In seven years, how Modi has changed India
By empowering culturally rooted Indians, reducing corruption, and redefining the nationalist consensus, the PM has changed India
Interim assessments are naturally tentative and heavily defined by their context. A report card of Jawaharlal Nehru would have differed had it been written in 1959 — when he was at the pinnacle of his power and popularity — or 1963 — after India stood humiliated in the war with China. Even present-day assessments of Nehru vary according to the political and other preferences of the authors. Since the past is intertwined with the perspective of the present, there will never be any finality in history — and certainly not India’s history.
Ever since he assumed charge in May 2014, Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi has been enveloped in controversies. These had less to do with specific measures of his government than with his permanent estrangement from the class of Indians who saw themselves as the certifying authorities of correctness. Since he became chief minister of Gujarat in 2001, Modi was labelled a “polarising” figure and his journey to national politics was viciously challenged by an entrenched ecosystem that saw itself as the custodians of an established consensus.
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Yet, paradoxically, the rising tide of shrillness against Modi for being the proverbial outlander resulted in him being enthusiastically embraced by those Indians who saw him as the agent of real change, a change that would unsettle a self-serving consensus centred on privilege, entitlement, cronyism, inefficiency and low national self-esteem. This polarisation has persisted all through the seven years of his premiership, and is guaranteed to endure even after he enters the history books. Polarisation has become a self-fulfilling prophecy and has coloured every judgment of his public life.
In the case of Modi, however, there is a common thread running through the divided perceptions of his ongoing term. He was twice endorsed by voters because he promised change. His opponents feared and loathed him not because they doubted his sincerity, but because they imagined the new order would be unpalatable. Consequently, any assessment of Modi must go beyond specific policies of his government, regardless of their electoral impact. For Modi, the key question is — how much has India changed in seven years?
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On the face of it, the country displays outward continuity. Yet, it is striking that most of Modi’s critics — particularly those located in the Left-liberal bubble overseas —invariably preface their indictment of India’s public life or governance with the label “Modi’s India”. This gratuitous tag indicates a belief that India has changed unrecognisably and for the worse. The recent explosion of nostalgia over Delhi’s post-Lutyens embellishments is a prime example of this phenomenon, as were the fulminations over telling Pakistan that bilateral friendship minus good conduct was not India’s obligation.
India, it would seem, has indeed changed under Modi — not unrecognisably, but substantially. Perhaps the biggest change is the marginalisation of those associated with the ancien regime. In today’s India, those who matter are rarely the inheritors — the post-Independence aristocracy of politicians, civil servants and fixers with the right lineage and cultivated connections. They have been replaced by a new dispensation — people with less outward polish and whose cultural assumptions are, for the want of a better expression, more vernacular. They are less cosmopolitan and assertively nationalistic. They are not squeamish about being Hindu but are equally at ease with technology and science. This is the new India that define the landscape of “Modi’s India” and make up the social foundations on which the thrust on efficient delivery, entrepreneurship and competitive markets are based.
The second big change is the receding tide of corruption. When Modi assumed charge, political corruption had touched dizzy heights. The fear was that the scale of corruption would march in tune with new wealth creation and distort public life hideously. Modi hasn’t ended corruption, but through example, he has purified decision-making at the top and used technology to ensure that entitlements to the poor don’t suffer transmission losses. The success rate is still patchy and there is still miles to go, but at least India has at least begun rolling back corruption. It is political will that has made the difference.
The third big change heralded by the Modi government, particularly in his second term, is in forging an alternative nationalistic consensus. Before Modi, India’s politics was guided by the assumption that whatever the colour of the government, the yardstick of acceptability would be guided by the Nehruvian consensus. With the triple talaq legislation, the abrogation of Article 370 and the changes to the Citizenship Act, Modi converted facets of the BJP manifesto into state policy.
The rights and wrongs of each move may well be debated, but what was striking was their audacity. Along with the Supreme Court sanction for the Ram temple in Ayodhya, Modi successfully forged a bond between the government and those who felt that there was an alternative idea of India. The alienation between the government and its ideological base that so troubled Atal Behari Vajpayee has disappeared, a reason why the Modi regime has demonstrated amazing internal coherence. It may also explain why, despite all the ups and downs of politics, the energy and vibrancy of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) remains unaffected. Modi has made the larger parivar a stakeholder in his government and in a state of permanent anticipation of the time India can be fully recast.
In seven years, Modi has changed many of the assumptions that have governed public life. However, it is still work in progress. To endure, Modi’s India will have to define the new heights to scale in 2024.
Swapan Dasgupta is a BJP leader, former Rajya Sabha MP, and author and commentator
The views expressed are personal