Why the Modi persona polarises India

Last Updated 19 April 2019, 08:27 IST

On Quora, the Q&A website where a motley crowd of people ask and reply to others' queries, the phrase ‘polarizing figure’ was characterised in the following ways:

* Someone with a tendency to divide, to sharply split opinions into opposite sides; the antonym being a unifying figure, someone who integrates.

* Someone with the potential to divide opinions into two sharp camps. The more polarising the figure, sharply divided the camps will be.

The deeper one delves into history, the more instances of polarising figures crop up. In post-Independence India, there were leaders like Lal Bahadur Shastri who became prime minister, yet did not arouse extreme views. Jawaharlal Nehru was genial but his politics raised the hackles of adversaries. Yet, it was Indira Gandhi who emerged as the first truly polarising figure in post-1947 India. She remained one in death too.

Indira's handling of the Punjab crisis was found so grievous that her own bodyguards decided to extract revenge by taking her life. Her admirers, in return, vented anger on the entire community, albeit with more than measly assistance from several in the Congress party.

The world over, polarising figures stride across continents spanning various periods in history. In the run-up to the 2014 polls, when the entire global media descended on India in their quest for the unravelling of the Modi persona, this writer, by virtue of having authored an early biography (unauthorised although with access to him) became almost an essential stopover for coffee or a quick bite.

They were from different nations, each with varied histories, but the more they heard about Narendra Modi, then still the Gujarat chief minister, they found that the depiction resonated with what they already knew.

"He sounds so much like Sarkozy," I recall a French journalist saying.

Another, a Russian, found echoes of Putin in my rendering of Modi's characteristics.

Yet another, who crossed multiple seas to arrive from a Latin American country, thought Modi was the mirror image of Hugo Chavez.

Personalities of these leaders had similarities -- overbearing, brooking no questioning, and convinced that whatever they were doing was for the nation's good. They believed that everything they touched would turn into nothing but gold and anything initiated by anyone of them could be nothing but a success.

But there was a fundamental difference between Modi and these leaders. What differentiated Modi was his commitment to an ideology. It was the pernicious idea of majoritarianism that distinguished him from the rest. Hindutva, after all, is not just Modi's ladder to power but also a lifelong commitment. This coupled with his own individualism -- the desire to position himself as the fulcrum around which every debate is to be waged -- marked his distinct space in the global order of strongmen.

But there have been others like him too. Be it Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey or even Donald Trump in the United States, Modi is at ease among them -- leaders who can either be loved or loathed, admired or detested. Modi is among those leaders who are perceived only in black or white terms, there are no grey shades when it comes to assessing or evaluating them.

Ideological edge

Part of this is, of course, because of Modi's politics. Hindutva, after all, is an ideology or worldview which has to be either a way of life or a complete negation of its ideas and ideals. This has been the primary issue which has made him distinct from his peers despite the obvious similarities. In fact, after he ascended office, there were many, including this writer who drew quick comparisons between him and Indira Gandhi.

Although the two share an authoritarian streak, Modi is not just driven by ambition, quest for power and glory as Indira Gandhi was. Additionally, Modi is also driven by the ideology of Hindutva. He sees himself as an usherer of a Hindu Rashtra.

He is a pragmatist no doubt, but programmes and agitations are never jettisoned at the cost of ideology. True that agitations on the Ram temple issue have been held back on occasions because the timing was politically inopportune, but Modi has never prevaricated when it comes to lending support to the sentiment for the construction of the temple.

But taking extreme positions has been instinctive for Modi. One of his childhood friends I interviewed in 2012 said that even as a child, Modi was "stubborn", someone who forced everyone to either like or dislike him. One of his teachers in primary school added that he did not want to be a camp follower and instead displayed leadership qualities early on.

Although an average student, he held himself in excessive esteem. Prahlad G Patel, the teacher, recalled that on one occasion the young Modi refused to show his home work to a class monitor because he wanted to be judged only by someone who was above him in the hierarchy. The friend recalled that Modi was aware that a class monitor evoked awe, but also ended up making not too many friends. By resisting the directive to submit his notebook to him, Modi neatly divided the class in two halves, one with him and the other with the monitor. That was possibly the first instance of the polarising leader that he would eventually became.

From his "we will not feed Pakistan chicken biryani" jibe during the Kargil conflict in 1999 to his latest barbs during this election campaign, Modi has always adopted an ideologically polarising stance except in the run up to the 2014 polls. At that time, his positioning was more nuanced, he restrained those facets of his personality which sharply marked him out from adversaries.

But on ideological issues, especially those pertaining to Hindutva, where he stood poles apart, Modi tactically softened his stance because he was unsure if India was ready for a leader who wanted to storm the citadel from the Right. Moreover, he wanted the backing of liberals who were thoroughly dissatisfied with the United Progressive Alliance regime yet would not back a leader who was willing to wave a trishul or trident at the drop of a hat. The tactics worked and he remained the non-polarising premier for several months but slowly turned true to his core persona.

Being a polarising leader makes it easy to convert elections into a presidential contest. Arun Jaitley claimed a couple of days ago that the current elections are a referendum on Modi. He is partially correct. In certain states, especially in Northern and Western India, which has faced the brunt of his divisive politics, this is true. A polarising polity significantly reduces the number of undecided voters and those being listed in this category in independent surveys are possibly those who do not wish to reveal their cards.

Moreover, a polarising politician, backed by a narrow-minded and hostile-to-critics party machinery results in social sullenness. Expression against this is always silent. Certainly, Modi has electorally benefited from projecting the inherent dimension of his personality. The moot question is whether this tactic will succeed one more time. Even indefinitely!

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based writer and author. His latest book is 'RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right'. He has also written 'Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times' (2013))

(Published 19 April 2019, 08:20 IST)

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