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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 25, New Delhi, June 5, 2021

India of Nightmare | LK Sharma

Friday 4 June 2021

by L K Sharma

Darkness descends on what was being shown as “shining India”. A nation seems to have turned upon itself. Criminalisation of politics hollows out democracy. Social relationships are disrupted by polarisation driven by the communal virus. An elected leader has set out to transform society and polity, crush the idea of India, demolish venerable institutions and leave behind some state-imagined architectural objects as his legacy. The Leader has empowered groups that keep sectarian tensions simmering. Saying outrageous things makes one popular. Power grows out of a vicious tongue.

Carried to power by polarisation, Modi entered the office of the Prime Minister in New Delhi in 2014. Since then, intolerance, bigotry, hatred and constant strife have become the new normal. The Modi years will be known for the modification of Hinduism and diminution of the elite that had historically driven democracy. Modi began to redefine democracy and turn India into a majoritarian state. Time magazine called him “The Divider-in-Chief”. His devious polarisation project got mass support. Seduced by a Faustian bargain, we let him play around with India’s constitution and civil liberties. Did we get the leader we deserved? Sociologists, political scientists and historians will have abundant material to write on India’s transformation that any layman can observe today.

Political pornography has corrupted India’s soul. The Leader empowered us to express hatred freely. Social media gave us the anonymity to broadcast ugly thoughts without risk. Our naked brains grunt with spasms of communal prejudices, irrational thoughts and socially unacceptable desire to humiliate and harm the other. The Leader beckoned us and we went in to discover our depraved selves. He appeared like the iPhone, showing us what we want, awakening our mimetic desire which is discussed in the context of religion and violence. Modi’s devotees and paid workers got us hooked to slanderous, inflammatory and false online propaganda against his political opponents. That kept us occupied. Standardised thinking became common, uniformity fashionable. Humans declined in numbers. Got replaced by avatars signifying categories, affected by a zombie virus. Infantilization of India began with full force.

Corona hit India when it was already afflicted with the deadly communal virus. The magnitude of misery caused by the pandemic is attributed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s centralised governance and disregard for experts. Earlier in 2002 under his watch in Gujarat, 2000 people died in communal violence. Now Covid deaths have gone beyond 300,000

Prime Minister Modi kept making disastrous decisions that extracted heavy human costs but his Magic Man Cult lost no followers. Since the BJP leaders gave Modi the divine status, he was not held accountable. The rope-trick impressed foreign visitors once, today they would marvel at this political miracle. Come and watch a leader who lights a fire and emerges from the flames laughing!

India has been getting suffocated with poisonous gases pumped into the body politic by sectarian leaders and their blind followers. Moral decay does not matter to those who matter. Celebrations of India as emerging superpower and Vishwaguru would have gone on had a sharp economic decline and monumental mismanagement of the pandemic not nearly crippled India.

The second Covid wave hit the country and oxygen ran out. Funeral pyres on the footpaths, in gardens and fields drew the attention of the international media which had in 2014 welcomed the arrival of Modi in New Delhi, forgetting the communal killings in Gujarat during his chief-ministership. Afterall, world leaders have to deal whoever is the Prime Minister of India. Their newspapers said Modi meant business. The Covid mismanagement and growing majoritarianism changed their assessment. India became a charity-seeking Third World nation ruled by a whimsical and incompetent leader who is not accountable. They reported the disastrous results of the transformational moves made by Modi.

The story of these years in India is of one ordinary man who acquires extraordinary powers using his wits to win the hearts of Indians. He arrives on the national scene by yoking together two antithetical forces — capitalism and communalism. To many, he presents himself as a valiant son of Mother India. To the chosen few who matter, he approaches as a creature of the Corporate India.

The two faces fitted into his electoral strategy, promising majoritarianism and crony capitalism. The voters were convinced that he will strengthen their Hindu identity by showing the other community its place. India Inc. was convinced that his pro-business and anti-environment policies will raise their stocks sky-high. It opens its purse strings and underwrites his mega poll campaign. It creates the myth of the “Gujarat model” that white-washed Modi’s failures as the chief minister of the state riven by a communal massacre.

Serenaded by the Inc. band-baja, Modi enters the Prime Minister’s office in New Delhi. He gets going, changing his sartorial make-up, roaming the global stage, hugging the high and mighty to impress Indians back home. He demolishes opponents with mockery and sneering. He awakens the baser instincts of the masses and empowers fanatic groups. He centralises power, enfeebling his Cabinet and mentors in the BJP. The Prime Minister takes decisions that cause human suffering but he does not have to pay any political price. This boosts his self-confidence further.

Then come the deadliest Corona months (April-May 2021) flashing images of funeral pyres on the roadside and Covid patients lying outside the hospitals. The shortage of vaccines, medicines, hospital beds, ventilators and oxygen supply turns a medical emergency into a humanitarian disaster that makes people drop dead like flies. The crematoria crisis and grieving relations of the dead and the living complete the pathetic picture.

Two images in a collage are telling. The one of 2016 outside a bank shows a long line of people standing to exchange demonetised currency notes following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s shock announcement the previous night. The 2021 photo is of bodies lying in a queue outside a crematorium waiting for their turn. There are sharply contrasting visuals of Prime Minister Modi, away from his New Delhi office, campaigning in West Bengal, applauding crowds at his election rallies. He wears no face mask and the cheering crowds violate all Covid protocols. Dr Navjot Dahiya, the national vice president of the Indian Medical Association, calls Modi a “super spreader” of the coronavirus. Politics overwhelms Covid management. During the Covid season, Narendra Modi addressed 49 election rallies to help her party in the states. With the poll campaign nearing an end, the Prime Minister convenes a Covid-related meeting and starts outrage management.

Those tracking official bungling say many of the two lakh Corona deaths were avoidable. Terrible headlines fill international media. “India’s Covid crisis is mostly Modi’s fault”, says Asia Times. “Spectacle and Social Murder in Pandemic India”, says Boston Review. “How Modi led India Into a Covid Catastrophe”, says Haaretz Daily. “Narendra Modi and the perils of Covid hubris”, says The Financial Times. “Modi’s Pandemic Choice: Protect his image or protect India. He chose himself”, says The Washington Post. “Covid-19 exposed populist leaders like Modi and Trump”, says CNN. Truthout calls it a “Modi-made disaster”. “This is Hell. The Prime Minister Modi’s Failure to Lead is Deepening India’s Covid-19 Crisis”, says The Time. “As covid ravages India, true toll is undercounted”, says The New York Times. “The System has collapsed: India’s descent into Covid hell”, says The Guardian. Its editorial says, political hubris met pandemic reality. The Australian is sharper, “Modi leads India into viral apocalypse.”

In The Caravan , Vidya Krishnan says Modi’s career is a monument to treachery, to the power of majoritarianism and to the horrors forgiven to protect those championing majoritarianism. “Throughout his career, Modi has shown an insatiable appetite to jail and threaten his own citizens and let them die on his watch without accepting any responsibility”, she says. Earlier, Time had called Modi “The Divider-in-Chief”. Its cover story on Covid in India blames Modi for criminal abdication of responsibility. Rana Ayyub says, a “strongman regime” ignored all caution and India got caught unprepared for the second Covid wave. Mihir Swarup Sharma wants the Modi Government to act like a Government, not a WhatsApp Group.

Author Arundhati Roy sees little hope “because one man makes all the decisions, and that man is dangerous — and not very bright”. Modi is a man with no feelings, the man with empty eyes and a mirthless smile, who like tyrants, arouses passionate feeling in others. “His pathology is infectious”, she says. Writing in an Indian web journal, Roy asks him to resign. “Please go. You have forfeited the moral right to be our Prime Minister”.

Perhaps Roy wants the Nehruvian India back when one railway accident took place and the then railway minister took the responsibility for the mishap and resigned. Modi is made of a different mettle. Writing in The Indian Express, Prof Ashutosh Varshney wonders whether mass suffering, inflicted by policy design or emerging as a policy by-product, is an integral part of the Narendra Modi regime’s view of national power and national revival. Contemporary India makes Prof. Varshney recall Mao’s China. Mao was unmoved by the mass suffering caused by The Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution because for him, it was superseded by national glory. Something similar is playing out in India, he says.

This tragedy cannot be understood without observing Modi’s traits. One is an elephantine ego. Modi is building a massive new Government building complex including a palatial Prime Minister’s residence that will be served by an underground transit system to enhance the safety and security of the occupant. While all non-essential projects have been stopped as per the Covid protocol, this construction has been declared an “essential service”. British Daily Mail calls it a monstrous monument to Narendra Modi’s ego — a vast folly being built at a cost that could fund 40 major hospitals.

Modi’s publicists ignore an opposition leader saying that Modi has blood on his hands but they have a challenge when a foreign newspaper calls Modi “shameless demagogue” and “vainglorious man”. Modi has been described as a narcissistic cult leader. A big cricket stadium has been named after Narendra Modi which reminded his critics of Hitler. Having achieved all that he wanted in this life, Modi is trying to ensure that the posterity remembers him in way that he wants. The planned Prime Minister’s residence will be nicknamed “Modi Mahal”.

