Watching Modi, the Maestro, at Work

On the campaign trail in India, the election front-runner takes the high road, while his Hindu nationalist followers support him from below.

SHAHJAHANPUR, India — The distance from New Delhi to Shahjahanpur, a town in northern Uttar Pradesh, is slightly less than 200 miles; a four-lane highway runs most of the way. Yet I can tell you from painful experience that the trip takes six or seven hours. Because India's highways, with a very few exceptions, also serve as local roads, the taxi I took earlier this week had to jostle for space with three-wheelers, horse- and bullock-carts, bicycles and motorcycles, and groaning trucks listing way over to one side with mighty loads. For tourists, this is the cacophonous, all-at-onceness that is India's magic. For Indians, the choked highways constitute a colossal loss of productivity and a humiliating failure of infrastructure investment.

I was heading to Shahjahanpur to hear Narendra Modi speak. Modi is the charismatic prime ministerial candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which seems likely to win a plurality of votes in elections now being held, and thus to replace the Congress party in Delhi. Modi is many things, but the thing that may well make him India's next prime minister is that he is credited with stoking economic growth in Gujarat, the Western state of which he is chief minister. If anyone can get the bullock carts out of the way of the taxis, and release exasperated citizens from the tangle of bureaucracy and corruption, it is him.

Fortunately for me, Modi runs as late as most Indian politicians. I arrived in Shahjahanpur more than two hours after the rally was set to begin, and Modi had only just begun speaking. A vast crowd, which a party official later pegged for me at 150,000-200,000 (it seemed smaller), had gathered in a dusty plaza. It was blazingly hot. The candidate was all but invisible on a distant stage framed in saffron, with saffron-colored flags whipping in the hot breeze. Modi's voice -- hectoring, mocking, sly -- boomed from a great row of loudspeakers.

Shahjahanpur is a "reserved constituency" -- set aside, under India's elaborate affirmative action laws, for Dalits, the caste bottom-dwellers once known as "untouchables." Modi himself comes from a "backward" caste, several rungs above the Dalits but many more below the Brahmins who have long ruled India, including the Nehru-Gandhi family which has dominated the Congress party for generations. Modi used to sell tea at a railway station, and he never stops needling the Gandhis about their lofty status. The day of the rally happened to be the birthday of B.R. Ambedkar, a great Dalit leader of India's founding generation, and Modi informed the crowd, somewhat illogically, that it was only owing to Ambedkar that "a kid who used to sell tea is standing in front of you." And yet Jawaharlal Nehru, he claimed (also on dubious evidence) "never liked Ambedkar."

Modi is a maestro of class resentment. Congress bigwigs, he insists, feel "ashamed" of having to compete against a mere "worker." With a gift for homespun political rhetoric one can only admire, he has described Rahul Gandhi, the somewhat reluctant family scion and his challenger, as "a fish in the aquarium," while he, Modi, is "a fish in the sea." Modi is an adroit fisherman in the sea of caste and community. The BJP has traditionally drawn both leaders and voters from the upper castes; Modi is making a strong pitch for Dalits and other backward castes.

That is traditional Indian politics. But Modi is also doing something quite unusual. He has sought to turn the parliamentary contest into an individual race between himself and Rahul Gandhi, even though -- or perhaps because -- the latter has refused to promise that he would serve as prime minister if Congress formed the government. Modi is running, in effect, a one-sided presidential contest. He is running on his "story," as an American presidential candidate would do. "Friends," he said in one speech, "I am not pessimistic and the reason is that I have seen my mother doing the domestic cleaning, dish washing in the neighborhood households; she brought up and cultured her kids without losing hope."

