Can Modi avoid a cultural agenda? – Abhiram Ghadyalpatil

Abhiram Ghadyalpatil“The challenge for Modi hence … is to strike a balance between the Lexus—development, growth, and sabka saath, sabka vikas—and the olive tree—the cultural nationalism that the RSS-BJP have an umbilical cord with. The first seven months have certainly given us the broad contours of this holistic model of governance.” –  Abhiram Ghadyalpatil

Thomas FriedmanIt is almost 15 years since Thomas Friedman, the widely read guru of globalisation, told us the story of the post-Cold War world using the metaphors of the Lexus and the olive tree. The Lexus stands for globalisation and the olive tree broadly represents nativity.

In Understanding Globalization: The Lexus and the Olive Tree, Friedman talks about the worldwide clash between the forces of economic liberalisation and the ancient forces of history, culture, and community at the start of the new millennium. He cites cases wherein the Lexus trumps the olive tree and vice versa. Friedman also narrates instances to illustrate how the Lexus and the olive tree struck a fine balance and co-existed.

To Friedman, the India of 1998-99 epitomised this friction. The olive tree moment was when India tested her nuclear weapons which kindled a nationwide wave of jingoistic self-esteem and a sense of virility. The nuclear tests also prompted the US to impose economic sanctions against India and a downgrading of the Indian economy by the international rating agencies. 

Friedman argues that though the olive tree had had its day in India in the aridity of Pokhran, the Lexus caught up soon after when Atal Behari Vajpayee, freshly elected for his third term as Prime Minister, announced that economic growth and a hunt for the global capital were the top priorities for his government. 

It is very instructive to re-read Friedman now in the context of a second BJP Prime Minister in office. Narendra Modi is a much more powerful Prime Minister than Vajpayee ever was in his six years at the helm punctuated by three elections. There is the very obvious simple majority the BJP has under Modi which Vajpayee never had. This numerical strength that Modi enjoys has multiple meanings. 

Then there are other reasons that make Modi one of the most powerful Prime Ministers ever and also make the Lexus and the olive tree theory even more interesting than it was 15 years back. Modi brings to the office a much-acclaimed record as Chief Minister of Gujarat for 12 years. 

Modi is the most right-wing of Prime Ministers ever in terms of his political ideology, a demonstrated commitment to the growth-oriented model of governance, and his insistence on devolving power to the people. 

Modi has redefined political charisma and chutzpah in ways which few politicians in India have. Indeed, Modi is arguably the most international of all the Indian Prime Ministers ever in raising oodles of interest, hopes, goodwill, and also apprehensions. 

Yet he is also a quintessential product of his larger domestic Parivar which can very legitimately claim that he owes his Prime Ministership to their ground support. Modi illustrates Friedman’s theory in the most eloquent yet poignant manner. The first seven months of the Modi sarkar bear this conflict out and also set the tone for a very engrossing 2015. 

Narendra ModiReading the Modi mandate right 

A few political commentators who were sympathetic to Modi even before he won his party a historic majority have shown signs of exasperation in the last two months. Commentators eternally hostile to Modi and the RSS-BJP have found much-needed reasons for relief after the apocalyptic 16 May 2014. I argue that both schools of commentators have not read the Modi mandate completely correctly. 

The sympathetic school was convinced that the massive mandate was for development and governance and not Hindutva. The sulking class warned that the mandate was not for Hindutva but promptly raised the bogey of a Hindu renaissance. 

The correct meaning of the May 2014 mandate lies, like most things political, in its multiple layers. The 281-seat-mandate is an aggregate of causes and constituencies. There is not one Lexus and one olive tree driving this gigantic democratic machine. There are many of them and they have to be balanced to achieve healthy growth. 

It is relevant to quote Friedman here: 

“The challenge in this era of globalization—for countries and individuals—is to find a healthy balance between preserving a sense of identity, home, and community, and doing what it takes to survive within the globalization system. Any society that wants to thrive economically today must constantly be trying to build a better Lexus and driving it out into the world. 

“But no one should have any illusions that merely participating in this global economy will make a society healthy. If that participation comes at the price of a country’s identity, if individuals feel their olive tree roots crushed, or washed out, by this global system, those olive tree roots will rebel. They will rise up and strangle the process. Therefore the survival of globalisation as a system will depend, in part, on how well all of us strike this balance.” 

It would be wrong to believe that Modi’s mandate was not for Hindutva. There is a definite yearning for a positive affirmation of Hindutva in the 281 seats that the BJP and Modi have won. This is one of the olive trees Modi must not sacrifice in India’s pursuit of a better Lexus. 

Sympathetic commentators have argued that the quantum leap from 181 seats to 281 was achieved, not riding Hindutva but aspirations of development, good governance, and deliverance from the cynical entitlement Raj unleashed by the UPA regime. This is only partly true. 

To a large number of their voters, the BJP and Modi also represent the cultural nationalism the RSS has always advocated and what the RSS critics have lazily labelled a hidden Hindu agenda. Political observers who derive a mocking delight in arguing that Modi is no Vajpayee either forget or do not want to acknowledge the presence of this Hindutva constituency in even Vajpayee’s mandate. 

Under Modi the BJP achieved the quantum leap not because it gave up Hindutva but because it added newer constituencies to its pantheon of supporters. 

Modi has built up newer blocks to create a superstructure but this superstructure stands on the foundation of 181 seats that unquestionably comprise the Hindutva constituency. Indeed, the Modi phenomenon has added a new Hindu consciousness to the original Hindutva school that the RSS and the BJP advanced. 