Governance suffers because of Modi’s disregard for expert opinion. He makes it clear that he knows all and he takes all decisions. He runs a kind of presidential form of government that has made his cabinet redundant. Most ministers have been assigned only one task which is to keep tweeting in praise of the Prime Minister in the midst of a humanitarian disaster. Modi is obsessed with political power and his brand image. He projects himself as a strong man who shocks the system at will. He excels in public performance. Marlon Brando said politicians are actors of the first order. Modi is the top star.

Modi’s personality traits shape his governance style. An insider’s view of Modi as an administrator is given by a noted civil servant who resigned as he could not cope with kind of transformation that the Prime Minister initiated. Jawhar Sircar witnessed “the collapse of the apparatus of governance, which invariably invites catastrophe of the type we are suffering now”. He writes in The New Indian Express: Modi’s micro-management caused a problem and officials hoped in vain that having reached the pinnacle, Modi would deactivate his suspicious nature and curb his urge to centralise powers and demand unquestioned obedience.
Sircar says, Modi revealed his ‘control-freak’ nature and deliberately kept bypassing his ministers and started operating through his favourites. Those not on that list felt threatened by the permanent scowl on Modi’s face. Sircar says lightening transfers became commonplace and Modi’s office controlled every appointment. Inputs were taken from the RSS, Intelligence Bureau and spy chief. “Stalinist shadows grew longer and headless organisations suffered when appointments took years. Babus and businessmen, however, learnt to fake everlasting loyalty and started wooing the RSS men. The Cabinet system crashed and responsibility became opaque. Regular imperious edicts followed.”

Several such articles point to the direction in which the Prime Minister pushed India. We witness mob-lynching of beef traders and beef eaters, a violent campaign against “love jihad”, trolling of dissenters and independent journalists, jailing of activists and scholars, attacks on women in bars and systematic degradation of institutions including universities. Modi’s demonetization causes misery to millions but he applauds its shock value and in the UP state election campaign incites the poor against the rich, ignoring his ties with the latter! Nothing is sacred for Modi.

The inhuman response to an unprecedented farmers’ agitation and mishandling of the pandemic exposed Modi as an incompetent leader, indifferent to human suffering and obsessed with expanding his fiefdom. In the worst Covid weeks, he goes about addressing mass election rallies and lets a mega Hindu religious fair organised by a state run by his party. Kumbh at Haridwar, attended by millions of pilgrims in defiance of the Covid protocol, is celebrated by his party men and the Modi Media who a year ago viciously attacked Muslims for holding a small religious event in New Delhi.

The template of the vicious campaign is borrowed from Germany where Jewish citizens try to be extra cautious during the Covid outbreak because of their past experience that if anything goes wrong in Germany, the Jews are blamed. In India, some 3,500 members of the Tablighi Jamaat were called “Covid super-spreaders” running a “Corona Jihad” against India. Many of them were jailed and some even charged with attempted murder.

The attackers, who went after a minority community, fall silent about the breach of Covid protocol by one crore Hindus at Haridwar exposing themselves and their families to the virus.

The Jamaat event took place when no Covid protocols were in place and there were only a few hundred active cases. The Kumbh fair was held when there were more than 10 lakh active cases. Special trains were organised for the pilgrims while the victims of the first lockdown, the migrant workers fleeing cities, were left helpless, leading to deaths on the road. The alternative media highlighted two Indias where the Kumbh fair is held with state patronage and the Jamaat event is maligned.

Polarisation marks New India whose transformation did not begin unannounced. The ground was paved in 1992 with the demolition of the Babri Mosque and resulting communal violence. Narendra Modi promised it in his 2014 election campaign. He did not have to spell out his sectarian agenda in plain language. His innuendos and sign language said it all about his approach towards a minority. His dog-whistle politics was in full play. Hindu voters knew of his performance as the chief minister of Gujarat during the communal killings of 2002. Scholar Ashish Nandy interviewed Modi and was shaken by what he heard from him. He said he had seen a “text-book case of a fascist”.

Modi’s Hindutva credentials were established by the 2002 communal killings. Earlier in 1969, Gujarat witnessed the deadliest Hindu-Muslim violence since the partition of India. Gujarati Hindus then felt apologetic and said: “We did not do it. The jobless migrant textile mill workers of UP did the killings.” But in 2002, Gujarati women went around in cars participating in violence against Muslims. During the 1969 riots in Ahmedabad, this reporter, sporting a beard, went home from the office on a scooter every midnight. This would have been dangerous in 2002.

