Modi - demagogue or democrat?

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 20, 2012 04:05 hrs
Modi, others to face Gujarat elections phase 2

He rose to be the state's leading politician rising from obscure beginnings and minor offices. Long before other leaders, he realised that the key to winning power was to establish a close personal bond with his voters. He toured the state incessantly, used the print and the new electronic media masterfully to enter the minds of common people, attacked privilege remorselessly and appealed massively to the religious sentiments of the vast majority of the state's population.

Although he won initially with only a plurality, he quickly consolidated his hold to become the unchallenged ruler of the state. Early on in his tenure, he paid attention to improving roads and communications — being wise to the role they would play in spurring rapid growth. He bullied the opposition in the legislature into irrelevance and claimed a mandate for transformation. His performance made him a larger-than-life hero to his people in the state.

His methods and presumed lack of morals made him a target of intense criticism, but the more he was criticised, the more he seemed to flourish. He was considered autocratic in the extreme by his critics, and was often labelled a fascist. His distinctive style of dressing and speech made him readily identifiable all over the country.

Having made his position in the state nearly impregnable, he set his sights on the national scene. He had the audacity to tell an economically troubled country that it could follow his "share our wealth" plan. The mainstream national parties and leaders, including some in his own state, treated him with deep suspicion, if not downright hostility.

No, that is not Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister now expected to win comfortably an endorsement of a state election, although the narrative fits him rather neatly. This is the record of Huey Long, the governor of Louisiana at the height of the Great Depression (1928-32), who went on to become a senator from his state, while he continued to rule it through a remote control of the puppets he had installed. He was getting set to challenge Franklin Roosevelt for the Democratic nomination in 1936. He was not sure whether he would succeed. His plan was to bolt from the party in the event it rejected him and float a third-party campaign. That would ensure the defeat of Roosevelt and the election of a weak Republican in 1936. The resulting chaos would be so great that a desperate nation, and the Democrats, would beg Long to take over in 1940.

That did not happen. Long fell to an assassin's bullet in September 1935, at the age of 42. His life and legacy have fascinated scholars and authors. Professor T Harry Williams' monumental biography in 1969 won the National Book Award in 1970 and is considered a model for others aspiring to chronicle famous lives. Robert Penn Warren's thinly fictionalised All The King's Men won the Pulitzer Prize in literature in 1947. Its filmed version won the Oscar for the best film of 1949.

It is not Long alone whose life and times bear uncanny parallels to those of Modi. A more recent politician consolidated his hold over power in his domain in the aftermath of what were to be the worst riots involving the local majority and the Muslims. He went on to win election after election, exercising absolute power over his party and leading his natural resource-poor economy to unprecedented prosperity. His authoritarian rule has come in for some severe criticism, even as his economic record makes him a hero to many.

Lee Kuan Yew faced Malay-Chinese riots in 1963 when he headed Singapore as a junior member of the Malaysian experiment. That led to Singapore's expulsion from the federation and emergence as a city republic. The rest, as they say, is history. Even though Lee relinquished the premiership in 1990 and retired from politics in 2011, his influence on the island's economy and politics remains undiminished. He is rightly considered synonymous with his prosperous and clean – in every sense – nation.

Lee's disciplinarian stamp is most evident in his pursuit of multi-culturalism in Singapore. He has repeatedly stressed the importance of religious and racial tolerance as the bedrock of his country. He has also been on record saying the government would not hesitate to use the harshest measures to combat any threat to the harmony.

Huey Long and Lee Kuan Yew are the only leaders thrown up by democracies who have held sway and power over their people comparable to that which Narendra Modi now holds. Many other state leaders – Jayalalithaa, Navin Patnaik, Nitish Kumar, among those now active – run one-person local parties and administration, but they have still-powerful challengers. Despite his long rein and popularity, the late Jyoti Basu was never above his party even in his state.

The intriguing question now is whether Modi will remain his strident self, as Long did, or become a mellower statesman-like figure as Lee did.

Modi quite clearly nurses national ambitions. He needs a larger constituency with which to bond. That movement, like all movements in history, must be based on a feeling of antipathy and injustice. Within Gujarat, he can build on the goodwill – sadbhavana – resulting from its developmental record, but elsewhere, he will need to stress a sense of deprivation to appeal to people. This is what Long intended to do, but Lee did not have to, because he was wise enough to see Singapore as his domain, and he was at its pinnacle. Even though Long was dependent on achieving power through democracy, the route to it was through demagoguery. Modi would be in a similar situation — before and after December 20.

This is the concluding part of a two-part series. The first part "The Gujarat referendum" appeared on Tuesday
The writer taught at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, and helped set up the Institute of Rural Management, Anand

More from Sify: