Modi is Trying!

Finding the Progressive Kernel in Reactionary Politics

“Modi is trying!” Could this not be the unofficial slogan of contemporary India? I’ve heard variations on this phrase come from the mouths of marginal farmers in Himachal Pradesh, taxi drivers in Delhi, and members of the globally mobile upper-middle-class elite. It’s a remarkable expression. It seems to negate all of the problems in Indian society. Yes, there is corruption, but “Modi is trying!” Yes, the economy is stagnating, but “Modi is trying!” Even when Modi’s ill-conceived plans fail spectacularly — as, most notably, in his botched attempt to demonetize the economy as a “surgical strike” on money laundering — this only bolsters his political capital: “Yes, he failed; at least he tried!”

At first glance, this is an utterly reactionary sentiment. It reflects the extent of the blind faith that has been invested in this populist leader, whose appeal to his devotees borders on religious. And yet, I’d suggest that at some level, there is a small kernel of progressive aspiration that “Modi is trying!” expresses.

As John Harriss, Craig Jeffrey, and I have argued in a recent book, India since 2000 has witnessed a progressive change in sentiment regarding the institutions of government — one which we term a ‘social revolution’ (Harriss et al., 2020: Chapter 10). If Indian citizens were once willing to accept corruption, incompetence, and nepotism as inevitable and perhaps even acceptable aspects of governance, this is no longer the case. Education has reached a critical mass, and ideas related to liberal citizenship norms have become widespread. The use of digital technologies has increased the communication of political ideas and empowered people to think of themselves as “rights bearing citizens” in ways unthinkable just a generation ago.

This argument raises an obvious objection: over the same time period in which this ‘social revolution’ is said to have taken place, India has seen a phenomenal rise in reactionary nationalism. This nationalism has been characterized by anti-democratic and anti-minority sentiment. How can this be squared with the rise in civic values we describe?

My first response to this is that society is complex, there are always multiple forces at play, and that’s even more apparent in these polarized times. Progressive forces exist alongside reactionary ones. That should not be surprising.

However, I would also suggest that, in the Indian case, the relationship between these two forces is not as diametrically opposed as one might expect. There are numerous reasons for believing that not only has social revolution occurred alongside the rise in Hindu nationalism, but that the two co-articulate in various ways.

To demonstrate this, one need only look at the conditions under which Modi came to power. In 2014, Modi’s landslide election victory came after three years of sustained social movements opposing corruption. These movements drew attention to the need for reforms to address both political and more “everyday” forms of corruption and to make Indian democracy more responsive to the voices of citizens. The movement was led by Anna Hazare, an activist often described as “Gandhian” but who has also been sympathetic to Hindu nationalist ideas (see Sharma, 2006). Perhaps second only to Hazare in leading the movement was Baba Ramdev, a guru-entrepreneur who is now an ardent supporter of Modi.

This movement against corruption prompted public disillusionment with the then ruling Indian National Congress party, which had been in power since 2004. Modi not only rode the wave of the anti-corruption movement, but, at least amongst some sections of society, has maintained his popularity partly due to his image as being incorruptible and somehow opposed to corruption.

Why Modi retains this image is somewhat confusing. It is not as though his government has sought to introduce any systematic legislation to address the issue of corruption in the country. His government consists of a record number of criminal politicians. It has also been among the least transparent governments in India’s postcolonial history, having reversed legislation introduced by previous administrations to ensure greater accountability in government (Ruparelia, 2015; Harriss et al., 2020: Chapter 7). And this trend towards evading accountability and transparency has only increased since the onset of the pandemic (Mukherji, 2020).

It is possible that Modi retains his anti-corruption image because he is so ideological — his motivations are seen to transcend the monetary. Another, more cynical view would be that his supporters all quietly endorse his brand of divisive parochial nationalism — their claims he is opposed to corruption are merely to give their support a veil of legitimacy. But there is also a more paradoxical current: in my experience, many people in India, particularly amongst the middle classes, believe that India can only be ruled by force and that an authoritarian leader is needed to “clean out” the corrupt layers of society. The aspiration for a corruption-free India lives paradoxically alongside aspirations for authoritarian rule.

“Modi is trying” expresses — amongst other things — an ardent desire to believe it is possible to prevail over corruption in government, in the public bureaucracy, and in other layers of society. When people assert that Modi is trying! what they typically imply is that he is trying to overcome the corrupt, incompetent, and otherwise stagnant forces of shaasan aur prashaasan (governance and administration). I’d suggest it’s for that reason that many supporters of Modi have no interest in the BJP, the political party that he represents, or the ideologies of Hindutva, the Hindu nationalist discourse to which he has been a lifelong devotee. They invest faith in the man, viewing him as their best hope for addressing a range of grievances broadly related to governmental mismanagement.

There are all kinds of reasons for believing that this view is mistaken — some of which I have mentioned above. Nonetheless, it does reflect a prevailing view that corruption and other forms of mismanagement within the existing political establishment is unacceptable and needs to change (a sentiment that populists across the world have tapped). The open question is whether this leads to the continued politicization of middle-level corruption, or whether it rather leads to a deferral of action in the blind faith that the Good King will prevail in his valiant struggle against his own corrupt functionaries. Time will tell, but I’d place my bets on the latter.

There are two conclusions I would draw from this. First, if we wish to see progressive alternatives to reactionary demagogues, we need to understand how the latter appeal not only to people’s basest instincts (which Modi undoubtedly does) but also how they appeal to relatively progressive sentiments. At the moment, it seems that for much of the population, Modi is doing a better job at this than progressives themselves. This could be said of far-right-wing leaders across the world, many of whom have effectively articulated legitimate concerns about globalisation, corruption, and inequality (though few have effectively addressed them while in office).

Second, I would say this phenomenon points to the limits of anti-corruption, “civic consciousness” movements that are not grounded in a firm commitment to social justice. Many of them are easily co-opted by the right, and blend seamlessly into endorsement of authoritarianism (a point which some commentators made at the inception of the Indians Against Corruption campaign, e.g. Sitapati, 2011).

Works Cited

Harriss, J., Jeffrey, C., & Brown, T. (2020). India: Continuity and Change in the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Mukherji, R. (2020). Covid vs democracy: India’s illiberal remedy. Journal of Democracy, 31(4), 91–105.

Ruparelia, S. (2015). ‘Minimum Government, Maximum Governance’: The Restructuring of Power in Modi’s India. South Asia: Journal of South Asian Studies, 38(4), 755–775.

Sharma, M. (2006). The making of moral authority: Anna Hazare and watershed management programme in Ralegan Siddhi. Economic and Political Weekly, 1981–1988.

Sitapati, V. (2011). What Anna Hazare’s Movement and India’s New Middle Classes Say about Each Other. Economic and Political Weekly, 46(30), 39–44.



Research Fellow in Geography at the Uni of Melbourne. I research agricultural skills and alternative food movements in the global South. Twitter: @trentpbrown

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Trent Brown

Research Fellow in Geography at the Uni of Melbourne. I research agricultural skills and alternative food movements in the global South. Twitter: @trentpbrown