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Modi Sarkar – Old repressions, new tyrannies



Sometimes after a day’s work is over, when the TV is switched off and newspapers lie forgotten, one sits quietly and rethinks, reviewing the day in the mind’s eye. This ritual is a very powerful form of editorialising. One is no longer a spectator because one is now evaluating and judging news, exploring deeper connections and long-range consequences. The immediacy of first impressions gives way to the greyness of connectivities, and knee-jerk optimism to anxiety of an unarticulated kind.

I feel this particularly when I watch Narendra Modi as a person and as a phenomenon. There is a celebration around the man, an expectation, a sense of anticipation of the future. Every word he re-coins or popularises, from development to governance, sounds aspirational. One is hopeful about his programmes on punctuality, cleanliness, of reforming that colonial attic we call Indian law. Yet, viewed as backstage, as a narrative, as an emerging discourse, Mr. Modi appears to unleash a backlog of fears and repressions which, when combined with the violence of the new, frightens me.

Secularism and the majority

Fear is not always specific but it does not become less real because of that. Ten years ago, one was concerned about his now whitewashed role in the Gujarat riots; today, one worries about a deeper scenario of violence. I have six connected reasons of why I fear Mr. Modi. This essay is about what the philosopher Hans Jonas would call a heuristics of fear about Mr. Modi. Heuristics, as Jonas pointed out, can point us to the unsayable, even the as yet unimaginable.

One has to admit that one’s earlier sureties about democracy might be wrong. Democracy still works for me but I sense electoral democracy can turn pathological. Majoritarian definitions of the world can articulate old repressions, once illegitimate, into new tyrannies. Mr. Modi has acquired an electoral majority but this new majority seeks a redress of old scores. This majority feels that years of appeasement have spoilt minorities and it now wants a redress on its terms. For decades, the silent majority had to suppress its sense of religion, folklore to adjust to a secular modernist space. Today, it treats those categories with contempt. Mr. Modi, the majority feels, has liberated India from the hypocrisy of secularism. At these moments, the majority voices the need to reassert itself, creating a more defined intolerance for minorities.

This situation has explosive possibilities. Michael Mann, in a classic study of Africa, has shown that instabilities of electoral democracy have led to genocide, where one side decides that electoralism is fragile and opts for exterminism. One tries to eliminate rather than subdue the opponent. The opponent from rival becomes the enemy to be eliminated.

No plural space

To the logic of electoral democracy, one has to add the whole baggage of Hindu-Muslim relationships. Today, many a Muslim does not feel to be a part of India; he feels electoral majorities are detrimental to him. This creates a quality of suspicion and paranoia where neither side recognises the possibility of fairness in the other. Take the Kashmir flood. The Indian Army did remarkable work and yet separatists treated it as an army of occupation. The Kashmiri Pandits, who for years suffered in silence, now lash out at the Indian liberals for sidelining them. Suddenly there is no open, plural space to look at suffering or injustice. India is being haunted by pre-emptive scripts. In the wake of the defeat of the Congress, India has suddenly woken up to a huge number of suppressed histories. One has to ask whether what the army did to the Kashmiris or to Manipur was right for a civilised society. Did we carry out mini-Vietnams in the name of security and the nation state? This rise of the new regime confronts us with two sets of problems. First, the minorities feel deeply suspicious of the electoral logic of victory. Second, marginal groups which had little role in Delhi are asking what their future is in the new Modi mainstream. What does development offer these various groups? Neither margin nor minority is part of the mainstream group and development on its own may have little to make them aspirational. Aspiration needs faith in the frame, politically and economically, and we have little to offer to these groups.

Acts of depoliticisation

The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) through its acts of appropriation and rewriting history is turning history into a fragile object. Every emerging party has a right to challenge history to redress old wrongs but rewriting can become sinister. One sees it in the sanitisation of Mahatma Gandhi.

