Making Sense of Modi via Machiavelli’s Prince
“Abki baar 300 paar” is not a vacuous election slogan conjured up by Amit Shah to energise his cadres but—much to the disbelief of a battered opposition— a cold, harsh, reality from which there will be no escape.
Machiavelli’s masterpiece, 'The Prince', written over half a millennium ago, remains of enduring interest primarily because it incisively, brutally even, cuts through the smokescreen of morality to offer realistic estimations of politics. It happens but rarely in history when occasions arise where an old classic is brought to life by a contemporary example. Narendra Modi—whether you love him or hate him—has already carved a niche for himself in the saga of independent India by leading his party, the BJP, to consecutive victories with an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha. And in an era where coalitions seemed to be the order of the day, he has singlehandedly reversed the tide. Machiavelli tells us unequivocally that the only admissible way for judging a ruler is through the principle of mantenere lo stato—the ability of a prince to maintain his own position in power. The means are inconsequential, the ends are what matter. Machiavelli also says that ‘appearances’ are more important than ‘reality’. How does Modi measure up to Machiavelli’s expectations of what a Prince should do?
The long haul of the 2019 General Election is finally over.The chips have fallen where they have, on the 23rd of May, with India witnessing a silent but massive groundswell of support for Narendra Modi catapulting him back into the saddle for the next five years. “Abki baar 300 paar” is not a vacuous election slogan any more conjured up by Amit Shah to energise his cadres but—much to the disbelief of a battered opposition— a cold, harsh, reality from which there will be no escape.
The BJP rode on an irrepressible Modi avalanche to electoral glory, sweeping state after state, slaying regional satraps and smashing dynastic fortresses to smithereens on its way to the helm. Its final tally, 303, is an apt metaphor for how parties were made to kneel and how political obituaries were written, perhaps before time. Make no mistake, this was an election like none other. There was just one big gun—Modi—in the fray and the rest were fair game to be hunted down. As the dust slowly settles over a gory battlefield, a brutally mauled opposition is licking its wounds in political wilderness.
Many liberals, including this author, had erroneously believed that the BJP’s famous victory in 2014 was an outlier—a rare occurrence when customary voting patterns got washed away by some mystical Modi wave enhanced many times over by numerous corruption scandals and a perceptible leadership vacuum during the UPA II regime. The opposition, especially the Congress, had desperately hoped thatafter the five years of what can arguably be described as ordinary Modi rule, fraught as it was with uninspiring performance and unkept promises, voters would hark back to the mundane everyday logic of social and economic calculus in the determination of their political choices. Its narrative was firmly anchored on the assumption that the 2019 election was going to be yet another run-of-the-mill contest in the absence of any palpable wave.
Opposition parties went into battle armed with the arithmetic of carefully stitched caste coalitions. Rahul Gandhi tried hard to dismantle the unassailable, incorruptible, Modi image by making “chowkidar chor hai” his war cry. He promised the moon—his ambitious ‘Nyay’ scheme—to lure the beleaguered voter reeling under economic duress. The opposition had hoped that since unprecedented levels of unemployment, rising agrarian distress and the twin disasters of demonetisation and GST had put fetters on economic growth in the latter part of Modi’s regime, it would gain power again. To be fair, this was not a fool’s hope—dwindling incomes and shattered businesses, in other words the material conditions of life, are a powerful motivation in determining voting behaviour. And yet, these hopes were totally belied on counting day. It’s not the economy stupid! That is what the people have said, in a tragic inversion of the classic American phrase coined by James Carville, to the combined opposition through the results.
The results prove unequivocally that the BJP and the opposition were fighting two very different elections. Defying all conventional wisdom, people overwhelmingly voted for Modi even in the face of joblessness, agrarian distress and broken promises—in effect, against their real interests—as though they were enchanted by some pied piper who made them forget hardships and follow him unhesitatingly to do his bidding. They also chose with discernment, opting for regional parties in Odisha and Telengana, and the Congress not too long ago in Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chattisgarh in the Assembly elections, while emphatically favouring Modi at the Centre. Politics is the art of the possible, said Bismarck, and Modi deserves credit for has making his victory possible by flummoxing his baiters every time.
