The remaking of India
PR Ramesh | 01 Oct, 2021
Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrives at the Red Fort in New Delhi to deliver his Independence Day speech on August 15, 2020 (Photo” AFP)
NARENDRA MODI IS A LEADER OVERTLY partial to the big picture, the complete, overarching plot of policymaking and its wider impact on life, as India knows it. He plumps for the long shots, the panoramic sweeps, and then zooms in on specific details. By October 7th this year, he would have clocked two decades in government, starting his journey as chief minister of Gujarat by replacing Keshubhai Patel at the helm of affairs.
By the time the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) asked him to head to Gandhinagar from New Delhi and take over the government in Gujarat, the then chief minister’s popularity had nosedived significantly after his poor handling of Gujarat’s recovery from a terrible earthquake. It was essentially going to be an ambulance-chasing job for Modi. Or, so it seemed. But BJP trusted Modi’s incredible organisational abilities and believed that he stood a good chance at resuscitating the party before the February 2003 Assembly election. Among the first things he did was to rally the troops and, in a singularly morale-boosting move, announce that they had some 500-odd days to gird their loins and prepare for victory.
Modi had joined the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) in the late 1960s and becamea pracharak in the early 1970s and was later promoted to Prant Pracharak. In the early 1990s, the then party president LK Advani recognised his talents, enrolled him in BJP and put him in charge of the Rath Yatra which began at Somnath. Modi was also a key organiser of Murli Manohar Joshi’s Ekta Yatra and a magnetic speaker. It was here that he concentrated his indomitable energy and style of marrying RSS’ organising abilities with BJP’s political objectives, from the ground upwards, starting with local body elections. BJP’s historic win in the state elections subsequently, breaking the stranglehold of Congress, was one wherein every party stalwart had to acknowledge Modi’s key role in the electoral triumph of 1995 that got BJP 121 seats in the 182-strong state Assembly.
If he decidedly preferred the widescreen to define his political ideas while helming his home state, Modi’s definite choice of canvas to express his long-term political, social and cultural vision at the national level was the 70mm. He hit the ground running in 2014, after taking charge as the country’s prime minister, as if he had realised clearly that he needed a tour de force to make up for precious time wasted over the last seven-plus decades of independence. To right the wrongs and rework the map of India on multiple levels. He had a distinct storyline in mind to regain what he believed was the rightful place—for a subcontinent of rich heritage and glorious history—in the global hierarchy and among the most powerful in its pecking order. His macro-view entailed a course correction that would harness the best of the political, social and cultural traditions of the subcontinent and knit it seamlessly with the cutting-edge practices of the 21st century.
To realise his vision of a “New India”, Modi was not afraid to take the road less travelled, to break the mould, to think outside the box despite being a newbie in the elite political matrix of Lutyens’ Delhi. He set big, seemingly unachievable targets and remained undeterred by the risk of being judged by their unbearable weightiness. His critics made that the sole criterion for evaluating the limits of his success as prime minister. But he defied the shrill partisan carping and went about spelling out new goals, targets and objectives on a wide range of sectors from the economy, homeland security and international diplomacy to relations with neighbours. Modi’s decision and policies upped the game for India on multiple fronts at home, in the region and globally, radically changing expectations of what India could or should achieve. Propelled by the ambitious canvas that its prime minister was painting on and the headline markers he was setting for the country, India began to defy the very soft bigotry of low expectations that had defined it thus far. In the two decades of his stint in the executive, Modi has raised the bar so high for political leaders of the future—on policymaking both at home and abroad—that emulating his vision is likely to be both inescapable and a mammoth task for most.
Globally, he chose to engage proactively and at an elevated level with the biggies, including the US, Russia, Japan, the UK and France. He had little hesitation—without publicly severing India’s umbilical cord with the Cold War relic of a comatose Non-Aligned Movement (NAM)—in signing on to the US-led Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) where he called out Beijing for its expansionism and sided with those aiming to keep the Indo-Pacific region free of any one power’s influence. This was sheer audacity on the part of a country that has traditionally been wary of Beijing’s frowns. Stunned, the communist dictatorship has openly voiced its anger at a regional cooperation platform being used to “target” it.
