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The New Face of India Is the Anti-Gandhi

The violence, insecurity, and rage of Narendra Modi.

Photograph by Sumit Dayal / Prospekt

In September 2014, at Madison Square Garden in New York, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed a crowd of nearly 20,000 people. It was a sold-out spectacle worthy of a lush Bollywood production, with dancers warming up the audience and giant screens flashing portraits of Modi in the style of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” posters. There was a revolving stage, a speed portrait painter, and a bipartisan coterie of American politicians, including senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent.

When Modi appeared, dressed in saffron, a color associated with the ascetic, martial traditions of Hinduism, his first words were “Bharat Mata Ki,” an invocation of India as a Hindu goddess that translates as “For Mother India.” The crowd, almost entirely Indian-American, some with Hindu tikas dotting their foreheads, finished the line for him. “Jai! they shouted. (“Victory!”) “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!” Then they broke out into the chant, “Modi, Modi, Modi!”

Modi’s hourlong speech touched on every element of the received wisdom about India as a vibrant democracy and rising economic power. He spoke of its special prowess in information technology and the particular role played by Indian-Americans in this. He spoke of India’s youthful population, with 65 percent of its billion-plus people under 35; of Make in India, a program that encapsulated his plans to transform the country into a manufacturing powerhouse along the lines of China; and the ways in which his humble origins and meteoric political ascent served as an example of what might be possible in India today.

This address was followed by many similar ones around the world, but it was the first to establish on a global stage an idea that had been doing the rounds, in India, in the Indian diaspora, and among Western nations keen to carry out business in India: Modi and India were versions of each other, doppelgangers marching through the world and conveying a new era. Even Barack Obama made the comparison, writing in Time’s annual list of the hundred most influential people in the world: “As a boy, Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story—from poverty to prime minister—reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.”

Dynamism, potential, rise: These are the states of being captured by the entwinement of India and Modi. In the minds of India’s elite, and in that of an admiring, supportive West, India has been rising for a while, ever since it fully embraced Western capitalism in the early 1990s. Modi’s Madison Square Garden appearance was but an expression of that ascendance, from slumdogs into millionaires. But Modi was also in New York because of something that accompanies the rising India narrative: the perplexing reality that having been rising for so long, India is still not risen.

In the past 15 years, the top 1 percent of earners in India have increased their share of the country’s wealth from 36.8 percent to 53 percent, with the top 10 percent owning 76.3 percent, and yet India remains a stunningly poor country, riven with violence and brutal hierarchies, held together with shoddy infrastructure, and marked by the ravages of lopsided growth, pollution, and climate change. Modi at Madison Square Garden, then, stood for the promise that India’s rise would finally be completed, the summit reached. It had not yet been achieved, but he would change that. He would change it because he was an outsider, a man of humble origins, leading a political party—the Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)—that had a few months earlier been given a clear electoral majority, the first time for any Indian party in 30 years. He was at Madison Square Garden to mark this triumph, and to declare himself the new Indian icon for a new Indian century.

Modi referred, naturally, to the icon he had supplanted, the one from a previous century. Stumbling over Gandhi’s first name, calling him “Mohanlal” instead of “Mohandas,” Modi compared Gandhi to the members of his audience, as a person who had lived abroad as a diaspora Indian before returning to India. Modi’s Gandhi, however, had nothing to do with anticolonial politics, mysticism, or nonviolence. Those had been left behind with the old India, as demonstrated by some of Modi’s supporters outside the venue. Gathered in large numbers, they heckled and jeered at the Indian television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai for being part of what they saw as the liberal wing of the Indian media, which is ill-disposed toward Modi. To Sardesai’s attempts to ask them questions, they responded with shouts of “Modi, Modi, Modi.” When he retorted, “Did Mr. Modi tell you to behave badly? Did America tell you to behave badly?” a brawl ensued, some of the men chanting, “Vande Mataram,” or “Praise Mother India,” while others shouted, “Motherfucker.”

This episode could be seen as an aberration, but the combination of adulation and violence, sanctimoniousness and abuse, is never far from Modi and those who support him. It is, in fact, the essence of his appeal. He is a representative Indian not merely because he signifies potential, outsider status, and an Indian form of DIY upward mobility, but also because he embodies violent sectarian and authoritarian tendencies: so much a modern man belonging to the new century that he has dispensed with the pacifism associated with Gandhi.

One could see that in the jostling bodies and shouting faces gathered around the Indian television anchor. At work, these clean-cut, middle-class Indian men in their saffron t-shirts displaying Modi’s face probably exuded deference and respectability, at least toward those they associated with power and wealth. But gathered in numbers, with their puffed-up chests and clenched fists, they replicated what they admired most about Modi—a kind of unmoored nihilism that dresses itself in religious colors and acts through violence, that is ruthlessly authoritarian in the face of diversity and dissent, and that imprints the brute force of its majoritarianism wherever it is in power.

During his speech, Modi told the crowd the story of an interpreter in Taiwan who had asked him if India was a land of black magic, with snakes and snake charmers. This drew nervous laughter from the men and women in their professional clothes. The story was in a familiar genre, that of the Indian humiliated abroad, and can be found even in Gandhi’s accounts of colonialism and racism when traveling to the West. For Gandhi and his contemporaries (and in fact for all colonized, marginalized cultures), that experience of humiliation had led sometimes to a kind of nativism—a reaffirmation of the superior values of one’s humiliated society—but it had also provoked an anticolonialism that was internationalist in spirit, identifying with other marginalized groups.

