‘Modi has brought structural changes’: Paul Wallace

Paul Wallace is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at the University of Missouri, Columbia. His edited volume on the 2014 elections, India’s 2014 elections: A Modi-led Sweep, came out recently. In this conversation with Hardnews, he discusses the BJP under Modi and the future of Indian politics 

Abeer Kapoor & Sadiq Naqvi Delhi 

What, in your view, precipitated the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi ?

Well, if you look at the cover of the book, he is the book, he is the cover. The title is India’s 2014 Elections: A Modi-led BJP Sweep. He has revitalised India, considering the last several years of the second Congress regime; India’s feeling was that there was a high degree of corruption, both the Anna Hazare and the Kejriwal movements brought out that the leadership was really lacking in India. This reflected in the feeling that the Congress party was continuing to decline.

 An increasingly negative feeling was growing in India. All the social and pre-election surveys pointed to this growing dissatisfaction. As a result, the Congress party continued to decline and the BJP continued to rise.

Modi’s spectacular triumph has provided a different spirit in India, and that was evidenced by the way the new aspirational class, these 100 million new voters, were galvanised under his leadership. The idea of India becoming a global power attracted the youth, and the Indian diaspora all over the world who thronged in large numbers to support him. No one wanted to be left behind in that moment.

Though Modi and the BJP are interchangeable, this is his triumph and not that of the party. There are, according to me, great similarities between the current Prime Minister and Mrs Indira Gandhi, there is a cult of personality. In a political sense, the similarity is reflected in the way he is engaged in a project of centralisation. Through a multi-pronged approach: Making the old leadership irrelevant, he forced them to retire, which he followed by centralising the power in the government. He is known to micromanage policy decisions as he did in Gujarat, something very similar to what Indira Gandhi did – she made the PMO central. You now have the regime of Modi in both the party and the government. That’s structural change in politics and a structural change in government. 

Does this centralisation of power bode well for a federal country such as India?

He is primarily using the Indira Gandhi model of centralisation, and this does not bode well for federalism in a number of ways. Any competing source of power is attacked and demoted, then they are brought back in a subsidiary, almost subservient, position. What happened to the Shiv Sena in the Maharashtra elections is an example of this strategy. They were included in the alliance, but now they have to bow to the party. This, however, is not a new model for India, but the strength of a leader lies in his ability to delegate. This raises the question, to what extent is he delegating? 

Do you feel that Modi has arrogated power to himself?

He has been criticised for appointing a weak Cabinet; the members are not leaders in their own right and are subservient to the group around the PM. This is reflected in the inability of the land bill. It is not just the Opposition waving placards; you need a leadership that can garner support through concerted work over a period to get legislation through, even with a majority. 

The land bill has been unpopular, has it not?

The BJP did so well, in terms of the electoral performance, all of the BJP’s allied structures are feeling the strength. There are differences that have appeared within the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and BJP. The RSS’s agricultural front and labour union are now overjoyed about the legislation being proposed – it appears not all of the RSS-BJP combine is on the same wavelength. The last few times Mohan Bhagwat, the head of the RSS, has gone to the government rather than the other way around, and something like that has been noticed. 

Do you think he is undermining civil society in India?

That is a democratic corrective – no political party can be distant from its followers. According to an old Punjabi saying, a leader is only as strong as his followers. One corrective to centralising and authoritarianism is the growth of civil society.

There are thousands of non-governmental institutions in India. Jyotindra Das Gupta, who has written a chapter in the book, is exceptional at pointing out how these institutions put a damper on authoritarian and centralising tendencies because civil society represents the diversity. Civil society in the country is both very large and strong. Currently, India’s civil society is being repressed; the clampdown on the Ford Foundation is a good example of that.

He is not trying to undermine the institutions but is trying to centralise them so he can use them – they don’t have the same purpose, so that is wrong for India. The US has seen such situations, but only during wartime.

He is taking the first steps that will lead to a situation similar to the Emergency, but I doubt he will do that because the reaction will be too strong. Any attempts to do something similar will be piecemeal. In terms of his power, he is less ideological than earlier – coming from the RSS and being a pracharak from a really young age, being a political monk, he really imbibed the RSS ideology. He used that to rise in power, so I think power is his ideology more than Hindutva or some notion of communalism. The RSS and its affiliated groups are also independent sources of power. The Hindu identity, Hindutva and other such institutions that Modi uses, he uses for power and political control – this is somewhat a different notion, it is dangerous, but different. 

Do you see a contest between the RSS and Modi at any level?

The message of development and modernisation, social media and organisational elements are successful, I think he will rely on them. The danger is if the BJP is not so successful, if they do poorly in the Bihar elections and the UP elections come, there is a temptation to use elements that are more communal, and that is dangerous. This danger is not limited to the electoral fortunes of either the BJP or the Congress, but for the future of India. That is my concern as an outsider. 

Do you think the sheen of the Modi government is waning?

The sheen of any movement will wane over time. They registered a win in the state elections in Maharashtra and Haryana. What surprised me was Haryana. I understand the social base there, and  Modi was able to attract more of a social base. As I said before, Delhi brought about a correction.

There are two interesting factors involved with the Bihar elections. The first is, until when and to what extent will the unlikely tie-up between Mulayam Singh Yadav and Lalu Prasad Yadav work? The same thing on the BJP side, they too have put together a shaky alliance in the state. It will be interesting to see how these alliance systems work out, and the Congress too becomes an interesting player even though it is not a strong player in this state, but one never knows in the elections.     

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: SEPTEMBER 2015