Modi also played a proactive role in BRICS, a group of influential emerging economies—Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa—acknowledged internationally as playing a significant part in regional affairs. In South Asia, he aggressively sought to isolate Pakistan for its brazen and continued terror activities in India. For the first time in decades, he took a calculated political risk through a covert surgical strike operation and chose to hit back inside Pakistani territory. The Balakot airstrike, a top secret operation carried out under cover of darkness, was a watershed in India-Pakistan relations, immeasurably boosting the collective political and cultural confidence of a nation that had quietly suffered a thousand cuts from the hostile neighbour. Modi did not just use military force to rein in Pakistan but also a menu of options hitherto unexplored. By a skilful application of the levers of international diplomacy, India made creative use of the international terror funding watchdog, the Financial Action Task Force (FATF), to shackle Pakistan and control its use of terrorism—an impressive achievement. Who would have thought of leveraging a little-known mechanism to bend Pakistan and expose China’s support for the military intelligence-jihadist Rawalpindi shura?
Then Modi took China head-on. In May 2020, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) stopped Indian soldiers from patrolling up to their claim lines in Ladakh and put up permanent structures on its side. It had amassed a massive 60,000 troops close to the Line of Actual Control (LAC), in violation of the rules of engagement, gravely endangering the status quo. As tensions escalated, the death of 20 Indian soldiers in Galwan Valley in June embarrassed the Modi Government. The retaliation from India came through a cocktail of economic, diplomatic and military actions. Modi imposed economic sanctions on Chinese firms in India, despite trade dependency, with a view to hit China’s technological interests in Indian markets. Next, Chinese apps were banned and Chinese state-owned companies were barred from investing in infrastructure projects. Then, Huawei’s interests in India’s 5G infrastructure were threatened. In tandem, New Delhi signed a military cooperation agreement with the US, even inviting Australia to joint naval exercises and sending an Indian destroyer to the South China Sea where nations from the Philippines to Vietnam have been battling Chinese aggression. This was a major shift from the wary diplomatic pussyfooting done by previous governments for decades, separating trade issues from the larger issue of Chinese aggression on the LAC.
Modi’s moves allowed India to thwart China’s plans to promote its own social media giants who, apart from illegally hoarding the personal details of unsuspecting millions here, would also have deployed by the “wolf warriors” to promote China’s soft power and its version of authoritarianism. That plan failed.
In his two decades in the executive, Modi has raised the bar so high for future leaders—on policymaking both at home and abroad—that emulating him is likely to be both inescapable and a mammoth task
ByteDance is back in play now and the Chinese apps have managed to enter the market under different disguises. But India’s actions showcased the Government’s decision to hit back from unexpected places, even becoming a model for the Trump administration in the US. Curbs on Huawei, under Modi’s own retaliatory strategy, do not any longer appear to be an outrageous xenophobic idea as they once seemed. As prime minister, Modi was not overwhelmed by the possibility of consequences and boldly junked the doctrine so proudly tom-tommed by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) which preferred to show cowardice on the LAC even while allowing China to flood local markets with everything from fairy lights for Diwali, Ganesha idols, cheap shoes, mobile chargers, components for DTH dishes and tonnes of garlic from Guangdong. For years, UPA posited this as an exercise in realpolitik.
When dealing with China, Modi was fully aware that ensuring tactical gains on the ground and not relying solely on military deterrence was how advantage could be wrested from Beijing. In a first, Modi visited troops in the Ladakh region and, boosting their morale significantly, lashed out at China’s “expansionist” moves. The crucial Kailash Range provides a major strategic advantage to India, nullifying the gains made by the PLA in the Depsang Plains, Hot Springs-Gogra and north of Pangong Tso. This is the one place where the 1959 claim line gives a strategic advantage to India. It is here that the Modi Government turned its attention to amassing both personnel and equipment. It is considered the biggest mobilisation of the Indian armed forces in recent decades. In a late-August 2020 pre-emptive move, the Indian Army captured the dominant features of the Kailash Range, giving it a vantage view of China’s positions on both the north and south banks of the Pangong Tso lake. Indian forces also captured the north bank of the lake, leaving the PLA stuck in the lower reaches. Both moves gave India the tactical advantage in the conflict on the LAC and hiked the costs for the Chinese in holding their positions. For the first time since 1962, India was holding the position of strength. By February 10th this year, both India and China began disengaging from what has been described as “the bloodiest (if not the longest) crisis on the Sino-Indian border in the last 50 years,” at Pangong Tso (declared a buffer zone), and returning to their permanent bases although tensions persist at other sites in eastern Ladakh. Essentially, this meant that the PLA would get out of what India claims is its side of the LAC. This was a key success, the first after the 2017 Doklam crisis where, again, China had to pull back its military.
