The Modi model

Christophe Jaffrelot explains the authoritarian model of governance Modi had formulated as Chief Minister, which he later implemented at the Centre.

Published : Jun 26, 2024 11:00 IST - 6 MINS READ

Modi masks on display at the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Gandhinagar, on January 19, 2019.

Modi masks on display at the Vibrant Gujarat summit in Gandhinagar, on January 19, 2019. | Photo Credit: VIJAY SONEJI

It is difficult to argue exactly at what point Hindu nationalism emerged as a potent force in India, especially in Gujarat, where Prime Minister Narendra Modi burnished his career as a populist leader with a particular finesse for the politics of polarisation. 

In his most recent book, Gujarat Under Modi: The Blueprint for Today’s India,Christophe Jaffrelot writes: “The year 1985 is an important turning point in the post-Independence political history of Gujarat.” It was in this year that a popular agitation erupted against the decision of the ruling Congress party to hike reservation by 28 per cent for Other Backward Classes (OBCs) in the State.

These protests drew upon the pre-existing social fault lines in Gujarat, where the politics over affirmative action had precipitated uneasy tensions between the Hindu “traditionalists” (epitomised by a caste alliance between Brahmins, Vanyas, and Patidars, the so-called dominant castes), and the historically marginalised segments including Kshatriyas, Dalits, and tribals.

Gujarat Under Modi
The Blueprint for Today’s India
By Christophe Jaffrelot
Pages: ‎626
Price: Rs.899

As mounting civilian casualties from the violent protests brought pressure to bear on the Congress government, Madhavsinh Solanki resigned as Chief Minister. His successor tried to douse the fire by revoking the decision. But far from receding, the anger on the streets took a different form, with the charged mobs turning their ire on Gujarat’s Muslim residents. 

As the Congress influence in the State started to plummet, the RSS saw its political reach widening like never before. The forces of Hindutva forces took control of the riots, envisioning violence as a tool to iron out the social fragmentation among Hindus along caste lines, while defining the community on the adversarial terms against the Muslim “other”. 

Congress’ role in the rise of Hindu nationalism

For all its talk of secularism, it is the Congress that was responsible for the ascendance of Hindutva in Gujarat. This is primarily because the leaders who embodied Gujarat’s Hindu traditionalism—which Hindutva piggybacked on to prominence—were all Congressmen. 

Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel has a history of courtship with Hindu far-right groups. K.M. Munshi penned several novels that drew on nostalgia for the Vedic period while portraying Muslims as invaders. Gulzari Lal Nanda consorted with Hindu reactionaries, for which the RSS, which he defended as “not a religious but a cultural organisation”, publicly hailed him. 

Also Read | Gujarat’s growth paradox: A booming economy marred by lax safety standards

Morarji Desai was one of the key architects of the Congress’ split along ideological lines in 1969, with the faction that Desai joined representing the conservatives . This split liberated the Hindu traditionalists from the secular influence of the Nehru-Gandhi family.

This way, the social set-up in Gujarat was already replete with the sentiment of Hindu nationalism even when it was a Congress stronghold. The Jana Sangh, a forerunner to the BJP, was initially on a weak footing in Gujarat but received a fillip after former Congressmen with affective ties to Hindu traditionalism switched over to its side. This ragtag collection of like-minded political players railed against Indira Gandhi’s espousal of social justice politics, and later refashioned themselves into the BJP in response to her proclamation of the Emergency.

Jaffrelot’s lucid narration of Gujarat’s modern history is punctuated with powerful data sets that allow readers to glimpse how RSS used communal violence as a tool to polarise the society, making it possible for far-right Hindu organisations to spread their influence, culminating in the victory of BJP in Assembly elections in the 1990s.

The context behind the 2002 pogrom

The party held on to the power firmly—save for the brief interlude on account of internecine rivalry between Shankarsinh Vaghela (an OBC leader whom the BJP had started courting to counter Congress’ reservation rhetoric) and Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel—until the early 2000s when the BJP badly lost the municipal elections. 

The anger against Patel reached its crescendo in the aftermath of the earthquake in January 2001 amid allegations that the government had mismanaged the delivery of relief aid. Patel resigned and Modi took his place. The riots of 2002 are thus situated in the context in which Modi was saddled with the responsibility of stemming the rising tide of disaffection with the BJP.  

Once his stewardship of Gujarat was reconfirmed in the 2002 snap election, Modi moved to centralise his authority, bringing the State’s vast state apparatus to heel. This involved the politicisation of law enforcement and the judiciary. He did that by rewarding officers, such as Ahmedabad Police Commissioner P.C. Pandey who was accused of failing to control the riots, with promotions . 

Those who sided with the victims—like Vivek Srivastava, Superintendent of Police (SP) in Kutch district, who arrested BJP leaders for attacking Muslim families—were transferred. As a result of this partisan control over the police, investigations in the riot cases remained shoddy. Of the 4,252 complaints lodged with police, 2,032 were dismissed for want of evidence. This subversion extended to the judiciary where the BJP appointed members of the RSS and the VHP as public prosecutors. It became the reason why one probe panel after another issued a clean chit to Modi. 

The rise of a cult figure

Jaffrelot critically evaluates the rapid industrial boom that Gujarat witnessed after Modi’s rise. The industrialisation catered more to the super-rich than middle or lower classes. The growth it engendered did not reflect in the percentage of jobs it created. The labour situation remained grim in Gujarat and 31.8 per cent of Gujaratis continued to live below the poverty line.   

Modi built a personality cult around him and suppressed rival power centres, a process that accelerated after his clash with his former colleagues such as Keshubhai Patel for control of the party machinery. To undercut the influence of the VHP’s Pravin Togadia, another polarising figure in Gujarat, Modi destroyed several Hindu temples. He was, counter-intuitively, labelled as the second Mahmud of Ghazni. 

Also Read | The RSS sends a message 

Modi was even rebuked by the RSS for personalising power on this scale. He responded by freeing himself of RSS support and cultivated an alternative ecosystem of local leaders, political consultants, and communication experts committed to enshrining him as a cult figure in regional as well as national politics. 

At last, the RSS succumbed to Modi’s demands because they saw in him a staunch Hindutvavadi. His unrepentant Hindu discourse was something the RSS had been yearning to articulate. Above all, the right-wing group was desperate for the BJP to win the 2014 Lok Sabha election as the UPA government was doubling down on investigations in terrorism cases involving Hindu fundamentalists. 

Jaffrelot has followed the developments in Gujarat for more than two decades. His book offers a fascinating context to how the forces of Hindutva were able to capture institutions in Gujarat, and prolong their vice-like grip over power by devising a model of governance tailored to Modi’s authoritarian needs, a model he has systematically implemented across the country since 2014.

Shakir Mir is a freelance journalist based in Srinagar. He was previously a correspondent with The Times of India

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