He remains an active observer of Indian scene, though many would consider him now as more an Indian than an outsider. But he remains the quintessential foreign correspondent even after he has ceased to be one because he brings the insider’s insight along with the outsider’s objectivity.
In an exclusive interview with Parliamentarian on a late November evening at his tastefully furnished home in Nizamuddin West, near the centuries-old resting place of Delhi’s most famous and popular Sufi master, Nizamuddin Auliya, Tully talks about his views on Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the ideological texture and tenor of his government. He told Parliamentarian’ Senior Editor Parsa Venkateshwar Rao Jr that the Modi government’s Hindutva is more pronounced than that of the previous BJP-led NDA government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and his second-in-command LK Advani. He also makes the point that unlike right-wing parties like the Republicans in the United States and the Conservatives in the United Kingdom, Modi’s BJP is committed to the free market economy, but that Modi is aware that the poor are a big constituency in the country.
Excerpts from the interview:
How do you look at India under Prime Minister Narendra Modi? What is the kind of change that you see?
I don’t know what is really going on. We will have to wait and see in the election. I think the system has awakened the idea of a Hindu India which was dormant. As I said, Vajpayee and Advani did not think it was realistic. I also think there is clear evidence that caste will still play a role. The idea of one great block of Hindu vote has not been achieved and may never be achieved.
Do you think that Modi has maintained a tactical silence on Hindutva and harped on development?
Yes, he does from time to time, he does. His sidekick Shah (BJP President Amit Shah) does not hide it. Modi does not stop Shah. He is obviously conscious of the fact that identifying himself too much with it is risky.
To what extent does a right-wing Hindutva government find acceptance either in the West or West Asia? Are they disturbed by it or do they think that it is an internal affair and they don’t want to talk about it?
It is seen by many people as part of a pattern of right-wing leaders. I think Modi is seen as part of the pattern of right-wing leaders who are coming up everywhere, from Trump to Erdogan. Of course, that part is seen as undemocratic, too much power is concentrated in one person, appealing too much to inflammatory forms of nationalism. And I think to that extent Modi is viewed with concern by a lot of people.
Are you taken in by his exclusive emphasis on technology and technology-oriented solutions to the economic problems?
Obviously he thinks so. The election campaign was about ‘badlao (change)’ and ‘vikas (development)’. I think lots of people voted for him because he was seen as different from other prime ministers. To that extent they will judge him on that record.
What do you think of the Indian opposition and the liberal critics? Have they dented Modi’s image?
I think there are points at which the opposition can attack Modi and will attack Modi. I think for instance his economic record is not bright. The question of demonetisation. If you go down the list of promises, his promise of bringing back black money. Where is the black money? This whole Rafale deal, which could be very damaging to Modi. It is too early.
To what extent as a right-wing prime minister he believes in the market economy?
He does fundamentally believe in market economy, but I think he knows the poor are a huge constituency, or the less fortunate people are a huge constituency. It is widely said, and I believe that he was rattled by Rahul Gandhi’s comment of suit-and-boot government (given his sartorial exclusivity, explanation added). Globally, politicians are realising that one of the reasons for the emergence of right-wing governments is due to leaving the markets too free, too unregulated which has caused imbalance in economic growth. It is felt that there is need for greater control over the economy, greater regulation. Francis Fukutyama has said that we need wealth distribution. He certainly said that problems were created by free market economy and he mentioned the word socialism as well.
Do you think that Modi is being pragmatic in not emphasising Hindutva?
I would not put it like that. I think he wants to be recognised as an international leader and he knows it will hurt his image if he is identified with the extreme right. But he is aware there is a constituency of Hindutva and he wants to win that constituency, and he wants to broaden that constituency and he leaves it to others to do that.
Do you think there are middleclass Indians who were liberal in the earlier decades and who have moved to the right now?
I think there are some in the middleclass who feel ‘hamara mauka aa gaya (our time has come)’.
Do you think that this constituency is large enough to enable Modi win an election?
Who knows? I do not know. Elections are very difficult to forecast. I think certainly there is a national core and it is a Hindu national core.
Is the BJP committed to a market economy as the Republicans in the United States and Conservatives in Britain?
I think the BJP is not economically ideologically rightwing. In a strange way, much of the division is about personality and not about politics. In India, one man leads. Look at all the opposition parties. They are led by single leaders. The BJP, which was relatively democratic, has now become entirely a Modi party. We can see the election as Modi vs Stop Modi. I think Modi wants to play Modi vs Rahul Gandhi. Rahul Gandhi has wisely said that he will not be leading the opposition.
Is Modi like Indira Gandhi?
He is authoritarian He is a one-man band, he runs the government. He is authoritarian in the way police and income-tax are used. Modi is like Indira Gandhi . Power is centralised and he has placed his people in key positions. He may live to regret this centralisation.