Prioritising pragmatism over outdated Cold War positioning, Modi also jettisoned existing qualms in India about being seen as dumping the forum of non-aligned nations by moving closer to the US and proactively enrolled in the informal Quad grouping of nations with a view to pushing back against growing Chinese aggression. In November 2017, India, Japan, the US and Australia gave shape to the long-pending proposal of setting up the Quad. He openly positioned India with the US and invited Australia for joint naval exercises. Both Japan and Australia are big trade partners with China and calling out Beijing for its expansionism, whether in the South China Sea or on the LAC, or even backing a priority probe into the alleged origins of the coronavirus in China and possible sanctions, were, therefore, not backed with gusto by all the members. But Modi upped the ante on China within the Quad.
The boldness overseas was an extension of the courage Modi showed and the risks he took at home in attacking a political economy whose wheels were greased with black money. In late-2016, Modi dealt a body blow to an entrenched black money ecosystem that debilitated India’s economic health by declaring ₹ 500 and ₹ 1000 notes illegal. The assault on illegal money and fraud currency, or demonetisation, was not simply about retrieving national wealth from the corrupt. It was a crusade against the prevailing culture that normalised black money as necessary to grease the wheels of the economy and viewed any fight against it as futile. Modi streamlined banking and radically redefined the tax regime. He reworked a desultory public distribution system (PDS) and focused aggressively on the delivery of food and welfare measures, including electricity, schooling, potable water, sanitation, cooking gas, for the disadvantaged and underprivileged; strengthened infrastructure, including roads and highways, railways and accessible civil aviation; increased domestic production of edible oil and pulses, as well as support prices for agricultural produce; and revamped and upgraded farm infrastructure through active private sector participation.
The seamless movement of food and money for the poor could not have been successfully managed without Aadhaar and digitalisation, both of which Modi has espoused wholeheartedly despite criticism
AN ARDENT BELIEVER in New India making a mark in space and the scientific realm, Modi flummoxed his critics by setting new benchmarks in space exploration and aggressively promoting scientific missions. Again, defying the label of a rightwing cultural nationalist critics were determined to pin on him, Modi did not mimic the strident Covid-19 scepticism of other nationalist heads of state or government like Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro. Instead, banking on India’s strength on the pharmaceutical and vaccine fronts, he chose to put his trust in scientists and experts when faced with the trials engendered by the global pandemic on an unprecedented scale. With a population next only to China’s, a public health infrastructure worse than those of many other emerging nations and extremely strained resources, India was considered a sitting duck for the rapid spread of the virus. Today, the battle against the shape-shifting Wuhan-origin virus is far from over. The second wave was decidedly deadly and ravaged thousands of families. But it is safe to say India has fared far better than the projections made by reputed epidemiologists, virologists and partisan public health experts who mushroomed overnight and whose opinions were lapped up eagerly by the commentariat. This was possible because of the steady and creative leadership of Modi. He led from the front and, as counsellor-in-chief, exhorted people to maintain “do gaj ki doori”, keep their masks on and avoid crowded places. He became ‘consoler’-in-chief for the thousands who lost their loved ones in the second wave. Disregarding the apprehensions of his well-wishers who warned him that he was exposing himself to the risk of failure, he plunged into daily exhorting of vaccine-makers and rallying health personnel to redouble their efforts against Covid. And he urged ordinary citizens to valorise Covid warriors, repurposed police personnel and, above all, boosted the morale of people faced with an unprecedented threat to life and livelihood.
