June 6, 2024   8 mins

Narendra Modi, who has just narrowly won his third election, and I have two things in common. We are both Gujaratis, and we both cut our teeth writing critical accounts of the Emergency, the short-lived dictatorship of the mid-Seventies. But the similarities end there. I remain wedded to the historian’s craft, beavering away in libraries. Modi’s found greener pastures at 7 Lok Kalyan Marg, the prime minister’s leafy residence in Lutyens’s Delhi.

I can, moreover, enter and leave Britain at will. Modi was banned from Blighty for a decade for having blood on his hands. When raucous Hindu pilgrims aboard the Sabarmati Express were torched alive by a Muslim mob in 2002, it came as manna from heaven for Modi, the newly descended carpetbagging chief minister of Gujarat. Dipping into his sixth-form science textbook, he declared that “every action has an equal and opposite reaction”. The police were pressured to stand down as Gujarat descended into violence. Muslims had to be “taught a lesson”, Modi told senior policemen.

In the pogrom that ensued, Hindu nationalists unleashed fire and fury, using electoral rolls to smoke out Muslims. Some 2,000 were killed, and more than 125,000 displaced to refugee camps. One of Modi’s close associates later boasted to the press how he had “slit open” a pregnant Muslim woman during the riots. Meanwhile, his ministers and marionettes were spotted marauding about Ahmedabad, orchestrating the violence.

In London and Washington, the revulsion prompted visa bans on Modi. At home, however, this only stirred sympathy. So you had the liberal journalist Vir Sanghvi only half-ironically working up much patriotic indignation: “He may be a mass murderer, but he’s our mass murderer.” Modi made hay while the sun shone, bullying the election commissioner into — in that splendid Indian-English word — “preponing” the election in Gujarat, insinuating that if he didn’t, it was only because he was a Christian in the pay of foreign masters.

The snap election produced the desired result. Hindus closed ranks and Modi won his first election. Twelve years later, he gave us a repeat performance, only this time it was on the national stage. Hard on the heels of the anti-Muslim Muzaffarnagar riots — again choreographed by Hindu nationalist parliamentarians, whom Modi hailed as “heroes” on the hustings — his Bharatiya Janata Party coasted to victory in 2014, permanently displacing the Congress Party that had ruled the country more or less uninterruptedly since independence. The chief minister of Gujarat was now prime minister of India. By this point, his mates had exonerated him for the 2002 riots.

The French political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot recently wrote a superlative study of the early life and dark times of India’s current ruler. (Full disclosure: my book on the Emergency, aforementioned, was co-authored with him.) Gujarat Under Modi languished in “legal read” hell for a decade. Timorous lawyers felt it betrayed “an unyielding view of Narendra Modi” — thanks, captain obvious — and, accordingly, recommended cuts so extensive as to make a Vatican censor squirm. Jaffrelot exercised good judgment in waiting for a plucky publisher (Hurst) to come by rather than suffer the surreal indignity of seeing his book stripped to the bone.

The early chapters tell us how the young Modi, a low-caste tea-seller’s boy, was drawn to the Hindu nationalist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the parent organisation of the BJP. On the face of it, the RSS was an upper-caste affair, whose very existence owed to the déclassé resentment of the high-born in a world where the lower orders had begun to get ideas above their station. The aim was to sublimate their frustrations, heightened on account of their vow of celibacy (yes, Modi’s likely still a virgin), through punitive calisthenics, sweaty wrestling and textual exegesis. These days, with less time on his hands, Modi squeezes world leaders in ever-tighter embraces — the “hugging diplomacy” for which he has become infamous.

Modi, however, would have felt no reason to dwell too deeply on the caste contradictions inherent in his embrace of the RSS. True, its high-born apparatchiks would have taken a dim view of his caste origins. The modh ghanchis — oil pressers — were officially recognised as a “backward caste” in 1999. But Modi himself, like other lower-caste Indians, would have truckled to his caste superiors rather than resented them. Even a figure such as Mahatma Gandhi, a Gujarati like Modi, thought it perfectly comme il faut to rail against intercaste “interdrinking, interdining, intermarrying”, even as he set about uniting the country in the Twenties and Thirties.

