Narendra Modi has given Indians their confidence back
Eight years after Narendra Modi took office as prime minister, the fact that India has been fundamentally transformed is not open to debate. Modi had a vision of what India ought to be before he became its leader. The change he has engineered did not confine itself to tangibles but included the thought processes of a nation. What we call the decolonisation of the Indian mind is a project aimed at injecting confidence into the vast mass of Indians who had felt excluded from the decision-making heights of the polity, marginalised in space and by time. Everything else was premised on this all-encompassing transformation. Eight years on and after two years of the pandemic, with a new war in Europe affecting everything from oil prices to global food supplies, things are not easy. But the government says it is determined to pursue its reform agenda for an economy that has proved its resilience through multiple crises. At the same time, the infrastructure projects being rapidly implemented are not only connecting the remotest corners of the country to the economic mainstream but also making everyday travel faster and cheaper. Behind much of this stands the digitalisation revolution with its arc extending from the metropolis to the village. India’s neighbours on the border have also learned that New Delhi will not yield to aggression. The change began with Modi telling Indians to own their origins and respect themselves. That is not a small contributor to his continued electability.
NAPOLEON SUPPOSEDLY SAID that an army does not march on an empty stomach. But even well-fed and armed soldiers are sure to lose the battle if they are low on morale. Through centuries, legions of Goliaths have been felled by Davids high on morale and intelligent battle tactics. A significant case in point is that of Vietnamese general Vo Nguyen Giap, the David who is believed to have drawn his inspiration to fight and defeat the American Goliath from The Art of War, the definitive East Asian military treatise on the mastery of battle skills and psychological tactics governing morale, written circa the fifth century BCE by the ancient Chinese war strategist Sun Tzu.
It was morale that had plummeted to rock bottom in the India of 2014. It was prefaced by the events of the prior decade when corruption, inefficiency, political appeasement, etc had led the government to wink at terrorism, crony capitalism and blackmail by regional leaders. The last was glorified memorably by former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s remark on “the compulsions of a coalition government”. Scams, terror attacks, the growing audacity of Pakistan and China to coerce New Delhi into a corner and the disinclination of the political leadership to stand up to such intimidation made the achievements in the economic realm post-liberalisation appear a false dawn. Merit was no longer seen as the dominant currency and a fatalistic acceptance of the status quo became the norm. But the desperation also engendered a deep desire for a change for the better. The result was Narendra Modi.
The reason Modi succeeded, surpassing the wildest expectations of his own supporters in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—let alone those of his detractors who believed that the party would not cross 170 seats—was only partly on account of utilitarian considerations of a better deal, improved living conditions, and concerns about food-on-the-table. There was, however, something deeper at play in the mix: an irrepressible yearning in society at large to be liberated mentally and spiritually from the thrall of the English-spouting elite of Lutyens’ Delhi, to loosen the vice grip that the self-anointed cosmopolitan aristocracy and pseudo-secular haut monde had so far on the country and its culture. It was an urge to reclaim India’s distinct cultural identity of centuries with pride and to showcase it on the national and world stages without shame. This was not an overnight phenomenon; the yearning had been brewing for a while before finally boiling over. A strong resentment against the ruling class and its selectively nurtured and exclusivist ecosystem had started incrementally growing in tandem with the loosening grip of the legacy media and the corresponding bold challenge posed to the information being disseminated in the public domain. Suddenly, the threat to the monopoly of the legacy press over dissemination, manipulation and interpretation of ‘news’ was very real and it came from the small media, armed with smartphones and taking to every platform to put out their viewpoint in a language the audience hankered after. With this, the dominant semantics of culture, society and politics began to be transformed, reflecting the voices, mood and sentiment of the vast hinterlands that had been forced to the margins for decades.