Confronting an exponential hike in the demand for oxygen during the second wave, Modi came up with innovative solutions to remove emerging hurdles. From flagging off the Oxygen Express through the railways to personally handholding and inspiring Indian vaccine-makers like Bharat Biotech to accelerate work on an indigenous vaccine against Covid, to ramping-up the production of personal protective equipment (PPE) kits and medicines, including Ivermectin and other drugs, through various ministries, Modi has today ensured that at least 75 per cent of India has received at least one dose of the Covid jab. It did not end there. Aware that the worst hit in his country during the lockdown and pandemic would be the neediest, Modi initiated urgent measures to ensure that free foodgrain and other essentials would reach the poor during a severe lockdown that deprived them of their livelihoods. The emergency decision to transfer foodgrains to beneficiaries across India on a priority basis was aimed at warding off the very real threat of starvation in the bleakest months of the pandemic.
The seamless movement of food and money to the needy could not have been successfully managed were it not for Aadhaar and digitalisation, both of which Modi has espoused wholeheartedly despite immense criticism. Digitalisation reform in India, one of Modi’s revolutionary pet projects and among his most ambitious, was launched in September 2015 with the idea of making the nation digitally empowered, with significant internet connectivity. The plan was to make internet-based documentation, cutting across sectors such as agriculture, health, employment, legal and crime-related information, banking, education and so on, completely paper-free but, more crucially, transparent, accessible and seamless. It would move India from an era of cumbersome, heavily bureaucratic and corruption-ridden processes involving governance and the citizen to an age that has cut out all the clutter. Had it not been for the massive fillip to digitalisation of the economy, one of the key outcomes of the demonetisation of higher value notes in end-2016, the destruction caused by the coronavirus could well have been unimaginable. In urban India, too, it was digitalisation that ensured work from home (WFH) models for companies and a sustained online delivery of both grocery essentials and medicines.
Traversing a largely uncharted pandemic era in which nations the world over grappled with uncertainties, disease, death and disaster, Modi grasped the baton firmly to be among the earliest of world leaders to announce a stringent lockdown in the first wave that, despite intense criticism, proved to be a key reason why unprecedented mass infections and deaths were averted in a nation of 1.3 billion people. He reinvigorated and inspired a laggard private sector—in a nation known as the vaccine-maker to the world but sorely lacking the initiative and resolve—to both produce vaccines at home and meet enormous never-before and overnight needs for jabs, ICU beds and oxygen cylinders; he re-envisioned and cranked-up a near-decrepit public health system that has now resulted in 88 crore Indians getting their vaccination as of September 30th. Overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds on often politically engineered vaccine scepticism and cynicism in his ability, he rose to inspire ordinary citizens, private and public hospitals, epidemiologists and virologists, vaccine-makers, pharmacists and producers of medical grade oxygen in the battle against Covid, even when ensuring the economy did not slide southward irrevocably.
STRIKING A DELICATE BALANCE between containing the rapid spread of the virus and yet keeping the economy from collapsing would be a mammoth task anywhere. But in a nation with the second-largest population, this has proved to be practically miraculous. Undoubtedly, the economy took a hard hit but the green shoots of recovery have already started manifesting in tandem with the Modi Government tailoring its policy decisions and responses through 17-plus months of unimaginable Covid travails, including on the crucial employment and education fronts. The latter directly impacted thousands of school-going kids, especially those from underprivileged communities. However, schools in several states have finally started reopening gradually, with Covid-preventive norms prioritised, even as other developed nations go into a third lockdown and shut down schools again after reopening them earlier. In fact, India’s achievements in the Covid era have proved to be exemplary when compared with even the US, the world’s only superpower.
Modi proudly owned, even flaunted, his Hindu moorings. This went hand in hand, without any contradiction, with the prime minister’s push to issues as diverse as space exploration and gender justice
In Modi’s worldview, there was a direct connection between the battle against Covid and the bold steps on other fronts that he took to improve the livelihoods of India’s people, such as his espousal of digitalisation and formalisation of the economy and creative diplomacy. He saw all of these decisions as the foundation of a modern, caring, assertive, strong and prosperous India that he had conceived. Equally, he was convinced that the India of his imagination would not be possible unless people regained pride in their heritage and culture.
