The popularity of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to baffle his detractors. They ask – “what has Modi created during these six years?” But that’s the wrong question to ask. His calling does not stem from what he created, but from what he destroyed and continues to destroy – a discredited the status quo. In this regard, his enduring mass appeal, in the absence of tangible achievements, is similar to that of Lalu Prasad in his heyday. Lalu’s mass appeal, which made him the undisputed leader of Bihar for more than 15 years, had also confused analysts. A study of the parallels between the two leaders could shed light on what it would take to successfully challenge Modi.
If you look at Modi’s biggest political initiatives of the past six years – demonetization, Section 370, the goods and services tax, farm and labor bills – they follow simple political logic. Modi rose to power in a society teeming with aspirations. These aspirations, embodied in particular by a neo-middle class, have been liberated by liberalization but not quite realized. Modi’s ingenuity was to merge these thwarted aspirations with a power system, deeply corrupted and captured by vested interests. It was the old one the status quo, which was completely discredited in 2014.
But Modi keeps reminding voters that the old systems of power are still alive, having taken hold during “70 years of maladministration”, and that dismantling them would be a long process. It thus demands and largely receives the patience of the electorate. It is only after the destruction of “old India” that the “new India” will be built.
All of his landmark political movements center on this tale of the destruction of the ancient the status quo. Demonetization was supposed to destroy the underground economy. The GST was needed to clean up the corrupt informal economy. Section 370 was repealed to dismantle the corrupt grip of the Abdullahs and Muftis (as well as the vested interests of the separatists) on the state, which had held Kashmir back and prevented its integration. Newly passed farm bills would uproot entrenched middlemen who had prevented agricultural modernization, as would labor bills that would destroy a entrenched labor aristocracy that hindered rapid industrialization.
In contrast, Modi failed to build new systems to replace the old ones. India’s Kashmir policy is in tatters, the implementation of the GST was a mess, the demonetization was an absolute disaster and there is no clarity on the new agricultural and labor regime. Unlike Jawaharlal Nehru, Modi lacks both the willpower and the ability to be an institution builder. And yet, the dramatically simple and reductive logic behind these narratives, far from being a weakness, is in fact their main strength. A good political narrative is essentially simple, as the example of Lalu shows.
Like Modi, Lalu’s rise to power represented a rejection of the old order. From the late 1960s, political consciousness was emerging among the backward castes of Bihar – shaped by leaders such as Ram Manohar Lohia, Jayaprakash Narayan, and Karpoori Thakur. The political aspirations of these peasant castes had been sharpened by the achievements of the Green Revolution. The old upper-caste-dominated order, embodied by the upper-caste-dominated Congress, had become discredited when Lalu became chief minister in 1990.
Again, like Modi, Lalu’s subsequent politics focused less on building a reformed Bihar, which would materially benefit his political base, and more on symbolic battles against the old order of the upper castes. The political slogan of his then Janata party was’Vikas Nahin, Samman Chahiye (We need dignity, not development) ”. As the political scientist Jeffrey Witsoe wrote, Lalu mobilized the backward castes not by political initiatives, but by symbolically appealing to themes of dignity. The main goal of his reign was to overturn upper-caste control of the state, which involved regular confrontations with the police, bureaucracy and justice controlled by the upper castes.
Unsurprisingly, this political style of conflict has deepened, in what political scientist Atul Kohli called the “crisis of governability” in Bihar. The state has lagged behind in education, health and employment. Problems of public order and corruption, which were already serious in previous congressional regimes, have continued to worsen, if not to worsen. Yet Lalu remained Bihar’s greatest leader and returned with an even greater victory in 1995. Populist showmen, like Lalu and Modi, are, for a time, immune to attacks on governance because they can easily transform criticism into validation. Critics are presented as the remnants of the old order, perpetually whining at the loss of their power and status. Lalu called all of his corruption scandals a conspiracy of upper caste investigative agencies and the judiciary. And the marginalized identified with Lalu as one of their own, as many poor, neo-bourgeois Indians identify with Modi (“son of a tea seller”) and gave him a long rope. Lalu’s reign had socially and politically empowered the backward castes and they did not want a return to the old political order dominated by the upper castes. In his symbolic battles, they saw one of their own challenge the despised system that had kept them away.
Yet, as Lalu discovered, in 2000, when he lost his majority, and in 2005, when he was turned away from power, popularity cannot last forever if you do not meet material aspirations. Modi may be going through a prolonged economic downturn and declining job creation, but the situation may change dramatically by 2024. A long rope has its limits, too.
But the lesson to be learned from Bihar is that this cannot happen without another political vision. Simply attacking the government does not work. Nitish Kumar promised a “Nutan Bihar ”(New Bihar), not a return to the old order. Jeffrey Witsoe and Francine Frankel noted that Nitish Kumar moved Lalu because he “was the ideal political figure to combine the themes of development and social justice, which Lalu had never managed to deliver together. But he didn’t stop at rhetoric; he skillfully politicized and cultivated a coalition of extremely backward castes, who felt marginalized under Lalu’s increasingly “Muslim-yadav” rule. With its “natural” base of Kurmis and Koeris, with a handful of Muslims from Pasmanda, it was a winning coalition once allied with the upper caste base of the Bharatiya Janata party. But, unlike Lalu, he did not simply project himself as a backward caste leader. He also appealed to an ambitious electoral bloc that wanted clean politics and material benefits.
If we are baffled by Modi’s popularity, we also have to ask ourselves what the opposition’s alternative vision is. Congress still suffers from corruption and entrenched privileges. Most of his prominent young leaders come from political dynasties and he is de facto ruled by fourth generation dynasts of the Nehru-Gandhi family. Lately, it has tried to become the party of the backward castes, Dalits and Muslims, but its attempts to mobilize on the ground have been weak and episodic. His leadership crisis has resulted in a lack of clarity on what the party stands for.
Likewise, many regional parties passively hope that the depletion of the social base of Congress will come back on its own without attempting to reconfigure their 1980s politics to meet the realities of 2020. Yes, Modi has survived the crisis comfortably. migrants, but the question is which party has seriously attempted to use this crisis to politicize the urban working classes and integrate them into their political coalition.
The old political system is discredited, and Modi’s eclipse, when it occurs, will likely be due to a new form of politics. The problem is, it’s hard to see this new policy anywhere on the horizon.
The author is a political columnist and research associate at the Center for Policy Research, Delhi
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