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Narendra Modi: The cultural revolutionary #Modi365

The portrait of a leader who has altered the idea of being Indian
(Illustration: ANIRBAN GHOSH)

(Illustration: ANIRBAN GHOSH)

Anniversaries are moments of reflection and evaluation; they demand rituals of memory and measures of assessment. They are crucial because they are markers of history, and sometimes even the history of a year can be a political revelation. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s regime is a year old this week. Yet, one feels he has been there for years. He has become part of the taken-for-granted, an old habit—so rapidly has the Congress faded from memory. The presence of the BJP seems obvious, and the Congress, which was part of the furniture of our lives, seems distant and a comic interlude at best; if Modi achieved something significant over the past year, it is this sleight hand of time. The BJP seems all there and ready to be there for a long time. Lutyens’ Delhi, which could shrug Modi off for years, now sees him as the new monarch and has adapted to him.

There is something about power that seduces citizens. Once an alien figure, Modi appears as a fact of life of Delhi. In achieving this change in mindset, Modi has created a new regime that already feels like an old habit. Today, when one mentions a Sonia Gandhi or Sheila Dixit, a Rahul Gandhi or Digvijay Singh, one senses they have already moved to page 3. Page one has been handed over to the new regime.

Modi has achieved a symbolic change in mentality in a single year, and yet oddly it is the symbolic war that the regime is losing. Deeply and fundamentally, one feels the regime is creating its own contradictions. It does not need a Congress, an AAP or a CPM to battle it because deep down, one year is enough time to understand the symbolic contradictions of the new rule of Modi.

Indians love leaders. Outside our gods and the lesser gods of cinema and sport, the only gods we want are political. The political is almost an alternative sacred space, and our leaders, icons. When one thinks of a Gandhi, a Nehru or an Indira, one thinks of mythic archetypes. Leaders were icons we worshipped. They were larger than life, and that is how we wanted them to be. We wanted them to be myth rather than history, part of parable and folklore rather than news and everydayness. Without this second circle of gods, belief and trust in politics was too difficult.

Yet, Modi was a strange leader. He did not sound like a natural growth, he felt like a manufacture. He was the first product of the new ‘Make in India’ movement. He felt like a clone. A leader is a bit unlike us, but Modi felt like all of us, middle-class in his aspirations, middle-class in his envy. Like the middle-class, he wanted the nation state to be a magical entity, to ooze charisma, to generate pride. He was tired of an India which was third world and third class. He talked of power of the Prime Minister’s post as if it was an IAS exam or a plum post in the bureaucracy. He was, like all of us, a candidate. And it was as a candidate, an aspirant oozing ambition, that we voted him to power. We wanted someone like us to be in power and so we voted him in. He became the singular version of a collective middle-class us.

Power, we realised, is a fancy dress ball, a literacy contest where we savour new words and recite them as if it is a drama. Modi dressed the part and we sensed the costume ball of power. He was easy to identify with, not as an icon, not as a distant hoarding, but as one of us. He used words like ‘security’ and ‘development’ the way we did, feeling that they had a magic we needed to extract. And that is why the West and the NRI loved him: he seemed to have internalised all their values and seemed a third-rate version of them. When he talks development, even the West cannot believe that the evangelicals of World Bank and IMF have created such a perfect mimic of the development logic. When he returns from Canada and Europe and says Nuclear Energy is the second modernity, the West realises that India is for the taking.

The NRIs are crucial in a mythical sense here. They create the idea of the split-level Indian. Like Modi, they are all Modis abroad—aspiring, hardworking, successful, easy to please, and willing to learn. Modi is an American in a bandhgala suit. They know that he is playing out the American dream in India. When Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya adopt him, one knows that America has completed its colonisation of India. He is the new wog uttering all the right sentences. Frankly, one can dismantle Ford and IMF in India today because he represents the World Bank in all of us. All he needs is a Harvard honorary degree or a mention in the Queen’s list, and one knows India is captive forever.


If anyone should be introspecting, it is not the Congress, but the RSS. Modi gave the RSS the one thing they wanted: power and the guarantee of power for a decade at least. Modi gave them the time and space to unfurl their cultural world. Their desperation for power was obvious. Vajpayee brought them close to it, but he was no Advani. He had a Nehruvian ease about him. He preferred his sensuality and refused to be a puritan in power. For him, power was a drawing- room game, not the takeover of a culture. Modi was the puritan that the RSS wanted. He loved power, was completely obsessed by it. He combined the best of the BJP as a vote gatherer and RSS as a culture builder.

