Political scientists and public philosophers are yet to invent a name for it
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It is epic. An oedipal argument that demands the destruction of the old and the grand, so that the new edifice rises that much the higher. In the business of empire building, mere business or the politics of power, there is much bloodshed in the battlefield. And to the winner belong the spoils, the laurel crown on the brow, and the profile in marble and in gold.
No, the tallest statue in the world will not be his. It will remain as planned, that of Vallabh Bhai Patel, the Congressman from Gujarat. But everyone will see in the glum, brooding, motionless steel Patel, the lively reality of Narendrabhai Damodardas Modi. The man and his admirer are both important to the project, each impossible without the other.
To his critics, Modi may remain the man in the striped charcoal grey suit. Not suit and boots. No one wears boots in India, other than soldiers, and a few great grandsons of former rajas who still fancy themselves princes as if there never had been an Indira Gandhi who stripped them of their feudal titles. The stripes in his suit, as everyone knows, were letters of his name, woven into the expensive Rs 10 lakh fabric, in an unending chant to his glory.
He has often assumed the pose and posture, we have seen, and possibly sees himself at least in his dreams, as a true follower of his namesake Narendra Dutt, the modern-age warrior saint who rejuvenated Hinduism, and in his lifetime was called Swami Vivekananda. The students and government employees of the state of Madhya Pradesh will be reminded of this connect every day.
The government of the state has asked all educational institutions to display portraits of the prime minister and the saffron-clad monk in his now famous pose, on their walls. After the outcry of Modi replacing Mahatma Gandhi in the calendars and official publicity material of the Khadi and Village Industries Commission, the state was clinically politically correct in putting Mahatma Gandhi and Babasaheb BR Ambedkar also on the wall. There are no options. You defy that order at risk of your job.
The brand building has been assiduous, intuitively by the man, but also with assistance from the experts in mass psychology resident in the headquarters of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). They had spotted it early. Their recruitment was from unmarried men, bachelors and presumably celibates. This young man had been married, if only for a very brief period, and had then walked out on his young bride in cold-blooded pursuit of a future in the service of Mother India. Sterling material. The year 2002 would prove them right. And in turn, that commitment qualified him for higher office in 2014.
Modi has been, in a manner, in a warrior mode ever since. In suits, tunics, costumes of a dozen states and a score of nations, beating huge drums or sounding the conch in prayer, he remains the warrior, arms outstretched holding unseen weapons, his expensive watches, writing instruments and spectacles like so many pieces of body armour.
He chooses his targets well, sharply and placed well in the crosshairs of his eyepiece, much as Arjuna, the field commander, did. He too says he has been wronged, and his mother, the land, has been robbed, and he must avenge this insult. Above all, he says he is being targeted, and threatened with injury.
He seemingly is going by the book, following a script that Jawaharlal Nehru first wrote, and then Indira Gandhi. Nehru, the first prime minister, placed the assassinated Gandhi at the core of the new nation, born in a bloody partition, erasing the contribution of every other leader who had walked with the Mahatma. Most of them he had angered anyway, rejecting their chauvinism and their orthodoxy which they wanted perpetuated in new laws. They were therefore not even a memory in the mind of the generation raised in the first two decades of Independence.
Indira Gandhi was ruthless. She destroyed the old Congress, annihilating all those who had remained from Nehru’s purges. Going further than her father, she saw herself as the saviour of the combined heritage of Nehru and Gandhi, removing every vestige of the Raj and the hold that the industrial giants and moneybags had over political structures and the administration.
The ending the privy purses and egos, and political influence that went with the feudal principalities, she finally completed the task that Patel was apparently reluctant to do. He had got the princes to sign in as members of the new Union of India, but had allowed them their titles and allowances. They remained Their Highnesses in a republican democracy, anachronisms and agents of the status quo.
Indira Gandhi inevitably attracted sycophants, courtiers and satraps who paid her homage. Eventually this conflated her with India, the nation. When the notional Congress president, Dev Kant Barooah, said “Indira is India”, he no more than told her something she believed in, and was just waiting to hear. She did not plan the subsequent chain of events, but it was as if the time-chain had been designed by a higher power.
Civil disobedience of a different kind by a motley combination of old enemies and new internationally connected agitators inexorably led to a state of Emergency, and the suspension of the Constitution and the human rights and civil liberties that were enshrined in it. The police system was enslaved, and the Supreme Court, in self-preservation, evolved a suitable jurisprudence for the times.
The evolution of the concept of a “national conscience” is in keeping with that errant tradition. The Khalistan movement, the emergence of Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale, the army attack on him in the Golden temple complex, her assassination, and the massacre of the Sikhs in Delhi and other cities in 1984, are links of a macabre nightmare lived by so many.
Admired, loathed, hated and cursed, Indira Gandhi saw many moods of her people. She remains in their memory.
But even at the height of the Indira-is-India rhetoric and the hired crowds at her residence at Number I, Safdarjang Road in New Delhi, in the mid-summer heat of police surveillance, Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) and extra-constitutional centres of authority and their fawning officials, there was, in hindsight, a difference. The cadres, perhaps, were of the poor. Garibi Hatao, she had said, of her creed. The critics were the rich, the once powerful, those who had once exercised control.
Like her, Modi has razed every edifice, every little milestone that could remind of the past political legacy. In destroying the virtual statues of Nehru and Indira, he has also destroyed the memory of the years of Vishwanath Pratap Singh who implemented the Mandal Commission report and gave political power to the Other Backward Castes (OBCs) and communities to which Modi, a Ghanchi, himself belongs. And in true oedipal thrust, he has also erased the six years of Atal Behari Vajpayee.
The cadres now are the middle class, the power brokers, the bigots. The bigots grow the most, expectedly, nourished on a heady diet of supremacist cultural nationalism. Hate, targeted violence and state impunity intimidate, marginalise and alienate religious minorities as never before. It would seem there is a de facto state religion, that India is, in their minds, a theocracy. The super-rich, the crony capitalists, are entrenched, favoured and protected even in a globalised economy. Their wealth finds a short circuit to growth, feeding off the assets of what was the public sector.
This economy demands its own blood sacrifice. Trade unions are comatose, if not dead. The rights of the farmers and the tribals are no longer sacred. If anything, their sacred groves are being defiled, destroyed in reckless abandon. Their young men and women are incarcerated. Many executed, branded as extremists and foreign agents, enemies if the state.
To be a stable, profitable equation, this demands that the leader and his garrisons uphold each other, build each other as icons, larger than life. Indigenous industrial and economic progress, which led to the growth of the heavy industry sector, the big dams and the advances in space science and technology, and the birth of the Information Technology sector, is given a fresh coat of paint as Make in India.
To call it a cult will be to minimise its potential and its threat. Modi is not the Fuehrer, the Intelligence Bureau (IB) not the Gestapo and the cadres, some in khaki long pants and the others in striped suits like the one he himself has worn at least once, are not Fascists and Nazis in jackboots.
This is a more sophisticated and malevolent regime and emerging political system.
Political scientists and public philosophers are yet to invent a name for it.
(This article is also published in Indian Currents weekly).