24 March, 2023


India’s Modi-Fied Populism

By Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Prof. Kumar David

Nehru in his first broadcast to the people of India as Prime Minister on 15 August 1947 began with the words: “Today I address you for the first time officially as the First Servant of the Indian people, pledged to their service and their betterment. I am here because you willed it so and I remain here so long as you choose to honour me with your confidence”. It is fitting that Narendra Modi echoed his illustrious predecessor and could find no better term than First Servant to introduce himself on the occasion of his first speech as Prime Minister. He did not seek to match the soaring eloquence of Nehruesque rhetoric, his is a more homespun style as suits the man, but there were common themes; most notably Nehru’s call to spurn divisiveness (“Our first and immediate objective must be to put an end to all internal strife and violence, which disfigure and degrade us and injure the cause of freedom”), resonated with Modi.

“We have had communal tensions for ages. This led to the division of the country. We have had to face the poison of casteism and communalism. How long these evils will continue? We have had enough of fights, many have been killed. Nobody has benefited; except casting a slur on Mother India. I appeal to all whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism or discrimination, let us resolve to put a moratorium for 10 years”.

Why only 10 years; maybe after an abstemious decade recidivism is impossible. This essay is not about parallels with Nehru, but let me sneak in that Modi even used the ‘destiny’ word (“I assure you that this country has a destiny”) and no Indian is unfamiliar with the “tryst with destiny . . . at the midnight hour” in the Constituent Assembly on August 14-15 1947.

A populist not a neo-liberal

One cannot judge Modi from one speech to the nation, or to be more accurate one budget and one speech, though evidence is mounting. Like others who were deeply angered by the reputation that rubbed off on Modi from the Gujarat riots, I am still unwilling to drop my guard. But facts are facts; the budget and this independence-day speech from the ramparts of Red Fort, are not what one would expect from a hardened neo-liberal; this is Indian  popular democracy in play. Call it populism if you are disgruntled that it is not rightwing enough. Prior to the elections and in my first essays afterwards, I insisted the BJP-Modi government would not be able to abandon a mixed-economy and cannot turn its back on the expectations of a billion people. Western economic and political pundits, the Economist, Financial Times, WSJ and such tracts, and Indian and Lankan commentators who I heard or read, predicted with delight that BJP-Modi India would swing way out to the right: “Hail Narendra Regan! Hail Margaret Modi!” All have been proved wrong. Why could they not see the obvious? Search me!

I would love to think that the Prime Minister of India reads my pieces. On 20 July (“Politically-cautious growth-oriented budget”) I drew particular attention and provided a bar-chart decrying that 597 million Indians defecate in the wide outdoors. As if by magic he seems to have responded! Modi spent a full five minutes (to judge from the English transcript) on sanitation, vowing to make outdoor defecation a thing of the past, and promising separate toilets for the sexes in schools. He committed his government and implored States and business corporations to join in by investing in sanitation to end ubiquitous al fresco crapping. Modi is a doer and if he gets this done within a few years, India will overtake China, at least in public sanitation. I am not being facetious; these are the people’s needs; these are the urgent tasks that any good populist leader must tackle.

There were numerous populist themes in the 65 minute Independence Day speech, the most notable are as follows. Cynics will say “Don’t believe a word”; I say we need to wait and see.

  • A commitment to Pradhanmantri Jan-Dhan Yojana, a scheme to open bank accounts on a mass scale for the poorest families in India. Government will guarantee the accounts to the tune of Indian Rs 100,000. This scheme, if it comes to fruition, will much increase the scope for informal economic activity and enhance national savings for productive investment, albeit through the populous small accounts sector.
  • The Sansad Aadarsh Gram Yojana scheme under which members of the Lok Sabaha and Raja Sabaha will choose one village each, of population 3000 to 5000 and build it into a model village by 2016, two more between this date and the 2019 general elections, and five more during the tenure of the next parliament. The parameters of a model village are being worked out. I do not know whether this WILL get done, but it IS eminently doable and the knock on effect will spread far beyond the 6000 villages as Chinese experience has shown.
  • A strong statement of opposition to, and an appeal to families and the medical profession to stand against female abortion and infanticide.
  • A stand against sexual harassment of women and a demand that parents take education and instruction of their sons in hand, because this lacuna is the source of the canker.