But Modi was speaking for a new India and to a new India, one obsessed with completing its rise as an economic power. Neither the speaker nor the crowd acknowledged that snake charming in India is an occupation based on caste, and that they were far removed from such livelihoods. They were simply angry, afraid, and humiliated that their Indianness could be tainted by such associations, and it is not hard to empathize with that sense of being patronized. But where the anticolonial, Gandhi-inspired Indian might have worn the snake-charmer tag as a badge of pride, the new, Modi Indian merely wanted it destroyed. The new Indian instinctively understood the point of Modi’s anecdote, which was that it was set in Taiwan, not a Western country, but still ahead of India in terms of modernity.

“Our country has become very devalued,” Modi said. Cheers resounded through the stadium, the well-dressed professionals at Madison Square Garden united in their common sense of humiliation. Modi waited for the cheers to die down. Then he said, “Our ancestors used to play with snakes. We play with the mouse.” The applause this time was deafening. In the twist of a metaphor, Modi had restored the honor of the nation and of all those present. India was not a nation of snake charmers but of high-tech mouse managers. And Modi understood this, because he too was an Indian driven by rage and humiliation, a newcomer to the system and a latecomer to modernity, a leader who would transform India into a land of Silicon Valley white magic, but who would retain its authentic Hindu core.

Listening to the crowd finishing off his call-and-response of “Bharat Mata Ki … ,” he said, “Close both your fists and say it with full strength.” The crowd rose, fists clenched, shouting out the promise of triumph, of victory: “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!

In 1893, more than a century before Modi appeared at Madison Square Garden, a Hindu preacher called Vivekananda arrived in Chicago. The popular version of the story, as told in India, describes him as a solitary, charismatic figure dressed in saffron robes and turban as he faced the harsh cold and desiccated materialism of the West. The more prosaic, if still dramatic, truth is that Vivekananda had come to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions, a sideshow to that year’s World’s Fair. There were representatives from many religions at the parliament, hoping to speak to a West relentless in the assertion of its double-barreled superiority, Christianity and the Enlightenment. Soyen Shaku, whose student D.T. Suzuki became the most famous Zen teacher in the United States, came as part of a Japanese delegation. The Sinhalese preacher Anagarika Dharmapala was there representing Theravada Buddhism. Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, a former American consul to the Philippines who had converted to Islam, spoke on the faith he had embraced.

Vivekananda was a remarkable, complex figure, introducing his distinct, modernized version of yoga and neo-Hinduism to the United States. But if his legacy in the West was to be yoga, in India it would morph—helped, no doubt by his early death at 39—into a muscular Hindu nationalism centered around the idea that Hindus needed to become more aggressive in challenging both Islam and the West. He became a symbol of the Hindu warrior monk who had gone into the West to conquer it for Hinduism, an idea embodied loudly by Modi in his own self-presentation, especially in the cross-armed pose and saffron turban he affected. And just as Vivekananda, in this populist version, took the battle to the West, so did Modi when he arrived at Madison Square Garden.

In India, it took an organization and the onset of race-based nationalism in the early twentieth century to give Vivekananda’s vision a more sinister touch and ultimately connect it to Modi. Founded in 1925 in the central Indian city of Nagpur, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the National Volunteer Organization, took Vivekananda’s ideas of Hindu revival a step further, combining them with racial theories popular in the West and drawing inspiration from the Italian Fascists and the Nazis. M.S. Golwalkar, who became the chief of the RSS in 1940, wrote approvingly of Germany’s “purging the country of the Semitic Races—the Jews,” and urged Hindus to manifest a similar “Race Spirit” with Muslims. After India became independent in 1947, Nathuram Godse, a former member of the RSS, assassinated Gandhi for being too conciliatory toward Muslims and Pakistan. The RSS was banned briefly, but this was a blip in its steady expansion from its base in the Western state of Maharashtra into neighboring Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and beyond.

The RSS was known for its secretive, cultlike tendencies; it kept no written fundraising records, and produced a constitution only in 1949 as a condition for the lifting of its ban. It stayed away from anticolonial politics under the British and maintained a distance from electoral politics in the decades following independence. It focused, instead, on the ideal of an upper-caste Hindu society within an unabashedly upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu nation. It recruited boys between the ages of six and 18, using doctrinaire lectures and a routine of paramilitary drills to mold their Hindu “Race Spirit,” while its adult members were unleashed as shock troops in riots against Muslims. It maintained links with Hindu-right political parties and Congress leaders favorably inclined to its sectarian idea of India, but avoided direct involvement in parliamentary politics, calling itself a social organization rather than a political one.

This was the organization—disciplined, secretive, tainted by its association with Gandhi’s assassination and its role in sectarian riots—that Modi joined in 1958 as an eight-year-old in the provincial Gujarati town of Vadnagar. He was the third of six children, from a family that ran a tea shop at the railway station to supplement its income from pressing and selling cooking oil. Leaving home as a teenager, Modi wandered the country, possibly to escape living with the wife who had been chosen for him in an arranged marriage at an early age—ironically, just the sort of social practice defended by the Hindu right, despite legislative attempts to make marriage and divorce more equitable, especially for Hindu women—and from whom he remains estranged. He returned after a couple of years to the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, where he briefly ran a tea stall before joining the RSS full-time. Modi soon completed the RSS’s one-month officer-training program and became a pracharak, or organizer.