Vajpayee was undoubtedly a great exponent of this school but Modi has scaled new heights because he managed to retain the foundation. 

A simple proof that Hindutva was one of the powerful forces that propelled Modi to power is the fact that the many-headed Sangh Parivar, including the more ballistic Vishwa Hindu Parishad, not only campaigned wholeheartedly for Modi in this election but was also unprecedentedly vocal about its participation in the campaign. 

Of course, there is a section of voters which elected Modi and BJP for reasons beyond Hindutva, ideology, and identity. This is a new constituency that mostly comprises first time voters and voters repelled by the inept, corrupt, and callous UPA rule. 

It is also a constituency Modi can rightly claim as his own contribution to the Hindutva block. Then there may even be a miniscule section of voters which supported Modi because they thought he had the ability to rein in the Hindutva elements. 

But it would be a momentous misreading of the mandate to argue that the vote for Modi was overwhelmingly against Hindutva. On the contrary, the emphatic mandate had both overtones and undertones of Hindutva as the largest support block. 

Minus this block, the superstructure would collapse. It will be without even the 181 seats that Vajpayee delivered. The most unfair and incorrect reading of the May 2014 mandate for the BJP would be to argue that it was achieved without a substantial vote for Hindutva. To say this is to deny the BJP and the RSS their very identity. 

Commentators who also had the privilege to analyse the Vajpayee era need to remember that for all his moderation and consensus politics, Vajpayee could never take the BJP beyond 181 seats. Yet it would be uncharitable and stupid to deny Vajpayee a unique place in Indian politics—he successfully ran the first truly non-Congress coalition government and also pushed the development mantra to the centrestage of Indian politics. 

That he could never win a simple majority for BJP does not also mean that there is only a limited space for moderation in Indian politics. But the Modi campaign successfully dovetailed development with moderation, Hindutva with growth, and equality with secularism. 

It is true that the Modi campaign did not have overtones of Hindutva. But the campaign never championed something that was in conflict with the essence of Hindutva or Hinduism as defined by the Supreme Court of India as “a way of life”. 

Narendra ModiThe olive tree moments 

The Hindutva constituency has reasons to feel emboldened by Modi’s victory. It participated in the campaign in a manner never seen before in the history of the BJP and RSS. It made sure one of its own family consummates the 79-year-old dream of leading the nation on its own. 

Modi himself knows the role the entire RSS apparatus has played in his victory. Recall his speech to the newly-elected BJP MPs in the Central Hall of the Parliament. Modi reminded the MPs that they were privileged to see the day when the BJP ruled the country on its own only because generations of workers had made great sacrifices to realise this ambition. Modi was not only being generous and grateful but also factually correct. 

It is this generosity and sense of gratitude that explains Modi’s sage-like view of the olive tree moments in his first seven months. He was rightly charitable towards Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti when he contextualised her remarks in her social moorings. He did chide her because that was necessary. But he also maintained that the Sadhvi’s intemperate language was a lesson for all. 

Political commentators who see some rationale in the opposition’s demand that Modi make his stand clear on the issue of religious conversions forget two things. One, no Prime Minister before has ever made his or her stand clear on conversions even though large-scale conversions were taking place. 

It was politically convenient for almost all former prime ministers to stay mum because Hindus in the hinterlands were being converted. Two, Modi cannot reject one of his constituents just to please the political pundits and international observers. Modi knows where he comes from. 

Make In IndiaThe way ahead 

The challenge for Modi hence, as Friedman has argued in the book, is to strike a balance between the Lexus—development, growth, and sabka saath, sabka vikas—and the olive tree—the cultural nationalism that the RSS-BJP have an umbilical cord with. The first seven months have certainly given us the broad contours of this holistic model of governance. 

Modi has started weaving a parallel narrative—the Swachh Bharat campaign, an India-focused foreign policy, the Make in India call, transparency and efficiency in administration, and a new dimension of federalism. 

The opposition’s agenda is to derail this narrative and raise the bogey of Hindutva as witnessed in the winter session of the Parliament. In 2015, we may witness a Modi who strikes a fine balance between the two narratives. He may just build a better Lexus and make sure the olive trees grow along. – Swarajya, 2 January 2015

» Abhiram Ghadyalpatil was a mainstream print media journalist for 14 years and has worked for the Economic Times, Indian Express, and Hindustan Times. He took a purposeful break from mainstream journalism four years back. Now he is a private observer of politics and society in India. His deepest sympathies are with the Rightist thought in India.

The Lexus and the Olive Tree by Thomas Friedman

2 Responses

  1. Agree with the author. Time is running out for Mr. Modi and BJP to reduce if not stop the rhetoric and begin ground work based on electoral promises made to the people of India who in turn believed him and voted for him. If results don’t begin showing in the next couple of months, the electorate will begin showing their distrust in the many forthcoming assembly elections, one which is just around the corner which is Delhi.

  2. If Mr Modi continues to ignore the cultural nationalists, he will lose his mandate in the next general election for the same reason Vajpayee lost his.

    Mr Modi DID NOT win this election on a development agenda only as some like Swapan Dasguta are arguing. He won the election because many of us who voted for him believed they were voting for a HINDU prime minister.

    And Mr Modi very adroitly encouraged this belief by making a number of promises that so far he has not kept.

    Ms Radha Rajan has very cogently taken issue with these unkept promises in her article ‘Modi Sarkar: Long on symbolism, short on substance‘ on this website.

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