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Mainstreaming Modi

Avinash Kumar is a historian based in New Delhi. @gmail.com>

Big business and mainstream media are not just hailing Narendra Modi’s arrival on the national stage, but beautifying him and making all that he represents, acceptable to the people.

We have all heard of the fairytale where the frog turned into a prince when kissed by a princess. A somewhat similar situation seems to be upon us with media willing to kiss and turn Narendra Modi into “prince charming”. This means not just hailing Modi in some abstract way, but more significantly turning mainstream and acceptable what he represents.
In the past few months, the mainstream media has gone all over town telling us how Modi is now “mainstream” and not a pariah anymore. The reasons for this change in perception range from how even the United Kingdom and the European Union have “normalised” relations with him, that he has been elected thrice in a row to the chief ministership of Gujarat, which surely speaks of his abilities as an “efficient” and “able” administrator, that Gujarat has become corporate India’s favourite investment destination, and most importantly, that he is the guy who can take “decisions” and not keep the nation waiting for action.
From the best known names of the mainstream media, like Shekhar Gupta and Rajdeep Sardesai, to international magazines like the Economist and Time, are now churning out reams of paper about Modi's ability to take decisions. Though some of them have been circumspect enough to mention his role in the Gujarat killings of 2002, they consider these riots as a blip on the radar for which, at best, he should apologise and move on to seal the bigger victories awaiting him. Shekhar Gupta talks about the rural prosperity which has occurred in Gujarat under Modi’s rule. Sardesai talks of his “decisive leadership style and good governance mantra” and Madhu Purnima Kishwar talks about women and families happily walking about in neon lit streets of Ahmedabad. Even a self-proclaimed “secularist” like Vinod Mehta had said sometime back that though he did not doubt Modi’s complicity in the 2002 killings, given Gujarat’s prosperity in “other” spheres he was not sure what to make out of this man.
When protesters were laying siege to Shri Ram College of Commerce (SRCC) in Delhi where Modi was delivering a speech to students inside its premises, the NDTV news channel was running an online poll asking “Rate Narendra Modi’s speech at SRCC”. Articles with titles like “Can Modi Deliver at the National Stage?” are being printed by the dozen. In a sense, therefore, the “normalisation” of Modi on the national scene is already complete even before he has been formally nominated by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) as its prime ministerial candidate.
The point of this piece, however, is not to accuse these mainstream liberals of complicity with Modi, but to look at the reasons behind why this has happened and at a pace that defies logic. Some clues to the same can be found in a recent piece which appeared on the edit page of Times of India written by Arvind Virmani (18h April, 2013) who incidentally served as the chief economic advisor to the first United Progressive Alliance’s (UPA) government. In this piece, he uses three criteria to compare the Rahul Gandhi-led Congress with the Modi-led BJP namely, social inclusion, economic growth & development, and domestic and national security.
While giving credit for better results on the first criteria to the Congress, Virmani rates the BJP higher on the other two. Hence the “tentative score for Rahul-led Congress is A, B+ and B on the three fronts with a net score of B+. Modi-led BJP's scores, meanwhile, are C+, A and A- with a net of B+”. He goes on to emphasise the importance of “governance” and “economic growth” for both the parties. An economist who till recently served under the Congress led government is rating the “Modi-led BJP” higher on two of his three criteria. This underlines the fact that there is a near consensus among policy makers and the mainstream media over the way the country should be run. Barring some minor tweaking with words like “inclusion”, the prescription remains the same. That is, a “growth led trajectory” obsessed with percentages and numbers, a large-scale withdrawal of the State even from basic services, a wilful neglect of sectors like agriculture and small industries (which provide employment to the largest number of people even today) and a unending belief in the ability of the corporate sector to be the panacea for all ills. Hence there is also agreement in terms of emphasis like “good governance” and “efficient administration” even among people who seem politically divergent.
But the question, why is the Modi-led BJP preferred over the Congress, still remains? Is it simply due to a chain of scams which have plagued the current regime over the last few years, or is it something beyond that? Surely, the BJP has found itself ensnared in as many scams as the Congress party.
In my view, there are two specific reasons that explain Modi’s “normalisation” by the corporate groups and that national media. One, it shows the success of the Modi-led BJP’s selective interpretation of issues such as growth, governance, peace and security, and how these have now been mainstreamed. To come to “peace and security” first, a constant projection of “threat-perception” both from within and outside -- meaning Muslims and sometimes Maoists from within and Pakistan from outside -- is now complete and mainstream. So much so that during the current Congress-led regime we have suddenly witnessed a flurry of decisions confirming capital punishment. Those in power have to show they are “decisive” just like Modi was in 2002. The perception of threat is now so internalised that government sponsored messages on radio constantly tell you to get the identity of your tenant verified by police, and even encourage your neighbours to do that. It is in times like these that a “decisive” persona like Modi would score over the “vacillating” Congress.
Another magic word in this context is “governance”. What does it mean under Modi? That he cut down all bureaucratic rigmarole so that the Tatas could set up their Nano car factory within a matter of days. Or that thousands of investors could flock down to the green pastures of Gujarat (never mind occasional court rulings that harass an Adani or a Mundhra for the violation of laws and community’s rights). Infrastructure, ports, highways and electricity to urbanised parts of Gujarat are the hallmarks of his governance, but not the fact that he “governed” over the massacre of more than a thousand Muslims, or that he “allowed” scores of people, mainly Muslims, to be killed in fake encounters. Modi’s governance means bureaucrats fear him and do what he says without questioning. In these times of the ideology of less government this is exactly what is loved by the corporate sector and the media. This interpretation of governance obviously does not include the prevalent high malnutrition and anemia rates among women and children and the worsening situation of Dalits and Tribals in the state. It also does not include large-scale displacement of communities in the name of “development”.
Modi’s panacea for growth is more upfront on issues such as a voucher system for education and reducing government expenditure on basic services like health and education, thereby leaving the masses to fend for themselves. With the growth rate plummeting to below 5%, the “threat perception” which may finally turn the tide in favour of Modi is that of an economic downturn. As long as the sailing was smooth under the UPA regime the corporate and media could keep Modi away. With the threat of falling economic growth profits cannot be compromised on any count. As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. Hence the clamor for a decisive and tough leader like Modi who can help us attain the mythical 10% growth rate. If this means weakening our civil and political rights, so be it. If it means denying justice to those killed and displaced, so be it. But for this it is necessary that we “humanise” Modi, divest him of the accusations of being complicit in killings and paper over the human suffering that his model of development has entailed for many people. It is only by erasing the entire memory of the 2002 riots and their aftermath that Modi can be made acceptable for the elections.

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