A sense of cultural inferiority that had gripped the people in the wake of a series of invasions marked by mass killings, plunder, assault on the faith and culture of Hindus was an aggressively promoted campaign by the British. Unfortunately, that worldview was furthered as brutally under the left-liberal dispensation that followed Independence and sapped the confidence of a people and pride in their collective history and heritage. In his seven years at the helm, Modi has led a national effort to shake off that pusillanimity by emphasising the uniqueness and achievements of one of the world’s ancient civilisations. Contrary to projections by critics, his was never an exercise in narcissism but a concerted effort to revive a national spirit by invoking cultural imagery and traditions long derided in the name of modernity, secularism and a strangely labelled “composite culture”. It is decolonisation of the Indian mind, but with a strong class component that seeks to demolish a normalised culture of promoting only those from privileged backgrounds in the name of a “secular, scientific and modern outlook”. This institutionalised culture had, since Independence, shut out from the echelons of power those who did not comply with the prevailing ethos and subscribe to the vision professed by the thought commissars of institutions like Jawaharlal Nehru University and Jadavpur University.
It is with this vision of a forward-looking cultural nationalism in mind that, on the socio-political front, Modi prioritised mainstreaming India’s largest minority through a variety of decisions. After taking charge in Delhi, he called out the politically institutionalised and electorally motivated exploitation of minority ‘vote banks’ by the so-called secular parties and leaders. Modi’s great success at the hustings rested on a calculated strategy of demolishing hidebound caste firewalls, neutralising the so-called ‘Muslim veto’ in several constituencies across India and quashing the minority appeasement regularised by previous regimes, mainly Congress and the so-called social justice parties. He proactively pushed through legislation to criminalise regressive, anti-women practices like the Triple Talaq, which failed to be addressed by political parties subscribing to minority appeasement, and ushered in modern education curricula at madrasas to ensure an environment for mainstreaming the largest minority in the country. These decisions cut out the ground beneath politicians allegedly working for minority betterment but routinely marginalising Muslim voters for political gains.
Modi’s boldness of vision extends to crucial issues of global concern today, such as climate change. He mooted the idea of a global alliance of solar-power rich nations as far back as 2015. This September, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate, John Kerry, said that his country would decide on whether to join the India-led International Solar Alliance (ISA) of 124 countries (conceived by Modi) before the UN climate change meet in Glasgow on October 31st. India’s aggressive push towards efficient consumption of solar energy and reducing dependence on fossil fuels has been nodal in achieving set targets, which earlier looked impossible. India is now on track to achieve the goal of 450 GW by 2030, relying heavily on solar power. On the ground, the roadmap has translated into far more affordable and accessible photovoltaic cells. It is estimated that the developments will lead the way for the country to reach the below-2 degree level, more than even what was committed to in the Paris Climate Accord. Modi has ensured that from being perennially perceived as a laggard state, India has emerged as a climate-change leader.
Modi’s inclination to think big and act ambitiously on the global stage has also enhanced India’s stature in the UN Security Council (UNSC). India had the opportunity to chair the Security Council earlier too, but never before had it the forced the council to pass a resolution, abstentions by China and Russia notwithstanding. India managed to achieve satisfaction in UNSC Resolution 2593 in August regarding its key concerns on Afghanistan. The resolution called on the Taliban to prevent terror groups from operating in Afghanistan and ensure safe evacuations for all Afghan nationals wanting to leave the country, after careful coordination with UNSC members and consultations with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Russia, one of the P5 nations that abstained, insisted that with more time and better consultation, the resolution would have reflected the role of the US occupation of Afghanistan for 20 years and the rise of the Taliban in the current crisis. China, too, said the resolution was not balanced. India will soon also chair a panel on sanctions on the Taliban and will have to balance perspectives from Russia and China against those of the US, the UK and France.
In his two decades in the executive, Modi has raised the bar so high for future leaders—on policymaking both at home and abroad —that emulating him is likely to be both inescapable and a mammoth task
Post-liberalisation, India was being perceived as experimentative and exploratory, willing to find options on every front. But the type of nimble-footedness and versatility that Modi inspired in the menu of options, and the willingness to play on a bigger, more powerful stage, as much at home as on the global front, was missing until he took over as prime minister.