Modi appeals to India's new class of strivers, its "aspirational" youth who do not accept that their destiny must be confined by the accident of birth. His deepest narrative is the narrative of "development" -- the story of a poor nation joining the world of the rich. If the chief subject of his speech in Shahjahanpur was the indignities visited upon Ambedkar by the Nehru-Gandhi clan, the secondary subject was potatoes. In Uttar Pradesh, he said, "farmers are afraid of cultivating potatoes" because the price has dropped so low. In Gujarat (his home state), "farmers used to face the same problems you are facing." But after the Modi government instituted "scientific methods of farming" there, he told the crowd, agriculturists soon found they received high prices for their potatoes. One Guajarati farmer, claimed Modi, set a world record for potato productivity. And yet the UP chief minister, Akhilesh Singh Yadav, "says that he won't let Uttar Pradesh become like Gujarat!" he said as the crowd roared and hissed.

What makes Modi so powerful a candidate is this convergence between personal narrative and policy achievement. He has raised himself; he has raised Gujarat. His critics claim that his record as chief minister over the last dozen years is largely an illusion, that Gujarat has catered to corporate interests while doing little for the poor. Yet the state is widely considered one of India's best-governed, and is among a group which has separated itself from the sorry state of much of the country, including Uttar Pradesh. In any case, voters believe it. The knot of men who gathered around me after the speech were convinced that Modi would raise the price of farm products while lowering inflation -- admittedly a tough combination to pull off.

Modi presents himself as the incarnation of ordinary Indians' ambitions and frustrations. But what about their anger? Modi was, of course, the chief minister when Gujarat experienced Hindu-Muslim riots that left at least 1,200 dead in 2002, and he is widely blamed for failing to intercede. He was raised in the Hindu-nationalist and paramilitary culture of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, or RSS, and is regarded with profound loathing both by India's secular elite and by Muslims who fear he views them as second-class citizens. In the hustings, Modi himself makes only the most subtle gestures toward what is known as Hindutva, a sort of Hindu nationalism, complaining of rampant "cow slaughter" or adverting to dark Pakistani forces. But the BJP's manifesto calls for the building of a Hindu temple on a site where 20 years ago RSS cadres tore down a mosque brick by brick, sparking sectarian violence. Modi appears to be taking the high road while leaving the low one to lesser figures.

After the speech ended, and Modi lifted off in his helicopter, I forded the vast stream of humanity, snaked through the insane traffic bucking and honking outside the maidan, and drove to the local BJP headquarters in the dusty warren of downtown Shahjahanpur. There, I talked with a group of local officials and party volunteers. Ashis Singh, who was working for Krishna Raj, the local candidate for parliament, said that Modi's message had been "development." Hindutva, he said, was not part of the campaign. When I asked about notoriously inflammatory comments which had gotten the party's campaign chief in Uttar Pradesh banned from the state, Singh said he had been too busy working for Raj to pay attention to such things.

Then Yashpal Singh, a schoolteacher and local volunteer, pushed forward and said, "The problem with the Congress is corruption and fake secularism." Congress leaders, he said, were catering to the Muslim vote in the name of warding off BJP communalism. When I asked what he meant by that, Ashis Singh interceded: "He means that Congress is exploiting Muslims as a vote bank."

Actually, that wasn't quite what Yashpal Singh meant. "How many Muslims fled from Gujarat after 2002?" he asked. The answer was none. "And yet more than five lakh -- 500,000 -- Hindus fled from Kashmir because of mistreatment by Muslims." All the terrorist incidents in the country had been caused by Muslims, he told me. And yet India was 85 percent Hindu. The schoolteacher was just getting warmed up when some of the other men pulled him back in his chair.

It is the view of many Indians -- and the oft-repeated theme of Congress speeches and ads -- that Narendra Modi is playing the role of BJP superego while the party's RSS id boils away underneath, peeking through only at inopportune moments. If Modi becomes prime minister, they say, the mask will fall away, revealing the autocratic Hindu nationalist beneath. Maybe that's hyperbolic, but it's hardly absurd. In any case, Modi has played his role so deftly that India, and the world, are probably going to have a chance to find out the truth before long.    


Democracy Lab

Algeria's New Era

Algeria's long-ruling president is cruising to victory in the polls. But the outside world shouldn't be fooled: The authorities are losing control.