If the transformation seemed slow but decisive, it was mainly because of vestigial diffidence in considering it legitimate and convincingly impinging on the mainstream from what was earlier considered the fringe. Several of BJP’s own leaders were unable to effectively acknowledge, accept and articulate the yearning for deep-rooted change in the cultural and socio-political lexicon, peaking in large parts of rural and semi-urban India. The widespread prevailing sentiment peaked with the arrival of Narendra Modi on the scene in 2014. Modi was the lightning rod, the catalyst that exponentially boosted the self-confidence of the people and taught them to believe in themselves. The beginning came on a wintry afternoon in January 2014 at New Delhi’s Ramlila Maidan, months after he was declared BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in September 2013. In a telling speech, Modi openly challenged the “Idea of India”, a phrase bandied about by the ruling elite and used as shorthand to refer to the allegedly liberal social order espoused by Jawaharlal Nehru, an order that was considered immutable and sacrosanct.
Two fundamental transformations occurred with the ascent of Narendra Modi at the centre: deconditioning and decolonisation. Modi had lit the spark at the Ramlila Maidan. It became a fire that would erode the consensus around Nehru’s idea of India nurtured as the ‘only way’
Modi directly challenged this in his address. To him, the most abiding “Idea of India” was moored in its ancient culture: he proclaimed “My idea of India: Satyameva Jayate (Truth Alone Triumphs), Ahimsa Paramo Dharma (Nonviolence Is the Highest Duty), Paudhe Mein Bhi Parmatma (God Lives in Every Living Thing, even Plants), Nari Tu Narayani (Woman, You Are Divine) Ekam Sad Viprah Bahudha Vadanti, Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam (The World Is One Family), Sarva Pantha Sambhav (All Paths Lead to the Same Destination/God), Appo Deepo Bhava (Be a Light unto Yourself) and Daridra Narayan Seva (To Work for the Poor Is To Work for God).” Modi concluded his speech by invoking the shloka of Lord Ram in the Ramayana: Janani Janmabhoomischa Swargadapi Gariyasi, meaning “the mother who birthed us and the motherland are both greater than heaven itself.” This worldview, drawn from the ancient teachings of the subcontinent, was Modi’s first pitch to posit an alternative to the prevailing Nehruvian and largely occidental vision of the Idea of India. Not many had realised it at the time, as is typically the case with any such challenge, but Modi had lit a spark at the Maidan that would turn into a beacon over the next few years. It was the first spark of a fire that would incrementally erode the consensus around Nehru’s Idea of India nurtured for decades in the academy, in lounges and newsrooms, at seminars, at the gymkhanas and in the boardrooms of corporate India as the ‘only way’. The spark that Modi lit at the Ramlila Maidan became a fully fledged challenge when he took charge as prime minister. It started as a rebellion but has, over the last eight years, grown into a mutiny and then a popular revolt against Nehru’s Idea of India.
Indeed, so indelibly etched into the people’s psyche was Nehru’s Idea of India as a vision that should never be challenged, that even BJP leaders had bought into it. Ironically, this very synonymising of Nehru’s Idea of India with all that should remain unchallenged was fundamentally antithetical to the school of liberal thought: an idea accorded the status of the One Way, the zeitgeist for all time to come, one which brooked no questioning or criticism. The people who propagated this, strangely, were self-appointed liberals who allegedly believed that societies stagnated if they did not entertain and debate, question and criticise ideas, viewpoints and worldviews other than their own. Such was the hold of Nehru’s Idea of India.
TWO FUNDAMENTAL transformations occurred in India’s societal and cultural moorings with the ascent of Narendra Modi to power at the Centre: deconditioning and decolonisation. Indians were conditioned for decades to only take the path paved by Nehru. The programming did not allow for even the slightest criticism or debate on the established vision of secularism, even in the face of growing communal aggression and provocations on the border with the collusion of sections at home. Even the unprecedented attack by Pakistani terrorists on India’s financial capital, killing hundreds, did not permit a deviation from the established narrative of secularism and a ‘syncretic’ society, and of harmony between the two dominant communities since before Independence. The media quickly stepped up, in the aftermath, to showcase stories of Mumbai’s ‘amazing resilience’ and its keenness to return to normalcy. That narrative was echoed faithfully across India, barring any open post-op debate on the lack of preparedness, intelligence failure and, most importantly, readiness to repel future terrorist attacks. Deviation from the official narrative would promptly invite disapprobation.
