Last Monday I sat with a true believer in the city of Auroville, a city-on-the-hill community in southern India. With the morning’s papers spread out before us, we got talking about the exit polls for the national election. They were predicting another victory for Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).
Home to a few thousand Indian and international residents, Auroville is a cooperative that shuns orthodox political and economic institutions. According to its founder, “the Mother”, “Auroville wants to be a universal town where men and women of all countries are able to live in peace and progressive harmony, above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities”.
It’s also, well, a little bit culty.
“What do you think of Modi?” the true believer asked.
In most of India, it’s a loaded question, but I’d shared a taxi with him from nearby Puducherry and he talked at me the whole way, painting Auroville as some kind of utopia where, just by spending the day there, you would be halfway to nirvana. So, I thought I was on pretty safe ground.
“Well, I’m not a massive Modi fan,” I proffered cautiously. “Do you like him?”
“He’s one of the few people in the world that I would die for.”
Auroville — with its buffet-style spiritualism and ardent inclusivity — is antithetical in almost every way to Modi’s project, which is explicitly nationalistic, Hindu supremacist, chauvinistic and hostile to minorities. It’s a mark of Modi’s personal popularity that he’s able to garner not just support, but devotion, from such a broad sweep of Indian society. In the eyes of many, he can do no wrong.
Indeed, the two reasons the true believer gave for supporting Modi were arguably his most significant first-term policy failures.
“The demonitisation was very difficult on the people; there were lines at ATMs — sometimes for hours. It was a very difficult period, especially for poor people. But the reasons he did it — to root out corruption and stamp out black market money — were pure. There were some errors, but what other leader has ever made such an effort to deal with corruption in this country?
“And the GST,” he continued, “has made paying tax so much easier. I have a small business and before Modi introduced the GST I never paid tax — it was so complicated. Now, it is an easy process.”
Both policies have been unmitigated disasters. The demonetisation was enormously inconvenient and failed on almost every front. It cost jobs, shrank the formal economy, disproportionately affected the poor and doesn’t appear to have done much to curb black market trade. The GST, a regressive tax, remains exceedingly complex and has driven up the price of goods and services.
On Thursday morning as the first votes were being counted, sitting at a roadside chai store in Mysore, a teacher also alluded to the “financial troubles”. The problem, he reckoned, was that Modi had paid too much heed to his finance minister. “You see, he’s a Brahmin, so Modi listened too much to him,” he said. “He will win today and he needs to be more independent in the future. He needs to trust his instincts.”
It’s a dangerous sentiment; it elevates Modi to the position of enlightened ruler, while the advisers and experts who surround needlessly constrain his superior leadership. They’re also ready scapegoats when things go wrong. It’s a demand for more of what Modi calls his “raw wisdom”. He invoked it during the election campaign when he overruled his military advisers and deployed Indian fighter jets to attack Pakistan under heavy cloud cover because, he said, it would prevent enemy radars picking up the incursion.
These voices in south India are a long way from the BJP’s heartland — the so-called “sea of saffron” — between Gujarat in the west and Bihar in the east. Modi’s ethno-religious supremacism and unveiled authoritarian instincts undoubtedly play well in some parts of the Hindu majority north, but this alone doesn’t explain his widespread popularity. The Centre for the Study of Developing Societies published a pre-poll survey that found nearly one third of BJP voters cast their vote in support of the prime minister.
There is no Indian myth equivalent to the “American Dream”; those born into poverty in India can’t but know they will almost certainly die in poverty and, in all likelihood, due to poverty. For many Hindus, Modi, the son of a tea seller, embodies a sense that a better life — one not dictated by class or caste — is possible.
“What mattered in the final analysis was that Modi appeared more sincere and more believable than those who wished to challenge him,” wrote Ruben Banerjee in Outlook. But that’s not quite it. Five years ago Modi was elected on a wave of hope. He has repeatedly failed to live up to those expectations. Unemployment has risen, the situation in Kashmir has worsened and he’s exacerbated tensions with Pakistan, as Modi continues to exploit people’s fears and stoke hatred.
Even when conceding this, many still retain that sense of hope.
The idea of Modi is what seems to draw them in. For many, he personifies the rags-to-riches story — a popular Bollywood theme — that they aspire to. These supporters have been largely ignored in the post-election analysis, but they may prove to be the most pivotal in the coming years.
His Hindu nationalist supporters (to say nothing of those in his party) are fanatical, but those who voted BJP despite Modi’s dangerously majoritarian agenda are the real story of this election. The BJP’s victory must finally dash any expectation that these “Modi liberals” will act as a handbrake on a more extremist agenda. If they’ve been willing to give him a pass up until now, if they think he deserves another chance, then it’s already too late.
(This was originally published in Crikey on 29th May, 2019.)