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Who Needs Narendra Modi?

Posted on September 29, 2014 in Politics

By Pushkal Shivam:

Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to the U.S. is an inadvertent act of revenge. When he set foot in the U.S. as the head of the Indian state, he ended a nine-year long visa ban imposed on him by that country. “Modi never forgets, and never forgives,” is the experience of his political adversaries.

narendra modi

However, in his interview to CNN’s Fareed Zakaria on the eve of the visit, also his first since being elected, he made no reference to the visa issue. When asked about his impression of Modi, Zakaria was full of praise. But his one particular remark seemed like a back-handed compliment: “What Modi does, he does in a very purposeful way. There is very little that happens accidentally with Narendra Modi.”

Modi was the Chief Minister of Gujarat when over 1000 people, most of them Muslims, were killed in communal riots that engulfed the state. The unofficial figures are much higher. Modi invoked the Newtonian logic of action and reaction to ‘explain’ the killings, implying spontaneity and a lack of control over events that unfolded, in stark contrast to his helmsman-like image that Zakaria bought into. The judiciary did not find any evidence of Modi’s complicity and he was given a ‘clean chit’ in 2012.

In 2005, the Asian American Hotel Owners’ Association (AAHOA) invited Modi to address its annual convention in Florida. Rights groups like Coalition Against Genocide (CAG) swung into action and lobbied hard with the U.S. State Department to deny Modi a visa. Helped by the controversial US Commission on International Religious Freedom (USCIRF), the efforts resulted in the U.S. revoking Modi’s tourist visa and denying him a diplomatic visa. A similar polarization developed back home in the subsequent years.

Opinion on Modi is split into two camps. He is either a “textbook case of a fascist and a prospective killer” or a man of development. The latter camp systematically used the term ‘clean chit’ to banish any talk about Modi’s complicity in the 2002 riots from the public sphere. Similarly, the word ‘incorruptible’, which appeared in Wikileaks cables about Modi, was used to peddle the myth that only he could deliver ‘good governance’. In each case, the symbolic importance of the institutions (the Supreme Court and Wikileaks) attached to these words was understood and utilized.

On the other hand, the so called anti-Modi camp spoke of his alliance with big capital in the run-up to the elections, and predicted the emergence of a radical form of crony capitalism. It follows that if you question Modi, you’re likely to be identified with this camp and relegated to the margins of public discourse. In effect, you could only talk about development and economic growth as topics like communal violence are censored. The pro and anti-Modi split works well to obscure the real sources of his power and the fact that our system needs Modi more than Modi needs the system.

Today we see an adaptive Narendrabhai who has created a totalitarian discourse of development. He wouldn’t deliver inflammatory speeches or indulge in provocative religious symbolism any more. Instead you would hear him talk about inclusive growth and harmony. Occasionally, he may even appear to go against (individual) big capital while talking about the poor. Every once in a while, he will speak about equality and harmony, but the unjust nature of the system is likely to remain intact. We live in an unjust, unequal system that needs a Modi for its own survival and growth. Don’t be surprised if the U.S. finds a good ally in him.