Perhaps the most important part of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on New Year’s Eve was not the niggardly sops announced, not the lack of a report card on demonetisation, although that was significant, but rather his framing of demonetisation as a campaign to purify India. “Our nation has been witness to a historic rite of purification," was what he said. He said it was an unparalleled fight against “internal evils", a fight in which the poor did not hesitate to make sacrifices for the greater good of the nation. Demonetisation, it now turns out, was not so much economic policy as a sacred duty, but a holy war of good against evil.
This is not the first time Modi has talked about purifying the nation. In an interview to India Today a few days earlier, he said he wanted to see an India “swachh (cleansed) from all forms of filth". He has also said demonetisation was a ‘yagna’—worship or sacrifice—to purge the Indian economy and society. Nor is this lurid imagery of purification and redemption confined to demonetisation. Last September, at the BJP national council meeting, which also marked the centenary celebrations of the party’s ideologue Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, The Telegraph quoted Modi as saying, “Pandit Upadhyaya said do not reward Muslims, do not shun them, but purify them."
We can take these utterances in two ways—one, they are little more than a political ploy projecting Modi as a warrior-saint, out to battle the rakshasas in the opposition; and two, as a peep into what Modi really thinks, his world-view, his ideology. Let’s assume it is the latter.
For Modi, purifying India does not only mean getting rid of the filth of the past 70 years, the result of Congress misrule, but also sloughing off the accumulated slime of the past 1,200 years of slavery, first under Muslim rulers and then under the British.
Is Modi’s programme a conservative one then, given the emphasis on purification, with all its ritualistic connotations? Far from it. The nation must be purified, it must be purged of centuries of corrupt and decadent practices that have crept in and only then can it be restored to its former glory. He is a true believer in India’s glorious ancient tradition—his claim that reproductive genetics and plastic surgery was in vogue in ancient India raised quite a few eyebrows—but he also wants to harness that tradition for a project of nationalist transformation. He is in that sense a revolutionary modernizer, rather than a conservative.
British political scientist Roger Griffin has studied several such movements that aim at a national rebirth. Writing of somewhat similar political projects in history, he says, “The core myth that inspires this project is that only a populist, trans-class movement of purifying, cathartic national rebirth can stem the tide of decadence." He also said that such movements are “a revolutionary form of nationalism, one that sets out to be a political, social and ethical revolution, welding the ‘people’ into a dynamic national community under new elites infused with heroic values". Union minister Venkaiah Naidu wasn’t wrong when he called it a “cultural revolution". Modi has been at pains to project himself as different from other politicians, a messiah who will purify India, modernize it and ensure it takes its rightful place as a global power. He sees himself as the midwife of an old society pregnant with a new one.
India is not the only nation where nationalism and culture are being used as a force to unite the country and paper over the gross inequalities, rampant exploitation and deep fissures in society. In China these days, where the only thing ‘red’ is capitalism red in tooth and claw, the emphasis is all on nationalism and Confucius and the need for harmony. And Modi, everyone knows, is a great admirer of the Chinese economic model. Putting it differently, as should be abundantly clear by now, Modi is no Reagan or Margaret Thatcher, with their faith in free markets. His vision of Indian development is based on the East Asian model, which owes much to state intervention at all levels. Modi’s faith lies in the heavy hand of a strong state, rather than in the invisible hand of the markets. His “minimum government, maximum governance" slogan was a red herring.
Of course, while Modi may truly believe in this ideology and is willing to take political risks for ushering in his brave new Utopia, as the demonetisation episode illustrates, that is not the same thing as saying that he will succeed. From an entirely different standpoint, Mao tried to transform the Chinese economy and society through his Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. Both of them were colossal failures. Moreover, India is a federal democracy and it’s difficult to force through a project of rapid transformation without an autocratic government. There are plenty of contradictions between ground realities in India and the need for rapid accumulation of capital to ensure development. And finally, the historical conditions favourable for the rise of the East Asian nations may have passed.
Nevertheless, the preoccupation with “purification" does suggest the direction in which this government is trying to take our society, our culture and our economy.
Manas Chakravarty looks at trends and issues in the financial markets. Respond to this column at firstname.lastname@example.org