The late movie actor Rajendra Kumar was sometimes described as the poor man’s Dilip Kumar. Rajendra, like other would-be Dilips, found popularity as a star but was a mediocre actor. The comparison came to mind when a Delhi University professor suggested the other day that Narendra Modi was very likely envious of Jawaharlal Nehru and saw himself in the lofty image of India’s first prime minister.
In a Freudian sense such a thing is possible, of course, even if we have to exclude Nehru’s peerless erudition, sense of history, scientific temper and a passionately secular worldview from the equation.
Nehru spoke clearly and simply, and was loved for that. Modi is probably more passionately idolised by his followers as a gripping speaker and possibly as a beacon of hope to them. He too has cultivated several foreign friends who he calls by their first name and who are always ready to partake of his bear hugs. The world of psychology, literature and cinema is replete with examples of characters that secretly loved those they hated.
I have been thinking for some time, and more so since Modi’s spectacular victory last week, that he could be leading an Iran-like awakening of the underdog, the politically suppressed hoi polloi who were shunned as cultural misfits in the imperious world of the Shah of Iran. Khomeini challenged the Shah’s Westernised cultural plank with an uprising that took Iran and the CIA by surprise.
The masses seemed to be securely with Modi, as they were with Nehru, and to an extent with Indira Gandhi.
While Modi may resemble this aspect of Khomeini (if there ever could be a pro-American Khomeini), he fails to live up to the Spartan life that the Ayatollah and in significant ways Mahatma Gandhi promoted. At the very outset, the Indian prime minister’s name woven in gold threads on a brand new Nehru jacket he wore to greet Barack Obama got etched in public memory – and it was at odds with his description of himself as a man of poor origins. The conflict, however, became his métier.
Modi’s alleged love with the Nehru image – though he never tires of berating him day in and day out – would not be the first by a leader from the Hindutva flock fawned over India’s charismatic first prime minister. Atal Behari Vajpayee had tears and awe in his eyes, according to reporters, who saw him taking the chair that Nehru had occupied as foreign minister. Nehru was his own foreign minister and usually worked from that office. Vajpayee never failed to mention how Nehru had sent him to the UN to represent India at a very young age.
Listening to Modi’s welcome address to his winning MPs on Saturday, one could glean a marked moderation in the tone and also a different purpose from the one we were used to over the last five years. The problem, as I should argue with my professor friend, was that the moderation, the wooing of Muslims with calls for communal unity, appeared to have been nudged by the bad press the prime minister had received from foreign shores during the long and bitter campaign. People of the Hindutva flock don’t always question their description as fascists, but to be called ‘divider in chief’ may have miffed the prime minister.
Nehru seldom, if ever, had to struggle for good press, largely because he was a good communicator but also because he had little or nothing to hide. Even with the China debacle he was seen as a tragic hero, not the villain of the piece the Hindu right makes him out to be.
Some of my liberal friends got upset when I quoted Modi’s speech the other day. They were certain he was faking it. Who would believe a scary right-winger when he urges a charged-up new flock of his coalition MPs not to bear any grudge against those who didn’t vote for them? He said India should work in the spirit of 1857 when Hindus and Muslims had united in a militant upsurge to overthrow British rule. That was the way to get India its truer democracy, Modi said. I was only quoting him as someone responds to a strange spectacle with what journalists call straight reporting.
Let’s go along with my friends’ view that Modi was faking this idea about communal harmony. He had spoken of sabka saath, sabka vikaas earlier. Now he had added vishwas, they reminded me incredulously. Their reference was to the 2014 promise of progress for everyone, to which Modi had added winning everyone’s trust as the new element.
So see this discussion with the tested idea that fascism does move the masses along albeit with a false consciousness, targeting a false enemy. But the masses seemed to be securely with Modi, as they were with Nehru, and to an extent with Indira Gandhi.
As luck would have it, the only time I interviewed Dr Manmohan Singh was when he was finance minister. I asked him why he was not quitting over the Harshad Mehta affair, the securities scam in which foreign and domestic banks were complicit in siphoning public money. He kept mum, his default posture in a crisis not very different from his mentor Narasimha Rao. (Remember Rao slept through the day when Babri Masjid was razed.) Manmohan Singh has a more agreeable demeanour than most Indian politicians. But his economic reforms were nothing but handing over public assets to private buccaneers.
The phenomenon has seen tycoons and fly-by-night operators salting public money in foreign banks. Singh was a Nehruvian South-South cooperation champion whose economic talent was harnessed by then prime minister Rao to launch India’s neo-liberal adventure whose byproduct Narendra Modi was destined to be. Just in case Modi does have a secret aspiration to be Nehru, Singh too never fails to see himself as an heir of Pandit Nehru. Iagine a contest between a fascist Nehru and a neo-liberal Nehru?