Posted by: John Elliott | December 21, 2012

Narendra Modi challenges the Gandhis’ Idea of India

Anti-rape protestors reach the gates of the president’s palace

It is beginning to look as if the next general election could turn into a battle over the “idea of India” between the Hindu-nationalist, efficient, and growth-oriented approach of Narendra Modi, who was re-elected yesterday as the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) chief minister of Gujarat, and the more all-embracing secular and populist but less efficient and often corrupt model offered by the Congress Party and its dynastic leader-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.



“Rahul….represents the idea of India,” Salman Khurshid, India’s external affairs minister, said yesterday, commenting on television about Modi’s re-election with a phrase first used by Rabindranath Tagore.

The inference was that Modi (left) does not represent that idea because of his aggressive nationalist image and because he seems to be more concerned with courting business investment than caring for the poor and minorities, whereas Rahul Gandhi and his mother Sonia, the Congress president,  instinctively lean towards the softer inclusive option of aid handouts rather than challenging economic reforms.

Modi has a long way to go to become the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, and he has yet to show that he has any significant following outside Gujarat, where he has ruled since 2002; but the image of efficient administration that he offers could prove attractive at a time when there is growing impatience with the inadequacies of India’s government and administration.

That impatience has been shown this week with five days of countrywide demonstrations demanding action against rapists, following the gang rape of a 23-year old woman by five men in a bus while it was being driven round Delhi last Sunday night. The woman and a friend were dumped at a roadside near the airport and she is still critically ill in hospital.



Today those demonstrations reached the gates of the presidential palace (right and below) alongside the imposing buildings of the home, defence, finance and foreign ministers and the prime ministers office – all of which have to varying degrees symbolised the lack of leadership offered by the government of prime minister Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi.

There is a huge gap between the way that India’s government and its officials run the country’s affairs and what is needed – and people, especially large sections of the country’s 300m middle class, are tiring of it. This week’s anti-rape protests echo the mass anti-corruption demonstrations that have built up in the past two years, but which have still not led to significant government action in either legislative or administrative reforms.

Measures to improve policing and protection of women have been announced today, but the initial police reaction was that rapists should be executed (supported by some demonstrators) and that women should not go out after dark and should carry chilli powder to throw at attackers. That is typical of India’s response to many problems – grab attention with headline-catching ideas that divert attention from basic reforms – in this case the attitudes of habitually cruel but also grossly under-trained and under-supported police.



Political parties have condemned the rape and called for action to protect women, but a study released yesterday by the Association for Democratic Reforms (ADR) showed that since 2007, 20 men accused of rape have represented those parties in state elections since 2007 along with 260 more men charged with other crimes against women, including molestation.

The Gandhi family has tried to build a more constructive image in recent months by backing some economic reforms, including controversial foreign investment in supermarkets. The government has improved its presentation, with 80-year old Manmohan Singh visibly looking less glum and with positive policies emanating from the finance minister, Palaniappan Chidambaram and others. Reforms passed by parliament have this week included long-pending banking and company legislation.

In Gujarat, Modi won his third assembly election victory with 115 seats, less than the 117 in 2007 and 127 in 2002, but nevertheless a convincing win. Congress marginally improved its tally with 61 seats compared with 59 and 52 before. It also won a state assembly election in Himachal Pradesh (with a leader named in a recent coal industry corruption scandal), where Modi campaigned for the BJP with little apparent effect.

BJP national leaders now have to decide whether and how to restrict or accept Modi’s national ambitions. He indicated his aims yesterday in a victory speech, which he delivered in Hindi instead of the Gujarati he used in the campaign. He was, he said, serving “Mother India” as well as Gujarat, and he apologised for unstated past “mistakes”.



Other BJP leaders have prime ministerial ambitions, and they all know that accepting Modi as a national leader would make it difficult to attract partners in their National Democratic Alliance (NDA) for the general election campaign- Nitish Kumar, leader of the Janata Dal (United) and chief minister of Bihar, has warned he would pull out.

That might mean that the BJP would have to run its campaign with very few allies and then hope that it would attract partners if it won enough seats to have a chance of forming a government. With Modi’s unproven track record outside Gujarat however, that would be a big gamble, though one solution might be to twin Modi with another more acceptable leader.

It is now up to Modi to build himself a more national image based on meeting peoples’ growing aspirations with effective government and economic growth, and without recourse to the emotive issues of religious intolerance and fear of (Pakistan-originated) terrorism that he used in the earlier state elections.

