Modi: Lincoln or Bush?

May 27, 2014, 7:52 am IST

kancha ilaiah

First time in Indian history, a PM declared that he hailed from a lower caste

India's 15th Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI/File)

India’s 15th Prime Minister Narendra Modi (Photo: PTI/File)

“The coming decade is of dalits and other weaker sections.”
Narendra Modi, March 2, 2014

Narendra Modi’s spectacular win across India packs in massive implications for our polity, civil society and the Hindu spiritual system. The Bharatiya Janata Party has not only won a clear majority on its own steam, but it has wiped off the Congress Party’s presence from several states. There is a sizeable vote that the BJP bagged because of Mr Modi alone, and not because of its sister organisations, for example the other backward classes’ vote. The party and its sister organisations provided the logistics, but Mr Modi’s appeal travelled beyond that. What this means for the Hindutva forces needs to be examined, as they might use this vote base for further expansion.

For the first time in Indian history, a prime ministerial candidate declared that he hailed from a lower caste and that he had been oppressed and humiliated by the upper castes. None of our Prime Ministers — from Jawaharlal Nehru to Manmohan Singh — could talk about their social background because they all belonged to the “oppressor” class. Mr Modi rallied the weaker sections on his own accord, promising that “the coming decade will be of dalits and other weaker sections”. The hopes of the weaker sections of India have risen.

Mr Modi’s win, and swearing-in on Monday, has another social dimension. He was trained at khaki shorts camps of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. This organisation, along with its affiliates, provoked several communal riots. The biggest riots took place in Gujarat in 2002 under Mr Modi’s nose. Both Muslims and Christians have reason to harbour fear as he is seen as the person who aided and abetted the Gujarat riots. Globally, he was targetted more than L.K. Advani, a father figure of the hate campaign against Muslims and Christians. Nobody campaigned for Mr Advani’s visa rejection by any foreign government though Congress Party chief Sonia Gandhi described Mr Advani as “The Merchant of Hatred” in the 2009 election campaign when he was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate.

In contrast, Mr Modi was projected as India’s Hitler in upper caste households. There was a caste bias in constructing that image of Mr Modi. For example, Mr Advani was India’s home minister during the 2002 Gujarat riots and also other riots. But there was no such massive international or national campaign against
Mr Advani. But Mr Modi was projected as the villain of India.

Mr Modi turned this villainous image into that of a hero. He exploited his lower caste background and chaiwala status to his advantage. Many BJP upper caste leaders may be upset with Mr Modi for opening up the caste discourse across the country.

But with the Prime Minister of India himself letting the world know that he is an OBC, because of which his family and caste suffered for generations, the caste discourse enters a different stage. The humiliation and backwardness of the lower castes was because of the same Hindu religion that the Sangh Parivar does not want to reform. Unless the Hindu spiritual system is reformed, cultural relations will not change. This is one of the main reasons for religious conversions in India. This problem cannot be solved with economic development alone.

Mr Modi’s development cannot be for the high-profile, monopoly companies and the affluent, upper castes alone. Development has to reach the scheduled castes, the scheduled tribes and the other backward classes, who constitute the real poor of India. And economic development has to go hand-in-hand with educational and cultural development.

No Prime Minister can serve the interests of the rich when the poor, with whom he identifies and who voted him to power with the hope of change, get no returns. If they could be disillusioned with the Congress — a party that gave them many welfare schemes and spent much on their well-being — they can get disillusioned with Mr Modi as well, and in a much shorter time span.

When the American blacks found a sympathetic President in Abraham Lincoln, they rebelled against their white masters. At a time when the most violent Ku Klux Clan was targeting the blacks, Lincoln who got elected as President from the right-wing Republican Party, turned the black-white issue into a civil war to preserve the integrity of the nation. He also initiated the legal process to abolish slavery.

Mr Modi, who has accepted that “neech jaati” life is humiliating and unacceptable, should initiate steps for the abolition of untouchability and caste inequality.
A section of the RSS and the BJP might oppose such social reforms, but only a fight like Lincoln’s will help him secure a special place in history.

Mr Modi should know that it was because of the reform agenda that Lincoln lost his life, but he is also remembered as the greatest President of America. We also have the example of George W. Bush Jr, who went after Muslims while claiming to export democracy and American values to the Arab world. He attacked Iraq and in the process weakened America and buried his own history. No one celebrates his role even after his two-term presidency.

Mr Modi can go after minorities in India and think of establishing Akhand Bharat by annexing Pakistan and Bangladesh as part of his cultural training in khaki shorts. But such an attempt will destroy India and also his image. The huge non-resident Indian community that sees him as unworthy of becoming the Prime Minister, both because of his low caste background and non-Western English education, will move against him.

However good an orator Mr Modi may be — even better than Atal Behari Vajpayee — he is not seen as an enlightened leader. The notion of enlightenment in India still hinges around English education and foreign degrees. And, of course, one’s caste.

Mr Modi should know that New Delhi is not Gandhinagar. The poor people who voted for him across the country will be happy only if their children are able to study in English-medium and if their schools are at par with those of the rich children. They should get good jobs, good food and live in good houses. Otherwise the disillusionment will turn into something we are unable to foresee, or even fathom.

The writer is director, Centre for the Study of Social Exclusion and Inclusive Policy, Maulana Azad National Urdu University, Hyderabad