It is these two parts of Modi, RSS and BJP, that creates the new internal tensions and complementarities of the regime. There seems to be a symbolic division of labour, an ideological split between the BJP and RSS. It is as if Modi has come apart and is being run dualistically. One can see it in Union ministries. Defence, Finance and Home seem to have a managerial kind of corporate hardness, and the trio of Modi, Jaitley and Shah seems to run them. However, Health, Education and Environment seem to be more open to a cultural reorganisation. Here one sees the RSS moving in. It can be read as a split, a dualism or a jugalbandi where two styles combine to create the content and form of a new India. At one level, this goes deeper and is farther reaching than any Nehruvian dream of Planning, Public Enterprise and Panchsheel. This jugalbandi between the RSS and the BJP lends the regime its innovative power. Neither civil society nor the opposition has any real answer to it.

At this level, the Modi regime is successful, and one year seems a long time in politics. But the long-run is yet to begin.

What we need to analyse is this: while India has been good to Modi, is Modi good for India as a civilisation, a nation-state, a community? What is the Indian Prime Minister’s idea of India and how does it affect the everydayness of being Indian?

In one year, Modi has altered the idea of being Indian. This new Indian middle-class is brash and global, it wants a seat at the UN Security Council, and is open about its love affair with Israel. It wants to identify with the strong and the successful. It talks mobility rather than justice, and is tired of slowness. It wants a democracy built on speed. It has no patience for complex memories. It does not want to side with the defeated, and it sees the marginalised and minorities as defeated.

This India is not a culture or an ecology, but a brand that has commoditised itself. This generation is clear that India has to sell and sell itself successfully for a regime to work. It is not ethics and ideology that drives it, but the market. This India will never fight for Palestine or against Apartheid. It will seek to subjugate Pakistan. What were ideals or ways of life are all conceived as instrumentalities. It is not open to pain and suffering, lest it be seen as weak. It is indifferent to farmer suicides, which it sees as an externality, but will respond to the Nepal Earthquake because it wants to feels its humanitarian competence. This mentality is the real success of Modi, because it has altered the grammar of our culture. This new India is tired of being third rate and third world. Whether it’s the IPL or UN, it wants to be top of the heap. As fans and as citizens, we want to win. This is the time of Moditva, which accompanies the majoritarian Hindutva. One without the other will not be successful. India has re-socialised itself and it is powerful as any cultural revolution. But more fragile.

What one has to examine is not the policy, the acts of governance of the regime, but the nature of its axiomatics. In creating what is a ‘Nehru muktBharat’, the BJP has gone beyond socialism but has acquired the trappings of a new convert nation-state. The RSS behaves as if it has just won a battle of independence.

We want to be a hard state and emphasise security. When ‘security’ is touted as national salvation, geography takes over from culture, and chauvinism trumps pluralism.Democracy, instead of being an experiment in political pluralism, becomes electoral majoritarianism. The search is now for speed, uniformity and order, all guaranteed through a technocratic idea of governance. We impoverish our ecology and civilisation because we do not want to be left behind.

Secondly, we have become an anxious society. Like the US, with its axes of evil, we too need our moral fault-lines, our little cartographies of democracy. As security becomes more internal, we unleash an array of moral policemen seeking to control minorities, gender, sexuality, and, in fact, any apparent act of dissidence from sensuality to ecology. Our sense of intolerance has increased, and worse, we see any act of difference as a law-and-order problem.

Finally, despite all the passion, the sense of middle-class liberation that Modi has unleashed, India actually appears more second rate than before. In the domain of ideas, it appears out- thought and out-fought. We appear like an atavistic anachronism in imitation of the West, while the West we construct has moved on to more creative ideas. Between nationalism, CSR and ‘Make in India’, we project ourselves as born- again evangelicals protesting antiquated ideas in science, governance and democracy. A little pat from the World Bank or some US Senator makes us wag like Pavlovian dogs.


It is the classificatory skills of the Modi regime as a mode of thought that one has to scrutinise. It is a government that has over- defined security at the cost of sustainability. It has confused ecology and environment. It cleans up the environment as an act of civics, but it has no grasp of ecology, of the relation between nature and livelihoods. It subsumes ecology under growth and fast-tracks industrial projects. It has its own sense of civil society through the RSS, VHP and its numerous front organisations, and it is hostile to other forms of civil society. As a majoritarian government, it sees minorities as spoilt and dissent as sedition. It has created a monotheistic god in the nation-state and insists on patriotism as the only religion of the state. Yet, as an imagination, it is populist, playing to all the resentments of history.

As we watch today, it is not clear that the phenomenon we call ‘Modi’ is an act of leadership or the fact that the leader merely represents the lowest common denominator of ideas. Modi now feels less like a signal for action than a symptom of deep societal trends that seem confused and pathological. The media whips up a frenzy around what he says, yet his acts look more and more empty. What was once seen as promise, a message of change, now seems surly and vacuous, a regime full of sound and fury, signifying little or nothing. Something about the ground celebration called ‘Modi’ tells us that as a society, we are running on empty, an emptiness of ideas, aesthetics, even ethics. Modi stands like a leader enacting the emperor’s new clothes. Sadly, in the sycophantic celebration of the first year, there is no dissenter, not even a child to tell him the truth about his regime.

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