A tale of two Modis and political doublespeak

PM Modi is trying to ace a fine balance between his domestic credentials and his global image

Akshat Singh Sep 29, 2021
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Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at UNGA

Niccolo Machiavelli, in his magnum opus ‘The Prince’, lays down the need for a ruler to have distinct private and political morality. He argues that the extent of what is considered ‘virtuous’ for a ruler varies depending on whether his reputation is being measured in a public domain or not. While Machiavelli wrote his treatise with a prince in mind, Indian Prime Minister Modi’s recent address at the United Nations General Assembly tells us that even the 'Emperor' has taken note.

In a 20-minute speech, Modi touched on a range of topics including accomplishments of India during his seven-year tenure, advances in science and technology, vaccine diplomacy, environment and terrorism. Modi’s masterful oration must be applauded as he was able to touch upon a wide variety of diplomatic risqué subjects, all the while maintaining the elegance fit for the Prime Minister of the world's largest democracy. His tactful digs at China and Pakistan, without mentioning the names of the country along with the hints at UN’s growing irrelevance (it is no secret that New Delhi has been trying to make its way into the UNSC) need commendation. However, some themes of the speech were contentious, especially when measured against the domestic Teflon image that Modi has created for himself.

‘Inclusive democracy’

Calling India the "mother of democracy" and hailing the "thousands of years of democratic tradition" of the country, Modi played on his credentials as the elected leader of the world’s largest democratic country. The credentials were even more important as they set out to differentiate India from the "non-democratic" and "regressive" states that Modi alluded to as the common enemies of an emerging world order. While the democratic credentials of India were used in order to claim authority, it cannot be ignored India has seen regression in terms of its own democratic institutions under PM Modi’s rule. It is ironic that just a few months earlier, reputed think tanks including Freedom House and V-Dem reduced India’s democratic rankings terming it as "partly free" and "electoral autocracy" respectively. While one can slam the criticisms of foreign institutions as 'biased' and 'myopic', we can certainly not ignore the farmers’ protests that have been underway for almost a year now, especially because Modi returned to Delhi amid clarion calls for a Bharat Bandh (India shutdown) by the farmers.

What is even more interesting is that while talking about the nature of "equitable" democracy in India, Modi alluded to India’s diversity in language, dialect and culture. It seemed curious that he pointedly to omit mention of India's widely acknowledged religious diversity at a time when accusations of communalism against him are rife. This was in line with the general outlook in the speech and his refusal to tread a slippery slope, be it vis-à-vis the rise of Taliban (and hence religious extremism) in Afghanistan or the state of religious minorities in India.

Finally, Modi’s proof that democracies work seemed counterintuitive primarily because his experience as the CM of Gujarat as well as the PM of India are rife with accusations of just the contrary. While the point of highlighting a personal narrative was to counter the emergence of a nondemocratic giant in the neighborhood, the example made it look like the Prime Minister was batting for the other side. Rhetoric aside, no serious critic of democracy would be convinced of the democratic credentials of the PM’s political career, let alone be impressed by its mixed bag outcomes. The PM’s use of rhetoric surrounding democratic values, especially as a point to distinguish from China and Pakistan, however, must be commended. This is as, amidst growing domestic pressures in the US, it will be unfeasible for India to aspire to increased engagement with the White House if it is not able to pass the ‘freedom’ litmus test. Therefore facts aside, the emphasis on democracy was definitely a realpolitik home run for the PM.

Make in India

Modi’s mention of Pt. Deen Dayal Upadhayay and integral humanism were very interesting primarily because just like the philosophy, the PM seemed to be projecting a lukewarm attitude towards the market economy in India. While the PM mentioned several achievements of his government over the past 7 years including increasing baking access for 43 crore people, free healthcare for 50 crore people, and insurance for 360 million people, he forgot that state-run mammoth interventions such as these don’t really inspire investor confidence. Even if we stray away from theoretical economics (all of which would express the follies of interventions such as the aforementioned, especially with the looming banking crisis in India), track records have shown that several of these projects just serve window dressing objectives. It is then a silver lining that the PM’s speech was at the United Nations.

What caught my attention was the fact that Modi also tried projecting an outward-looking business approach. Modi is no stranger to overplaying his pro-business and pro-reform credentials. His use of the platform to portray India as a lucrative hub for vaccine manufacturing and his commendation of India’s booming startup ecosystem can certainly be beneficial, especially if concrete actions to ease the regulatory environment in India follow. In order to truly reform India (and transform the world?) pro market policies will need to stem from unanimous and bipartisan agreement on their merits and not from political astigmatisms. 

With all its criticisms intact, the BJP has shown to at least have the ideological will to address pro-market policies, with its socialist pangs only emerging once an election is in sight. Having said that, it will be unfair to not mention the accusations of political cronyism that have emerged on a large scale. BJP’s pro-market bent is significant, especially because its closest (distant) competitor, the Indian National Congress seems to have doubled down on its socialist economics credentials, quite possibly to differentiate itself from the BJP (this is interesting as the UPA’s most illustrious feather in its cap was its heralding of market reforms).

Thus, it has become clear that PM Modi is trying to ace a fine balance between his domestic credentials as a Hindu nationalist who does not brook dissent and his carefully crafted global image of the leader of a democracy that holds regular free elections. On the one hand, he remains mum on attacks on democratic institutions and constitutional values (and often even rewards offenders from his own party); and on the other, he exalts and showcases India’s democratic traditions in international forums like the UNGA. 
Similarly, on the one hand, he overplays his pro-reform image while also actively entertaining massive state-run programs and promoting protectionism through the "Atmanirbhar" (self-reliance) campaign.  While this will be akin to treading a fine line, the objectives of emphasizing India’s pro-democracy and pro-market stance are beneficial for the country’s geopolitical and development objectives. 

Will the reformist and democratic image that Modi seeks to project globally prevail over the nationalist and protectionist one that he projects at home?

 (The writer, an economics graduate from Columbia University, is India Expansion Analyst at Meritas Technology, New York and  Research Associate, South Asia Monitor.  The views expressed are personal. He can be contacted at akshat.singh@spsindia.in)