Within the Saffron Family

Andrew Whitehead

  • The Modi Effect: Inside Narendra Modi’s Campaign to Transform India by Lance Price
    Hodder, 342 pp, £25.00, March 2015, ISBN 978 1 4736 1089 7
  • 2014: The Election that Changed India by Rajdeep Sardesai
    Penguin, 372 pp, £16.99, November 2014, ISBN 978 0 14 342498 7

Jashodaben was married at 17; her husband was a year or two older. It was an arranged match. They were both from the same underprivileged Hindu caste in Gujarat; they separated after three years or so. ‘We parted on good terms as there were never any fights between us,’ Jashodaben told a reporter last year. ‘In three years, we may have been together for all of three months. There has been no communication from his end to this day.’ Jashodaben, now in her sixties, is a retired teacher who lives with her brothers in the town of Unjha in Gujarat and spends much of her time praying. She never remarried and didn’t feel she was free to do so. After all, she declared in a recent affidavit, ‘I am the wife of the prime minister of India.’

Narendra Modi tried hard to conceal her existence. When he fought elections, he always left blank the column about marital status in the nomination papers. But as an aspiring prime minister in last year’s general election he could no longer get away with it. Rajdeep Sardesai, a TV anchor who has written a book about the election, says the fact that Modi, who became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, had ‘a wife tucked away in the village’ was one of the worst kept secrets in Gujarat politics – but even so, most Gujaratis, and certainly most Indians, didn’t know about it. When Sardesai wanted to find the missing wife a few years ago he was warned off: Modi, he was told, ‘is very sensitive about it’.

After her husband’s election victory, Mrs Modi was given a security detail. She filed a request under India’s freedom of information legislation to try to find out who authorised it and why. ‘I am surrounded by five security guards all the time,’ she told a reporter from Reuters. ‘Often my relatives or I have to cook for them, my sister-in-law has to make their beds. This is a bit annoying … It gets really chaotic when I have to travel, because I use public transport and the guards are following me in an air-conditioned car.’ Though she seemed unimpressed by the sole privilege she’d been awarded as her country’s first lady, Indian newspapers reported that she was willing to return to her husband’s side, if he asked. In May, unhappy that she hadn’t received a satisfactory answer and upset by the use of her maiden name in the official response, she submitted a second request. By this time, the media’s interest in her had largely faded, but the revelation had made clear how little India knew about its prospective leader and how different his background was from that of most of the country’s political elite.

Jashodaben’s name doesn’t appear in the index of Lance Price’s account of Modi’s rise to power. Her story is recounted briefly, along with Modi’s usual response: ‘Modi refuses to discuss the marriage.’ Price’s book is part of a rebranding exercise: it’s not a partisan account, but it is a result of the desire of Modi and the team around him to be, as they would see it, better understood. One of Modi’s London-based associates arranged access for Price, a former BBC political correspondent who worked as deputy communications director for Tony Blair. Modi usually keeps his distance from the media and particularly from organisations or individuals seen as liberal-inclined and unsympathetic, but eight weeks after his swearing-in, Price was ushered into Race Course Road for the first of four hour-long interviews. Nothing was off-limits, no copy approval was sought: it was a calculated risk to give a left-of-centre political writer so much access to the most right-wing prime minister in India’s history.

The risk paid off. Price’s account is respectful rather than admiring, but it contains none of the censure Modi often attracts. Price praises his determination and ‘indomitable will’. Of all the heads of government he has rubbed shoulders with, Price says that Modi is ‘without doubt the most intriguing and the hardest to fathom’. But the access he was given is more remarkable than anything he was told: the bulk of the book is an account of Modi’s ‘superbly fought and extraordinarily successful’ election campaign – though Price wasn’t in India at the time and doesn’t pretend to expertise in Indian politics. For a sense of place and occasion you need Sardesai’s effervescent account.