I was not born yesterday and am aware that promises of politicians need to be flavoured with cartloads of salt. If that is the thought passing through readers minds I will not hesitate to agree. My point here, however, is somewhat different; the huge question of how much of all this will get done aside, there is now the key judgement of locating the ideology of Modi-now as Prime Minister. This speech, the budget and the refusal, so far, to retreat in the face of WTO-US pressure on secure subsidised food for the poor, do not come through as the canon of a lick-spittle stooge of IMF neo-liberalism or the faith-base of an anti-Muslim fire-breathing Hindutva ideologue. It is more the ideology of populism and an economic orientation to oil the wheels of growth while retaining known and established economic and political structures. Quite clearly, Modi so far, is modi-fying not doing away with the economic role of the state and he is retaining the fundamentals of Indian secular democracy.

There certainly was a call to foreign investors – “Come manufacture in India; paper to plastics, satellites to submarines, automobiles to agro products”.  Interestingly these passages appealing to foreign capital were blended with appeals to small industry, techno-savvy youth and the need for technical education and IT competence. Modi seems to be quite sold on IT, there were lengthy references to technology and an interesting passage that went “Our dream is therefore of Digital India. When I talk of Digital India I don’t speak of the elite, it is for the poor people”. This cannot all be hogwash and pretence from start to finish; this Modi is not what we of liberal democracy and the left thought he was. It’s time to set aside our prejudices and give the bloke a chance. In the first instance, in his first term, one should be cautiously cooperative; what other choice do we have anyway!

There was the expected emphasis on education, electronic manufacturing, e-governance, defence and the military. For Modi modernisation is in the air “India is no longer a nation of snake charmers”. But one commitment that I found most encouraging was a statement of belief in deepening federalism and replacing the Planning Commission by a more decentralised instrument.

“India’s federal structure is more important today than in the last 60 years. To strengthen our federal structure, to make our federal structure vibrant, to take our federal structure as a heritage of development, a team of Chief Ministers and the Prime Minister should be there, a joint team of the Centre and the States should move forward. We will have to think about giving the Planning Commission a look; it is a very old system and have to be rejuvenated and changed a lot. We will replace the planning commission with a new institution having a new design and structure, a new body, a new soul, a new thinking, a new direction, a new faith towards forging a new direction to lead the country based on creative thinking, public-private partnership, optimum utilization of resources, utilization of youth power of the nation, to promote the aspirations of State governments seeking development, to empower the State governments and to empower the federal structure”.

There is a reflex negative reaction among old leftists like me when dismantling the Planning Commission which has crafted many five-year plans, is mentioned. But it is also true that it is an old instrument and needs revamping. It is even truer that centralised planning has to give way to decentralised instruments that can better serve India’s powerful State governments to advance economic development. (Lankan readers should not confuse our motley circus of provincial councillors, especially of UPFA ilk, with the robust State governments in India, horrendous corruption in most of them notwithstanding).

If this Modi chap makes an impact, or even a serious start on sanitation, bank accounts for country’s poorest 42% who have none, several thousand model villages, strengthening federalism and advancing women’s issues, he will go down in history as a powerful grass-roots populist. The Centre and the States will have to lead together in these initiatives. Foreign investors and much needed public-private partnerships will not set the agenda or the tone; they are necessary but they will not be the determining element. I will borrow a term from the cranky discourse within petty-bourgeois post-modernist circles: “Hegemony”. Hegemony will not reside in the domain the neo-liberal forecourt; well, at least I hope not.

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Latest comments

  • 3

    Gnanasara = Modi

  • 1

    Modi bubble has burst after he has asked for implementation of 13A. This follows the TNA talks with Susima Swaraj.

    Govt was banking on the clownish Subramanium Swamy presently attending the Defence Confab in Colombo. Swamy made various wild statements but now the Indian EAM has put the record right.

  • 2

    Dr. David,

    This is off topic, but concerns your earlier article about Subramanian Swamy’s opinions during his Lankan visit. The TNA meeting with Sushma Swaraj and Modi has exposed Swamy as someone who is out of touch with the GOI’s real thinking, and not anywhere close to the real power within the BJP. The same probably applies to other so-called “intellectuals” like Swappan Dasgupta and Chari Seshadri.

    • 1

      You are right. At that time I thought, and was given to believe by an Indian friend, that there was a struggle in the BJP about what line to adopt on the Lankan issue. The matter is now settled and Swamy and his four fellow travellers have been exposed as having no influence. I am glad to have this chance to make an update.

  • 1

    Tamodaya, the modaya. That is what you are. If you consider Gnanasara equals Modi then you must be as mad as Gnanasara. If you really want to know how mad Gnanasara is read: https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/understanding-gnanasara-through-a-psychological-perspective/

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