Narendra Modi and the promise of authenticity | The Caravan – A Journal of Politics and Culture
News organisations like elections. Everyone knows when they are going to happen, they provide a natural narrative of struggle, climax and catharsis, and they are, most of the time, genuinely important. For foreign correspondents covering South Asia, the last 18 months have been busy. The cycle started with Pakistan’s polls last May, then came Bhutan, the Maldives, Nepal, Bangladesh, Afghanistan and now, finally, the biggest of them all, India.
Trying to pick a single theme—beyond the most banal—which unites all of these is tough. But if there is one element that is increasingly evident, it is that all these contests are, to a very significant extent, about the interaction of successive societies with the world beyond South Asia.
This is odd, given the fabulously insular nature of political debate in each of these countries. But in a very real way we are seeing, played out in each contest, a fierce battle to define the terms on which a billion or so people construct their identities in an increasingly interconnected, but not necessarily “globalised” and “flat” world in the coming decades.
Religion is one central element in that process of construction, obviously, though urbanisation, the expansion of media, and education also play a role, albeit a more indirect one.
So in the Muslim majority countries—the Maldives, Pakistan, Afghanistan and Bangladesh—there is an ongoing debate over the forms, practices and values of faith almost identical to that occurring from Morocco to Malaysia. In Pakistan, the nationalist, moderate Islamism of Nawaz Sharif’s Pakistan Muslim League has triumphed over the more liberal vision of the Pakistan People’s Party. Other factors than religion were important too, such as corruption, violence and the failure of the outgoing government to revive the economy. But the PML victory reflected a long-term shift away from a rural, socially hierarchical Pakistan, where religious practice was dominated by the folksy, syncretic, Sufi-influenced Barelvi school familiar in much of South Asia to a more urban, more egalitarian, wealthier, better-educated lower-middle-class Pakistan influenced heavily by the rigour, intolerance and politicisation of contemporary Islam as practised in the Gulf.
Similar contests are underway in the Maldives, and in Bangladesh, where both main political parties are struggling to find a way of accommodating a surge in Islamism and Islamist identities among a new generation who barely remember, or are seeking to redefine memories of, the independence struggle and civil war of 1971. In Afghanistan, ethnicity complicates the situation too, but such dynamics are also clear. There is the neo-traditionalism of the Deobandi Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood-type Islamism of many conservatives in the cities, and then those whom, for want of a better label, outside observers sometimes call “liberals.”
In India of course, religion is also ever present, however much overseas analysts might talk of a post-communal, post-Ayodhya generation. But their belief that Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party may triumph because of their explicit or implicit Hindu majoritarianism, or even, as some commentators say, extremism, is misguided. Modi appeals because he offers Western-style management skills while, metaphorically and sometimes literally, wearing saffron. The message is that India can be made to run like Sweden but without sacrificing elements that hundreds of millions of people see, rightly or wrongly, as integral to the country’s cultural identity. Modi is saying that India can benefit from foreign capital and foreign methods without selling her soul.
You see the same argument in many European countries, particularly those like France, which are deeply uneasy with the continuing erosion of cultural difference globally, or indeed, in parts of the UK, where there is a profound fear of an essential, if constructed, “English-ness” suffering from some kind of new European identity. Religion in a profoundly agnostic country like Britain is less of a factor, but in France, whatever the commitment to secularism, the Catholic Church remains central to the national identity for millions.
If somewhere like France, this appeal to the “authentic” is enormously effective—as seen during recent demonstrations against gay marriage, for example—its power in the Islamic world is even greater. In Pakistan, Afghanistan and the Maldives, the fusion between religion and nationalism is close. In all these countries, Islamist groups have long stressed that they are not against Western technology or, indeed, management techniques; but they do not want the cost of development to be the sacrifice of their cultural identity.
In India, the link is much more complex, with regional differences of language and lifestyle, and making such a direct connection between the majority religion of Hinduism and being an Indian citizen is much harder. But the appeal to the authentic remains hugely powerful. The BJP manifesto also talks of gaining power from Western technological advances without paying a cultural cost, and my suspicion is that most Indians currently see their country as effectively a Hindu country—though of course with minorities coexisting peacefully within it—in much the same way as most French people see France as a culturally Catholic country despite its official commitment to secularism. Results in these elections can indicate if that impression is at least partially correct.
The results may therefore hold one key lesson for observers overseas.
One of the many failings of the West over recent decades has been to allow Westernisation, with its key component of secularism, to be associated not just with an assault on local cultural values but also with increased inequality. As long as it is the elites, rather than the masses, who benefit most from closer ties to a world in which Western models still broadly dominate, we can expect repeated waves of support for anyone who symbolises a strong assertion of local cultures and faiths to be popular. In a month India may join Japan and China—already 1.5 billion people—in having a nationalist who stresses reform and governance as a leader. This may shock many Western observers overseas who, for no obvious reason, have always expected that this country would match economic development with a steady cultural convergence with the West, and an enthusiastic embrace of all forms of globalisation. Global news organisations may like elections, but they may not actually be very good at explaining them.