The damage to Modi’s reputation dates back more than a decade. In 2002, within five months of his becoming chief minister of Gujarat, rioting between Hindus and Muslims left more than a thousand dead. The trigger was an attack on an express train carrying Hindu activists and pilgrims back from a ceremony in Ayodhya, where ten years earlier the pulling down of a mosque, said to have been built on the birthplace of the Hindu deity Lord Ram, had led to the worst communal violence in India since Partition. The facts, as so often, are disputed, but it seems that a large crowd threw stones at the train, four carriages were set on fire, and 59 people, 12 of them children, burned to death. Over the next three days, hundreds of Muslims were killed, and, initially at least, the police and civil authorities appeared unwilling or unable to respond. Modi compounded his inability to prevent the rioting with his reluctance to express remorse, though he did offer his resignation at a meeting of the national executive of his party, the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). It wasn’t accepted. Two years later, after Atal Bihari Vajpayee, the BJP prime minister at the head of a coalition government, suffered a surprise election defeat, he lamented that not removing Modi had been a mistake: Modi had tarnished both the party and the government.

Modi says that his role in the riots has been investigated fully and repeatedly, and that he has never been charged with any offence. That’s true, though some of his political colleagues have been charged and convicted. The US and the UK were sufficiently concerned to place Modi in diplomatic quarantine, withholding visas and ambassadorial meetings, until he became too big a political figure to shun.

Sardesai reported on the 2002 riots and conducted an interview with Modi at the time. He ‘came out … almost convinced that the chief minister was intent on ending the cycle of violence’. Less than an hour after he’d finished filming the interview, though, his team was stopped at a roadblock set up by Hindu vigilantes who were brandishing swords and axes, ‘drunk on the power they had over us’. They demanded that the broadcasters pull down their trousers. Sardesai had been circumcised at birth, which would have been enough to seal his fate. But he and his team escaped what he describes as a ‘near-death experience’ by invoking Modi’s name and showing their attackers a clip from the interview.

As the grandson of a senior police officer in Gujarat, Sardesai knows what he’s talking about when he asserts that ‘no major riot takes place in this country without the government of the day being either incompetent or complicit, or both.’ He thinks Modi was incompetent: at this early stage of his career as chief minister he was unable to restrain more febrile elements within the Hindu nationalist alliance. But Sardesai still wonders whether Modi ‘wilfully allowed the riots to simmer’. As Modi became more prominent nationally, he was repeatedly questioned about the riots; he never found a satisfactory way of addressing the issue. In one TV interview, he pulled off his lapel microphone and walked out. On another occasion, he compared the way he felt to the pain he would suffer if a puppy fell under the wheels of his car. Now he won’t talk about it at all: ‘I have said enough,’ he told Price, ‘and you can read the reports and the Supreme Court judgment for yourself.’

In order to win power, Modi had to neutralise his reputation for religious extremism, letting the 2002 riots ‘fade into history’, as Price puts it, while focusing instead on his reputation for economic competence. It worked, and Price’s view, which is more favourable than Sardesai’s and many others’, is that Modi should be judged on what he has achieved in office, not on past events. As chief minister in Gujarat, Modi established a reputation for efficient, pro-business leadership and higher than average growth and development. He won three successive elections in his home state, a rare achievement in a country where the ‘anti-incumbency factor’ has become a cliché of psephological analysis. Critics have argued that Gujarat’s economic success has been overstated, but Modi’s reputation remains high, especially with big business, which had grown frustrated with the in-ability of the outgoing Congress-led national government to see liberalisation through. Industrialists who had initially seen Modi as a divisive figure were won over, and bankrolled his general election victory.

Whatever his economic successes, without the loyalty of the millions that the Hindu nationalist movement can mobilise, he would never have won the election. As he made the move from periphery to centre, he managed to continue to appeal to the party faithful while advocating modernisation. ‘If Narendra Modi were to jettison completely the Hindu nationalist ideology that he grew up with then he wouldn’t last very long,’ Price argues. ‘He won’t do that and, so far as I can tell, he has no desire to. But if he allows the more extreme elements … to influence the way he governs to any significant degree then he risks alienating those at home and abroad who want to believe that his commitment to create a modern, successful and outward-looking India reflects the real Modi.’