What is surely certain is that India is in a mood for at least some of the more constructive Modi ideas. It is less clear that it wants more of the Gandhis’ with Rahul (above). In the end, probably neither Modi nor a Gandhi will win, but the two men epitomise at least partiallythe debate of what is the idea of India and what India needs.


  1. There are pages of comments to this post on the India Broadband Forum at – here are those at top of the pile – je

    Elliott’s definition of “gandhis idea of india” is all-embracing secular and populist but less efficient and often corrupt model offered by the Congress Party and its dynastic leader-in-waiting, Rahul Gandhi.
    I don’t think he was offering a compliment
    The only way anyone can actually defeat the indian national congress is by refusing to play the secular/non-secular game. The entire game is a delusion to distract the focus from actual issues. If anyone plays that game, they get stuck with INC forever(SP, BSP, mamata, nitish kumar etc). Parties who refuse to play that game are patnaik, jayalaitha, TRS etc. You’ll hardly see these guys giving an interview on IBN or NDTV because they know it’s a trap.
    • December 27th, 2012, 02:24 PM #5

    I never said the writer is offering a compliment. Rather, I am mocking the “Idea of India” defence that Congress keeps on harping.
    • December 27th, 2012, 02:24 PM #6

    The way whole spectrum allocation and sale is being handled by UPA,idea of india is blind brutal corruption with no fear of conscience and public.
    • December 27th, 2012, 02:29 PM #7

    People consider BJP even as an alternative? Sample this. There were a furore, protests across many parts of India regarding the rape of a 23- year old girl. What did BJP do?
    BJP is no good than Congress. The problem with Congress is that every day its going worse. In the last elections, Congress won just bcos of TINA (There Is No Alternative). This time too it doe snot seem to change.
    Regarding Congress being secular. Can you tell me what is secular? Babri Masjid Demolition, the riots that followed, anti-Sikh riots, all of them happened during the rule of congress. Can you tell me how did congress help people of minorities. Any valid proof of this. The progress of any community can be measured in the percentage of jobs they have in India.
    Congress’ idea was simple post-BJP period. Muslims are scared of BJP, scare them more and attract them from the regional parties if any. BJP in itself fight so much among themselves that they wont take advantage of any anti-congress issues.
    Long time ago, people who sacrifice their sleep, family, food, laughter and other joys of life were called Saints.
    December 27th, 2012, 03:02 PM #8

    I have a feeling that BJP would come to power in 2014.
    • December 27th, 2012, 03:21 PM #10

    “TINA” is IMO, just a lame excuse by the spineless. And thats the reason why law & order in our nation has gone to dogs. The powerful, are exerting more & more pressure on the powerless, in utter disregard of the fundamental rights of the common man. The Constitution, just remains in the pages of the bour nation has gone to dogs. The powerful, are exerting more & more pressure on the powerless, in utter disregard of the fundamental rights of the common man. The Constitution, just remains in the pages of the books.

  2. What ever people may say about Modi,he is an effective administrator who is not acceptable to the corrupt polity of India and fickle minded Indians who are in majority today.But yes They are restive but will never revolt. The congress is going to romp home in power with its trump card of direct credit of subsidy to the beneficiary and the all annihilating Legislation called Food Security Bill. So it is worth while for BJP to take the risk of trying Modi at the center stage of 2014

  3. If Salman Kurshid thinks Rahul is the idea of India then even God cannot help this country. A child of privilege and entitlement with nothing of substantive achievement in 40 years is considered the idea of India and a kind of role model!, No wonder India is down in the dumps because people like Salman Khurshid have lost the capacity to imagine!! At the age 40 the Mahatma, Jawaharlal, Subhas Bose, Sardar Patel had made ther mark with substantive achievements and were not mama’s boys!!

  4. I wonder whether Modi’s victory is more of a problem for the BJP than the Congress. As you correctly assess, his success outside Gujarat is untested and the publicity around his success-formula is largely a creation of the English-written/speaking media. And, surely, potential allies would be wary of his image and likely impact amongst minorities. So, how the BJP harvests his success is going to give them much soul-searching. There is a palpable anger in the growing middle-class about the failure of soft-liberal inaction by the current government, but this section tends to vote against the Congress rather than anything that they truly stand for. Kejriwal’s group don’t have the credibility to provide a unifying force. So the chances are that this section of votes will just get wasted, dissipated among political parties who have no national standing. Predicting what will happen in the next eighteen months is a gambler’s paradise. Step on to the stage John and speak up.

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