In November 8th, 2016, Narendra Modi stunned the nation by declaring that ₹ 500 and ₹ 1,000 notes would be demonetised (removed from circulation as legal tender). Modi came to power in 2014 on the promise that he would wage a war against black money and the announcement was meant to be a crusade against illegal wealth and the cancer it had unleashed in the nation’s economy. It struck a chord with most ordinary Indians and appealed to their anathema for corruption and illegal wealth accumulation. Nothing as bold as this and on this scale (“draining the swamp”) had ever been attempted before. In 2017, the parallel (black/illegal) economy of India was estimated at half of India’s current GDP of $2.60 trillion.
Modi set a 50-day target for exchanging the old notes for new ones—aiming at attacking black money and nullifying tax evasion and monetary fraud—to allow the cash-dependent sectors of the economy ample time to find their feet again. The narrative, which started as an avowed no-holds-barred war on black money, currency fraud and terror funding soon outlined far grander objectives, including transforming India significantly from a non-tax-compliant to a tax-compliant society by formalising the massive informal economy and taking giant strides towards a less cash dependent and more digitalised economy. Studies based on tax compliance and collection two years before demonetisation and two years after clearly showed a noticeable uptick in personal income tax, corporate tax and other direct taxes. Direct tax to GDP ratio showed an increase, but the biggest growth was in the buoyancy factor, which is seen as the growth of tax in relation to growth in GDP. The sharpest hike in the buoyancy factor was seen in personal income tax collections. In November 2018, two years after the demonetisation exercise, then Finance Minister Arun Jaitley said that it had proved to be a key step by the Government in formalising the economy. In 2020, four years after the ban on high-denomination notes, 3.8 lakh companies and 4.5 lakh directors flouting rules were struck off under relevant sections of the Companies Act. Cumulatively, a survey conducted by the tax authorities in 63,691 cases revealed undisclosed income of about ₹ 85,000 crore, according to Chief Economic Adviser (CEA) Krishnamurthy Subramanian.
Post-demonetisation in 2016, Modi had come in for intense criticism, with heavy accusations of untold hardship inflicted on the livelihoods of citizens and blows dealt to the economy. Months later, the Government successfully detected₹ 1,14,110 crore in black money, including money under the Government’s income disclosure scheme (₹ 74,350), benami transactions (₹ 4,300 crore) and income tax raids (₹ 35,460 crore). It also included a fall (₹ 12,139 crore) in money stashed by Indians in Swiss banks since 2014. Arguments persisted as to whether this was enough black money detection to put a stop to the massive parallel economy fuelled by it. But when the scorecard was out, it was clear that India had made its boldest ever bid to check black money and currency fraud and, besides, had moved significantly towards a far less cash dependent economy compared to pre-2016 days, as well as the fact that terror funding had become much harder, leading to fewer terror incidents. And digitalisation had gathered significant momentum.
Months after the note-ban exercise, a PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) study said: “Post demonetisation, there has been a marked reduction in the resistance towards digital payments, and this medium should continue to see sustained adoption going forward.” Referring to the exponential rise in digital payments, it said, “One of the talking points of the digital payments story has been the phenomenal growth witnessed by new age instruments such as Unified Payments Interface (UPI), prepaid payment instruments (PPIs), Aadhaar Enabled Payment System (AEPS), along with well-established ones such as National Electronic Fund Transfer (NEFT), Real Time Gross Settlement (RTGS) and cards (debit, credit)”.
According to KPMG’s ‘Pulse of Fintech H1’21’ report, far from triggering a downtrend, the Covid-19 pandemic boosted the digital ecosystem in India phenomenally as proved by the increased investor activity in the fintech sector. India attracted $2 billion in fintech investment in the January-June period of 2021. For the full year of 2020, investment remained at $2.7 billion, the second highest amount ever compared to the 2019 peak of $3.5 billion. “The attractiveness of the country’s fintech sector for investors has been focused around digital payments, followed by insurtech, several of whom raised mid-sized VC or PE funding rounds in H1, 2021.” The bi-annual report of KPMG further said: “Finech valuations remained very high in H1’21 as investors continued to see the space as attractive and well-performing. This likely drove the explosion of unicorn births in the first half of 2021.” Simultaneously, there is greater focus on cyber security to reinforce transparency and safety in online transactions. An increased trend in formalisation of the economy has also spawned a new type of entrepreneurship. It is no one’s argument that this would not have happened, but it would have happened at a leisurely pace. India is today among those countries where there is a growing number of unicorns and the world is looking for safer ventures because of developments in China, including its cyber attacks on online giants.