The RSS gave Modi a social purpose. One suspects he was also thankful to the Sangh friends who helped him flee Vadnagar, saving him from the clutches of an arranged marriage aged 17. Still, in the Fifties and Sixties, there was something unfashionable about being an RSS man; the outfit had been forever tainted by Gandhi’s assassination in 1948 by one of its members.

All of this changed with the Emergency, the dictatorship of 1975-77. The Congress’s enemies, Left and Right, were banged up in prison together, where they, perforce, warmed to one another. After the Emergency, they rode to power as one big coalition. For the first time, though only briefly, out-and-out Hindu nationalists sat in the cabinet.

Modi turned the bleak biennium to good account, liaising with bigwigs underground and distributing samizdat. We have, from this period, some improbably convincing snaps of him disguised as a Sikh to elude the police.

By the Eighties, the Congress in Gujarat was in an increasingly tenuous position. Already discredited by the Emergency, they had managed to scrape by thanks to the support of the backward castes, the lower-middling sort clamouring for affirmative action. The BJP, on the other hand, monopolised the upper-caste vote, stirring violence every now and then to expand its base. It was a gory business, of course, but there was an arithmetic logic to it. For interfaith conflagrations had the perverse effect of producing intercaste unity. Put differently, uniting Hindus against Muslims was a way of papering over their unwholesome caste divisions: Muslims accounted for a mere 8% of Gujarat’s population, Hindus the remaining 92%.

The 1985 Gujarat riots, one of the bloodiest the country has witnessed to date, brutally underscored this dynamic. Led by chanting Hindu priests, a mob of 100,000 entered Muslim neighbourhoods, torching everything in sight. More than 2,500 homes were flattened, and some 12,000 Muslims made homeless. Much of the dirty work was done by Dalits, hitherto antagonised by caste Hindus but now on the same side, even if hierarchically split.

Thereafter, the BJP moved from strength to strength in state elections. Modi made his bones as the campaign manager of Haren Pandya, a rising star who beat the sitting chief minister in a stunning by-election upset in 1993. By all accounts, it was an ugly campaign, with undue emphasis on the Muslim bootleggers undermining prohibition. Two years later, the BJP permanently displaced the Congress in Gujarat. A seismic stroke of luck came Modi’s way in 2001, when Keshubhai Patel’s botched handling of the Bhuj earthquake prompted his ouster. Never having fought an election before, Modi was airdropped as chief minister. It would, again, be thanks to backroom manoeuvring that he would become the BJP’s national candidate in 2014 — making history as the man who became PM without having ever been an MP.

As chief minister of Gujarat, Modi ruled with an iron fist. Jaffrelot shows how he turned the police into a vigilante force with a penchant for extrajudicial killings. The victims were invariably Muslims, one of them a 19-year-old college girl. Law and order was given over to Babu Bajrangi’s shock troops, who were tasked with “rescuing” — kidnapping — Hindu women from their marriages to Muslim men on pain of abortion and torture.

Modi’s government, Jaffrelot argues, was as corrupt as it was violent. Unpossessed by a cupidity of his own — the rare celibate among dynasts — Modi has nevertheless facilitated the fortunes of the grasping oligarchs around him. His favourite one, Gautam Adani, was given state-owned land for a pittance, which he then immediately sublet to state-owned companies at market rates. Schemes such as these briefly made him the second richest man in the world. An Adani Green Energy Gallery was inaugurated at London’s Science Museum in March.

“Modi ran one of the most thuggish and corrupt governments in Indian history.”

Modi’s rise has been good for Adani — and Adani’s for Modi. But while Adani claims his motto is “nation building”, this is hardly clear from the situation in Gujarat. The state’s wealth, much vaunted by the press, only trickles upwards. Surveys dubbed Modi’s Gujarat the malnourishment capital of India, with three in five children underweight. Wages stagnated, consumer spending plateaued, household debt burgeoned, investment rates fell off, even as a few billionaires did a roaring trade.

Modi ran one of the most thuggish and corrupt governments in Indian history, Jaffrelot concludes. Yet electorally he remains invincible, thanks in no small part to a piss-poor opposition. The Congress high command routinely depicts the chaiwallah’s son as a chav — when he met Obama, Modi showed up in a monogrammed pinstripe suit spelling out his name a million times in gold — which is hardly a sensible charge in a country where nearly everyone is working-class.