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The trail to the ‘real’ Modi leads back to his marriage and the way he left it. He told his wife that he wanted to travel across India, and spent two years or so visiting ashrams and pilgrimage sites. At about this time, he became a ‘pracharak’ – a preacher or proselytiser for the Hindu nationalist movement, Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). Most pracharaks are vegetarian, teetotal and celibate – which may explain why, when news of his wife got out, Modi’s family insisted that the marriage had not been consummated.

The RSS is an immensely influential yet publicity-shy organisation. It is at the apex of a loose confederation of Hindu nationalist organisations, of which the BJP is the political wing. Most of the senior figures in the BJP have close links with the RSS, and many of their policy and personnel decisions are guided by it. ‘The RSS may not be the BJP’s daily remote control, as its critics suggest,’ Sardesai writes, ‘but neither is it some voluntary organisation solely devoted to social welfare. It is, at the end of the day, the final word within the saffron “family”.’ At the heart of Hindutva is the belief that India’s Hindus – a billion of them, constituting four-fifths of the population – are burdened by the weight of centuries of Muslim and colonial rule, and by a secular tradition in public life that is too indulgent to religious minorities and insufficiently respectful of Hindu values.

RSS full-timers are sometimes deputed to the BJP, but they don’t usually make it to the top. Modi is the first pracharak to get as far as state chief minister, never mind prime minister. The role of pracharak requires discipline, service and renunciation, but Modi also possesses more worldly qualities. As you might expect from a veteran of Blair’s Downing Street, Price is best when describing the branding and positioning, the advertising and social media campaigns, the creation of the ‘Modi wave’ that swept the pracharak to victory. Modi positioned himself as an outsider, a member of a low caste, from a small town, who’d never been an MP or national minister – and Congress made mistakes that allowed him to trade on this image. Because Modi, as a child, had helped out on his father’s tea stall, the Congress MP Mani Shankar Aiyar joked on TV that while Modi would never be prime minister he could always sell tea. So the BJP presented Modi as a ‘chai wallah’, up against the shehzada (‘prince’) Rahul Gandhi, the son, grandson and great-grandson of prime ministers. The snobbery of the South Delhi elite played to Modi’s advantage in a democracy where the disadvantaged know their political strength.

Just about every aspect of Modi’s campaign was carefully managed. An exceptional speaker in Gujarati and Hindi, he understood the importance of TV coverage of his campaign, and the BJP provided a live feed of his speeches. He used a 3D hologram to reach those who couldn’t get to his rallies – not simply as an election tool, but as an exemplar of the digital India he spoke of so often. It cost a fortune, but by the end of the campaign Modi had addressed more than seven million voters by hologram. He built a presence on social media well ahead of the election, and had a team of digital bandits who trolled his rivals. By the end of the campaign he had four million followers on Twitter; an account in Rahul Gandhi’s name had 56,000. On the ground, the BJP network stretched to every polling area, with the RSS providing much of the manpower. NaMo, as he was often called (his hapless Congress opponent was RaGa), won in what the Indian media described as a ‘tsunamo’.

‘It’s great to be talking to someone who just got more votes than any other politician anywhere in the universe,’ David Cameron told Modi. The BJP took 31 per cent of 550 million votes – barely above the Miliband mark – but the first-past-the-post system Britain bequeathed to India, combined with the strength of regional parties in the east and south, transformed this into a decisive victory. The BJP won 282 seats; Congress was reduced to 44 MPs, not even enough to be the formal opposition. Among first-time voters, the BJP’s margin was particularly emphatic, and it won in every social group apart from Muslims and Christians.

According to the Pew Research Centre, by 2050 India will have surpassed Indonesia as the country with the largest Muslim population in the world. Yet the Muslim influence in politics is diminishing. The BJP used to manage to rustle up a handful of Muslim MPs for the Lok Sabha, the lower house of parliament. Not this time. Last year’s election returned only 23 Muslim MPs, just 4 per cent of the Lok Sabha – though Muslims make up at least 14 per cent of the population.

