May 17, 2014

Modi is his own man, says US scholar Walter Andersen

Kaveree Bamzai  New Delhi, May 17, 2014 | UPDATED 10:13 IST


Walter AndersenWashington, DC-based foreign policy expert Walter Andersen was a senior official in the US State Department and a long-time scholar of India's Sangh Parivar. He co-authored The Brotherhood in Saffron with Shridhar Damle in 1987. Through his Indian wife who travels to India often on business, and friends in the political establishment, several of them from the BJP and close to Narendra Modi, Andersen has closely followed Indian politics for many decades. Andersen, who currently heads the South Asia Studies Program at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, also travels to China regularly to teach at Shanghai's Tongji University. He answered questions from India Today's Kaveree Bamzai in this interview. Excerpts:
Q: Do you believe a BJP-led government headed by Narendra Modi will bring about a complete change in Indian politics, including within the BJP itself?

A: The short answer is no. India is too complicated, too complex and too constitutionally structured, I think, to have that kind of radical change. Within the BJP, are there changes happening? Yes, that's both going back to the formation of the Jan Sangh and the BJP, to today. Today the BJP has comparatively few full time RSS pracharaks. The second thing is that Modi's success has much to do with almost taking control of the party in ways that had not happened before, certainly not under (Atal Behari) Vajpayee who was the previous BJP prime minister. Modi, when Chief Minister of Gujarat, he became the power inside the BJP. To an extent that was due to the fact that the cadre was enthusiastic about him in ways that the leadership was not. And the same is true in the RSS. It was the cadre of the RSS that was extraordinarily supportive of him and forced in ways I've never seen before, the senior leadership to make a decision of this importance to back Modi.

Q: How do you think Modi will deal with a resurgent RSS, especially one led by a younger Mohan Bhagwat?

A: The RSS is not resurgent. And in the BJP it is of diminishing importance ever since the early 1980s. Modi did not have a very close relationship with the RSS leadership in Gujarat. Modi is his own man. And they had some problems with him. There's a certain fear in the upper ranks that the cadre owe more loyalty to Modi than to the RSS.

Q: So you don't believe popular support that brings a BJP-led government to power could also indirectly help the RSS in shoring up its influence?

A: It may help, but that's not what Modi's purpose will be. In fact I asked a friend that very question of the RSS in Gujarat. And it may have marginally enhanced the attendance at their daily shakhas but it did not give the RSS any particular advantage in the governing of Gujarat at all. My guess is it probably will be the case again. One because of what we've been seeing in terms of the RSS-BJP relationship. The other is as with Vajpayee, the BJP likely will have to rely on allies, many of whom depend on Muslim support. And I think that explains why in the campaign Modi said almost nothing about Hindutva issues. His problem however is going to be the right wing, of both the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. It's the Togadias of the world, they will have to be handled.

Q: Modi's metamorphosis is most remarkable-from one described as the "butcher of Gujarat".

A: Who describes him that way?

Q: His political opponents of course, and also in media coverage in earlier years he was seen as being responsible for, or at least did not discourage the violence.

A: He didn't do enough to handle the situation, that's been the kinder version...acts of omission rather than commission, rather than to say he did it entirely. He was a full time RSS worker, had gone through all the training camps, had obviously impressed the RSS leadership. His entry into politics was within that Hindutva context, however he began to move away from that as Chief Minister. And people who followed his career noticed that one, the RSS organisation was sidelined, and he's had a running battle with some of the right wing of the BJP in Gujarat.

Q: Do you believe the way Modi approached governing in Gujarat, (the focus on economic development) was a strategic thing or was it something done out of conviction that he had to be neutral?

A: I have no way of reading his mind, and nor does anybody else. All we know is that he has shifted the way he's approached issues since coming to power. His focus really has been on development, jobs, that sort of thing. The complaint has been, did he express sufficient remorse for what happened (during the 2002 riots)... but the fact is he probably has not expressed strong remorse in part because I don't think he thinks he is guilty of doing something. He's said publicly during the campaign that he is sorry for what happened but that's not very strong.

Q: Does it indicate a sense of desperation among Indian voters that they are willing to overlook Modi's record and give him an opportunity to govern?

A: I think the Indian voter, particularly the younger voter, has a certain amount of desperation. They are looking for jobs, they are looking for firm leadership. India has a huge number of underemployed and unemployed people, and huge numbers in the countryside who are barely eking out an existence. And in most elections I've seen, except for the true believers, most people vote in the context of what the alternatives are. And the alternatives are for most people, Rahul Gandhi in the Congress, a third front government of several very different sorts of parties, or Modi.

Q: What do you think is likely to happen to the Congress? Will they still rely on the Gandhi family when the nation is so emphatically telling them that a surname doesn't matter?

A: Let's face it, the Gandhi-Nehru family has provided the glue that has tended to keep the Congress party together. My guess is it probably will continue to do that.

Q: Do you see at all that there might be a feeling within the Congress that there needs to be a smaller role for the family or don't you see that changing?

A: I haven't seen people within the party suggesting that even as a theoretical possibility. They may be thinking that, but I haven't seen that expressed anywhere.

Q: Would that (reliance on the Gandhi family) be harmful for the Congress, going forward?

A: Rahul Gandhi has advocated having more democracy in the party and I think he's serious about that, which I personally think is a wise decision if he were to do so. Will he and the rest of the family continue to have influence? I think it's almost certain they will.

Q: What's your assessment of this election? Do you see it as a triumph of will of one man versus the lack of ambition of another?

A: So many people say that Rahul seems to lack commitment to the political vocation, I'm not sure whether that's true or not. And that Modi seems to be totally consumed by politics. On that they may be closer to the truth. Here is a man who came from a very poor family, and low caste besides, and literally worked his way up by sheer personal effort. So there's something that happens to you when you are in that situation. You tend to rely on yourself.

Q: You last met Modi in Delhi last June. How did your impressions differ from your earlier meetings with him?

A: More self-confidence, more in control of the facts, very sure about what he was doing. Over the years I've noticed a person who's ambitious, had a strong sense of getting things done, and enormous energy.

He's a nationalist and the notion of a strong India is important to him. And being from a poor family, the idea of having development that affects the poor when I saw him, he actually went into that issue. I'm almost exactly quoting his words, that 'I know what it is to be poor.' He said most Indians are poor, this is a country in which the majority of the people are poor.

Like most senior politicians, loyalty is a very important issue for him. He can and does delegate authority, but he demands when he does that, that people do things. You know the Hindi phrase ho jayenge, oh it will happen, that I think would drive him up the wall. Because nothing happens unless you make it happen.

Q: Have you asked Modi for his views on the denial of the US visa?

A: We did briefly discuss US-Indian relations but we didn't get into the visa issue. He never brought it up and nor did I, but he recognises that for strategic and economic reasons, the US is going to remain very important for India. His focus is not on foreign policy, it's domestic. But he has a Look East policy; South East Asia, and particularly Japan and China are areas where he expects much more Indian interaction.

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