On April 17, 2014, Algerians will head to the polls to vote for their president. Regardless of the actual desires of the electorate, the Algerian military regime that stands behind the 77-year-old incumbent, Abdelaziz Bouteflika, is pushing him towards a fourth term. Counting on his physical inability to rule on his own, they are hoping to keep control over his succession and any subsequent regime change.

The election outcome will not, however, disguise the fact that this ruling configuration is already deep in a transitional crisis. Since the military seized power in a coup in 1992, it has been unable to create legitimate power-sharing mechanisms. Until now, it has mainly relied on tools aimed at maintaining the status quo. The army and the intelligence services have granted wide-ranging powers to the presidency but have in fact continued to govern by proxy. They have granted amnesties to insurgent Islamists with the intent of avoiding a broader reckoning with the traumas of the past. And they have continued to use the redistribution of natural resource rents to corrupt society.

While this strategy probably helped the regime to survive, it now stands in the way of a much-needed renewal. The leadership's focus on retaining power has produced countless problems. Growing street protests and rising inner-regime conflicts are compelling Algeria's rulers to redistribute power yet again in order to stay in place. The sense of crisis is compounded by an imminent generational shift. Bouteflika is too sick to finish his potential fourth mandate. Gaid Salah, the army chief-of-staff, and Tewfik Mediene, the head of the intelligence services, the Département du Renseignement et de la Sécurité (DRS), are 78 and 74, respectively. Whether the transition to come is conducted under the guidance of the army or negotiated with demonstrators, the image of stability Algerian rulers have tried to convey to the international community for so many years can no longer be regarded as a given.

The first big problem that the regime must address is what will replace the all-powerful presidential office. In 1999, the army and the DRS top generals agreed to appoint Bouteflika to the presidency. Thanks to the exploitation of his civilian credentials, they built a governing system that prevented challenges to their questionable legitimacy after the coup d'état they had staged seven years earlier in the wake of a national election that had been won by Islamists. Acting in the name of "peace, reconciliation, and stability," Bouteflika marginalized the parliament, ruled by presidential decree, co-opted the opposition, and revised the constitution to eliminate term limits.

Current elections show that this monopolistic system of presidential governance has made the emergence of a successor impossible. Despite their DRS support, pro-government parties have proved unable to offer an alternative candidate.

The army could, perhaps, choose once again to fill the presidency with a figure who appears, like Bouteflika once did, to stand above the political fray. The leading candidate for such a scenario is Ali Benflis, a former prime minister who has now emerged as Bouteflika's current challenger. But Benflis won't find it easy to give the illusion of new, reformist governance. Bouteflika has multiplied the number of regime clienteles within the bureaucracy, post-civil war businesses, and state-orchestrated "civil society" groups, while simultaneously depriving them of any real political obligations. As a result, these groups focus on the capture of public funds, and show little inclination to make contributions to the renewal of the system.

Moreover, the president's three terms, not to mention the potential fourth, have tarnished the international reputation of Algeria's elections, which is crucial to maintaining the façade of democracy.

Another problem is the unresolved legacy of Algeria's civil war, which officially ended in 1999. Although the regime ultimately succeeded in crushing the Islamist insurgency, the failure to implement a full-fledged truth and reconciliation process has had negative effects on security management. In the early 2000s, the president enacted amnesty policies for former Islamist insurgents while failing to implement any broader transitional justice policies; to the contrary, he explicitly guaranteed the impunity of the security forces. He has also continued the 1990s strategy of the DRS aiming at suppressing any peaceful demonstrations in the name of stability and the fight against terrorism. This alliance between Bouteflika and the DRS is beginning, however, to show signs of strain. Over the past few years, distrust has deepened and competition grown within the security apparatus, leading to major breakdowns, such as a failed suicide attack on Bouteflika in 2007, the assassination of the police chief Ali Tounsi in 2010, the January 2013 terrorist attacks in the town of Tiguentourine, and the leaking of DRS documents on corruption cases involving Bouteflika's entourage.

These cases have escaped the regime's control and are now subject to international investigation. In an effort to regain the upper hand, the president's office recently announced that it had commenced restructuring of the DRS under the supervision of a "neutral and professionalized" army. It is hard to believe government claims, however, that allowing the army to mediate the conflict between Bouteflika and the DRS will solve the problems arising from the intervention of the security forces in the country's political life. Nor will this address the rising crime rate -- a direct consequence of the regime's voluntary weakening of judicial institutions. Smuggling is proliferating, as are kidnappings and deadly tribal clashes like in the southern city of Ghardaia. The security services seem powerless.

The regime's redistribution of rents from the sale of oil and natural gas has enabled it to enlarge its social base. This strategy has led, however, to ever-greater demands for redistribution than can now be met by the government. The lack of transparent rules for the allocation of resources has favored the emergence of corrupt importers and bureaucratic networks that are now competing with the government itself for public funds and the control of informal economies. The government's irrational policies on the awarding of jobs, houses, or subsidies without any attempts to control inflation or speculation are also undermining the regime's legitimacy (which has traditionally derived to a large extent from its status as the arbiter of rents). The government's position is likely to deteriorate further in the years to come, given that oil and gas revenues are set to decline.

The lack of an Arab Spring-style uprising against Bouteflika does not mean that contestation has disappeared. Disillusioned Algerians reject the binary opposition of revolution or pseudo-democracy. They are increasingly resorting to demonstrations, riots, sit-ins, protest marches, uprisings, strikes, hunger strikes, and even immolations; in so doing they are aiming less to overthrow the regime than to create leverage for negotiations. In such ways, they pressure the government to live up to its responsibility to provide public goods, such as local development, health, housing, employment, or safety. The thousands of protests taking place in Algeria each year should be understood as an effort to renegotiate citizenship from the margins and to enforce indirect accountability on unreliable representatives.

Among the most prominent figures of this contestation are non-legalized independent workers' unions. Their strikes can paralyze the country, also undermining the state's argument that it has benefited society by creating massive public sector employment at low wages. The unemployed, as well as a growing number of citizens' groups, have organized numerous demonstrations to draw attention to patterns of injustice as well as to criticize the government's claim that its control is based on the maintenance of stability and the fight against terrorism. The Barakat ("Enough!") Movement is now organizing public demonstrations against both a fourth Bouteflika mandate and the intelligence service's omnipresent role. (The photo above shows Barakat protesters rallying in downtown Algiers on March 27.)

Boycott campaigns (some even organized by Islamist and leftist parties formerly co-opted by the regime) and public demonstrations are intensifying. The opposition is limiting its criticism to Bouteflika, but the majority of the Algerians who plan to abstain from the coming election do not believe that an alternate president will be enough to satisfy their demands.

To calm down protesters and boycotters, the current post-Bouteflika scenario imagined by the regime may consider the option of a controlled transition period outside of electoral mechanisms. In the most likely scenario, Bouteflika could become incapacitated, withdrawing in favor of a challenger who will rule the country in his stead. This adjunct role could go to an army-backed candidate or to a supposedly apolitical new generation of army officers. Whichever group or leader assumes this function may also lead a new transition council that includes parties opposed to a fourth mandate. This approach will give the illusion that both Bouteflika and the head of the DRS (which has rooted in the press it controls the idea that it won't intervene in elections this time) have been marginalized and that the political and social conflicts inherited from the civil war have been resolved. Needless to say, that will not be the case unless there is a clear agreement on the delineation of military and civilian powers, an independent transitional justice process that addresses the numerous outrages experienced by Algerians over the years, and an end to populist economic governance.

The most urgent need now is to allow Algerians to reconnect with each other on the basis of a new transitional pact monitored by neutral and transparent institutions. The United States and the European Union justify their support to Bouteflika and the military by arguing that there is no organized alternative to the current system to ensure stability. They should understand that such an alternative will only be built through an institutionalized process of transparent negotiations and consultation. This needs to be done now, before the current consensus on the need for a nonviolent transition among protesters, opposition parties, and security forces collapses.