The Entrenched Outsider: Understanding the Modi Phenomenon
The Prime Minister’s carefully crafted image makes him straddle the discourses of kingly power and renunciation at the same time
Prime Minister Narendra Modi loves to be seen as a fakir. He was asked in an interview how he wore such fakiri (loosely, renunciation) on his visage, and was smiling as the question was posed.
Modi once said that he would be happy to pick up his jhola and walk out of the corridors of power, if need be. As election silence descended on the nation after an acerbic campaign, Modi was photographed in the posture of a yogi, clad in saffron robes suiting the occasion, meditating in a cave at Kedarnath.
In a society where the monarch and the hermit have been respected in equal measure–and where the fakir was often seen as a powerful foil to the monarch, the head of the establishment–Modi straddles the binary for the legion of his admirers.
Part of the power of Modi springs from his ability to straddle this king-hermit binary, assisted by a clever public relations exercise, a largely supine media and a public opinion increasingly veering towards conservatism.
Millions are enamoured of the immense power Modi exercises on his party – and, after each election victory, over the polity – and are at the same time in awe of his now-legendary rise from scratch.
He was purportedly a tea seller as a child and often disappearing in the jungles for meditation, if his own version is to be believed. He rose as an organisational man till he became Gujarat Chief Minister. After that, he has been undefeated – the first person after Nehru whose electoral career has had no reverses.
Modi has projected the image of an “outsider” to the system, who has vanquished all entrenched forces. Much like the ‘Vijay’ of Amitabh Bachchan movies in the 1970s, his image is one of an outsider who heroically rose from nowhere.
The Prime Minister has carefully kept alive this image of an “outsider” to the establishment, even as he has become the establishment in recent years. He is, as it were, both the fakir and the king.
The image of a self-made leader who is now all-powerful has come to have an enduring appeal, partly because of the failures of the Indian state to deliver the goods to citizens. From a visit to the police station to a visit to the courts, citizens have over the decades felt disempowered by any encounter with the state. Even an exchange with a traffic policeman is not an experience common people have liked. Institutions, thus, do not hold the same sanctity for the average citizen as for the intellectual, the journalist or the activist.
The image of a towering leader unencumbered by institutions or procedures can in such a context become a tempting proposition. Add to this the parallel image of renunciation, and the intent of the supreme leader is deemed to be pure and unquestionable.
He stands guard to the people’s interests, standing above institutions. And it helps that he connects directly through Mann Ki Baat monologues, free from any obligation of fielding questions at a press conference.
In an interview to The Indian Express, Modi took potshots at what he called the “Khan Market gang”: his term for the “movers and shakers” of the national capital. He had earlier said in another interview that he had been unable to make the “Lutyens’ elite” support him, as he was very different from them.
The anti-elite pitch
This pitch of subalternity has had its takers. There is a new popular “enemy” that the Modi era has spawned: “the elite”. This elite does not include corporate honchos. Nor does it include people from traditional, influential, backgrounds. It most clearly includes intellectuals and commentators who have had access to the educational and cultural hubs of the country and abroad, and are generally secular and votaries of free expression.
Of course these liberals, for want of a better word, have also in some ways been an esoteric club whose membership comes either with pedigree or rigorous hard work, coupled with some connections and luck.
But the Modi era has made the respected scholar, activist or artiste seem “elitist”. It has turned top universities like JNU – once seen as a hub of argumentative and well-informed students – into “exclusionary” and anti-people institutions. It does not matter that these institutions are quite inclusive because they are affordable.
The thin dividing line between a place that excludes and a place difficult to get in has been blurred.
In a country where the public education system has failed the masses over the decades; where state universities often do not have regular classes and good libraries; where students pass out without any hope for a job related to the subject they studied, this argument of expertise being elitist has given meaning to anxiety.
However, top institutions that produce highly skilled labour for the market rather than dissenting citizens for the nation-state are seen as hubs of merit. The IITs and IIMs have come out unscathed, in other words.
A middle class heavily invested in the nebulous idea of merit – often pitted against caste-based reservation in drawing room discussions – has marked out a distinction between “merit” and “critical enquiry”. For many among them, merit is about cutting-edge skills for the market – and thereby for “the nation” – while critical enquiry and informed dissent are a waste of subsidy.
When Modi obliquely mocked economist Amartya Sen by saying there was a difference between “hard work and Harvard”, he appealed to a feeling of bitterness among millions denied quality higher education in a host of dysfunctional state universities and private institutions. It was like a self-made man showing a globally renowned intellectual his place, thus turning the hierarchy of opportunities upside down.
What is lost in this is that not all who went to top institutions were part of the traditional elite. Many had to burn the proverbial midnight oil for that, apart from being plain lucky at the right moment. These would include, among others, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The result of these dual images is that Modi, in popular imagination, is both a conqueror and a victim.
He alone can do what none other can, and is thus all-powerful, goes the argument. And yet, he is held in contempt by a cabal of privileged elites, who have been entrenched in the national capital, often in Nehruvian-style institutions.
Within this logic, institutions themselves become instruments of exclusion and the only person who can save the masses from them is the Prime Minister himself. For, he is a humble son of the soil, free from the trappings of elite spaces.
In such a context, any critique of Modi from the standpoint of institutions is unlikely to work.
Ironically, this image of Modi draws some sustenance from what is perceived to be its opposite: the Nehruvian, liberal, secular, elite; the Congress, which set up these institutions, and the Nehru-Gandhi family that steered the party. And, of course, Rahul Gandhi, the legatee of this supposed oligarchy.
The Modi persona by its very presence marginalises the prospects of Rahul, something that the Congress should try to fix before it’s too late.
If it isn’t already, that is.