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The thuggish tactics of Narendra Modi Despite his corruption, he remains invincible

'Modi and I have two things in common.' Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images

'Modi and I have two things in common.' Sajjad Hussain/AFP/Getty Images


June 5, 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.


Pratinav Anil is the author of two bleak assessments of 20th-century Indian history. He teaches at St Edmund Hall, Oxford.

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Sayantani G
Sayantani G
12 days ago

Why does UH publish this sensationalist twister of facts? A Marxist faker too?
I am going to counter his lies pointwise –
BJP is the largest party. Congress is a 140 seats less despite the best efforts of a ragtag band of thugs called the ” Opposition”.
This is BJPs third term, and it is no mean achievement to beat anti- incumbency and rising voter expectations to come back to power after beating a united Opposition of 28 political parties. It has swept several states of the North, done remarkably well in the Eastern state of Orissa and even opened its account in Kerala. It’s vote share has increased even in Tamil Nadu- the Dravidian heartland.
Mr Modi is being sworn in shortly as the 3rd term Prime Minister – a record rivalling that of Nehru.
The reasons for BJP losing about 30 seats in Uttar Pradesh which they hadnot counted on is because- Muslims voted en bloc – as any hapless non Muslims who live in Bradford know.
And the Opposition ran a ” redistribution of wealth” and separate electorates for Muslims campaign which would do Lenin and Jinnah proud.
The ” clientelism and corruption” is entirely that of Congress and the hard Left regime in Bengal, whose goon brigades have been collecting blood money from hapless villagers. Again in Uttar Pradesh, strong law and order enforcement affected petty corruption and the power of the mafiosi, who used rural voters to promise freebies and instant distribution of free cash to win votes.
If anything, BJPs developmental efforts were defeated by poor propaganda on their part, and slick pamphletteering by the Opposition to make empty promises.
Now those foolish voters who think they will have freebies pouring in will soon turn against their new MPs.
Yes, Mr Modi himself set a high target for his party count which they couldn’t reach. Of course there will be introspection as to why they lost some seats compared to 2019.
This election has probably been one of the hugest foreign interference.

Contrary to the best efforts of Western intelligence agencies ” influence” operations acting in conjunction with CCP, there is no North South divide in India. In fact the allies of the BJP in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh in South India have done very well.
Congress has lost seats in Karnataka where it has run a divisive communal and pro Hamas state government.
The rest of Anil’s fevered drivel is the product of his own fantasist mind.
He needs to be seriously investigated as to his connections with India’s Northern neighbours who maybe momentarily delighted that Mr Modi has lost a few seats.
Surprisingly the talk of ” electoral autocracy” and other allegations about electoral processes in India have suddenly disappeared, not just from the mendacious ” professor” above but also the Western mainstream media whose election coverage on India in the past few months have been a lurid stream of fiction.
It is beneath my dignity to react to the rest of the turgid balderdash.
If he really knows history- which he claims to teach- can he recall the massacre cum genocide unleashed by the Communist Party of India in Marichhjhapi, Bengal in 1979?
Of the China backed Maoists in Central India for decades of the 1990s- 2000s? Of separatists in Kashmir? Of brutalities unleashed by his favourite Commies in Bengal over their 34 years of misrule?
Further if Anil has guts( which I know he doesn’t) let him talk of the real present day thugs – of the Trinamul Congress in Bengal whose mass rape, murder and intimidating tactics in Sandeshkhali have created headlines over the last few months.
And whose reign of terror reminiscent of the Jacobins, Stalin and Mao- who I am sure Anil admires- is what UH should have featured- but won’t for similar lack of guts or sheer ignorance.

Last edited 12 days ago by Sayantani G
Lancashire Lad
Lancashire Lad
12 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Jeez, makes our political landscape look like an Edwardian picnic.

Are these murderous claims and counter-claims for real? Is India really that uncivilised?

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
11 days ago
Reply to  Lancashire Lad

You are welcome to discuss with me on my Substack( see my response to Anils 4th April polemic for details). It’s free.
India is complex and variegated. It’s problems lie essentially in 70 odd years of Socialist dynastic rule by Congress.

Christopher Barclay
Christopher Barclay
12 days ago

Congress would be more effective if it was not controlled by a dynasty.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
10 days ago

Sadly the Western Msm and Establishment are heavily invested in dynasts in Congress since Nehru. Little realising it only strengthens CCP with whom Congress had signed an MOU in 2008 and the contents of which haven’t been revealed..but it’s curious that the dynasts always favour policies which strengthen CCP….

Last edited 9 days ago by Sayantani G
Vijay Kant
Vijay Kant
11 days ago

Sounds like a boring broken record… tic tic tic

Last edited 11 days ago by Vijay Kant
Emmanuel MARTIN
Emmanuel MARTIN
11 days ago

Who are you ?
A useless communist atheist of indian decent who thinks your opinion has any relevance on Indian politics ?
STFU ! Your marxist crimetopia is dead. Religions and India aren’t ! F** communists, and I don’t pay an Unherd subscription to be lectured by a leftover luggage of the Komintern.

Last edited 11 days ago by Emmanuel MARTIN
Naren Savani
Naren Savani
8 days ago

This author is so full of himself, I suspect he thinks the sun shines out of his fundament. Can’t UnHerd get a more sane writer to tell us about India

michael harris
michael harris
12 days ago

Isn’t Sonia from Piemonte, not from Veneto (the other side of North Italy)?

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
11 days ago
Reply to  michael harris

From Turin suburbs. An au pair lady at Cam where she met the heir to Indira

michael harris
michael harris
11 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I have tried to find your substack but no luck. Please give me a link.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
11 days ago
Reply to  michael harris

https://sayantani15.substack.com/

Go to the Notes and Chat section please

Last edited 11 days ago by Sayantani G
Sayantani G
Sayantani G
11 days ago
Reply to  michael harris
Last edited 11 days ago by Sayantani G
Samuel Ross
Samuel Ross
12 days ago

India has had heat waves this last week. It sounds like tempers have been flaring as a result. I suggest that India should switch to a nocturnal schedule to avoid the blazing heat of day, say a rest period from 10:00 AM to 6:00 PM would do. Otherwise, perhaps a very large umbrella over the country could help to ward off the heat. If neither of these ideas seem practical, only large-scale climate control will do.

ChilblainEdwardOlmos
ChilblainEdwardOlmos
12 days ago
Reply to  Samuel Ross

Do The Right Thing?

Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
12 days ago

I am glad there still is a large portion of the Indian population that is rejecting the move to a Hindu theocracy.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
12 days ago

How seriously ignorant are you? The only ” theocracy” is of Sunni Muslim bigots of the dynastic corrupt heirs of the Indian ” Opposition”.
That’s why there is Sharia Law, separate quotas for Muslims and making the most of all worlds using affirmative action benefits reserved for lower caste Hindus.
And if Congress has its way separate electorates of the Muslim league variety.

Last edited 12 days ago by Sayantani G
Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
12 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

Hmm

Last edited 12 days ago by Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
Ash Sangamneheri
12 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

So much hate…

AJ Mac
AJ Mac
11 days ago
Reply to  Sayantani G

I like most of your comments and respect your contribution to this website. So perhaps you can explain to me what is so good about Modi, if you have the time and inclination.

Sayantani G
Sayantani G
11 days ago
Reply to  AJ Mac

Find me on Substack AJ. See my remarks to the comment of 4th April.
I think you raise a complex issue.

Last edited 11 days ago by Sayantani G