One can see the attractions of the RSS for a young man like Modi, filled with ambition and intelligence but without much education or opportunity. Its warrior-monk structure would offer upward mobility and power even as its cultish ideology stoked a sense of humiliation about the place of India in the world, and of Hindus within India. Decades later, when Modi wrote a book entitled Jyotipunj (Beams of light) about the people he admired most, his list would consist exclusively of RSS members, foremost among them the Hitler-loving Golwalkar. Modi rose rapidly through the ranks of this organization, one not dissimilar—in its paranoia, violence, and sense of victimization—to the Ku Klux Klan. There were always questions about his egocentricism, such as his tendency to wear a beard rather than the look encouraged by the RSS—military mustache or clean-shaven—and his tendency to upstage his rivals, but he was an efficient organizer in an outfit that needed these skills as it became more directly involved in influencing electoral politics.

The RSS had always maintained a loose affiliation with Hindu political parties. As the BJP emerged in the 1980s as the primary political party of the Hindu right, led by men who were also members of the RSS, that relationship grew stronger, until the BJP, the RSS, and a range of other Hindu-right organizations formed what in India is called the Sangh parivar, or “Sangh Family.” The BJP’s task has been to provide the political face of the Sangh parivar, while the RSS remains its shadowy soul.

Modi, at the G-20 summit in Australia in 2014, has taken his place among the world’s leaders.
Photograph by Mark Nolan/Getty

The Hindu right, especially the BJP, grew in influence as the Congress, India’s main political party, weakened. By the 1980s, the Congress, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family, had begun to dabble in sectarian politics and Hindu nationalism. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh separatists in 1984, senior Congress leaders, joined by RSS members, directed a pogrom against the Sikh minority that resulted in the death of 2,700 people, according to official estimates. Rajiv Gandhi, the next prime minister, took his mother’s sectarian politics further while also beginning India’s tilt toward the United States and toward information technology and a market-driven economy. This process would create a new Indian elite that was both aggressive and insecure about its place in the market economy, something it compensated for by reconfiguring itself as narrowly Hindu.

The BJP profited from these trends, using the RSS philosophy of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) plus the slogan, “Say with pride that we’re Hindus,” to go from two seats in the national parliament in 1984 to 85 in 1989, beginning a steady rise that, after a brief dip in 2004 and 2009, culminated in 282 seats, or 51.9 percent of the total, in the 2014 elections that made Modi prime minister.

There were significant opportunities for Modi as the Hindu right expanded its sectarian politics. The first, and most pivotal, campaign of the Hindu right involved a movement in 1990 to rebuild a temple to Rama, the mythological hero of the Ramayana, on the disputed site of the Babri Masjid, a sixteenth-century mosque in Ayodhya, in northern India. The BJP leader at the time, L.K. Advani, rode a Toyota truck modified into a “chariot” around the country to rally Hindus to the cause, starting his journey at Somnath in Gujarat, where a temple had been destroyed in the eleventh century by a Central Asian Muslim invader, and traveling towards Babri Masjid.

Modi was RSS general secretary at the time, a position that entailed directing the BJP from behind the scenes, making sure that it was following the RSS’s agenda. He organized the opening segment of the tour, and old photographs show him standing next to Advani on the chariot. In a sign of things to come, the temple campaign went global, shored up by other members of the Sangh Family, including the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), or World Hindu Council, which focuses much of its energies on the Indian diaspora in the West. Hindus around the world were asked to donate bricks to build the temple to Ram. Bricks, some made of gold, arrived from abroad as well as from hundreds of villages and towns in India, and although Advani’s tour ended when he was arrested for inciting violence, the mobilization continued. On December 6, 1992, Babri Masjid was leveled by a Hindu-right mob, setting off a spiral of violence that resulted in the death of around 2,000 people.

The violence of the Ayodhya campaign, the crudeness of depictions of Muslims as brutal invaders, the deft use of political spectacle, and the targeting of all this toward a new Indian elite both ambitious and insecure, were trends that Modi would embrace and develop. In 1995, he became BJP national secretary and moved to Delhi, just as India began its conversion to a full-fledged market economy and embarked on a period of economic growth that would benefit the urban elites enormously. The market, the nation, and Hindutva converged as the BJP won the elections in 1998, the new government carrying out a series of nuclear tests to celebrate the victory. A year later, it fought a brief war with Pakistan. The nuclear tests and the war were promoted hysterically by media outlets that were consumed eagerly by a growing urban elite, drawing in even liberal Indians who might have been uneasy about the Ayodhya campaign but who liked the way this new India asserted itself on the global stage.

In October 2001, Modi was appointed chief minister of Gujarat by the BJP leadership in Delhi. It was the first time an RSS pracharak had become chief executive of an Indian state. The impact was apparent soon afterward. In February 2002, 59 Hindus returning from the tenth-anniversary celebration of the destruction of Babri Masjid died in a fire that broke out in a train compartment. Investigations would later point to the fire originating inside the carriage, perhaps from a malfunctioning cooking-gas cylinder, but the Hindu right accused Muslims of storming the train and setting it on fire. Modi flew to the site. Orders were given for the corpses to be brought to Ahmedabad in a convoy of trucks. The corpses were then displayed in the open on the hospital grounds, apparently for the purpose of postmortem examinations, as agitated crowds watched the grisly spectacle.

A retaliatory campaign of extermination by Hindu mobs against Muslims began hours later and lasted for more than two months, resulting in the death of more than 1,000 people and the displacement of 150,000. Women and girls were raped before being mutilated and set on fire. Homes, shops, restaurants, and mosques were looted and burned. The attackers, reportedly guided by computer printouts that listed the addresses of Muslim families, were on many occasions aided by the police or led by legislators in Modi’s government. Many of the killers were identified as belonging to various Hindu right organizations. “Eighteen people from my family died,” a survivor of the onslaught said in “We Have No Orders to Save You,” a 2002 report from Human Rights Watch. “All the women died. My brother, my three sons, one girl, my wife’s mother, they all died. My boys were aged ten, eight, and six. My girl was twelve years old. The bodies were piled up. I recognized them from parts of their clothes used for identification.”