Digitalisation also made a telling impact on the delivery of the Government’s welfare schemes to intended beneficiaries like never before. In mid-2020, policy experts made a fervent plea for the widening of the welfare schemes based on leveraging the efficiency of digitalisation. Crediting existing leakages in the welfare network to those delivering the benefits, they maintained, “Implementing the JAM trinity has helped lower transaction costs, reduce leakages and reach beneficiaries quickly. Aadhaar can prevent identity frauds. Our sophisticated payments infrastructure enables DBT. The speed at which the MGNREGA payments are made to beneficiaries has improved more than threefold since 2015. Pilots for the One Nation, One Ration Card project have shown that inter state portability is possible.” This write-up was in the context of a mid-round survey of 47,000 households, mostly Below Poverty Line (BPL) across 15 states, which they had commissioned. The survey aimed at finding out if the Government’s Covid relief schemes were working successfully and what the gaps were that needed filling. Based on all the surveys and studies on digitalisation, Modi—who had already inspired a relatively entitled middle class to voluntarily give up cooking gas subsidies and participate proactively in largescale programmes like the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, even prioritising building toilets through subsidies in disadvantaged homes, and in micro and cottage businesses—took the big step of enlarging the size of a moribund welfare state by ringing in headline schemes like Ayushman Bharat, the Kisan Samman Nidhi Yojana, the Jan Dhan Yojana, the MUDRA Yojana, the Suraksha Bima Yojana, old-age pension under the National Social Assistance Scheme (NSAP), Namami Gange and the Jeevan Jyoti Bima Yojana. Then there were the broad-scale, high-profile campaigns and programmes like Start-Up India, Make in India, Digital India, Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, and, of course, Swachh Bharat. During both his first and second terms as prime minister, Modi has simultaneously ensured a strong and direct connect between him, the welfare schemes initiated by him and the beneficiaries, monitored by a network of Government officials and party functionaries at the local level. That connect has directly impacted his personal image across the country as an empowering, stridently welfarist, well-intentioned and incorruptible leader.
Modi proudly owned, even flaunted, his Hindu moorings. This went hand in hand, without any contradiction, with the prime minister’s push to issues as diverse as space exploration and gender justice
The term “Hindutva” has been around since VD Savarkar, an avowed atheist who had coined it and imbued it with strong tones of an inclusive cultural nationalism based on the shared history and traditions of the people of the subcontinent. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Advani was BJP’s Hindutva mascot. By then, the dominant political narrative on Hindutva was seen as an exclusively Hindu-centric worldview. But neither Advani nor his colleague Atal Bihari Vajpayee was able to assertively redefine the term, given the prevailing and dominant socio-political environment at the time, as one that primarily sought to unite Indians on the basis of civilisational and cultural traditions. Events during Modi’s tenure as Gujarat’s chief minister may have sorely tested his beliefs and put him through a proverbial trial by fire. Modi, however, came through unscathed and with a firmer resolve. Once in charge in Delhi, he not only owned Hindutva proudly as an inclusive concept but also, for the first time in independent India, emerged as a prime minister who owned his Hindu upbringing and traditions in public as much as in private. He performed the ground-breaking ceremony for the proposed temple at Ayodhya in August 2020, his first visit there as prime minister, and pointedly linked the struggle for India’s freedom with the beginnings of the resurrection of the temple. Lord Ram, he said, is the thread that made sense of India’s unity in diversity. He made very public visits to the Kedarnath temple in Uttarakhand, the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, the Kashi Vishwanath temple in Varanasi after his 2019 electoral victory, the Shiva temple in Oman, the Pashupatinath temple in Kathmandu or the Matua temple in Bangladesh prior to the West Bengal elections. At the same time, he calculatedly chose to create a non-controversial environment for the courts to resolve the sensitive issue of the demolition of the disputed structure at Ayodhya and the construction of a grand new temple edifice at the birthplace of Lord Ram. It was his way of dedicating the mandir to all of India and its people. In all