Our forthcoming Lok Sabha elections are a bit like the Indian Premier League — both boast of stars and star value.
The three basic stars involved so far are Rahul Gandhi, Narendra Modi and Nitish Kumar. Each has their brand value, their bevy of cheerleaders and their retinue of fans. Controversies surround each and create myths. Probably the front leader in terms of media publicity and corporate attention is Modi. I find it difficult to like him.
To someone who has worked for 10 years investigating the Gujarat riots, he seems contaminated. Yet, as a sociologist and a scholar, I am trying to understand why Modi is the flavour of the day. Why is it that people like him?
I have spent hours talking to people. My engineering students adore him. They tell me “he is for security”. He is decisive. He understands the majority. He is for “us”. In fact, they feel that academics like me are short-sighted. Modi, they say, is the future. I asked many of them who were tipping 20 why they did not opt for Rahul. They argued that Rahul was young but he did not represent the youth. The youth loves success; it is aspirational, it is upwardly mobile, and Modi inspires such attitudes. Rahul, they felt, was a young man of 50. He had no achievements of his own. He inherited a job and a position while Modi earned it. In an emerging meritocracy, either as politics or the market, Modi scored high.
Modi has the right personality. He spells confidence and power. He talks of adding value, of empowering through skill. He understands the value of education. Rahul, they add, talks of management but Modi, they said, is managerial. I suggested that he is authoritarian and autocratic, that he does not tolerate dissent. They shrugged it off dismissively. For them, he is decisive. The Congress, they feel, is historical; Modi, they claim, is creating history.
They then add that the Congress is corrupt. When I referred to Karnataka, they claim that Modi is clean. They argue that he kept away from his brother, sanitised his relationship with his family, is distant from the MLAs of the Bharatiya Janata Party.
I pointed out his closeness to the Adanis, his love for the Tatas. They see this as dynamic and pragmatic. These are words they worship. One of them added that Wipro chairman Azim Premji and Infosys co-founder Narayana Murthy also support him. Another asked who got Viswanathan Anand to inaugurate Gujarat as a chess-playing state. I nodded. The youth prefers a history of doing to Rahul’s history of just being. One of them added that Bollywood actors, like Ajay Devgn, Sunil Shetty, “Amit Ji”, Anupam Kher, support Modi. I was beginning to look cussed.
I asked them what about the riots. For them 10 years is a long time in politics. In that politics of equivalence they claim that the Congress has not been punished for 1984. As majoritarian Hindus, they felt I was being unfair and hypocritical. They claimed Modi had a clean chit. I gave them examples of the Bajrang Dal bullying, the rape of women, the status of refugee camps. They said Modi is for development.
“Development” seems to be the magic word. Development is an invitation to the future and by inviting one to the future, it is inclusive enough. Modi, they claimed, is Mr Development. They added, “He is the only answer for India. He can stand up to China.”
I suddenly realised that history often becomes a baggage to those who want to create history. The young today do not want to be burdened by seniority, or memory. They want to move to the future and Modi celebrates the future. In reply to the charges that he is autocratic, they reply that the Congress is sycophantic. “Give him a chance,” they tell me. “If you can tolerate the Congress, why not Modi?” The Congress is seen as a negative force and the Congress’ negativity adds to the positive image of Modi. I also sensed that people admire men of action, men who give a certain sense of physicality to history. Modi, I realised, played and fed on both anxieties and aspirations.
The middle class loves the mainstream and the majoritarian. They want someone who articulates this world of mobility. They are tired of concessions to ethnics and minorities, or reservations. They fear failure. Terror makes them insecure. They prefer security to dissent. Modi, they claim, represents this world. He is local, national and global. He can dress in a tribal costume, and he can go to Davos. He has the right values.
Values to them are no longer civilisational. Values today are attitudes that help development. It can be economic development or personality development. For them, development seems wider than any notion of equality. They say pragmatically that life is not a level playing field and claim that Modi provides them an edge. This is a generation that found socialism tiring and bureaucratic. The Congress, they claim, is a residence of that bad dream.
This is a society that dreams of India being a global power and sees Modi as leading that process. He is seen as a Patel without Nehru, a Gujarati Bismarck. In fact, they like his bullying humour, his efforts to attack Sonia and the Congress. When I ask them why he is against NGOs, they reply that as the state gets more and more efficient, NGOs become less necessary.
I suddenly realise that my concerns about violence, values and democracy do not make full sense. The keywords seem sadly different now. They are security, success, management, mobility. Modi fits this world better. He seems to be the middle-class list of its own symptoms and anxieties and simultaneously the prescription for success. I do not understand that but I must acknowledge it. Because I know I have to fight harder to defeat a man who threatens my beliefs and my way of life.
The writer is a social science nomad.