Even by the macabre standards of mass murder in India, there was something unusually disturbing about the Gujarat massacres. They had taken place in a relatively prosperous state, among people given to trade and business, rather than in a less-developed part of the country where a link might be made between deprivation and rage. But this connection in Gujarat, between economic prosperity and primal, sectarian violence, became one of the defining aspects of Modi’s image, in India and among the diaspora, one reaffirming the other, the pride of wealth meeting the pride of identity.

In the aftermath of the massacres, Modi demonstrated not a shred of remorse or regret. In fact, he decided early on to turn questions about the massacres and his role in them into an attack on Gujarat, and on India, especially when the Bush administration decided, in 2005, to deny Modi a diplomatic visa and revoked his tourist/business visa for the “particularly severe violations of religious freedom” that had taken place under him.

In 2007, when asked by Karan Thapar, the host of a show on the Indian television channel CNN-IBN, “Why can’t you say that you regret the killings that happened? Why can’t you say maybe the government should have done more to protect Muslims?” Modi walked out of the interview. In 2013, as he was emerging as a prime ministerial candidate, Modi responded to a similar question with a convoluted analogy. “If someone else is driving, and we are sitting in the back seat, and even then if a small kutte ka baccha comes under the wheel, do we feel pain or not? We do.” Reuters translated kutte ka baccha as “puppy,” which, while technically accurate, missed the point: Kutte ka baccha, or “progeny of a dog,” is an insult.

Modi also began to say that he had been given “a clean chit” about his role in the massacres by a team appointed by the Indian Supreme Court. His legions of supporters modified this statement, endlessly repeating that the Supreme Court had cleared him of any culpability in relation to the massacres. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya, economists at Columbia University, wrote to The Economist asserting this, arguing that what the magazine had earlier called a “pogrom” was really a riot and that a quarter of those killed were Hindus. In some ways, this response is almost as disturbing as what happened during the massacres themselves. Modi’s supporters were willing to ignore the question of responsibility for the sake of what they saw as the higher priority of a new India, now a superpower respected by the West. Large sections of the liberal Indian intelligentsia, writers and opinion makers, have chosen to remain silent. And then there are those who approve of Modi, knowing that he has been able to address all of new India’s fantasies and fears in a way not achieved by any other comparable leader, taking it to great heights as an emerging capitalist power, asserting its place in the world, and unleashing its dark, nihilistic violence on marginalized people.

As for Modi’s “clean chit,” the devil is in the details. Modi, who is supposed to have been absolved by the Supreme Court, has never actually been tried by it. The Supreme Court was petitioned in 2008 by Citizens for Peace and Justice (CPJ), an advocacy group seeking justice for the victims of the massacres. Led by Teesta Setalvad, a Gujarati activist, the CPJ expressed its fear that the judicial process in Gujarat was compromised, in response to which the Supreme Court appointed a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to look into a select number of cases. In 2009, the court also asked the SIT to investigate a petition against Modi related to his involvement in the massacres, which was initiated by Zakia Jafri, whose husband, Ehsan Jafri, a Congress politician, was killed during them; she had previously approached the Gujarat police and the Gujarat High Court to no avail.

The SIT’s final report in 2012 concluded that there was not enough evidence to prosecute Modi. But, as the journalist Hartosh Singh Bal (my close friend and former colleague) pointed out in Open, a current affairs magazine, those conclusions differed dramatically from the evidence in the report itself. One is left with the impression that the SIT was eager to find a lack of evidence no matter how much evidence actually existed. Maybe the SIT was right to be cautious. Bal was fired by Open just before the 2014 election for being too critical of the Hindu right; when Modi won, Open described his victory with the headline: “triumph of the will.

The SIT was also plagued by charges of interference from members seen as close to Modi and the Gujarat administration. Harish Salve, a senior lawyer appointed to guide the SIT as an amicus curiae or “friend of the court,” was removed for allegations of conflict of interest. He was also representing the Modi government in front of the Gujarat High Court in the matter of Ishrat Jahan, a 19-year-old Muslim college student who was killed by the police, who alleged she was a terrorist plotting to assassinate Modi. There had been other such extrajudicial executions in Gujarat, with more than 30 police officers and government ministers imprisoned for their involvement, all allegedly carried out under the direction of Amit Shah, the Gujarat minister of state during Modi’s tenure and now the president of the BJP. A number of the police officers selected to join the SIT had allegedly been involved in these extrajudicial killings, as well as in the 2002 massacres. Salve’s replacement, Raju Ramachandran, argued there was enough evidence to try Modi. He called for the cross-examination of Sanjiv Bhatt, a Gujarat police officer who had earlier stated that he was present at a meeting during which Modi directed the police to allow Hindus to vent their rage.

The overall tendency of Modi’s government was, as Human Rights Watch described in its report, one of “subverting justice, protecting perpetrators, and intimidating those promoting accountability.” Government officials seen as loyal to Modi, and under whose watch some of the worst killings took place, were rewarded with promotions and cushy posts. Those who provided evidence that raised questions about his role in the massacres found themselves subject to disciplinary measures, legal prosecution, threats, and scandals.

Three police officers who gave the National Commission for Minorities a transcript of a public speech delivered by Modi seven months after the massacres, in which he called camps set up for displaced Muslims “baby-producing centers,” were summarily transferred. R.B. Sreekumar, a senior police officer who testified to a commission set up by the Gujarat government to investigate the train fire and the massacres, which was headed initially by a single retired judge considered to be a Modi loyalist, was denied promotion and charged by the government with giving out “classified information.” He had recorded a session during which a senior Modi official had coached him about how he should answer questions, including “tell[ing] the commission that no better steps could be taken” in terms of preventing the violence. Rahul Sharma, a police officer who gave the commission phone records allegedly proving that killers involved in the massacres had regularly been in touch with politicians and police officers, was charged by the Gujarat government with violating the state’s Official Secrets Act. Haren Pandya, a minister in the Gujarat government who became a bitter rival of Modi’s, and who testified in secret to an independent fact-finding panel about the riots, was murdered in March 2003, after he was publicly identified as a whistle-blower and forced to resign his ministerial post. A dozen men, supposedly Islamist terrorists, were arrested for Pandya’s murder; all of them were acquitted eight years later. Pandya’s father maintained that Modi had orchestrated the killing.

In contrast, those who were indicted and sentenced to imprisonment for taking part in the massacres seemed to have a benevolent, gentle state looking out for their well-being. Maya Kodnani, an RSS member and BJP legislator, named by Modi as the Gujarat Minister for Women and Child Development in 2007, was in 2012 sentenced to 28 years in prison for leading a mob that killed 95 people, including 32 women and 33 children. In 2014, she was let out on furlough due to poor health, and she has since been spotted taking selfies at a yoga retreat on the outskirts of Ahmedabad. Babu Bajrangi, a leader in the Bajrang Dal, a militant faction, who was also convicted for his role in the Gujarat massacres, told the investigative magazine Tehelka in 2007 that Modi was “a real man” who had changed judges on his behalf on a number of occasions to get him out of jail. Given a life sentence in 2012, Bajrangi is frequently out of prison on furlough, for reasons ranging from attending his niece’s wedding to getting his eyes checked.

The circumstances, when laid down clearly, are so damning that it is astonishing that they can be airbrushed from Modi’s record. But they show how, in Gujarat, Modi engineered a hybrid vigilante-police state, one in which the righteous were punished and perpetrators rewarded.

Modi ran Gujarat for more than a decade. The achievements he claims from this period depend on audience and situation, but they all emphasize his economic success, in particular the “double-digit growth rates” he engineered through what is known as “the Gujarat Model.” The profile of Modi on the BJP web site commends his “masterstroke of putting Gujarat on the global map” through an “ongoing campaign called the Vibrant Gujarat that truly transforms Gujarat into one of the most preferred investment destinations. The 2013 Vibrant Gujarat Summit drew participation from over 120 nations of the world, a commendable feat in itself.”

Muslims in Gujarat gather after a night of Hindu rioting in 2002. Modi has refused to acknowledge his role in fomenting the violence, which resulted in the death of more than 1,000 people, and attacked those who call him to account.
Photograph by Ami Vitale/Getty

Modi hired the U.S. public relations firm APCO Worldwide to help promote the Vibrant Gujarat initiative, and in this too, he showed himself to be a truly modern Indian, concerned with his image among other nations of the world, particularly in the West. The West was a willing accomplice in Modi’s ambitions, eager to turn the conversation away from sectarianism and death by mob violence and toward the business opportunities offered by the Gujarat model. In January 2015, The Economist, not particularly enamored of Modi, lauded his fiscal success in Gujarat, writing, “With just 5 percent of India’s population and 6 percent of its land mass, [Gujarat] accounts for 7.6 percent of its GDP, almost a tenth of its workforce, and 22 percent of its exports.” Loud expert voices, many of them in the diaspora, bolstered this triumphal narrative, including Vivek Dehejia, an economist at Carleton University in Ottawa; Bhagwati and Panagariya at Columbia; and Ashutosh Varshney, a political science professor at Brown. As the 2014 national elections drew nearer, they were joined in their support by more seemingly liberal figures, in India and abroad, who had in the past been associated with the Congress.

The truth about the Gujarat model was more complex. What had been achieved, in a state that was already more developed than many other parts of India, was a layer of infrastructure and globalized trade—roads, power, exports—topped off with a thick, treacly layer of hype. The state poverty figures under Modi remained unimpressive and employment levels stalled, while the quality of available jobs went down, with lower wages in both rural and urban areas compared to the national average. Almost half of Gujarat’s children under the age of five were undernourished, in keeping with the shameful national average. (Panagariya, the Modi loyalist, argued that Indian children were stunted, even when compared to impoverished sub-Saharan African populations, not because of malnutrition, which was a “myth,” but because of genetic limitations to their height.) The number of girls born in Gujarat compared to boys remains low, suggesting a continued bias for male children in a country known for its grotesquely patriarchal norms; and yet the state is in the forefront of providing surrogate mothers for wealthy Western populations.

Much was made of Modi’s decision in 2008 to allow the Indian automobile manufacturer Tata to open a car factory in Gujarat, in particular after an attempt to do so in the traditionally left-leaning state of West Bengal had resulted in a violent farmers’ uprising. Less was said, however, about the low-cost cars made at the Tata plant, which were in the habit of catching fire. As for the rhetoric about creating a new Singapore, Shanghai, or South Korea—Modi’s metaphors of growth reveal a preference for authoritarian, homogeneous social systems—it has still remained rhetoric. A new city on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, constructed by architects brought in from Shanghai and touted, in 2012, as “the largest urbanization project in Indian history,” turned out, three years later, as The Wall Street Journal reported, to consist of mostly empty office buildings.

In an Independence Day speech last August, Modi modified his “Make in India” slogan to a more contemporary “Startup India.” But there was little about the wealth created under Modi that had to do with technological innovation. It depended instead on heedless resource extraction, crony capitalism, and competition for outsourcing work handed out by the West, all of which has been visible in India for decades. In Modi’s case, this was exemplified by his closeness to the Gujarati billionaire Gautam Adani, who had come swiftly to Modi’s defense when the latter was criticized for the 2002 massacres. In November 2014, Adani accompanied Modi to the G-20 summit in Australia, a country in which he hoped to dig one of the largest, and most controversial, coal mines in the world. Although a series of international banks refused to fund the project, voicing concerns about its environmental impact, Adani nevertheless received a massive loan from the State Bank of India.

The shortcomings of the Gujarat model are not particular to the state but to India as a whole. The difference is that Gujarat’s supposed economic achievement helped distinguish Modi from other political leaders in India trying much the same things. So Gujarat was a success, even as India was something of a failure to the Indian elite supporting Modi—a paradox that was resolved by making him prime minister.

How, with the violent scandal and the political failure, to account for Modi’s rise? The narrative of a growing India fed into it, stoked by the Indian elite and a Western media untrained to see nuances beyond the success of global capitalism in the aftermath of the cold war. The outsourcing of Western IT and office services played into it, as did the granting of visas to Indians to work in the West. Even the rise of a security state targeting Muslims found deep echoes in the West. The killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 came less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which meant that the old animosities of the Hindu right towards Muslims, Islam, and Pakistan found fertile ground in a United States whose wars abroad, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, featured the same enemies. India was an ally in the marketplace and in the war against Islamism, and was a contrast to both the overly religious, anti-Western militancy that would consume Pakistan and the godless manipulators of market capitalism in China.

For many in the Indian diaspora, and for their upper-tier elite relatives back in India, the endless cover stories, op-ed articles, books, and films praising the new India—even as Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan were regularly criticized as failed systems incompatible with modernity—meant a kind of double bonus for their self-image, confirming their arrival as the white man’s favorite kind of Indian. Thomas Friedman became a best-selling author and a hero to Indians with his account of rising India in The World Is Flat. It was a long way from Henry Kissinger’s comments in the 1970s that Indians were “bastards” and Indira Gandhi a “bitch.” All of this had been achieved not through Gandhian anticolonialism or the mystical self-abnegation associated with India by the counterculture in 1960s America, but through the materialist terms acceptable in contemporary America: money, long hours, and power.

The model minority status of the Indian diaspora in the United States was an uneasy one. It depended on an uncritical identification with the American ethos of success through work and competition, as well as with its counterpart, what Toni Morrison has called the “most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture: negative appraisals of the native-born black population.” It meant attacks on the ideas of the welfare state, of affirmative action, of impoverished and incarcerated minorities—a method transferable back home through Modi and the Hindu right’s assault on minorities and the poor and contemporary India’s valorization of wealth maximization and conspicuous consumption. But the truth remained that India was not America, and the gilded elite of the former toasted their lifestyles in a context of far greater poverty, surrounded by hundreds of millions of the dispossessed—potentially militant and far too great in numbers to be housed in the prisons and reservations favored by America. The status quo remained fragile, easily disrupted, and it required not just a party or a program—the BJP’s rival, the Congress, favored the same kind of economics and national security state—but a strong man like Modi who could grasp the present in both fists, as he had done in Gujarat. The West, with its selective talk of human rights, was an uncertain ally in this respect, desirable for its power but also resented for its superior status. Its approval, suddenly granted, could also be taken away, denied as easily as the visa refused to Modi in 2005.

Modi, at the time, was planning to attend a U.S. trade convention of Asian-American hotel owners. With 700,000 Gujaratis living in the United States, probably the largest Indian group in the country, the State Department was well aware of the sensitivities involved. A press release about his visa denial noted “the great respect the United States has for the many successful Gujaratis who live and work in the United States and the thousands who are issued visas to the United States each month.” Yet Gujarati support (and it is worth reiterating that many Gujaratis have resisted Modi’s sectarian agenda at great cost to themselves) formed only one strand in Modi’s valorization among Indians of Hindu origin in the diaspora, regardless of their ethnicity. Indians from minority faiths (Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians), and those belonging to progressive groups, kept a critical distance from Modi. These groups were instrumental in pressuring the United States into denying him a visa, and they later attempted to serve him with a legal summons for genocide during his triumphal visit to Madison Square Garden.

For many in the Indian diaspora, however, the denial of Modi’s visa highlighted the double standards of the West, especially since the Bush administration was hardly a benign power when it came to Muslims. It also confirmed the diaspora’s suspicion of liberal factions in America, the media, universities, and the human rights sector, which they believed were out to humiliate Indians and Hindus by pointing out their deficiencies. The most visceral manifestation of these attitudes came in the writings and talks produced by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian based in New Jersey who fulminated against the conspiracy directed at Hindu India by Western academics in Western universities. Like Modi, he saw himself as a mouse manager taken for a snake charmer, a victim of those identified as enemies of Hindus by the RSS from its very inception—Muslims, leftists, and the West. Malhotra, described by the Indian journalist Shoaib Daniyal as the “Ayn Rand of internet Hindutva,” was an early exponent of the inverted postcolonial doggerel common among Modi and his supporters. He spoke of the “Eurocentric framework” of Western academics writing about an “indigenous non-Western civilization,” while still himself uttering breathtaking essentialisms about white women, India’s oppressed castes, African Americans, and “Abrahamic religions.” Long influential among the Indian diaspora in the United States, Malhotra had to wait for Modi to become prime minister to achieve full respectability in India. But Malhotra, with his YouTube videos, Twitter feed, and enormously popular books (shadowed by accusations of plagiarism), was only the most obvious aspect of the entrepreneurial approach to the Hindu-right project as manifested by Indian-Americans.

This approach, which involved think tanks, lobbies, social media, networking, and “nonpartisan” pressure groups, added a new, globalized dimension to the established cultish practices of the RSS and the mob politics of the BJP—something Modi grasped perfectly. He liked his Indian-American experts for the global aura they gave him and for the way they burnished his reputation as the Indian icon of the new century, committed to running India in a way it had never been run before. So, while the Indian diaspora’s main fixation in the United States was a kind of cultural war—attempts to change references to Hinduism in school textbooks, smear campaigns against Western scholars of Hinduism, and the introduction at universities of programs and chairs in Hinduism that would be taught by individuals with questionable scholarly credentials but possessing the vital attribute of belonging to the faith—in India it would focus on bringing about Modi’s victory in the national elections.

Modi’s electoral campaign, described as India’s first “presidential” campaign, was carried out along American lines with the focus as much on Modi as on his party. Lance Price, a former BBC journalist turned spin doctor for Tony Blair, was brought in to write the story of the election; Andy Marino, an unknown British writer, was given full access to Modi for an atrociously written hagiography that defended him on everything, including the Gujarat massacres. The campaign also featured the direct imprint of the Indian-American diaspora, including a purportedly nonpartisan group called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG). With members drawn from the alumni of Columbia and Brown, and former employees of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, the CAG provided data analysis and slick marketing tools for the campaign, with holograms of Modi beamed, like some kind of Sith lord, into distant Indian villages.

Yet beneath the modern, entrepreneurial campaign, there remained the minority baiting, the majoritarian aggressiveness, the riots, the intimidation, and the abuse. Among the crowds in India, Modi, having first softened them up with populist language that stood in direct contradiction to his business-friendly ethos in the boardrooms and conference centers of the West, poured out his usual sectarian invective, referring to himself as a sevak—a religious devotee. In the eastern part of India, just days after more than 30 Muslims had been killed in riots targeting them for their supposed origins in neighboring Bangladesh, Modi, hands full of theatrical gestures, voice punctuated by dramatic pauses, spoke of how after the elections and his victory, Bangladeshis in India would have to pack up their bags and leave.

It was done with expertise, with subtlety, and always with an awareness of the business-friendly image being promoted abroad. Amit Shah was put in charge of campaigning in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, an important arena for the national elections. Three months after he took over, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims, the majority of the dead and the displaced being Muslims. Shah made sure, in a subsequent speech in April 2014, to accuse Muslims of raping and killing Hindus and talked of the elections as an opportunity to teach a lesson to the perpetrators of evil. The Election Commission of India, which prohibits appealing to voters on sectarian grounds, briefly banned Shah from campaigning, but Modi’s election drive proceeded without a hitch.

As Modi went about his business, wielding swords at rallies and berating “secularism,” the word used in India to emphasize its constitutional principle of equal rights for all religious beliefs, his devotees in India and the United States went about their mob business on the internet and in the media and social media. There was the innovative abuse directed at the 69 percent who would not vote for him, who did not buy into his vision—the more polite terms being “presstitute,” “sickularist,” and “libtard.” The new Indians boasted of Modi, of his manly 56-inch chest (it’s actually 44 inches, his waist 41, and his belly 45, if his personal tailor is to be believed), but inches were only another way of expressing Modi’s machismo. Teenagers tattooed images of Modi on their bodies, and he was lauded as the country’s most eligible bachelor. The fact that he was in fact married, to a woman with whom he had never lived, who has never been given financial support—and who, after Modi became prime minister, would be denied a passport because she possessed no marriage certificate—was largely forgotten, or drowned out with abuse and threats.

In an essay a few months after the Gujarat massacres, Ashis Nandy, a clinical psychologist and one of India’s best-known public intellectuals, recalled how he had interviewed Modi in the early ’90s, when he was “a nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it as a small-time BJP functionary.” Nandy wrote, “It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category.” Modi, Nandy wrote:

met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defense of projection, denial, and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence—all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist.

Nandy soon found himself the subject of a criminal case lodged by the Gujarat police. It accused him, of all things, of disturbing the harmonious relationship between religious communities. In a way, it proved Nandy’s point about the authoritarian personality who attempts to silence all dissent while expressing no doubts at all about his own actions and beliefs. Vinod Jose, in a meticulously researched profile published in 2012 in Caravan magazine (I am a contributing editor to Caravan), had noted how Modi made others apologize, turning criticism into entrepreneurial opportunity. In February 2003, two Indian industrialists, at an event with Modi, commented on the Gujarat violence; Modi engineered a written apology from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the trade association that had organized the event. “We, in the CII, are very sorry for the hurt and pain you have felt,” the letter stated, adding that it regretted “very much the misunderstanding that has developed since the sixth of February, the day of our meeting in New Delhi.”

For those who have not apologized, and who have continued to stand up to Modi, different measures have been applied: legal intimidation, government pressure, social abuse, scurrilous gossip, police cases, and mob violence. Setalvad, one of Modi’s staunchest opponents, found her residence in Mumbai raided last July by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency, even as the Gujarat government attempted to have her arrested for financial fraud. The Ford Foundation, which has funded some of the projects carried out by Setalvad’s organization, discovered itself in the crosshairs of both the federal government and the state of Gujarat, the latter accusing the foundation, in a repeat of the charges against Nandy, of “abetting communal disharmony.”

With a defeat in November’s state elections for Bihar, in the eastern part of the country, Modi’s new India has amped up its sectarian Hindu nationalism, unleashing an astonishing degree of violence against all those who might not subscribe to this worldview, training its rhetoric and weaponry against anyone who might be identified as “anti-national,” which includes all those critical of Modi, the Hindu right, and Indian nationalism. In January 2015, immigration officials prevented a Greenpeace India staffer from boarding a flight to London, where she was scheduled to speak to British members of parliament about the environmental risk of a proposed mine in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, co-owned by a company listed on the London stock exchange. The government also identified Greenpeace India as working against the national interest, canceling its license to receive funds from outside India. Later that year, the writer Arundhati Roy was issued a criminal contempt notice by a Nagpur court, for an article she published in Outlook magazine about G.N. Saibaba, a disabled political dissident confined to a wheelchair, who had been awaiting trial for a year. Roy argued Saibaba should not be prevented from getting bail if Bajrangi and Kodnani, convicted for their role in the 2002 massacres, could, and if Amit Shah, once charged with ordering extrajudicial executions, functioned with impunity as president of the BJP “and the right-hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

Shortly afterward, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad who was a Dalit, the most oppressed of India’s castes, committed suicide. Vemula had protested the BJP student wing’s forcible disruption of the screening of a documentary on riots provoked by the BJP as part of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, and had been targeted by the Hindu right. Described as anti-national by two ministers in Modi’s cabinet, and barred by authorities at the University of Hyderabad from entering its hostels and public spaces, a practice reminiscent of the ostracization of Dalits by upper-caste Hindus, he hanged himself.

In February, Kanhaiya Kumar, a student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a public university in Delhi portrayed as an elite left bastion by the Hindu right, was arrested by the Delhi police on the orders of a BJP minister for sedition. During two of Kumar’s court appearances, lawyers (or men who claimed to be lawyers) assaulted students and faculty who had come to show their solidarity with Kumar. For good measure, they also beat up journalists who attempted to record the violence.

As in the 2002 massacres and their aftermath, the degree of violence under Modi’s rule differs depending on the target. In the case of Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim man lynched in September on the suspicion of eating beef, it was a mob at the door with swords and pistols. When a group of writers returned the national awards they had received in protest of the Modi government’s sectarianism, a Bollywood actor led a march against these writers for having “hurt the spirit of India,” ending with a much-publicized meeting with Modi.

Against this backdrop, with violence piling up almost faster than can be recorded, Modi has functioned as a talking mask. Despite his ubiquity on social media, with two Twitter feeds, one personal and one official, and despite being constantly photographed in expensive clothes—he wore a reportedly $16,000 suit made on Savile Row when meeting Obama in Delhi last January, a gift to him from a businessman, which was auctioned off later—he is perhaps the most closed-off head of state India has seen. He rarely gives interviews to the media, and never to journalists who might be critical of him. But he is always making pronouncements, sometimes providing free internet for rural India with the assistance of Mark Zuckerberg, sometimes solving climate change for the world in a Twitter conversation with @potus, tweeting an endless stream of banalities.

A makeshift barricade erected by Muslims in Gujarat to protect against Hindu attackers during the 2002 rioting.
Photograph by Ami Vitale/Getty

His performance is a banal kind of greatness, calibrated finely over a decade, even as behind and around him violence moves in ranks that make it hard to tell the difference between the mob and the police. Yet the authoritarian personality of Modi would be without impact, without significance, if it did not resonate with the millions of authoritarian personalities among the professionalized classes in India and the diaspora, in Silicon Valley, and New Jersey, and Mumbai, and Delhi, among those who have risen so suddenly as to be suffering from vertigo, who feel liberated from all meaningful knowledge, whether from the past or the present, and who feel enslaved by their liberation. While they harness their souls to the standards of professional, material, Westernized success, to the air conditioning that Modi mocks when on the campaign trail, their insecurity and humiliation about the West makes them extract sustenance from Modi’s utterances about Hindus having invented plastic surgery.

Modi cannot be held solely responsible for such rage and despair, even if he amplifies it. His supporters, at home and in the West, the West itself, which chooses to ignore the violence in India, and a complaisant liberal intelligentsia, concerned more with its career prospects than with standing up to Modi, have to share the responsibility. There is also much continuity between Modi’s India and what preceded it, including the way in which the Congress stood aside during the 2002 massacres and their aftermath, selectively exploiting the culpability of Modi and his government but never genuinely interested in justice; nurturing Hindu majoritarianism under the guise of nationalism; promoting the enrichment of a select few.

From this hollowed-out form of success, bereft of love, spirituality, and justice, meaning can only emerge from banality and hatred. Modi’s contradictions and lies channel the confusions of his supporters perfectly. In a manner reminiscent of the vanguards of China’s Cultural Revolution or the nativists flocking to Donald Trump, they accuse the old elites of holding back the nation and the culture from true greatness. They attack those responsible for the ruined past, the uncertain future, and the endless present. They assail the “anti-nationals” who stand in their way, beating and molesting people while shouting, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” They demand people say it to prove they are not traitors, emboldened by a meeting of the BJP in March, led by Modi, that declared a refusal to use the slogan as tantamount to disrespecting the Indian constitution. They hammer, with swords and guns and smartphones and double-digit growth, at the doors of the beef-eaters, the environmentalists, the university students, the feminists, the Dalits, the leftists, the dissenting writers, the skeptics, the “anti-nationals”—anyone who will not declare, both fists clenched, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!” They have a rage that must burn itself out, and all that stands between them and the ashes of their rage is the astonishing, amazing phenomenon of a world that can still produce, from the crushed bottom layers of Indian society, people who, with every bit of the dignity and courage they can muster, resist the lure of their silent, lonely, aloof, admired, and unloved leader.