In 2005, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the wealthy Indian state of Gujarat, local police murdered a criminal called Sheikh Sohrabuddin in cold blood. At an election rally in 2007 for the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, Modi assured his citizens that Sohrabuddin “got what he deserved”. What should be done, he asked, to a man found possessing illegal arms? The pumped-up crowd shouted back: “Mari nakho-mari nakho!” (Kill him, kill him!)
The lynch mob’s cry was repeated in a village near Delhi last month as zealots beat to death a Muslim farmer they suspected – wrongly – of keeping beef in his house. While Modi makes a triumphant visit to the UK after more than a year as India’s prime minister, the Hindu supremacists are, as the novelist Mukul Kesavan wrote last month, in “full hunting mode, head up and howling”. In recent weeks, activists and scholars have been shot dead amid a nationwide campaign against “Hindu-baiters” that targets secular intellectuals and “westernised” women as well as public figures with Muslim and Christian names, and western NGOs such as Greenpeace. The assassinations follow months of violence and intimidating rhetoric by Hindu supremacists. A range of public figures, from Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywood’s biggest star, to India’s respected central banker, Raghuram Rajan, have spoken out against the rising tide of sectarian hatred. More than 40 of India’s most distinguished writers have returned their awards to the Sahitya Academy, the national literature academy. Many others, including artists, scholars, filmmakers and scientists, have since joined the protests, which reached boiling point after Hindu fanatics lynched at least four people in connection with beef-eating.
Modi turned beef into an incendiary issue during his run for India’s highest political office; he and his party colleagues reinfused it with anti-minorities venom during recent local elections in the state of Bihar. The chief minister of one of India’s richest states declared last month that Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped eating beef. The house magazine of the RSS, the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists, cited ancient scriptures to justify the killing of “sinners” who slaughter cows. The culture minister Mahesh Sharma said of protesting authors: “If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see.” On Saturday, Modi hinted at his own views on the subject by posing for pictures with organisers of a Delhi demonstration against protesting writers, where slogans such as: “Hit the fraudulent literati with boots” and, “Presstitutes suck up to Europeans” had echoed.
On the day of Modi’s election last May, I wrote in the Guardian that India was entering its most sinister phase since independence. Those who had monitored Modi’s words and deeds, noted their consistency, and feared that Hindu supremacism could deliver a mortal blow to India’s already enfeebled democratic institutions and pluralist traditions had come to much the same conclusion. Modi is a stalwart member of the RSS, a paramilitary organisation explicitly modelled on European fascist parties, whose members have been found routinely guilty of violence against Indian minorities. A pogrom in Modi-ruled Gujarat in 2002 killed more than 1,000 Muslims and displaced tens of thousands. (It was what prompted the US and UK governments to impose a visa ban on Modi). Whether or not Modi was personally complicit in the murder and gang rapes, they had clearly been “planned in advance”, as Human Rights Watch said in the first of countless reports on the violence, “and organised with the extensive participation of the police and state government officials”. Among the few people convicted was Maya Kodnani, Modi’s ministerial colleague, and a fanatic called Babu Bajrangi, who crowed to a journalist that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant woman, and claimed that Modi sheltered him after the riots and even changed three judges in order for him to be released on bail (Modi has not responded to these allegations).
Though sentenced to dozens of years in prison, Kodnani and Bajrangi are frequently granted bail and allowed to roam free in Modi’s India. India’s foremost investigative body, the CBI, had accused Modi’s consigliere, Amit Shah, who is now president of the BJP, of ordering the execution of Sohrabuddin (among others), but withdrew its case against him last year, citing lack of evidence. Meanwhile, Teesta Setalvad, a human rights activist and one of Modi’s most persistent critics, is saved from arrest only by the interventions of the supreme court.
Modi conveyed early the audacity – and tawdriness – of power when in May 2014 he flew from Gujarat to the oath-taking ceremony on a private corporate jet emblazoned with the name of his closest corporate chum. In January this year he turned out in a $15,000 Savile Row suit with personalised pinstripes to hug Barack Obama. Launching Digital India (a programme to connect thousands of villages to the internet) in Silicon Valley last month, the eager new international player seemingly shoved Mark Zuckerburg aside to clear space for a photo-op for himself (the video has gone viral). One of his most fervent cheerleaders in India now complains that the prime minister is like a new bride remaking herself for her powerful and wealthy in-laws.
