1. UP voters reward Modi; here is how to understand his magical political appeal

UP voters reward Modi; here is how to understand his magical political appeal

We are now deep in the era of political shocks. One electorate after another has expressed its anger with mainstream parties and technocratic elites by favoring political outsiders and know-nothing anti-incumbents.

By: | Published: March 14, 2017 12:26 PM
The widespread disorder predicted last November, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly withdrew 86 percent of the cash in circulation, has come to pass. (Reuters)

We are now deep in the era of political shocks. One electorate after another has expressed its anger with mainstream parties and technocratic elites by favoring political outsiders and know-nothing anti-incumbents. But what explains the appeal of demagogues once they start governing and reveal themselves to be exponents of chaos?

The widespread disorder predicted last November, when Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi abruptly withdrew 86 percent of the cash in circulation, has come to pass. This poorly conceived and ineptly executed demonetization damaged above all the toilers in India’s large informal economy.

Yet voters in Uttar Pradesh, one of India’s poorest states, rewarded Modi last week with an overwhelming victory in elections to the local legislature, making him the country’s most powerful politicians in decades.

For those who predicted that Modi had committed political suicide with demonetization, the results may look like another example of voters acting against their rational self-interest. Certainly, any impartial analysis of Modi’s performance in office since 2014 would have to conclude that he hasn’t delivered on most of his promises, especially the most electorally profitable of them — the creation of jobs for the one million Indians entering the workforce each month. Formal job growth under Modi is the weakest in seven years.

But those who seek to correlate voter choices with political and economic outcomes don’t quite grasp the emotional and psychological allure of a figure like Modi, a leader with a repertoire of masks and costumes. On the day of his election victory in 2014, I described Modi as “India’s canniest artist,” who knew that “resonant sentiments, images and symbols rather than rational argument or accurate history galvanize individuals.” In other words, Modi is someone who creates his own reality with powerful rhetoric and imagery, and then, using his mastery of digital communications, seduces many people into believing it.

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He’s offered his followers a fantastical vision of making India great again. Furthermore, for the angry and frustrated among them, he’s gratifyingly identified a range of enemies that stand in their way: unreliable minorities, liberal elites and other rootless cosmopolitans.

No invocation of hard facts, it seems, can dent Modi’s make-believe world. Indeed, one can be counterproductive. The Harvard-based economist Amartya Sen may be right to point to the multifaceted harm inflicted by demonetization. But Modi has primed many struggling and aspiring Indians to distrust such cosmopolitan bearers of bad news, and to repose their faith in him, the authentic man of the soil. He clarified this us-versus-them opposition in a campaign speech in Uttar Pradesh: “On the one hand, there are those who talk of what people at Harvard say and on the other is a poor man’s son, who, through his hard work is trying to improve the economy.”

Contrasting his “hard work” to Harvard critiques, Modi has successfully persuaded many of those who feel left or pushed behind by uneven economic growth that he shares their resentment of the economically and culturally privileged. He shrewdly presented demonetization as a revolutionary cull of India’s rich, dynastic, venal and unaccountable elites. The poor, who stood in queues before banks and ATMs for hours, seemed to bear their suffering with equanimity since, in their view, the rich were suffering a lot more.

Like many political Svengalis, Modi has understood that, as Tocqueville pointed out, people in a democracy “have an ardent, insatiable, eternal, invincible passion” for equality, and that “they will tolerate poverty, enslavement, barbarism, but they will not tolerate aristocracy.” Having grasped the political potency of ressentiment, Modi can continue to repeat his unfulfilled and unfulfillable promises by presenting himself as a relentless scourge of elites and sentinel of the upwardly mobile.

Donald Trump’s white, working-class voters don’t seem to mind his cabinet of plutocrats. Likewise, Modi’s poor supporters don’t seem to have noticed that their loudest champion came to power with the help of the richest people in India, and remains closely allied to them.

In fact, dwelling on such apparent inconsistencies makes us badly prepared for the political upheavals of our time. We must grasp that mass politics is often irrational rather than a negotiation between rational interests. Far from being a logical affair, it is “magic,” as the Austrian writer Hugo von Hofmannsthal, who lived through the first great onslaught of demagogues in modern history, wrote. Certainly, Modi’s victory against all odds confirms von Hofmannsthal’s prediction that “he who can summon the forces from the deep, him will they follow.”

  1. M
    Morphine
    Mar 14, 2017 at 8:34 am
    Lol - It is amusing to see what the expert writers of this article @Bloomberg wanted to convey - there is no understanding once can make out from this article.Looks like when Financial guys start writing about political implications - this what & how it looks..
    Reply
    1. M
      Morphine
      Mar 14, 2017 at 7:53 am
      May be Experts from Bloomberg Finance can clarify my long pending doubt about the "Argumentative Indian 'Sen' " - "is he really an Expert in Economics or just a mere Social welfare liberal" that too from animpractical Utopian world.
      Reply
      1. J
        Jack Daniel
        Mar 14, 2017 at 7:27 am
        The who wrote this article either knows nothing about India or still wants to live in their own corrupt make believe world. This dolt thinks he is smarter than millions of electorate who voted for Modi. The same elitist (BS) mindset which makes them close their eyes to what is very obvious and yet they try to write as if they know everything. If the poor in India dealt only in Rs. 500 and 1000 notes as projected by these morons, they would not have been poor! People of India are not fools to follow some hollow vision. Parasites like this author may think that they can still change the narrative with such blatantly ic articles, but people have moved on, no one trusts these corrupt pressutes who think they know all anymore. Read the writing on the wall. I would rate this BS article -10. Full of non sense.
        Reply
        1. V
          Valar
          Mar 14, 2017 at 4:25 pm
          Why is the writer of this profound article un-named ?
          Reply
          1. V
            Valar
            Mar 14, 2017 at 7:41 am
            This is an utterly ridiculous article, entirely devoid of any substantive foundation and intent on making nonsensical generalizations about "worldwide irrational trends" etc.First, the comparison with Trump is nonsense : Trump LOST the por vote, Modi & BJP WON it by a huge margin. Moreover, the previous govt of UP had completely failed to deliver on development (outside of pockets of the state capital, Lucknow) and law & order (what with a state cabinet minister a fugitive from justice). These are standard reasons for inbents losing elections.Finally, Modi's subsidy plans for the poor have actually GREATLY BENEFITED them : the cooking gas subsidy plan, the poor insurance plan, the Mudra Bank seed loans plan, improvements in electricity supply. It's natural that many of the poor actually prefer Modi.The author is also clueless about the empowerment of Backward and Scheduled Cles by giving them tickets in the UP election.
            Reply
            1. S
              sandeep
              Mar 14, 2017 at 7:23 am
              The w article runs without facts.The debate about demonetization is still on and you start the article indicating that its a failure shows your biased nature.It is the same ignorance which you people shows make you unequipped to understand what Modi is all about.
              Reply
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