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It's Putin, not Deng, that Modi is really like

There is a lot that the Indian and Russian leaders have in common, in terms their backgrounds, governing styles, approach to democratic institutions, and the ways in which they are projected, writes Sushil Aaron.

ht view Updated: Dec 08, 2014 17:02 IST
Sushil Aaron
Sushil Aaron
Hindustan Times
India,Russia,Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi burst on the global stage this year and curiosity about this new figure and impressions from his decisive style of leadership have already drawn striking comparisons with leaders like Lee Kuan Yew, Deng Xiaoping and Margaret Thatcher. The writer Amitav Ghosh recently drew a parallel between Modi and Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, based on their humble roots, their association with religious groups and their road to power in multi-ethnic societies that were previously led by secular parties. Modi has also been compared to US President Barack Obama as they both started out in community organising, cut their political teeth in hostile terrains (Gujarat/Chicago) and led well-funded campaigns to outlast (female) rivals who eventually joined their governments.

But one name is not discussed adequately in this list of 'Modi-like' leaders: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who will be in New Delhi this week. There is a lot that the two men have in common, in terms their backgrounds, governing styles, approach to democratic institutions, and the ways in which they are projected.

First the impressions they make on others: In his book Strongman: Vladimir Putin and the Struggle for Russia, the BBC's former Moscow correspondent Angus Roxburgh writes about Putin's "eyes that consume you", fixing its gaze for several seconds with a "glowering, piercing, highly unsettling look". Rajdeep Sardesai reports in his 2014: The Election That Changed India that even years ago, Modi smiled and laughed a lot, "but his eyes at times glared almost unblinkingly - stern, cold and distant".

Both leaders exude strength, thriving on a personality cult sustained by machineries that work relentlessly to represent them as strong men: Thus, Putin is the judo master who rides horses bare-chested and is pictured with wild bears and tigers, while Modi has a proverbial 56-inch chest, can play the drums like a rocker, work 18 hours a day and endure long fasts. Both have armies of online trolls who brook no criticism.

More seriously, the political outlooks of both men were shaped by the organisations they have been inalienably associated with - the KGB and the RSS. Both organisations are suspicious of democracy, see liberals as purveyors of unhealthy foreign influences that weaken national cultures, and understand history in monochromatic terms - as time spoiled by ideological adversaries.

Putin defines himself in opposition to the US which he blames for weakening Russia strategically and culturally through support for pro-democracy groups. Modi was reared in a subculture that blames Muslim rule for India's weaknesses, a project willy-nilly continued by today's liberals, who are bent on stymieing the order and discipline that the country apparently needs.

Both want their countries to become great again, and see State power as an instrument to pursue transformative cultural projects.

Both see a close-knit cabal as central to their purposes. Karen Dawisha, author of a new book Putin's Kleptocracy: Who owns Russia?, describes how Putin rules Russia in concert with former KGB colleagues who have developed a stranglehold on the country's economy and politics. Modi is not there yet, but he is a proud RSS pracharak - and although he attempts to define an identity beyond that of a Hindu nationalist, his tenure has already seen RSS functionaries take on crucial roles in central and state governments, pushing a range of agendas.

There are of course key differences between the two.

Dawisha puts Putin at the apex of a parallel and ultimately dominant economy established by KGB functionaries who used slush funds to establish businesses while the Soviet Union was collapsing. Those business interests have proliferated through a process that saw both the emergence and co-option of oligarchs and the mafia who are both beholden to Putin, who stands as the ultimate regulator of Russian capitalism. Modi, of course, does not have that kind of leverage within the Indian system. Indian capitalism, like its civil society, is a lot more richly textured with longer roots than its Russian counterpart and thus, in theory, is not that easy to overwhelm. That said, there are already comparable trajectories. India's 'weak-strong state' clearly still intimidates capital, judging by the breathless corporate endorsements for Modi. And like parts of the State-run media that Putin controls, Modi's brief rule has seen a form of elective compliance by large swathes of the media that lets the PM's calendar predetermine its programming, often uncritically covering his speeches, however banal or disappointing. Indeed, India now sees a lot of lip-syncing journalism where there is often a discernible disjunction between a story's credit and its actual voice.

To refresh, Modi does not yet exercise the degree of dominance that Putin does in Russia, but arguably he shares with the latter an irreverence for democratic institutions and practices. Putin has rubber-stamped parliament, and the Russian judiciary has been powerless to stall his project. How Modi reacts to a likely majority for the BJP in the Rajya Sabha remains to be seen.

Modi also shares a troubling reflex with Putin, which doesn't portend well for India or his rule: A contempt for the media and civil society. Both leaders see these sectors in conspiratorial terms, and would rather create parallel voices to socialise their messages rather than engage with dissent. They refuse to brief the media or be cross-examined by it; in fact the entire Indian Cabinet has virtually gone offline over the last six months. The Modi government is also blocking out activist criticism over the violation of environment norms and the general stonewalling of RTI queries. The Putin era has incidentally seen targeted violence against journalists, including at least one high-profile murder, that of Anna Politkovskaya. The Indian press is a lot freer for sure but it is not inconceivable that the scale of hate speech on social media creates a context for vigilantism in the future.

Comparisons can often be facile exercises, but they can be useful organising frameworks to speculate on political trajectories. We have probably seen enough of both leaders to safely conclude that Putin is a viable template for Modi to evolve into, under the right conditions.

First Published: Dec 07, 2014 22:13 IST