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What makes PM Modi immune to political accountability?

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According to surveys, Narendra Modi’s popularity has not very substantially declined since the 2019 elections in spite of poor economic performance — India is one of the countries most badly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic.

This may be attributed to Modi’s charisma, known as the “Modi magic” in mainstream media. Charisma has been defined by the sociologist Max Weber as a “certain quality of an individual personality, by virtue of which he is set apart from ordinary men and treated as endowed with supernatural, superhuman, or at least specifically exceptional powers or qualities.” Indeed, Modi’s record has been exceptional. The 2002 Gujarat violence allowed him to appear as the Hindu Hriday Samrat. Demonetisation was justified by his determination to fight corruption. The Balakot strikes were presented as an unprecedented retaliation against Pakistan-based Islamist terrorists. Modi has initiated policies not attempted earlier, such as the abolition of Article 370. Last but not the least, he has presided over the making of the Ram temple in Ayodhya.

Only one Indian leader can compete with such a list: Indira Gandhi, who “broke Pakistan” in the 1971 war, decided to carry out the first nuclear test in 1974, annexed Sikkim and imposed the Emergency, which resulted in the sterilisation of 11 million people. Gandhi lost power in 1977, but she was reelected in 1980, less than two years later, while son Sanjay was general secretary of her party. Why were they punished once, but not again two years later? Interviews that anthropologist Emma Tarlo conducted in some of the Delhi slums produced by the government’s “rehabilitation” policy during the Emergency showed that “none (among the interviewees) associated their sufferings with Indira Gandhi”, who was still seen as “a great leader” and even a “world-famous leader”. Charisma is above accountability and Modi apparently benefits from the same phenomenon. In both cases, voters seem to have been attracted by the figure of the strong (wo)man.

In 2017, a Pew Centre survey showed that 55 per cent of the respondents backed “a governing system in which a strong leader can make decisions without interference from parliament or the courts”. Unsurprisingly, supporters of the BJP were overrepresented among those who support such a system. The demand for a strong leader was related to an acute sentiment of vulnerability. The same Pew survey revealed that while crime took the top spot on the list of the most pressing issues, with 84 per cent of Indians seeing it as a big problem, terrorism came immediately next for 76 per cent of the respondents (before corruption and unemployment). This was in tune with the idea that ISIS appeared as the main threat to India to 66 per cent of the respondents, ahead of every other threat.

This feeling of vulnerability is rooted in historical stereotypes that Mahatma Gandhi himself echoed when, in 1924 — after the Kohat riots — he said, “the Mussalman as a rule is a bully, and the Hindu as a rule is a coward.” Some Hindus continue to see Muslims as potentially violent. This, partly, is a legacy of a complex that developed during the Raj. A very common cliché propagated by Victorians presented Hindus as effete, partly because of vegetarianism. When he was a child, Gandhi tried to eat meat in secret for one full year precisely to emulate the strength of his Muslim friend, Sheikh Mehtab. Soon after, U N Mukherji and Swami Shraddhananda lamented that Hindus were a “dying” race because of the demographic figures revealed by the census. Mahatma Gandhi, as Lloyd and Susanne Rudolph have shown, restored his co-religionists’ self-esteem by creating a “new courage” based on non-violence. Today, Modi is giving them self-respect by other means, as a strong man with an international aura.

The international dimension is important, precisely because of the colonial roots of the stereotype of the “effete Hindu”. Before the pandemic, Modi constantly travelled across the globe and his trips were systematically publicised. He has made a point of hugging world leaders and of sharing the dais in large rallies with the powerful. Some of Modi’s achievements have been projected as unmatched in the rest of the world, like commissioning the statue of Sardar Patel — the tallest worldwide — or the International Yoga Day, introduced by the UN thanks to his efforts for promoting the global status of India.

But Modi’s charisma relies also on the way he has allegedly embraced “fakiri”, a claim that is supposed to reflect his lack of interest in material belongings. This discourse reflects another dimension of Modi’s charisma, a repertoire that Mahatma Gandhi had introduced and that Morris-Jones called “saintly politics”. This Modi has cultivated via photographs such as the one taken in a cave in the Himalayas. It has gained momentum lately, as evident from the fact that he speaks and looks more and more like a guru. He is now above accountability, not only because of the strongman syndrome, but also because of his “guruhood”.

As a strongman or a sage, Modi epitomises a strain that B R Ambedkar identified as one of the problems of Indian democracy. In his closing speech to the Constituent Assembly in 1949, he criticised the submission to authority that could result in a personality cult: “There is nothing wrong in being grateful to great men who have rendered life-long services to the country. But there are limits to gratefulness. (…) in politics, Bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship”. Today’s bhakts, indeed, do not hold Modi accountable for anything.

The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London

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