of this, Modi did not cosmetically redefine but fundamentally realigned the state’s concept of secularism, not merely opting for an enabling environment to move Hindutva as a concept centrestage. It was a radical socio-cultural and political decision that showcased an elevated new Hindutva for the modern age, jettisoning the rigidity and hidebound conservatism earlier associated with the concept. Modi’s Hindutva was forward-looking and foundational for his idea of New India. It changed India’s thinking and the ordinary Indian’s view of himself, imbuing a telling ‘Can Do’ spirit where it was sorely missing. It was a belief that egged the country to embrace new ideas, shedding its lethargy and diffidence. It was a belief that allowed India to embrace entrepreneurial ideas such as unicorns, persisting undaunted in battling the pandemic despite the challenges, pushing a homegrown Bharat Biotech to take on the mammoth task of making vaccines for a nation of 1.3 billion people. Modi’s Hindutva not merely triggered a symbolic, or flag-waving, nationalism but also instilled a deeper awareness of and pride in things civilisational. If British historians and sociologists had portrayed Indians as pusillanimous and weak-kneed and if a warped interpretation of secularism post-Independence had compounded the humiliation of the Hindu Indian, Modi’s Hindutva worldview has translated on the ground into a newfound confidence among Indians for the first time. The first efforts at decolonising the Hindu mind came from Swami Vivekananda. But the juggernaut of reclaiming and reasserting Hinduism charioted by Vivekananda, Rabindranath Tagore and Sri Aurobindo had been stopped in its tracks even before it rolled by Lord Macaulay who had already weaponised Christian missionaries through the state in the 19th century. Post-Independence, Nehruvian socialism and secularism further impeded the gains in reviving pride in Sanatan Dharma. The prevailing thinking became not just one of glorifying Christianity and everything associated with Islam but also denigrating the rich matrix of cultural and social traditions associated with Hindus.
Modi led from the front and, as counsellor-in-chief, exhorted people to maintain ‘do gaj ki doori’, keep their masks on and avoid crowded places. He became consoler-in-chief for the thousands who lost their loved ones in the second wave
MODI CHANGED ALL that when he rode to victory in May 2014. Suddenly, all the incentives to demonise Hinduism vanished as Modi proudly owned, even flaunted, his Hindu moorings. At the Ganga Aarti in Varanasi, he sat through a prolonged conch-blowing and recital of scripture. He openly advocated the reconstruction of the temples in Ayodhya and Kashi considered holy by millions. For lakhs of youth, not just in rural India but among the middle class in urban India, Modi’s example engendered an unapologetic endorsement of their Hindu heritage. The result was a confident re-Hinduisation, a predominance of guilt-free devotion to the Hindu religion. This went hand in hand, without any contradiction, with the prime minister’s push to issues as diverse as space exploration and gender justice. For instance, Ritu Karidhal became the first woman chief of a crucial space mission. Modernity and progressiveness went hand-in-hand with pride in civilisational moorings. In tandem, Modi proactively mainstreamed Muslim Indians through a clutch of decisions such as the Citizenship (Amendment) Act and criminalising Triple Talaq by law. Then, on August 5th, 2019, he brought two resolutions related to Jammu and Kashmir. The first nullified Article 370 which accorded special status to the state, a longstanding demand of a majority of Indians.
Since 2014, the prime minister’s strident critics have doubled down and devoted reams and tomes to pull him down, steadfastly denying him his due. However, Narendra Modi had overcome seemingly unbeatable odds in life on his road to becoming the prime minister of India, with a personality that itself bore the potential to fire ambitions. He came from a humble background, brought up by a mother who worked as a domestic help and was himself a ‘tea boy’ in a society that stigmatised his MBC caste. As destiny would have it, he chose to be the first male member of the family to flaunt his surname of Modi even as his uncles took on Sanskritised surnames to disguise their caste. And Modi rose to the position of the nation’s CEO, triumphing over an entrenched cultural milieu designed to only help the upper crust and the privileged succeed in life. Now, his inimitable desire to think on a grand scale and his body of work in political life are proving to be a key catalyst in inspiring the aspirational youth from not-so-privileged backgrounds who are no longer apologetic about their life or their ambitions.