The lurking concern is that a majoritarian political culture is emerging which could damage India’s greatest achievement of the past seventy years, the bedding down of a robust and secular participatory democracy. By all the standard benchmarks, India’s democracy is, as the political scientist Ashutosh Varshney puts it, an ‘improbable success’. In Battles Half Won (2013), he argues that a country’s survival as a democracy is mostly down to income levels and that India stands almost alone as a poor country that has had democracy based on the universal franchise ever since the first post-independence election (with the striking exception of the 19 months of Indira Gandhi’s Emergency). Democracy is now the ‘institutionalised common sense of Indian politics’. For all the barbs about Modi being a demagogue, his election is a landmark: it’s the first time any party other than Congress has secured more than half the seats in the Lok Sabha. This shows a democracy maturing rather than unwinding.

As yet, Modi has not acted on any of the standard BJP/RSS demands – building a temple on the disputed site at Ayodhya, abolishing Muslim family law, removing the special status given in the constitution to Muslim-majority Kashmir – any of which may inflame communal tensions. Others have been less careful: emboldened by his victory, some who regard themselves as his supporters have tried to organise voluntary mass ‘reconversions’ to Hinduism, using the phrase ghar wapsi, or ‘homecoming’, which reflects the Hindutva belief that all Indians are Hindus, even if some have strayed; they have complained loudly about a ‘love jihad’ (Muslim men marrying and converting Hindu women); and they have committed sporadic acts of violence and vandalism, which have put the small Christian community on edge. It feels too soon to endorse Price’s verdict that ‘there has been no evidence’ since Modi became prime minister of his religious beliefs having ‘any impact on policy that is remotely comparable … to the damaging influence of fundamental Christianity on the administration of President George W. Bush’. The truth is that on social issues, Modi has managed to be both a moderniser and a religious conservative. He used his first independence day speech to address India’s shaming record on sexual violence, urging parents to take as much responsibility for their sons’ behaviour as for their daughters’. He later made the bizarre claim that Hindu holy texts demonstrate that ancient India developed expertise in human genetics and plastic surgery.

After a year in office, Modi seems comfortable and secure in power. He has established a firm grip on his party, shunting aside the old guard, including his mentor and protector, L.K. Advani, the hardline party patriarch who even in his eighties believed he should be the prime ministerial candidate. But there are challenges. At first, the BJP claimed a series of impressive state election victories; but earlier this year, an upstart, anti-corruption party won local elections in Delhi – once a BJP citadel – in an even more emphatic manner. This will have reminded Modi that much of his support is pragmatic rather than ideological, and that it will ebb away if campaign promises aren’t met.

At home, Modi confronts the difficulty of reconciling his pro-business policies with his campaign promises to instal toilets in every home, clean up the Ganges and build tens of millions of houses. So far, at least, there’s no sign of the additional taxes and spending required for this accelerated social development. A political row over a proposed law that would make it easier (and cheaper) for businesses to buy agricultural land for industrial use has revealed how tricky it is to reward those who financed his election victory while maintaining his broad appeal.

Once, Modi’s international standing was his weak point. Now it’s his biggest success. He must be the only head of government to top the bill at Madison Square Garden, where he evangelised to the already devoted Indian diaspora. A clutch of US Congress members lined up to pay court. Of course, the world wants access to Indian markets, and the West wants a democratic counterpoint in Asia to China’s growing might. But it’s still a turnaround. It was only last year that the US ambassador to India met with Modi, signalling the end of his diplomatic isolation. Since the election, Obama has hosted Modi and visited him, and endorsed his inclusion as one of Time magazine’s ‘100 Leaders’. ‘Like India,’ Obama claimed, ‘he transcends the ancient and the modern – a devotee of yoga who connects with Indian citizens on Twitter and imagines a “digital India”.’

There is still much of the pracharak about him: his modest lifestyle, intense discipline and unsettling certainty of purpose. When he announced from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort that he was willing to work 15 hours a day in the nation’s service, it rang true. He has no immediate family in Delhi, no enthusiasms or outside interests, no apparent desire for relaxation. It’s difficult to pin down what drives him, but reasonable to assume that he is still working for the RSS as much as for the nation.