Modi’s charge, by contrast, sticks. He paints his rivals as a bunch of cosmopolitan elites cut off from hoi polloi. There’s no doubt an element of schoolboy crassness to his epithets, a touch of Berlusconi perhaps, but it goes down well. The leader of the opposition party, the Veneto-born Sonia Gandhi, was sent up for her Italian ethnicity as “Pasta-ben”, Sister Pasta. Rahul, her pallid son and lately successor, has been nicknamed “Jersey Cow”.

Compounding the gift of the gab is Modi’s facility with technology. Enlisting the services of the PR firm APCO, whose choice clientele included the Nigerian and Kazakh dictators Sani Abacha and Nursultan Nazarbayev, Modi was an early adopter of 3D holograms in election campaigns. The advantage of addressing multiple audiences simultaneously was magnified in a highly illiterate setting where mesmerised audiences were left wondering whether Modi was an avatar of Vishnu’s.

Then there is his braggadocio, so extravagant as to put Putin to shame: his 56-inch chest; his penchant for wild swimming surrounded by crocodiles, one of which he nonchalantly brought home only to be reproached by his mother. His fans lap it up, as they do his antisemitism. The BJP’s latest campaign depicted a befuddled Rahul Gandhi dangling on puppet strings manipulated by a vulpine George Soros, omnisciently above him in black-and-white. Modi has form here. As early as 2005, he had the Holocaust removed from history textbooks. In its place came a paean to the Third Reich: “Hitler lent dignity and prestige to the German government… He brought prosperity to Germany… He instilled the spirit of adventure in the common people.”

For most of the last quarter-century, Modi was unassailable. His party rivals learnt this the hard way, as when a fake sex tape surfaced at just the opportune moment to see off the party secretary Sanjay Joshi, who had it in for Modi. By the time Joshi cleared his name, it was too late to rehabilitate him. At the same time, Modi can cannily switch his weapon of choice from the stick to the carrot. These days, it isn’t unusual for Congressmen to cross the aisle for the BJP; the going rate for legislators is about £3 million. One of these turncoats, a Canarese septuagenarian, was spotted sporting a Rolls-Royce post-defection.

Ideologically, too, everyone now plays by Modi’s rules. Before Modi, the BJP trick was to tar the Congress with the brush of “pseudo-secularism” while vehemently declaiming the real thing. “Hindu nationalism” used to be a term of opprobrium. No more. Modi has repurposed it into a term of approbation.

Until very recently, Modi’s rise left Congressmen dumbstruck. As early as 2002, they saw no better option than to mimic his policies. Over the following decade, the best the opposition could come up with were attacks on Modi’s deficient Hinduism. The chief minister stood accused of destroying 200 temples while gentrifying Gujarat, and, horror of horrors, not lifting a finger to stop the butchering of 100,000 cows.

Batting on Modi’s home turf proved disastrous for the Congress. A few years ago, Gandhi was to be found criticising Youth Congress party workers in Kerala for their “thoughtless, barbaric, and completely unacceptable behaviour”. And what would that be? Cooking a calf to protest Delhi’s absurd cow slaughter laws. Gandhi has spent the better part of the last few years trying to out-Hindu Modi, inter alia prancing around temples and perusing the Upanishads, to no avail.

Now, at long last, some efforts are being made at course correction. In the 2024 election, widely seen as a victory for the opposition and Indian democracy, a gaggle of two dozen parties contested together to deprive Modi of a decisive majority in parliament. For one thing, the first-past-the-post system worked in their favour, eliminating triangular and quadrangular contests that would have split the anti-Modi vote. For another, Modi’s popularity in recent months took a dive, what with slower growth rates and higher unemployment. The clientelism and corruption of his regime, too, went a long way in discrediting Modi in the eyes of voters. Still, even as the opposition coalition rejoices at its better-than-expected showing, it would be remiss not to point out that this is still a defeat for Modi’s foes. Modi is still in power. If the Congress and its allies don’t get their act together, they’ll be on the opposition benches until the cows come home.