Why am I against Narendra Modi as Prime Minister?

Written originally eighteen months back, unsurprisingly, every word sounds true. Self-fulfilling prophecy? Fair enough I guess.

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The debate around Narendra Modi has been quite toxic and no one will concede that the other is unbiased. I think we also forget that it is ok for us not to agree on each other’s political choices. In this post, I try to summarise why I am against Narendra Modi as a potential Prime Minister of my country. For me, the reasons for opposing Modi are compelling enough that I do not find him to be better by comparison to Rahul Gandhi or Mulayam Singh.

Let me try to explain why, and tackle some urban myths along the way:

On riots, people bring up 1984 to counter 2002, but given all the court proceedings and publicly available information, it is impossible for me to believe that Modi wasnt complicit (even if he just stood aside and let his supporters run riot). I also object to the fact that many of us now also casually ignore the belligerent attitudes of Modi and his aides towards groups that oppose them.

But Modi has been exonerated by the Special Investigation Team and other courts? I think we have many examples from contemporary history where court cases have been manipulated and elections have been won by stoking passions and polarising voters…where the victory is technically speaking, democratic, but raises plenty of unresolved questions. For a Modi supporter, a legal and electoral victory on paper is enough; for someone opposing, the manner of victory (on both fronts) is disturbing.

So do I think the Congress is secular? This is a fruitless debate and as I said, to call out something as objectively bad, I do not need relative standards. But to answer the question – Congress is opportunistic and so are parties like Samajwadi Party. This form of opportunism is perhaps worse than a stated right-wing xenophobic nationalistic position that the BJP and its fellow campers (Bajrang Dal, VHP, RSS, etc) have. But again, real political engagement for us citizens is in refusing to accept that our choices are confined to these.

But Modi always talks of ‘India first’: True, Modi’s speeches and interviews have been about his ‘6 crore Gujarati brothers and sisters’ and ‘India first’. If that is all you hear, you are cherry-picking. What about the countless jibes at Muslims? (Update: There is no sign of such statements abating, going by Modi’s campaign speeches in Bihar)

A ton of data out there suggests that Modi did not transform Gujarat. We ignore longitudinal data on Gujarat when it suits our argument. There is indeed no evidence to believe that Modi (or any non-UPA) government would have fared any better as far as India’s economic growth is concerned. I also disagree with the industrial policy that the Modi govt seems to follow because of its exclusionary nature and its tendency to promote a blind capitalist model where national resources are doled out for private gain and the voices of those affected are ignored (or suppressed). The data on poor development indices in Gujarat in spite of its economic growth only supports that argument. I am deeply uncomfortable that those that support Modi do not find these disturbing.

Add to all this, the coarse language in public; speeches and interviews that focus on personal attacks rather than details of his party’s agenda. I lament the loss of civility in our public discourse and although no political party escapes guilt for this, Modi stands out for his belligerence and consistently disrespectful demeanour.

I thought last week’s India TV chat-show was a disgrace – seemed like we were in the 16th century where the king had to be pleased by loud chants. I am not dismissing popular support or sentiment, but a studio audience is different from a crowd in a maidan. Also, from this unqualified adulation is born complacency, which we cannot afford with someone like Modi. (Update: the multiple stadium performances and carefully choreographed interviews by Amit Shah and Modi have only added to this discomfort)

Because of Modi, the discussion on the streets in the run-up to the 2014 polls has been xenophobic, with deep-seated prejudices coming out and people freely stereotyping ‘others’ that they do not understand. The positioning of the debate as between a state-led model of development and private enterprise-led model of development is entirely misleading. First of all, in a poor country like ours, the state cannot absolve itself of the responsibility of being the protector of rights and justice. Secondly, crony capitalism is good for no one – not even for private enterprises and only leads to rampant corruption. Third, Modi and BJP have been at least as populist as any other dispensation running their respective state governments.

Why hold Modi to a different standard than others? The answer to this is less clear in my mind. But it has something to do with the brazen personality, the personality cult that he is promoting, his tendency for hyperbole and appropriating credit for all things good in Gujarat and his proximity to a position of leadership that I care about. That is why, Modi matters more than Tytler or Kalmadi or Mulayam and Amit Shah matters more than Azam Khan. Also, from a careful reading of the data, it is clear that Modi is no miracle-man. In fact, in this federal polity, no one is. An authoritarian may have fantasies of being the one-man saviour of 1.2 billion people – but this is pure fantasy. It is important to also recognise how perceptions are created by the media and corporations in this day and age. The possibility of a Modi-run has sparked off a bull-run in our stock exchange. While it may be simplistic to say that a high performing stock exchange performance does not put food on the plate of the poor, it is true that the corporate weather-vane is not a good gauge of general prosperity in our country.

Am I (presumptuously) worried about the ‘idea of India’? No. Opposing Modi does not mean being scared that the nation is going to fall apart due to him. I agree that Modi doesn’t have that power, even if he sparks off intolerance and violence towards all opposition (religious minorities or otherwise). So we will not self-destruct if Modi comes to power; neither will we suddenly prosper. Same holds for a Third Front govt or at worst, UPA 3. Revival is going to take time. And while we wait, I guess the battle is about what each of us think are the acceptable compromises to make, and our preferences for who we want as leaders in the interim.

But Modi is a reformed man (and no riots in Gujarat for the last 12 years): If I think someone is morally culpable, the question for me is not about whether he will repeat himself, but about whether he has suffered the consequences of his action (or inaction). Giving him a chance to become the Prime Minister of my country – the effective head of state – is not an option. There are some cardinal sins in state-craft that one cannot be pardoned for.

Finally, there isn’t much reason to sympathise with BJP (and VHP and RSS) due to their ‘civilisational consciousness’ and claims on India’s history, heritage and future – but Modi seems to be dismantling the structures in a party that seemed to have some semblance of collective decisionmaking and inner-party democracy. The BJP prides itself for having a galaxy of successful administrators and strategists, butt is standing around reduced to a one-man party with a bunch of supplicants. This has caused visible cracks within the party, but the lure of power has held them together so far. But for how long? and what if they lose?

So who should you vote for? Vote for the best candidate in your constituency, because that is what our Parliament is meant to be – a set of public representatives who can ‘think national and act local’, as opposed to state legislature members who ‘think local and act local’. If we are lucky, the BJP will be forced to choose another candidate for the top job (if they get a shot at it). Irrespective of the outcome, the choices we make when voting increases our responsibility post the elections when a new government is in place. Irrespective of the government of the day, do not allow prejudice, intolerance and lack of compassion to guide your lives.

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