But things started to change under Modi. The government of a society that had taken a thousand cuts mutely for decades suddenly oozed self-confidence and decisiveness, both at home and abroad. It manifested itself most categorically after Uri on September 18, 2016. India had fought three major wars with Pakistan and struggled to ward off terror attacks regularly in the Kashmir Valley. Pakistan’s non-state actors were nurtured, encouraged and armed routinely to foment unrest in India through terror strikes even in the financial capital, holding a nation to ransom. On that day, the Lashkar-e-Toiba unleashed terror at the Uri base camp, killing 18 soldiers and injuring more than 30. India went into shock. A befitting reply was imperative. In a carefully and secretly planned retaliation less than a fortnight later, India carried out a surgical strike, inflicting heavy casualties on the terrorists and fundamentally changing the rules of engagement. Conducted across a front of 200 kilometres at six different locations, the operation was also the first time the two sides had engaged in retaliation in peacetime. As with the post-Uri surgical strikes, the post-Pulwama airstrike at Balakot, too, was a special operation in 2019 that permanently changed the dynamics of India-Pakistan relations, sending out a clear message that Pakistan would have to face the consequences for sponsoring cross-border terrorism. National Security Advisor (NSA) Ajit Doval put it succinctly when he said recently that India’s response to the numerous bombing incidents in its cities during the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) era had agitated Modi when he was chief minister of Gujarat. The attacks, he said, had earned India the reputation of a ‘soft state’. But the first of its kind post-Uri surgical strike and the subsequent Balakot airstrikes had enhanced India’s prestige globally besides instilling fear among India’s adversaries. Doval, who was central to the strategising by the government after both the Uri and Balakot attacks, emphasised that Modi’s decisiveness had demolished the myth of Pakistan’s nuclear-state blackmail. On both occasions, Modi had posed the question whether India should once again remain mute to commanders, pilots, generals and other soldiers, and asked about their readiness and willingness to retaliate. The answer was a vehement Yes. Whatever had held them back in the past decades, especially the lack of political will in government, had been broken. Once empowered by the political establishment and unconditionally supported by it, the morale of every man in the security structure of the nation—the army, the navy, the air force, the coast guard and the paramilitaries—was boosted. They had the capability and the willingness to retaliate for all the blows and the blood suffered silently for decades. Modi had unshackled them.
It was not just Pakistan that tasted the bitter new reality that would hound its cross-border acts under the Modi government in Delhi. It was the giant next door, too, that had to stomach it. That India had no intention of pursuing the business-as-usual approach, mired in fear and diffidence with regard to Beijing, was conveyed directly to the Chinese government by the new man in charge in Delhi. Despite stringent criticism, Modi jettisoned the fundamentals of the China policy established by UPA: separate trade from Line of Actual Control (LAC) concerns and whistle in the wind.
This was a definitive change in India’s China policy, for decades overshadowed by the defeat India faced in the 1962 Sino-Indian war. A year before the war, in a debate in Rajya Sabha on the Chinese takeover of Aksai Chin in the Ladakh region, then Prime Minister Nehru had infamously asserted that “not a blade of grass grows there”. This was in response to China first invading and then occupying Aksai Chin. “It is a territory where not even a blade of grass grows, about 17,000 feet high. Ladakh is a useless uninhabitable land. Not a blade of grass grows there. We did not even know where it was,” Nehru had said. Mahavir Tyagi, in a sharp retort, had pointed to his own head and said “I am bald, does that mean I should abandon my head?” Ironically, Nehru’s response and the riposte from Tyagi are both cited by Nehruvians as an illustration of humour in Parliament instead of anything more serious.
