Delhi was in for its biggest shakeup for decades. Virtually everything to do with government was about to change, not just ministers and policies but also how the people at the top reacted to events, who they associated with, and even the language they spoke – many leading politicians, including [Narendra] Modi, preferred (or felt bound) to speak Hindi.
As a journalist in London, I had seen and reported wholesale changes and the shock in the outgoing leftist establishment when Margaret Thatcher demolished the ruling Labour government and led the Conservative Party to victory in 1979. Thatcher brought in a totally new style, not just new policies and decision-making priorities but a new political environment.
Modi was as driven as Thatcher and his arrival was quite different from what had happened when Vajpayee became the BJP prime minister in 1998, as Tavleen Singh, a newspaper columnist, has explained: “The courtiers simply moved to his court and then back to the court of Sonia Gandhi when he lost the election in 2004.” Modi brought in top bureaucrats from his home state of Gujarat, and little-known politicians were given important ministries. The long-established elite of India’s capital lost much of the clout and closeness to the centres of power that they had enjoyed during the Congress and Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s decades in power.
It was no use liberal Congress sympathisers and foreign observers complaining, as they had been doing for months, about a politician with Modi’s questionable history and RSS membership becoming prime minister.
A large man proud of his 56’ chest, and with a carefully trimmed white beard, this was a personal victory. Modi had run a presidential style campaign that projected his oratory and charisma. It was a personal victory, but the vote was not mostly for the divisive Hindu-centric and anti-Muslim approach of BJP hardliners and the RSS that would emerge.
Modi was elected primarily by aspirational young voters who wanted a prime minister who would end the years of failure, obfuscation and corruption, and the gradual imploding of institutions, organisations and procedures... Modi had created the impression that he alone among all of India’s politicians could introduce and implement what the country needed. How well – or badly – he has met expectations is examined in a new last chapter added in this edition.
During the election campaign, Modi capitalised on his poor low-caste background, as he has done repeatedly since then. When he was a boy, he ran a tea stall at a bus terminus in Gujarat until he joined the RSS in his teens. This was a striking personal pitch, although his origins were no more poor or hopeless than those of Manmohan Singh, who was born in a rural village in a part of Punjab that is now in Pakistan. The difference was that Modi clambered up the rough political ladder of the RSS and BJP, while Singh moved into the rarefied economists’ intellectual and international world of Oxbridge universities, the finance ministry, Reserve Bank of India and the Planning Commission.
Modi said just after the election that, although he had been elected for a five-year term, he needed ten years to transform the country.
At face value, that meant ten years building up economic growth, development and jobs, but it rapidly became clear that it also meant embedding Hindu nationalism and building the RSS’s vision of a strong Hindu India to the detriment of Muslims.
Modi first showed this early in December 2014 when he failed to reprimand Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti, a controversial new woman minister, who implied at a political rally that non-Hindus (ie, Muslims) were illegitimate, saying, “Aapko tay karna hai ki Dilli mein sarkar Ramzadon ki banegi ya haramzadon ki. Yeh aapka faisla hai” (“You have to decide if you want a government peopled by the children of Ram or one full of bastards”).
An MP from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, which has some of the worst Hindu-Muslim conflict, she had made similar remarks earlier, but eventually apologised. Modi dismissed opposition parties’ demands for her resignation.
Another BJP MP praised the assassin of Mahatma Gandhi, the Independence leader who is regarded as the father of the nation, as a “patriot”.
Najma Heptulla, the minority affairs minister, said that all Indians were Hindus, and quickly explained she had been speaking “not in relation to the [Hindu] religion but in relation to identity as nationality.” There were mass conversions of Christians and others to Hinduism, and a government minister turned 25 December, the traditional Christmas religious and public holiday, into a working day for many bureaucrats.
The health minister voiced concerns about advocating condoms to counter HIV-AIDS and preferred “promoting the integrity of the sexual relationship between husband and wife” which, he said, was “part of our culture”. He went on to attack liberal values by saying that adolescent sex education should be banned in schools.
Modi’s and his colleagues’ deep roots in the culture were illustrated when, voicing widely recognised mythology as medical fact, he told an audience of doctors and scientists five months after the election that plastic surgery and genetic science were used thousands of years ago in ancient India. That, he said, was how the Hindu god Ganesh’s elephant head became attached to a human body, and how the warrior Karna was born outside his mother’s womb.
The theme of Modi’s speech, at the dedication ceremony of a hospital in Mumbai sponsored by the Mukesh Ambani family of the Reliance Industries group, was that India needed to improve its (grossly inadequate) healthcare facilities. He went on to quote the ancient Mahabharat epic and said that “big contributions” of ancestors in such areas needed to be reiterated. “We can feel proud of what our country achieved in medical science at one point of time. We all read about Karna in Mahabharat. If we think a little more, we realise that Mahabharat says Karna was not born from his mother’s womb. This means that genetic science was present at that time. That is why Karna could be born outside his mother’s womb,” he said. “We worship Lord Ganesh. There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
This went much further than extolling India’s widely recognised achievements in pioneering alternative ancient herb and plant-based medicines such as Ayurveda. It surprised people because the prime minister did not acknowledge that such mythology lacked western-style proof.
Schools in Gujarat were given textbooks that claimed cars were invented in ancient India. At the Indian Science Congress in Mumbai in 2015, which was inaugurated by Modi, a speaker said the world’s first aircraft was invented with 40 small engines by Maharishi Bharadwaj, a revered Hindu sage in ancient India.
Modi and many in the RSS presented such claims to resurrect past Hindu glories, implicitly discrediting secular liberals. A primary aim is to support the drive for Hindutva by establishing that Hindus were the original inhabitants of what is now India. Speaking at the event, Prakash Javadekar, who was then the environment minister, tried to bridge the credibility gap by saying that ancient Indian science was based ‘on minute understanding of observations of centuries and based on experience and logic’. He added, ‘that wisdom must be recognised’ and ‘has a relevance today’.
In the years that followed, these themes continued and the negative side of the BJP rule became evident in more threatening ways – described in the new last chapter. There was crude gang enforcement, with lynchings and killings, of bans on cow-slaughter and beef-eating, and objections to Muslim-Hindu liaisons. There were restrictions on freedom of expression and growing efforts to control of the media, with the government and the party acting in unison on Hindutva. The “idea of India” choice was becoming clear – would the Achhe Din achievements of the Modi government in the following years be sufficient to justify the changing political and social landscape?
Excerpted with permission from Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, Revised and Updated with an Analysis of the Modi Years, John Elliott, HarperCollins India.