How Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Demagoguery Differs From Trump’s

A historian reflects on India’s evolution over the last seven decades.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, left, talks to newly sworn-in Vice President Venkaiah Naidu, center, as they leave the presidential palace in New Delhi on Friday.

Manish Swarup/AFP/Getty Images

This week marks the 70th anniversary of one of the hinge moments in modern history: when the British government simultaneously “granted” independence to India and partitioned it in two, birthing the state of Pakistan. Pakistan celebrates its birthday on Monday and India on Tuesday; it thus feels like a good moment to take the temperature of both countries and to do so while also looking back over their past seven decades. Pakistan recently lost its prime minister, thanks in part to the machinations of its de facto military rulers; the country remains menaced by religious fanaticism and instability. (Pakistan itself lost its eastern wing, which became Bangladesh, in 1971.) India, ostensibly the brighter success story, not only elected Narendra Modi, a right-wing Hindu demagogue, in 2014, but is racked by civil unrest in a number of its 29 states. (Muslim-majority Kashmir, most of which belongs to India, remains a disputed territory, and the area under Indian control is governed with a strong and brutal military presence.)

I spoke by phone recently with Ramachandra Guha, an Indian historian who has written one of the definitive histories of the country’s past 70 years and is currently at work on a multipart biography of Gandhi. (My conversation with the Pakistani historian Ayesha Jalal, about the current state of Pakistan, can be read here.) During the course of my chat with Guha, which has been edited and condensed for clarity, we discussed how Modi’s demagoguery differs from Trump’s, what will keep India from becoming a Hindu Pakistan, and what Gandhi foresaw—and missed—about modernization.

Isaac Chotiner: I remember that in your history of India you referred to it as a “populist democracy.” What do you think of that description today, especially in light of the fact that we see a rise around the world, including in India, of a certain, very particular variety of populism?

Ramachandra Guha: I think the major political change in India over the last 10 years is the rise of what we might call authoritarian populism. Of course, India has known authoritarian populism in the past, with Indira Gandhi in the 1970s, but the cult of the strong leader who embodies the nation—which is what Narendra Modi represents, and it is what has propelled him to power and to the consolidation of power—I think is important. In a sense, there are some special features that distinguish Modi from Trump or [Turkey’s President] Erdogan, which is that his consolidation of his power has been enabled by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, which is an organization almost 100 years old. It’s hard to say what it is, if it’s a political organization or a cadre-based ideological front, but it’s something that has boots on the ground, which obviously the rival Congress Party does not. It has a philosophy, which is that India should be a Hindu state, and it has tens of thousands of committed cadres added onto Modi’s own charismatic personality.

In what ways do you think personally is Modi similar or different from the other demagogues we see around the world?

Trump is a maverick, an egomaniac really interested only in himself, whereas Modi is interested, of course in himself, he is an enormously vain man too, but he is interested in consolidating his party [BJP] and his philosophy’s control over India. He would like to leave a positive legacy behind. It’s unlikely that he will, but he likes to think of himself as a man of history. And he’s building upon this very well-entrenched, very motivated, and very dangerous RSS organization, which Trump certainly doesn’t have and [French leader of the National Front] Le Pen certainly doesn’t have and [Hungary’s] Viktor Orbán doesn’t have. In that sense, Modi has the capacity to do a great deal more damage because of the organizational depth of the RSS and the BJP.

The typical Western narrative when it comes to India is that you’d had decades of creaky socialist planning, and then the market was opened up, and it was “modernizing.” Yes, there was poverty, and yes, there was environmental destruction, and yes, there was trouble in Kashmir and other places, but fundamentally the country was becoming a golden child, a new, shining India. What do you make of that narrative today?

I would like to slice up the story of modern India into four sectors. There’s politics, which is multiparty competition, elections, charismatic, strong authoritarian leaders, etc. Then there is economics, which you’ve talked about, which is a move from a command economy toward market liberalization. Then there’s society, which is the turning of social relations. I think that’s very important and should not be ignored, because India is a deeply hierarchical society. The French anthropologist Louis Dumont famously called us Hindus “Homo Hierarchicus” because the caste system is, without question, the most sophisticated and diabolical form of social exclusion ever invented by humans. Then of course you have gender inequality, because both Hinduism and Islam give women a totally subordinate role.

But on this third category I think India is moving, despite authoritarian populism at the top, despite the economic inequalities generated by market liberalism, toward a more egalitarian society. Women and Dalits are less exploited now than at any point in human history. Women and Dalits are asserting themselves more than at any point in human history, which is why we are now also witnessing an upper-caste, patriarchal backlash against them. I think this is something that’s going on beyond politics and economics.

Finally, there’s religion and culture. This is where the report card over the last 10 years has slipped dramatically, because the main difference between the Congress Party and the BJP is that the Congress believed that Muslims and Christians are equal citizens of the land whereas the BJP follows very much the Pakistan model of nation-building, which is that the state is identified with the majority community. In Pakistan, it’s Muslims. In India, it’s Hindus. I think the insecurity of Muslims, which has grown over the last eight or 10 years, and particularly the last three or four years, puts a question mark even on economic growth, because if you have insecurity and a breakdown of law and order and the police take the side of the goons rather than of victims, then no one is going to invest in India. I think this is in some ways the most worrying feature of Narendra Modi: that India is being redefined as a Hindu state, which is absolutely new in its 70-year history.

Is that then your fear, that India is on the road to becoming a Hindu Pakistan?

I think I’m a little worried. I’m not apocalyptic. I think we do have 70 years of secular democracy. The wave of attacks on minorities is restricted to certain parts of north India. The south, where I live, is virtually immune to it. I’m worried because the political leadership has not recognized the damage this does to our constitutional fabric or the damage it does to even economic good.