Although the resurgence of Hinduism started in the 1990s, it was still not accepted as ‘mainstream’. That changed when Modi visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple after the 2014 general election. The second blow was delivered when Modi presided over the bhoomi puja at Ayodhya for the Ram temple
The effects of the decolonisation project manifested themselves even in the realm of foreign policy, putting India in a place of respect on the global stage where it had never been before. It became a part of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad), alongside the US, Australia and Japan, to strategise on Chinese aggression in the region non-militarily; on the trade front, India got its rightful place among the G20 nations, and will assume the grouping’s presidency for the first time in December this year. Crucially, in the ongoing Russia-Ukraine war, India alone stood firmly on the side of peace and diplomatic negotiations to resolve the conflict, resisting intense pressure, threat of economic sanctions, and even bullying by the big powers to denounce Russia. Time and again, Delhi chose its own path to protect its economic, security and geostrategic interests even when opting to repeatedly abstain from key votes at the UN to ostracise Vladimir Putin and stop purchases of discounted oil from Moscow. Charting its own course to protect the interests of its people and its borders has earned Delhi immense respect among both those who stood in Russia’s corner and those who did not. The latter, primarily the US and NATO, were called out for their double standards on energy trade with Russia while applying pressure on India to desist. The US, the UK, Australia and Germany are now under pressure to appreciate India’s (the second largest market in the world) special needs and interests vis-à-vis Russia, in the context of their own economic interests. Modi’s firm stand and finer balance on Ukraine and Russia (India sent humanitarian assistance to Kyiv and backed an independent probe into allegations of genocide in Bucha even as it urged Russia to find a resolution to its security concerns through talks) while keeping the door wide open for alliances with the US has left no wiggle room for complaints from the opposition at home.
At one-go, the Modi government’s ability to keep both its economic and geostrategic interests on an even keel and to bat for both India and the poorer nations that would have to bear exorbitant costs of food and fertilisers silenced those sections which had claimed laurels in the name of non-alignment—in truth, a toothless group driven by Nehru, Josip Broz Tito and Gamal Abdel Nasser—although they covertly took sides and buckled under pressure from the superpowers. In a rapidly changing power matrix in the post-Cold War years after the dissolution of the Soviet Union and fast-rising new economic markets, it was India alone in the free world that called for recognition of the global change in power equations. With Modi, the years of conditioning and mental colonisation that persisted after independence to ensure India conformed to the diktats of foreign capitals, the years of schooling in toeing the line determined elsewhere, were left behind.
MODI’S FOREIGN POLICY was not restricted to upending the entrenched but outdated and passive terms of engagement with other nations and reworking them to India’s advantage. It was also to reclaim and assert India’s ancient cultural identity on the global stage as a soft power of note. This manifested itself best in the celebration of yoga each year on June 21 as the International Day of Yoga since 2015. In his address at the United Nations in 2014, Modi had suggested the date of June 21 since it is the longest day of the year in the northern hemisphere. Similarly, in a concerted bid to promote ancient systems of medicine, including Ayurveda, Modi inaugurated the Global AYUSH Investment & Innovation Summit 2022 in Gandhinagar, Gujarat, in April this year. The three-day AYUSH global summit aimed at a dialogue with entrepreneurs, industry, startups and other stakeholders to encourage them to increase investment for innovation in AYUSH. Modi announced at the summit that India would introduce a special AYUSH visa category to facilitate people to travel to India for AYUSH therapy. Both yoga (a holistic health system meant for the mind, body and spirit) and all the elements in AYUSH were an integral part of ancient Indian, especially Hindu, medicinal culture but past governments had shied away from promoting these globally for fear that it would show them as regressive in the Western world. Modi’s determination to decondition India and his boldness in setting bigger and tougher targets for the country to own its traditional socio-cultural and religious moorings saw India and Indians leapfrogging several stages of development in a relatively short span of time.