Consequently, many in his own neglected family are turning against him. On Sunday, his party’s vicious and lavishly funded campaign in elections in Bihar, one of India’s largest and poorest states, ended in humiliating defeat. But Modi’s glossy makeover seems to have seduced many in the west; Rupert Murdoch tweeted after a recent meeting that Modi is India’s “best leader with best policies since independence”. Sheryl Sandberg declared she was changing her Facebook profile in honour of Modi’s visit to Silicon Valley in September. His libertarian hosts did not seem to know or care that, just as Modi was arriving in California to promote Digital India, his factotums were shutting down the internet in Kashmir, or that earlier this year his government advocated a draconian law that the Indian police used repeatedly to arrest people posting opinions on Facebook and Twitter. Nor did the Bay area’s single-minded data-monetisers fuss about the fact that Modi had launched Digital India in India itself with a private party for his most fanatical troll-troopers – people who are, as the magazine Caravan put it, “a byword in online terror, hate and misogyny”. In a dog-eat-dog world primarily organised around lucrative deal-making, the only value seems to be economic growth – albeit, for a small minority.
Modi’s speeches about his country’s cruelly postponed and now imminent glory have packed stadiums around the world with ecstatic Indians. At Wembley this weekend, some more grownup men and women chanting “Modi, Modi!” will embarrass themselves in history. The seemingly unembarrassable Tory government discovered new muscles while kowtowing to Xi Jinping, and will no doubt find them useful for some Indian style-prostration, sashtanga pranam, before Modi.
Modi was always an odd choice to lead India into the 21st century. Meeting him early in his career, the distinguished social psychologist Ashis Nandy assessed Modi as a “classic, clinical case” of the “authoritarian personality”, with its “mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life” and “fantasies of violence”. Such a figure could describe refugee camps with tens of thousands of Muslim survivors of the 2002 pogrom as “child-breeding centres”. Asked repeatedly about his culpability in the killings, Modi insisted that his only mistake was bad media management. Pressed repeatedly over a decade about such extraordinary lack of remorse, he finally said that he regretted the killings as he would a “puppy being run over by a car”.
More importantly, Modi was a symptom, easily identified through his many European and Asian predecessors, of capitalism’s periodic and inevitable dysfunction: he was plainly the opportune manipulator of mass disaffection with uneven and unstable growth, who distracts a fearful and atomised citizenry with the demonisation of minorities, scapegoating of ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan and “rootless” people, and promises of “development”, while facilitating crony capitalism. To aspiring but thwarted young Indians Modi presented himself as a social revolutionary, the son of a humble tea-seller challenging entrenched dynasties, as well as an economic moderniser. He promised to overturn an old social and political order that they saw, correctly, as dominated by a venal and unresponsive ruling class. His self-packaging as a pious and virtuous man of the people seemed especially persuasive as corruption scandals tainted the media as well as politicians and businessmen in the years leading up to 2014.
Modi’s earliest supporters in his bid for supreme power, however, were India’s richest people, lured by special favours of cheap land and tax concessions. Ratan Tata, the steel and car-making tycoon, was one of the first big industrialists to embrace him in the wake of the anti-Muslim pogrom. Mukesh Ambani, another business magnate and owner of a 27-storey home in the city of slums, Mumbai, soon hailed his “grand vision”. His brother declared Modi “king among kings”. Even the Economist, reporting on Modi-mania among “private-equity types, blue-chip executives and the chiefs of India’s big conglomerates” was startled by the “creepy sycophancy”. It shouldn’t have been: in Modi’s India the Ambanis are fast heading towards a Berlusconi-style domination of both news and entertainment content and delivery mechanisms.
Media management has ceased to be a problem for Modi; the television channels and press owned by loyal supporters hectically build him up as India’s saviour. Modi also attracted academics, writers and journalists who had failed to flourish in the old regime – the embittered pedantocrats and wannabes who traditionally serve in the intellectual rearguard of illiberal movements. Predictably, these victims of ressentiment – who languished, as Nietzsche wrote, in “a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge” – are now taking over Indian institutions, and filling the airwaves with their “rabid mendaciousness and rage”.
