Allowing the worst of the party to drive the agenda may be strategic, but it is a dangerous game to play.
I miss the old RSS. I never liked their views, but I appreciated the sophistication of their position. When I first arrived in the United States, I would try to explain to my new friends the fact that the RSS did not want Muslims to convert since they were already, in effect, Hindus who practiced Islam. All they wanted, my RSS friends would tell me, was that the Muslims accepted that there was no escape.
I understood why many Muslims found this offensive or worse, but it did stand in interesting contrast with the naked proselytising zeal that Christians and Mormons in Ronald Reagan’s America were awash with. “Don’t you want to be saved?” was often the opening gambit. “We have ways to discuss religion that do not descend to this level”, I would try to imply to them. I am not sure they understood.
In my youth, the typical RSS representative I met was an intellectual; they quoted the Quran at me and I, who had not read it, could not respond. Much like the Communists, for the aspiring intellectuals among us, they provided a forum where one could discuss ideas and aspirations that went beyond the merely mundane; again, like the Communists, they tended to be generous with their support, psychological, pedagogical and economic.
I was one of the privileged, and could afford to disdain what both sides had to offer, but I did appreciate what they were trying. I have no idea whether this is actually how it happened in his specific case, but I can see exactly how a clever and intellectually voracious young man from a disadvantaged background, like Narendra Modi, could have ended up as a swayamsevak.
It is therefore probably no accident that Modi is the first Prime Minister of India after Mrs Gandhi to clearly try to project a vision of the India he wants. It is not a vision I like — Modi’s India is strong, modern and developed but not open, liberal or moral — but I appreciate his effort to inspire us to think beyond ourselves after the decade of silence with Manmohan Singh.
Indeed, it is part of Modi’s political genius that he figured out that the average Indian is actually happy to make sacrifices for the nation and values being asked. That is why demonetisation, despite being entirely ill-conceived as a policy, remains popular — people appreciate the ambition behind the project, the desire for a cleaner India at the cost of some short-run pain, even if the implementation was lacking.
What worries me is that Modi is the only one among those who wield power in the BJP today who is still a chip off that old RSS block. The rest are either men of action — administrators or party men — or straightforward thugs. The historian Ram Guha made the point to me that in the previous NDA government, almost all the top ministers were very well-read and had written books — think of Atal Bihari Vajpayee, L.K. Advani, Jaswant Singh or Arun Shourie — which is obviously not the case now.
This matters for two reasons. First, being a part of intellectual debates affects the decision-maker’s ability to engage with and learn from those whom they disagree with. Jagat Mehta, Nehru’s one-time private secretary and an ardent Nehruvian, was foreign secretary when Vajpayee was foreign minister in the Janata Party government in the late 1970s. Between them, they crafted our most successful engagement with Pakistan in the post-Independence era, largely because they could talk to each other with mutual respect across the political divide that separated them. The fact that a man as brilliant and committed as Raghuram Rajan could be sacrificed for political exigencies suggests to me that we no longer live in that same world.
Second, and perhaps more importantly, it changes the nature of the political engagement with delicate issues like religion. In the old RSS, religion was not about individuals — they often had Muslim or Christian partners or wives (I am afraid they were all upper caste men; that has not changed very much). It was a way of thinking about the world.
That distinction is crucial in politics because it changes the nature of the conflict. Once it is about whether I have the right to beat you up because you ate or sold beef, rather than about whether there should be a debate about what Indian-ness constitutes and whether it should proscribe the consumption of beef, I am afraid we are lost.
Living in America, I am often confronted with the analogy between Modi and Donald Trump. Both are men who make a virtue of being strong and have generally right-wing views — but the similarity ends there. Modi has enormous forbearance and discipline about things he cares for, both of which the American president could definitely do with. Modi, when he does open his mouth, usually appeals to our highest sentiment, whereas Trump trumpets his basest instincts.
My problem with Modi is that he stays silent so often as to allow the worst of his party to drive the agenda. This may be strategic, but it is a dangerous game to play. The Republican Party in the United States is now paying the price of a two-faced approach, where the top leaders of the party would talk about shared American values, but allow a coalition of racists, misogynists and people obsessed with not paying taxes to set the actual agenda. At some point, that coalition decided there was no reason to keep up the façade any more — hence, Donald Trump.
Something similar could happen to the BJP. Sooner or later, someone in the BJP who is much more openly hostile to the minorities will realise that they could be a more credible standard-bearer for the extreme right than Modi; if the party continues to indulge that wing rather than reining them in, they might have the legitimacy to take on Modi and win. It is time we start paying attention to what is happening within the right. And maybe Modi should as well.
By Abhijit V. Banerjee
The writer teaches economics at MIT and co-created MIT’s Micromasters in Data and Economics for Development Policy