In a world divided by the polarities of democrats and conservatives (America) and securalists and Hindutvadis (India) like never before, is Prime Minister Narendra Modi proving to be a disruptor of sorts?
The rise of Narendra Modi has been beset by controversies and tensions that have followed him ever since he became Prime Minister.
Pundits famously theorised that India, had “veered right”. A theory which was buoyed by not just Modi’s perceived connection to the Gujarat riots, but also the Modi government’s controversial Hindutva ideology and roots in the Hindu supremacist Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh.
Did India really vote “right”? Or did it, tired of a government dogged by corruption charges and an elitist establishment seen as increasingly out of touch with the masses, vote for development and positive change?
As Modi enters phase two of his first tenure, the question is far from being answered. Sure Mr Modi acknowledges his debt to RSS from the ranks of which he rose, but he himself has never made any divisive comments about growth rate of Hindus vs Muslims, or made startling claims that everyone who lives in Hindustan is Hindu, as RSS top brass is regularly known to do.
When prodded, he has said he is a Hindu Nationalist because he is a Hindu and a Nationalist, but this is different in meaning to when the right-wing typically employs the phrase, meaning it to become a nation of Hindus.
Yes, he has reiterated his and his government’s commitment to nationalism - but unlike in the West where this mean an affinity to the rise of European nationalist fascism, in India, the term has a different meaning.
The Indian National Congress is also proudly “nationalist” and in fact regularly argues with the National Democratic Alliance on who is more “nationalist”. Both sides have displayed conservative tendencies to use sedition laws on those speaking “against the nation”.
The latest move that takes Modi further away from ethnic conservatism of BJP towards the liberal decisiveness of the Old Congress is the manner in which “surgical strikes” were conducted on terror camps in Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir.
First, Modi condemned the Uri attacks but at the same time spoke with compassion towards the people of Pakistan, saying its government should compete with India in a war on socio-economic progress, not cross border battles.
This confused the peaceniks, who mistook this as a furthering of the recent liberal Congress policy of “strategic restraint” (another way to describe helpless acceptance of terror from across the border) and lauded the PM.
This also confused the rightwing hawks, who expected the PM to regularly use anti-Muslim, anti-Pakistan rhetoric and action to satisfy their bloodthirst.
Ultimately, PM Modi did not pander to either group. He went on to drive the knife into Pakistan diplomatically and effectively by bringing up the Indus Waters Treaty and then ensuring its isolation at SAARC by pulling out of the summit.
A move which has been backed and followed by three other nations. He also, convincingly, separated the people of Pakistan from the Pakistan state as a sponsor of terror.
Contrary to popular expectation, unlike Donald Trump, the US Republican candidate seen as using anti-Muslim and divisive rhetoric, Modi is more aligned to outgoing US President, Barack Obama.
While Barack has of late voiced his discomfort over the use of the term “Islamic terror”, Modi has from the beginning of his tenure expressed his belief that “religion must not be linked to terror”.
Under Modi, the Indian army has shoved the knife further in with a “surgical strike” into PoK territory. This invited comparisons of Modi with former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who led the 1971 war on Pakistan and is seen as a dictatorial but secular liberal, as opposed to Manmohan Singh, who was mild and ineffective while being secular and liberal.
This has blurred the lines further between the polarities of the recent past, where before coming to power, comparisons of Modi were often made with fascist Hitler.
Further, the PM has continued actions post-Pakistan strikes with civility and propriety: briefing his predecessor Manmohan Singh on the operations by phone call, advising his party members to not make this about politics but the nation, and keeping his key cabinet members in check.
When appearing on TV, they’re guilty of obsequiousness towards PM, but not of hate rhetoric to which Hindutva members are prone.
While Modi has in the past created controversy by refusing to wear the “Muslim” skull cap, considered a political reaffirmation of the party’s secularism, he did take the liberal side saying “no one’s patriotism can be questioned” when Muslims and seculars were being targeted and told to “Go to Pakistan” by Hindutva forces within and without government.
Despite his self-identification as a Hindu and his commitment to cow protection, offered in the Constitution, he has of late come out strongly against emboldened Gau Rakshaks creating havoc in his tenure, saying 80 per cent are fake and are anti-social elements. More recently, he has again spoken out that Muslims must be empowered, not appeased, alienated or talked down to.
Unlike Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah, who has professed to be inspired by the controversial Savarkar, Modi has repeatedly stated admiration for Gandhi, who was assassinated by the rightwing Nathuram Godse.
In his foreign sojourns, Modi seems to have made a genuine effort towards inculcating a friendship with Obama, a staunch frank speaking liberal, who seems to have reciprocated the friendship by all accounts.
This, however, does not change the right-leaning social nature of the Modi government, where Hindutva continues to be a base, and members of the government have constantly made divisive anti-Muslim, Hindu supremacist statements.
Modi, on his part, has praised Yogi Adityanath as “doing good work in UP”. This is Adityanath, whose open anti-Muslim stance would put not just Donald Trump on immigration, but Hitler on Jews to shame as well.
And although Modi has transferred friction-creating ministers such as Smriti Irani from the HRD ministry to the politically low-key Textiles, he has also given loose canon, Subramanyan Swamy pride of place in Rajya Sabha. Not to forget that BJP, under the leadership of Amit Shah, has kept stressing on ghar wapasi and cow politics in states such as Uttar Pradesh.
Therefore, while Modi can be seen to have “veered left” after his win only as much as the nation “veered right” in 2014, the country is nevertheless negotiating the polarities in this BJP tenure. While Modi has not pandered to the views of the rightwing on social media, many of whom he follows, he has not disassociated himself from them either.
One still cannot say for certain if Modi is the autocratic ethnic Hindu dictator he is often projected as, or an outsider with an RSS background who moved up to the highest office owing to his strong administration as chief minister, and his regard for the secular values of the Indian Constitution which he says “have been distorted” of late.
Maybe it will take a rightwing prime minister to forge a united, progressive identity that continues to be liberal and secular in its ethos for India. Stranger things have been known to happen.