Many non-resident Indians, denied full dignity in the white man’s world, also hitched their low self-esteem to Modi’s hot-air balloons about the coming Indian Century. The Modi Toadies, as they are widely referred to on social media, have turned out to be an intriguingly diverse lot: they range from small-town zealots campaigning against romantic love between Muslim and Hindus to a publicist called Swapan Dasgupta, a former Trotskyite and self-proclaimed “anglophile”. But it should not be forgotten that a variety of global elite networks went to work strenuously on Modi’s behalf: the slick public-relations firm APCO that works with Central Asian despots and suave technocrats as much as the rented armies of cyberthugs rampaging through social media and the comment sections of online articles.
A former special adviser to Tony Blair authored a hagiography for English-speaking readers. The Labour peer Meghnad Desai helped alchemise Modi’s record of assisting big corporations into an electorally potent myth of “efficiency” and “rapid development”. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya – two Ivy League Indian economists charged with “poverty-denialism” by the recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton – said in a letter to the Economist that the anti-Muslim pogrom in Modi’s Gujarat was actually a “riot”. As Modi appeared likely to become prime minister, the intellectual grunts at American thinktanks churned out op-eds hailing Modi as the man to accelerate India’s neoliberalisation, and reorient its foreign policy towards America and Israel. Many foreign correspondents and “India hands” lost their intellectual confidence and judgement before such diligently manufactured consensus.
Thus, Modi rose frictionlessly and swiftly from disgrace to respectability in a world where money, power and status are the measure of everything, and where human beings, as Balzac bitterly wrote, are reduced to being either fools or knaves. He may be very far from fulfilling his electoral promise of creating adequate jobs for the one million Indians who enter the workforce every month. He still deals mostly in fantasy, gushing about “smart cities” and “bullet trains”, and a digital India in which fibre-optic cables will bring remote villages online. But among global elites who see India as a fast-growing economy and counterweight to China, poverty-denialism shades easily into pogrom-denialism. A tweet by a New-York-based venture capitalist responding to protests by Indian writers sums up the prevailing morality: “The icons of new India are the wealth creators. Nobody gives a rat’s ass anymore about the writers.”
Modi’s ascent through a variety of enablers, whitewashers and wealth-creators invites us to probe our own complicity as fools and knaves in increasingly everyday forms of violence and dispossession. For Modi’s ruthless economism is a commonplace phenomenon, marked everywhere by greed, sophistry and a contempt for human life and dignity – symptoms, as GN Devy, one of India’s most bracing thinkers, put it last month, of a worldwide transition into a “post-human” existence.
In India itself, the prostration before Mammon, bellicose nationalism, boorish anti-intellectualism, and fear and hatred of the weak predates Modi. It did not seem so brazen previously because the now supplanted Indian elite disguised their hegemony with what Edmund Burke called “pleasing illusions”: in this case, reverential invocations of Gandhi and Nehru, and of the noble “idea of India”. Thus, the Congress party, which first summoned the malign ghosts of Hindu supremacism in the 1980s and presided over the massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs in 1984, could claim to represent secularism. And liberal intellectuals patronised by the regime could remain silent when Indian security forces in Kashmir filled up mass graves with dissenters to the idea of India, gang-raped with impunity, and stuck live wires into the penises of suspected militants. The rare protestor among Indian writers was scorned for straying from literature into political activism. TV anchors and columnists competed with each other in whipping up patriotic rage and hatred against various internal and external enemies of the idea of India. The “secular” nationalists of the ancient regime are now trying to disown their own legitimate children when they recoil fastidiously from the Hindu supremacists foaming at the mouth.
One can only hope that the barefaced viciousness of Hindu supremacists will jolt the old elites out of their shattered dogmas and pieties while politicising a cheated young generation. It is true that Modi and his Toadies embody without shame, ambivalence or euphemism the brutality of power; they don’t give a rat’s ass about pleasing illusions. Yet their assaults on the authorised idea of India are creating a fissure in the unfeeling monolith through which a humane politics and culture might flow. The alternative, as recent weeks show, is a post-human India, where lynch mobs roused by their great leader shout: “Kill him! Kill him!”