Modi’s assertive and proud reclamation of all things Hindu was part of a larger project of decolonisation that envisioned Indians owning the entirety of their past socio-cultural and religious ethos with dignity while charting a progressive, modern course for the future. It instilled confidence in a society conditioned to view its history and civilisational foundation as regressive and inferior from a Western worldview; it engendered the resurgence of a Hindu vision of the world. At the level of the citizenry, it gave confidence to those otherwise relegated to the status of the inferior in a nation where the old regime and its enabling ecosystem had stigmatised the masses of vast tracts of rural and semi-urban India who had skills, talent and innate ability but could not speak English or were seen as lacking in social etiquette. These were people who would greet each other with a “Ram, Ram” or a “Jai Ramji ki” and begin and end their day with invocations of Lord Ram but were forced to conceal their faith and religious affiliation in order to conform to a worldview promoted by the haut monde. In the face of pressure to either fall in line or metamorphose into something they essentially were not, they often ended up being left behind in the race to get ahead.
Once empowered by the political establishment, the morale of every man in the security structure of the nation was boosted. They had the capability and the willingness to retaliate for all the blows and the blood suffered silently for decades. Modi had unshackled them
Modi gave them hope, self-esteem and a new type of confidence that made up something bigger: a sense of civilisational validation. He busted the myth of what, in the Nehruvian and post-Nehruvian world, was de rigueur and assured these people that there was nothing to be apologetic about in being a Hindu. Hinduism is in India’s DNA and owning one’s faith with dignity and pride was natural and essential. He told them that there was nothing to feel inferior about in not speaking English or in not having graduated from a top educational institution; that reciting the Hanuman Chalisa, visiting temples or sporting a mauli or a raksha on the wrist was respectable. There is a school of thought that believes these things are inconsequential and argues that only intellectuals are capable of making the fine distinction between spirituality and religiosity. Also, that public manifestations of faith are crude exhibitionism with little to do with actual faith. While this may apply to those who have achieved a certain level of spiritual nirvana, millions account for their daily existence and sustenance through demonstrative rituals of faith in their scripture. For them, the hymns of Tulsidas, a visit to the hallowed grounds of Ayodhya, Lord Ram’s birthplace, or Sabarimala in their lifetime, carrying the Irumudi kettu, were validation of their existence, even if in a very basic sense, as spiritual beings. To these masses, Modi’s vision gave new purpose and meaning. Modi understood instinctively that while most people may not be mature enough to effect a radical transformation overnight, they did bank heavily on self-esteem and hope to carry them through their struggles for a better future. And what sustained that hope was their faith. It was this very faith that had been delegitimised for decades. This was the all-important golden key to bolstering the morale of ordinary people nationwide, endorsing the acceptance of faith itself. It was, Modi was keenly aware, the imperative to keep the nation moving (inasmuch as it was to an army). He rewilded the spiritual deserts of millions, planted fresh saplings of hope and watered them. He exposed the elite ecosystem for what it was: a bunch of deracinated people who had chosen to spiritually secede from the very people they claimed to give a voice to. A 2021 Pew survey found that Hindus tend to see their religious identity and Indian national identity as closely intertwined. Nearly two-thirds of Hindus (64 per cent) said it was very important to be Hindu to be “truly” Indian. That is the extent and shape of the fundamental changes Modi has brought to the collective psyche of the once defeated and disenfranchised Hindu India.