What do you see as the causes of Hindu extremism in India?

The short-term causes are that there is religious fundamentalism around. We are bordered by two large countries, which are Islamic states, one of which, Pakistan, has consistently used terror on Indian soil, so there is a rival reaction to that. The medium-term cause of the rise of Hindu fundamentalism is the steady growth and consolidation of the RSS.

The long term is this: You could argue that this would have happened anyway because from the 19th century, in reaction to British colonialism, you had Hindu visionaries talking about the glories of Indian culture, and saying India must recover its religious pride to recover its national and civilizational identity. And then you could argue that for 150 years, religion and politics have been linked. Even in the Congress Party, [Bal Gangadhar] Tilak, who was a great leader, basically practiced a Hindu politics. Gandhi and [first prime minister of India Jawaharlal] Nehru were aberrations. It’s possible to argue that Gandhi and Nehru, recognizing the dangers of making Indian nationalism a Hindu project, worked assiduously from the 1920s to Nehru’s death in the 1960s. You could argue that that period was an aberration because the top political leadership was trying to moderate conflict to force harmonious relations.

How much do you think of partition as something that permanently marked the country India is today?

I think it has obviously marked India, but I think it has marked Pakistan much more. This is for several reasons. One is that it’s much bigger than Pakistan, and large parts of India were unaffected by partition. Second is that partition made Pakistan, unlike India, a frontline state in the Cold War. History and geography have dealt Pakistan a bad deal because it became a frontline state in the Cold War. It had to choose sides against the Soviets, which from the 1950s led to the rise of the military in Pakistan, which undermined the democratic possibilities. Later on, of course, because of the fight against the Soviets, it led to the consolidation of Islamic fundamentalism. And then, finally, as part of this [founder of Pakistan Mohammed Ali] Jinnah died in 1948, whereas Nehru was able to live on until 1964. I think this obsession with partition … it’s somewhat of a diversion from what’s going on in India today.

In India today, you see impressive economic growth, but a lot of social welfare indicators are improving at disappointing rates. Why is this?

I think there’s been a decline of state capacity. Clearly the state had overextended itself under Nehru and Indira Gandhi. It had got into the making of bread, cosmetics, running hotels, and it had to withdraw. There was a need for state withdrawal from economic spheres, which it did do in the 1990s and that led to innovation, enterprise, and economic growth, but there had to be a renewal of state capacity in other areas, particularly education, health, and environmental regulation. That’s where the state has performed worse than it did in the past. Public universities, public schools, public hospitals are decrepit and dysfunctional. They were never great. It’s not as if we had a welfare state like Scandinavia or Canada, but they weren’t utterly hopeless. Now they have become utterly hopeless.

And of course there is the environmental challenge, which is [barely] recognized even in India. What we’re talking about are massive rates of air and water pollution, the depletion of groundwater aquifers, huge chemical contamination of the soil leading to health hazards, leading to declining crop yields and so on and so forth and this is also going to undermine our economic growth prospects apart from affecting the health of people on an everyday basis. Because Delhi is the most polluted city in the world, it also has the highest rates of childhood asthma and so on and so forth. That, again, is because there are no state regulations because the state is corrupt so it doesn’t act against polluters. It doesn’t adopt up-to-date standards when it comes to automobile emissions because politicians are paid off by automobile manufacturers.

I think the capacity of the Indian state to provide equal opportunity when it comes to education and health, to maintain law and order and a fair and transparent justice system, to provide for environmental regulation, all of these have steadily declined. One reason is political indifference. The other is when your universities decline, the quality of your bureaucrats also declines because they get a worse education than they did 10 or 15 years ago. This is a genuine crisis, which no political party recognizes and the media, because it’s obsessed with everyday electoral politics, also doesn’t write about it. The decline of the media is another story in India, which is of course linked to all of this.

You’ve written a lot about Asian countries modernizing, and it does seem like, when you look at China or India, you have these strategies to bring more growth but the environmental challenges are now so astonishing that it makes the entire modernization project extraordinarily fraught and complex.

Yeah. Absolutely. Gandhi prophetically said in 1928 that if India takes to industrialization after the manner of the West, it will “strip the world bare like locusts,” and now you add China to the equation. I think the key part is about doing it in the manner of the West: that is, capital-intensive, energy-intensive, resource-depleting industrialization. India and China had to modernize, had to industrialize, had to lift people out of desperate poverty and destitution, but probably could and should and could still do it in a more caring and sustainable way.

You wouldn’t know that from Gandhi though, that India had to modernize.

Yeah, yeah, yeah. It’s true. We didn’t have to go the whole way with Gandhi, but at least he had an intuitive understanding of the environmental limits to absolute unbridled growth and consumerism. But I agree with you. The village economy model was not what India needed to adopt.

The central thing I’d like to say is that India moves at multiple levels and there’s progress in one sphere and regression in another sphere. Of course economic growth, reduction of poverty, technological modernization is one aspect of modernity, but so is social emancipation.

I would like to emphasize two things that are happening in India today which are on the more optimistic side. One is there’s a steady de-linking of caste from occupation and the stranglehold of the caste system over what young people do. If your father was a carpenter, you do not have to be a carpenter. There is also a steady de-linking of family from marriage. With every single year, more young women are freer to choose their romantic partners. It’s true that maybe arranged marriages are 80 percent, but they’re not 100 percent, and the curve is moving toward more autonomy and individual freedom for the oppressed castes and for women. Very slowly, painfully slowly, but I think it is also part of modernity and I think that is also part of the Indian journey.