Gandhi was a great dissenter, a subversive mind, who challenged modernity to dream the dream of alternative societies. The BJP and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), both of which are modernising, nationalist groups, never felt at home with him. Now in power, the BJP is seeking to make Gandhi more digestible. The BJP’s modernisation schemes, especially its emphasis on security, would be antithetical to Gandhi. They therefore seek to domesticate him by reducing him to a fragment, to little discourses about drainage, sanitation and cleanliness. Gandhi is reduced to textbook civics and social work, to a civics without ethics or politics. It is one of the most profound acts of depoliticisation. Gandhi, as the little dream of the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) temporarily showed, can outshadow the BJP. In domesticating Gandhi into its framework of governance, the BJP is settling scores with its great opponent, by reducing him to a little social worker. At a deeper level, it does not see that jihad is incompatible with satyagraha.

One can understand this better when one watches the BJP’s semiotics of security and the strongman. In seeking to create an inflationary idea of Sardar Patel, a statue bigger than the Statue of Liberty is being installed. It is prussianising the Indian state, creating a machismo around governance and security which was antithetical to Gandhi. Gandhi was a strong leader but whose content of leadership came from an ethics of conviction. He did not need the paraphernalia of the state to create a strong leadership. The BJP’s depoliticising of leadership and its gargantuan-ising of Sardar Patel has to be seen as part of the false myths it is creating. The strength of Sardar lay in curbing his ego and working with Nehru. The BJP does not have the strength to show such leadership. Gandhi and the giant of Bardoli are empty hoardings to the BJP. Let me emphasise that it is the depoliticisation of history, the dwarfing of Gandhi into boy scout virtues, that makes the BJP both appear virtuous while it eats into the power of alternative imaginations which can threaten its legitimacy.

Need for dominance

The BJP talks of governance as if it is a new magic of management and yet its sense of governance clashes with its sense of democracy. Democracy is a network of citizenship, entitlements and institutions and while the BJP talks about laws, it does not seem clear about 1) federalism and 2) about the plurality of party systems in a democracy. Its need for dominance is becoming a need for one-party dominance, an RSS dream of one party dominating the next decades like the Congress once did. This can be dangerous to democracy as it stands, when Opposition parties are weak or internally divisive. The party system needs to survive with alternatives. This, the BJP impetus to dominance is seeking to stem. The BJP, unlike the Congress, has never been a collection of coalitions. Therefore, the trend to uniformity is potent. We face two dangers. Our institutions, federal or party-wise, have few brakes to offer. Dissent has simultaneously become sedition, minimising any sense of opposition. This trend to a uniformitarian India needs to be desperately resisted.

While most parties are in disarray, the media seem to have lined up quietly behind Mr. Modi. This reflects the faith of corporate groups which are household names, in his pro-liberal reforms. It also reflects the growing control of a few corporations of the media. As a result, when Mr. Modi and Arvind Subramanian announce their labour reforms, the corporations wax enthusiastic but almost no one reports the silence of the trade unions. The silence of the media that is so often talked about is of two types. There is first the distance of the regime from journalists who cannot thrive without the previous regime’s climate of gossip and speculation about power and policy. There is also both an absence of debate and dissent in the media. Its corporate bosses prefer the new “climate of consensus” but one has to ask if this is real. How long will it take for silences to rip open and reveal power of dissent? Between the RSS, the corporations, the new Hindu Right, a cultural flattening is happening. Initially it looked like an upsurge but now one senses the flattening of cultural idiosyncrasy and the growing intolerance to any difference or dissent.

Finally, one has to look at the India beyond and realise that the diaspora, like the Hindu majority, had been repressed. It felt that the image of India was as weak, dirty, third world, as a sibling which did not display the diaspora’s sense of culture and hard work. Now with Mr. Modi, the diaspora is flexing its muscles in India and abroad. The event at Madison Square Garden was a signal that the diaspora is ready to back Mr. Modi and play his dictatorial double. A certain idea of India has become dominant, and in many ways it is pretentious in its inclusiveness. Yet, as one draws a scenario of such forces — a nationalist diaspora, a weak party system, a silent media, a majoritarian democracy, a vulnerable minority — one realises that democracy faces threats from within. The question is whether India has the imagination to sense the ironies and paradoxes it is currently creating and combating them in the future.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

Mr. Modi, the majority feels, has liberated India from the hypocrisy of secularism.

Majoritarian definitions of the world can articulate old repressions, once illegitimate, into new tyrannies. Narendra Modi has acquired an electoral majority but this new majority seeks

a redress of old scores


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  1. Democracy needs rule of law if it is not to degenerate into majoritarian authoritarianism.

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