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The art of being a Right-wing messiah and left populist

January 17, 2018

Is Narendra Modi a leftist or a rightist? A large number of rightist intellectuals, centre-right liberals, anti-Nehruvian and anti-welfare state writers hugely supported Modi in Gujarat, and later for prime ministership, because they thought he would be Indian version of Margaret Thatcher or Ronald Reagan. That he would privatise the “Navratna” public sector corporations, abolish MGNREGA and Right to Food type pro-poor initiatives, thereby unburdening the economy.

Modi had frequently ridiculed MGNREGA as a monument to the bankrupt socialist policies of the Congress. Modi’s supporters had convinced themselves that he would liberalise land and labour policies, giving freedom to business and industry to expand and make a profit. Nothing substantial has been done so far; the private sector has learnt to suffer silently.

Right-wing commentators and loud TV panellists had thought that the “povertarianism” that defined the Congress approach would be consigned to dustbin. That Sonia Gandhi’s “bleeding heart” activists in the National Advisory Council would be sent to oblivion. A new era with neo-liberal economics would dawn, and India would join the club of capitalist America and Europe. All the pro-poor rhetoric would disappear from the political discourse.

Just three months after becoming Prime Minister, Modi made the dramatic announcement of abolishing the Planning Commission, supposedly a symbol of Jawaharlal Nehru’s Fabian vision. The burial of the commission was regarded as a proof of his rightist conviction. The very idea of the Planning Commission was always condemned, from its inception, as an institution of controls and licence-permit raj.

During the Cold War years, the Planning Commission was seen as the “Soviet model”, and the pro-American lobby in India, generally represented by the Swatantra Party and the Jana Sangh (which evolved into the BJP) argued that it was an anachronistic fad. So the idea of the NITI Aayog was welcomed by this political class.

But within two years, Modi changed his tune and text. He not only doubled the sum for MGNREGA, but also began to speak the language of “woolly-headed socialists”. In his speeches, he started attacking the rich and later even claimed demonetisation as “pro-poor”. Almost overnight he had an image makeover – from right-wing messiah to Robin Hood, who wanted to get black money back and distribute that wealth among the poor. But he never appointed a Lokpal to identify and punish the corrupt.

The BJP had vociferously joined the Anna Hazare bandwagon, along with the left, for appointment of the Lokpal. Now all are silent on the issue. The Anna Movement in 2011 had paralysed the Manmohan Singh government, something from which it could never recover. The image of the Congress as a corrupt party and Modi as the brave heart fighting to destroy evil had been sold effectively. But the so-called fight against black money was clearly an eyewash. Anybody could see, particularly in the election campaigns in UP and Gujarat, the way BJP was recklessly spending money to seduce voters. Obviously, it was not white money!

India’s phony and crony neo-liberals never criticised Modi for projecting himself as pro-poor and playing the same “povertarianism” game. He did not privatise any of the “Navratna” public sector corporations. Only last week, he marginally privatised Air India. He did not carry out any fundamental structural reforms in the economy, and yet the right wing maintained cunning silence. The rightists were happy singing paeans by displaying Moody’s or such certificates, though Modi in his speeches was clearly sounding like the socialist left (though there was no direct policy attack on the capitalists or rich).

The so-called secular rightists did not strongly come out against the vigilante gangs lynching and killing the Muslims for allegedly storing or eating beef or carrying cows in trucks. They also maintained a stony silence when patriotism was defined by standing for the National Anthem in cinema halls. The brazen anti-Muslim campaigns in the elections did not disturb them. The communal right had overtaken the economic right.

The BJP always had these two distinct but “dialectically integrated” right wing trends: the religious right and the free market right. Modi wants to ride both the man-eaters. He knows that the urban upper caste middle-class has acquired enough wealth as well as social clout, and would very easily support and even encourage a strident anti-Muslim campaign.

Neo-majoritarianism can bring in its fold even the middle castes, the OBCs, and a section of Dalits. The religious right propaganda can be easily mixed with populist left speeches in a deadly cocktail.

The renowned thinker and scholar AshutoshVarshney put it succinctly and profoundly in his speech in Mumbai last week, when he observed that Modi is a unique leader who has learnt the art of combining left populism with right populism. In the process, regressive tendencies flourish and also become dangerously violent, even as the so called progressive “pro-poor” sloganeering covers the mass mind like an opiate.

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