AS THE FIRST PRIME MINISTER who unabashedly wore tilak and tika on his forehead, sported saffron and recited shlokas and openly embraced his own moorings by visiting temples from Kashi to Kedarnath to Somnath, Modi renewed a fundamental connection with ordinary people in a way that was not only dignified and triggered a resurgence of hope but seemed utterly natural. Although the resurgence of Hinduism was an incremental process that started gathering steam in the 1990s, it was still not normalised or accepted as ‘mainstream’. That changed when Modi visited the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi soon after the 2014 General Election, participating in the Ganga aarti and reciting Hindu prayers. This was in sharp contrast to Nehru who had refused to go to the Somnath temple on the pretext that, as a ‘secular’ state, it would ill behove the head of government or members of the Cabinet to visit religious shrines. So unbending was he on this, mainly out of fear that he would be accused of both being regressive and majoritarian in Western capitals, that he even disapproved of then President Rajendra Prasad visiting the Somnath shrine. The second blow was delivered when Modi presided over the bhoomi puja at Ayodhya for the Ram temple. The project of reclaiming the nation’s soul, which had started with Sardar Patel, KM Munshi and Rajendra Prasad but was interrupted, almost subverted, in successive decades, was revived that day. Modi’s puja at Ayodhya had a far-reaching political impact, not only among ordinary people but also among his political opponents. Forget the suddenly revved-up temple runs by members of the Nehru-Gandhi family, even the likes of Arvind Kejriwal, who once proclaimed that he did not care for temples, is today running special trains to key Hindu shrines and sponsoring fully paid trips by senior citizens to Ayodhya. Suddenly, faith that was followed covertly and almost apologetically went mainstream. It was normalised and legitimised.
Modi’s deconditioning and decolonisation project was not restricted to the cultural and religious. Despite the fact that India was passing through one of its toughest periods—some triggered by changes in the economy, such as a significant switch to the digital, but more so due to black swan moments like the pandemic that imposed setbacks on the rapid progress towards modernisation—among all the countries, it has nonetheless clung steadfastly to hopes for a better future.
DECOLONISATION ALSO meant that India had started dreaming big in the new world of startups, unicorns, fintech transactions and new-world economic models which could hold their own. On Modi’s watch, India is adding 50 km of national highways every day; the country’s biggest transport system, the railways, will be completely electric soon; the country is the third largest in producing solar power; 40 per cent of the world’s digital payments happen in India; it could provide $100 billion directly to the poorest Indians; it’s now home to 100 unicorns; and it has more than 646 million active internet users.
Given this, what Modi has achieved on the social, cultural, foreign policy, economic, and domestic and global political fronts is phenomenal. It should not be measured in terms of electoral gains for BJP. These are not to be measured even in terms of popularity ratings for Modi globally and at home. But even if Modi failed to propel BJP, it would be a folly to not acknowledge the defining changes, both tangible and intangible, which he has ushered in. These are gains, especially for a nation whose performance on every parameter had been underwhelming hitherto, that will go down in history as life-changing. The unquantifiable gains alone are radical. A new type of confidence, connectedness, a sense of rootedness and assurance about one’s own self has resurged across the nation. A country which was struggling to find its soul, which was forced into a life of collective existential schizophrenia, had found its natural civilisational anchor and rediscovered stability at a time when the world was ravaged by the Covid pandemic, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, and the economic and food security consequences of these, as well as China’s persistent lust for power and its belligerence on the border.
Modi’s Foreign Policy was not restricted to upending the passive terms of engagement and reworking them to India’s advantage. It was also to reclaim India’s ancient cultural identity on the global stage. This manifested itself best in the celebration of Yoga each year on June 21 as the International Day of Yoga
The cobwebs in one’s mind shackle one’s potential. They impose constraints on people and thwart them from realising their real worth. But once the cobwebs were cleared, as Modi demonstrated, the nation came together as a single, confident people. But for Modi India and its mentally and spiritually conditioned and colonised people would not have come into their own. They would still be leading a life of vapid and emasculating dualism.
An army indeed cannot march on an empty stomach but far less so on a life bereft of morale. The reason India lost the war in 1962 was not primarily miscalculation, Nehru’s hubris, his naïveté, and so on, as many have surmised. It was because India was a nation suffering a drought of morale at the time, inhabited by people who did not believe in themselves or own their civilisational past. The confidence that average Indians can succeed came from Modi. And that will remain irreversible.