Modi has managed to communicate to the people in idioms and phrases that they could relate to unlike the opposition whose abstract bluster about constitutional morality, secularism and social justice did not cut ice with the voters. Modi is a past master in transforming the grammar of political discourse into concrete consumables and powerful imagery that was lapped up by people beyond the confines of caste. In a post-secular India, where Hindu pride is the new currency of politics, Modi was able to dish out a version of nationalism which was mediated by religious symbolism. Modi has also erased the distinction between Hindutva and Hinduism somewhat. Only this can explain his landslide victory. While he enjoys support from the ideologically committed core Hindutva voters who thrive on othering muslims and other minorities, there is no dispute now that a much larger Hindu constituency has accepted Modi as a symbol of Hindu pride. In a curious way, Modi has managed to establish the equivalence of Hinduism with nationalism and that is why the Balakot strikes appealed to a much larger section of the people than the opposition was counting on.
Modi’s unapologetic, if somewhat gawdy, embracing of ritualism in the full glare of TV cameras in Kedarnath and Badrinath best exemplifies what Machiavelli calls virtu—the ability to do what is necessary and expedient, the quality of being flexible. A prince who neglects what should be done for what ought to be done brings ruin upon himself. Modi embodies virtu in the extreme. He becomes what you want him to be. A fakir, a patriot, a Hindu, a statesman, a sanyasi. Or to put it precisely, Modi ‘appears’ to be what people want him to be. Modi appears to be incorruptible even in the face of allegations of corruption in the Rafale deal. No leader in the oppositions seems to possess this kind of supple immunity from reality—Rahul is a dynast, Akhilesh is casteist while Mayawati is corrupt. It is only Modi who has effectively bridged the divide between reality and appearance and has ushered in the post-truth era in Indian politics.
The one thing which had decisively changed for almost all self-avowedly secular parties was the fact that there was now a tactical engagement with Hinduism to offset the BJP’s strident advocacy of Hindutva. Issues relevant to the Muslim minority, say mob lynchings, were consciously invisibilised, or not taken up with any conviction, at the hustings in 2019. Muslims were given tickets rather sparingly, and gingerly perhaps, to avoid the dreadful charge of appeasement. This unconcealed attitude of apathy towards the largest minority in India was already indicative of the fact that the public sphere and the political landscape have transformed beyond recognition in the last five years, and that our polity has become irrevocably Hinduised. The best that the opposition could do is to meekly acquiesce, and in some instances actively assist. In many ways, the battle of 2019 was a battle for Hindu votes—Muslims in any case had no option but to vote against the BJP, and therefore, they could be dismissed as a captive vote-bank. It is ironical that at no other moment in recent history does the BJP charge of pseudo-secularism ring truer. Perhaps, what is significantly worse is that in 2019, Muslims were reduced to a vote-bank that didn’t merit any appeasement other than the security of life.
The liberal rant against Modi has proved to be impotent. The results have shocked people and many have shunned all nuance in analysis by simply holding India responsible for rewarding bigotry and hate. To my mind such conclusions do a disservice to the attempt of understanding why people vote as they vote. The failure of the opposition and liberals in stopping Modi should not be read as the failure of the Indian people. I invoke Machiavelli again, who in his famous phrase la verita effettuale della cosa—the effective truth of things—says that it’s important to consider the reality of politics and not our own fancies about how things ought to be. Modi read the pulse of the people and gave them what they wanted. Modi understood that Hindu pride and nationalism were more potent in consolidating support in favour of his government and therefore he studiously avoided any inquisition over the economic performance of his government, something the opposition desperately wanted to hold. The opposition made Modi an issue and walked right into his trap. The rest is history.
(The author teaches Political Philosophy at Ramjas College, University of Delhi. The views are entirely his own)