It is not the social composition of our society, its religious diversity (and the accompanying need to have the support of all communities), which may be the stumbling block for Modi. Rather, it is the success of the democratisation process that may stand in the way of his march to New Delhi.
Modi’s hat-trick, beating the anti-incumbency factor and internal dissidence, is no mean achievement. He can rightfully own this win and take credit for it. So, it is not surprising that this is being seen as proof of his stature as a political leader, deserving recognition at the national level. But what is puzzling is that his qualities as a leader, on which his projection as PM is based, are being ignored, and the success in Gujarat is being attributed to his agenda of development.
There is no doubt that his focus on development may have made some difference, just as fear and anxiety on the part of some and the need to move forward on the part of others may also have mattered in the choices people made. But in all this, the role played by his image of a strong, decisive and authoritative leader cannot, and must not, be discounted. If we think that an authoritarian personality only appeals to social conservatives and orthodox men, then we need to think again.
In modern capitalist societies, as the well-known social theorists Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer pointed out, there is a deep need for and attraction towards authoritarian personalities. India is, in this respect, no exception. Capitalism may advocate a free market, but its success lies in the ability of the state to intervene and create conditions necessary for the accumulation of capital. Capitalists, therefore, look for leaders who can stand up against dissent and impose their fiat. The need for such a strong person at the helm of affairs becomes even more acute during periods of economic crisis and in the face of global competition. The Indian corporate sector knows and recognises this. Indeed, long before most, it was the big industrialists who certified Modi as the next PM. It is the success with which Modi has created pockets of safe haven for big industries that has added to his appeal and support base.
But it is not the corporate sector alone that seeks out strong men like Modi. In a world marked by anomie and social transformation, where institutions are weak, it is even “voices of reason” that seek out authoritarian personalities. Those who see things as black-and-white, who are frustrated with the way things are (the lack of law-and-order and ineffective institutions), those who want to re-establish norms in a society where the existing order is being challenged, also desire a strong leader. Restless reason, unwilling to accept its limits and impatient about quick results, is willing to back a person who has the will to discipline.
There is thus space for a person like Modi and ignoring this would be a grave error. Yet, this may not be enough. The possibility that exists and which can catapult him into the top position may not materialise.
In contemporary India, democracy has engendered a process of differentiation that can make a critical difference. The appeal to the people and people’s desire for a specific leader is mediated through the institution of the political party. Here, within the party, the authoritative personality that appeals to many may, in fact, be a hindrance rather than an asset to working as one-among-many.
Besides, India has a strong multi-party system. The influence of a regional party may be limited in its reach but it has deep support in its own area. There are also strong regional interests and identities, often competing with each other. So slogans of “Gujarati asmita” and (in a different context) “Marathi manus” may have only localised appeal and are unlikely to translate into, or be supplemented by, an equally compelling sentiment at the national level.
Democracy has thus created not only a differentiated public but also a pluralised public sphere. There are, in addition, several small but sustained social movements that cannot be readily squashed. Hence, while it may be relatively easier to manage dissent in Gujarat, for instance, dissent against land acquisition for industry (and dissent there must be for the BJP to lose in Sanand, the hub of the development projects), the same is not possible on an all-India scale. Governments in different states are going to follow their own agenda, and frequently in opposition to that of the Central government.
The success of Indian democracy is that it has yielded plural centres of power — it has created diversity of interests, space for protests, social and political, claims of recognition, all of which create internal pulls and pressures. They require negotiation and accommodation. And for this, once again, all that makes the authoritarian personality attractive is an obstacle rather than an asset.
There are, as a consequence, deep contractions in our society. If one set of pressures are pushing for an authoritarian personality, democratisation is taking us down a different path. Herein lies the challenge for Narendra Modi. Whether he will be able to successfully reinvent himself time alone will tell. But at present his asset is also a liability on his journey to Delhi.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies, School of Social Sciences, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi