In May, in a national election widely perceived as marking a dramatic new phase for India, the Hindu right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won an absolute majority in Parliament. The Indian National Congress Party (INC), the country’s oldest political party and the winner of more elections than any of its rivals, saw itself jeered to defeat, its prime-ministerial candidate, the Harvard-educated Rahul Gandhi, portrayed as an ineffectual representative of a political lineage out of touch with the impatient, assertive mood of contemporary India. That mood, it was said, was far better captured by the 64-year-old Narendra Modi, who led the BJP campaign and is now the fifteenth prime minister of India. Of far more humble origins than Rahul Gandhi (the scion of a family that has produced three generations of prime ministers), Modi is thought to have presided, as chief minister of Gujarat from 2001 to 2014, over a remarkable economic and social renaissance in his home state, even as India, under the tutelage of the Congress Party, went from boom to bust.
But in this contest of a self-made son of the soil against a member of the ancien régime, why were Modi’s most vigorous supporters the elites themselves, from the corporate and media oligarchs and their camp followers among the professional classes to the prosperous Indian diaspora in the United States? As Modi promised, on the campaign trail, to build a hundred new “smart” cities and bring in high-speed bullet trains of the kind already common in China and Japan, suited Indian men affiliated with universities and think tanks appeared on television shows and in the op-ed pages offering paeans to Modi’s pro-business record. There was no talk, at these levels of discourse, of Modi and the BJP as representing anything other than business and efficiency. It was only in India, after the electoral victory, that the point was made more explicitly. In Open magazine, whose political editor had been removed prior to the elections, perhaps for being too critical of the BJP, the cover story celebrated Modi’s victory under the headline Triumph of the Will.
And so the tradition of dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living. Modi, who, in his long run-up to the prime minister’s seat, had begun the practice of distributing bearded, bespectacled masks of himself among his supporters, has, underneath that pro-business, pro-efficiency veneer, also been the man who started his political career as a member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, the volunteer paramilitary organization that provides muscle for the BJP’s well-larded front. In 2002, soon after Modi became chief minister of Gujarat, one of the worst modern pogroms in India occurred there, with at least 1,000 Muslims killed by Hindu mobs while the police ignored the violence or, in some cases, helped it along. And while it is true, as Modi’s advocates proclaim (the shrillest of them men with Hindu names and postal addresses in California, Massachusetts and Michigan), that nothing has ever been proven in court linking Modi directly to the riots, it is also true that the pogrom was followed by a pattern of extrajudicial executions or “encounter killings,” the most notable of these being the deaths of three men and a young woman, all Muslim, said to have been on their way to assassinate Modi, and who were probably abducted and murdered in cold blood by the police. (It is likewise true that those few policemen who tried to stop the Gujarat rioters have seen their careers suffer.)