Some observers of India’s recent election have asked whether the next Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, is a dangerous bigot. But they have largely overlooked the other elephant in the room: his pursuit of personal dominance, at the expense of democratic institutions.
Until the mask slipped late in the campaign, Modi avoided his customary anti-Muslim rhetoric. He spoke instead about development, the need for a strong leader, and above all, about himself.
He left the task of whipping up Hindu chauvinism to others, not least, Amit Shah, his master strategist. The independent Election Commission has urged police to press criminal charges against Shah for justifying recent anti-Muslim riots in India’s largest state, although after a grudging apology from him it allowed him to continue campaigning.
But Modi has never wavered in his drive to centralise power and bend institutions to his will.
Did Modi learn his pursuit of personal dominance from Indira Gandhi?
Perceptive analysts liken him to the only other national leader to seek control from on high: Indira Gandhi.
She systematically undermined state institutions and leaned hard on forces outside government like the media and civil society. She even weakened her own Congress Party by abandoning democracy within the party and filling all posts from above – choosing third- and fourth-rate people for their slavish loyalty to her.
Modi has followed suit.
As Chief Minister of Gujarat state, he has subjugated state institutions and other forces. Thus for example, India’s Supreme Court felt impelled to move criminal cases linked to the 2002 massacres of Muslims which took place on his watch to unbiased courts outside his state. And one leading analyst speaks Gujarat journalists “waiting for orders” about what to write*.
Modi is even undermining his own Bharatiya Janata Party - one of the few in India with real organisational substance. In region after region, he has engineered the selection of candidates who are personally committed to him. They are in many ways a motley collection: Hindu incendiaries, tweedy ex-civil servants, sundry swamis, and so on. But they share one common characteristic: staunch devotion to the leader.
This has triggered signs of anxiety even from his party’s hard-line sister organisation, through which Modi emerged, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). It welcomes one of its own as leader and has used its formidable organisation to bolster his campaign. But some of its leaders fear that after the election, his pursuit of personal control may marginalise and enfeeble it.
Modi’s desire to centralise power may face resistance from much stronger institutions
We shall soon see if institutions today are able to withstand his efforts to dominate. When Indira Gandhi pressured them, they largely gave way.
Since no single party has won a majority in parliament since 1989, massive powers have flowed away from the once dominant Prime Minister’s Office to diverse institutions: Parliament, its committees, the courts, the Election Commission, and many more. Over the last quarter-century, they have gained substance and grown assertive. That is why the Supreme Court could order trials to be removed from Modi’s state, and the Election Commission could call for criminal charges against his right hand man. Civil society and the media are also stronger. Subjugating them will be far tougher than in Mrs Gandhi’s time.
However, by radically centralising power, Modi may unintentionally weaken himself, as Mrs Gandhi did. Terrified subordinates told her what they thought she wanted to hear, which cut her off from accurate information Ghastly errors ensued which gravely damaged her and the country.
We saw then that national leaders in India make their influence penetrate downward more effectively by way of bargaining that by diktat. Mrs Gandhi never learned that lesson. Modi appears unlikely to do so.
Before the result emerged, it was possible to ask whether Modi’s party would fall well short of a parliamentary majority, forcing him to rely on support from leaders of regional parties, several of whom are as narcissistic and unyielding as he is. His thumping victory has answered that question: he is well entrenched in power for five years. His centralising habit will bear watching.
James Manor is Professor of Commonwealth Studies at the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, School of Advanced Study, University of London.
*Some sources in this blog have remained anonymous for reasons of personal safety.
Other posts in this blog on India's 2014 elections: