers a message and the messenger is the message to a large extent because his body language matters as much as his words (his vocabulary is as poor as that of the yogis speaking on Indian TV anyway with whom has obvious affinities). This one-way traffic kind of political communication is particularly effective because he saturates the public space by dominating TV channels, social media, holograms, masks, etc.

Why is Modi more popular than the BJP?

Modi is more popular than the BJP for sure. In fact, the CSDS-Lokniti electoral surveys all show that many people (roughly one-fifth to one-fourth) of the party voters would not have voted for its candidates for the Lok Sabha elections had Modi not been its prime ministerial candidate. This is largely due to his multifaceted personality, that is more diverse than the party, which remains dominated by leaders from the urban upper caste and middle-class leaders. By contrast, he can attract low-caste voters who find in him someone “like them.” But he also gets the support of elite groups because of his ideology, lifestyle and opposition to caste-based quotas — a form of positive discrimination that the Modi government keeps diluting silently. That said, Modi’s BJP never got more than 37 percent of the votes. It wouldn’t have won a majority of seats in the lower house of parliament if it did not have such strongholds in the North and the West; the South and the East remain with the opposition.

The fact that Modi is more popular than his party explains why the BJP cannot win state elections as easily as national elections. As a result, the BJP does not govern more than half of the states of the Indian Union — and needs coalition partners to do so in many cases. This partly explains why the Modi government is eroding the federal character of the regime by centralizing power.

It was Pakistan that we always associated with the “deep state.” In your book, you explore in some detail how Modi developed a “deeper state” in India. Could you throw light on this?

There are clear differences between the two concepts. In a “deep state,” power ultimately lies with strong players who are not accountable to the public and who operate behind the curtains — like the Chief of Army Staff in Pakistan. In a “deeper state” like Modi’s India you may find the same thing but you observe another phenomenon: at the grassroots level, activists — including vigilante groups — exert a direct authority over society and even implement a form of cultural policing.

They prevent Muslim boys from talking to Hindu girls, or low-caste men from approaching upper-caste girls. They intimidate the Hindu Dalits who intend to convert to another religion, they dissuade Hindus from selling their apartments to non-Hindus in mixed neighborhoods, they control the trucks of those who may take bovines to the slaughterhouse, and so on. They impose on society an orthopraxy replicating the lifestyle of the upper caste Hindus. Sometimes, they use laws that have been passed by the assemblies of BJP-ruled states. But sometimes their rather violent methods — including lynchings — are completely illegal. However, they are seen as legitimate because they can be referred to as Hindu culture. These groups operate with the blessing of the state and even in collaboration with the police in the BJP-ruled states — and even elsewhere too, sometimes.

In fact, the police let them use their official vehicles and even subcontract to these groups the implementation of some of the laws they have to observe, including those related to cow protection. In that sense, the state is “deeper”: it penetrates society thanks to these groups which are embedded in society, entrenched in their locality. Both, the state and the vigilantes report to the Sangh Parivar, an organization that is not accountable to the voters.

Indira Gandhi and Narendra Modi are described as autocrats. Is Modi’s rule more dangerous? Why?

Both have what political psychologists call “an authoritarian personality,” a mindset often rooted in a deep sense of insecurity and even an inferiority complex. This psychological factor explains the absence of interaction with others — lest they have to face contradictions — and the very limited number of people they trust.

That said, Indira Gandhi lifted the Emergency in 1977 because she could not stand the critiques of those in the West as well as in India who described her as a dictator. Modi, like the rest of the RSS, does not believe in liberal democracy and does not care very much for the way Westerners indict his regime. Yes, his brand of autocracy is more dangerous than Indira Gandhi’s amateurish authoritarianism because he has a long-term plan: he wants to create the Hindu Rashtra, a socio-political dispensation where the minorities are bound to be second-class citizens, where a unitary state will undermine federalism for good, where Hindi will be imposed upon the whole country, where parliament will be the echo chamber of the government and where the judiciary will be sidelined because of its lack of legitimacy compared to the elected leader. This is the limit of this autocracy: the ruler needs the legitimacy coming from elections to prevail over other power centers, including the judiciary. In that sense, India indulges more in electoral authoritarianism than in autocracy: the demotic dimension remains, but the rule of law shrinks, as well as dissent, the media being captured by friends of the government or subjugated by censorship.

Why do Muslims vote for Modi?

Very few Muslims do! Not more than 8 percent if you go by the CSDS-Lokniti 2019 exit poll (against 7 percent in 2014). Who are these Muslims? First, you have those who distantiate themselves from the Sunni majority, be they Shias, Bohras or Khojas — groups the BJP regards as “good Muslims,” which the party has co-opted, in Gujarat or Uttar Pradesh. Secondly, you have those who are part of a BJP-dominated clientelistic network. In constituencies with a large Muslim minority, the BJP sometimes nominates candidates (possibly Muslims) who will play the role of patrons of the community in exchange for their votes; a personalized relation then crystallizes. Thirdly, in places where Muslims have been badly affected by riots that the BJP has provoked to polarize the voters before elections, some of them may prefer to vote the party to power to avoid this strategy being repeated. But this is not the most common scenario.

India after Modi. What is it likely to be? 

This is a very difficult question. First, we do not know how many times he’ll be reelected. And it makes a big difference: a point of no return may be reached after 15, 20 or 25 years… Secondly, it is very difficult to know how resilient institutions are. They seem to be very weak, but is it because of fear or is it because the bureaucrats, the lawyers, etc. who adhere to Hindu nationalism to some extent? Thirdly, can some of the laws that are responsible for the condition of Muslims be reversed — in particular those regarding the beef ban, interreligious marriages, conversion, and citizenship? Can the CAA be revisited? In post-Zia Pakistan similar identity-related issues have become red lines. Last but not least, India after Modi will be different if he has designated a successor. Will he do it? And who will he choose? Will the RSS be in a position to stage a comeback in this context? I prefer not to predict anything more precise because there are too many variables at play.