The religious right-wing uses history, mythology and misinformation to promote its ideology. By 2014, the BJP and RSS made Hindus aware of Aurangzeb’s reign. Historians minimizing Aurangzeb’s bigotry, as measured by the contested numbers of Hindu temples destroyed, were pooh-poohed. Some point out that temples used to be attacked, also by some victorious Hindu kings, because of the wealth hidden in them. They were trolled. Communal hatred spread among communities and age groups who had not witnessed the 1947 Partition riots, far from being affected by these. After the demolition of the Babri Mosque, communal virus appeared in “those like us”. Unsayable things began to be said at the dining table. Many, it seemed, wanted a Hindu Aurangzeb to settle scores with the Mughal Emperor who died in 1707. “Hindu nationalism” and “Hindu Rashtra” entered serious political discourse. It was against this backdrop that Narendra Modi appeared on the political scene.

I feel a bit confident writing this because my name is not Khan. Since identity now dominates politics and personal affairs, I may declare where I come from. I was born in a Brahmin family that followed both Arya Samajist as well as Sanatani traditions. One recited the Gita, Vedic hymns and shlokas of Shankaracharya. One bowed passing by a temple, a church or a mosque as one saw other Hindus doing so. A Parsi family organised light and sound show to mark every major Hindu festival. My mother was educated in a Gurukul. My father, a Sanskrit scholar, was once invited to give a religious discourse in a mosque. It shocked a couple of Muslims but the prayer meeting was held. The older sister, who went from a convent school to the Benares Hindu University, familiarised us with Christian hymns.

In later years, one boasted about a Constitution referring to “scientific temper”. India was set on the path of modernity and progress by Gandhi, Nehru and reformist Hindu leaders. This India was taken for granted. Of course, a communal clash would take place now and then but it will not leave a lasting impact.

As a journalist in Gujarat, one had observed gentle and helpful people before a tragic social transformation sullied Gandhi’s state. The political force responsible for the change gathered momentum after the Babri mosque demolition in 1992. Hence, the approaching 2014 elections caused unease. Did India need a Hindu Hridhay Samrat (Emperor of Hindu Hearts) to be its Prime Minister?

During the poll campaign, chats with stray voters confirm that Modi has indeed become the Emperor of Hindu Hearts even outside Gujarat. It increases one’s misgivings. Something is not right when children in an auto-rickshaw in Jaipur say: “Modi aajaay to achha hoga, unko fix kar dega.” They repeat what they hear from their parents at home. “It will be good if Modi is elected, he will fix them.” I hear exactly the same words from two voters. It was clear why many wanted Modi to be the Prime Minister. And Modi, with his rich experience in Gujarat, knew what he was wanted for.

Within a week, I get a disconcerting message in New Delhi’s elite club. While having lunch in a group, I am asked about Modi. “As the Prime Minister, he would be a disaster”, I say, expecting a logical rebuttal. No argument follows. A friend shows his intolerance. I shared this incident with Gopal Gandhi who wrote in The Hindustan Times:“In a venue known for its liberal and secular ambience, veteran columnist L K Sharma was bluntly told by a gentleman: ‘Go to Pakistan’. ‘LK’ as he is known in his wide circle of friends was of course in distinguished company. The celebrity actors Aamir Khan and Shah Rukh Khan have been similarly advised. And this same ‘order’ of exile to Pakistan was issued to the extraordinary thinker and writer U R Ananthamurthy. The ‘order’ was accompanied by hate mail, hate calls and physical intimidation.” Contrarian thought is characterised as anti-national, subversive and treasonable.... nationalist intolerance of dissent or thought itself dons the grab of patriotism, says Gandhi.

Why blame a club when the Leader influenced even some accredited liberals who wrote what would have been lapped up by the Modi fans. The tiny section of the media that could not be bought or bamboozled was balanced and gave equal opportunities to lies and truthful statements! A secular columnist was so taken up with Modi that she was featured by a magazine as one of the four “Modi’s Maidens.” She, like some liberal academics, later realised what Modi was doing to India. Their criticism came too late. These liberal academics had not asked the simple question: Where does this Leader come from? The answer enabled this non-academic to see the coming Age of Hate.

My misgivings and those of other secular Hindus were not shared by a majority of voters. Modi won the 2014 elections and became the Prime Minister. I told my friend: “I don’t have to go to Pakistan, you will turn India into Pakistan”.

Modi’s boast of his chest size, advocacy of muscular Hinduism, suppression of dissent, curtailment of civil liberties, and surveillance of citizens, seem to herald a strong state. In reality, this state is in thrall to the Hindu psyche that dictates what the Government can do and not do. Modi has to ensure that no bigger “Hindu” comes up in his party to challenge him. Ever fearful of hurting the “Hindu psyche”, Modi did not have the option of cancelling a Hindu religious fair despite Corona. He declines the offer of a skull cap at a meeting with Muslims. The state now fears “Hindus” whose awakening was the BJP’s prime political-cultural objective! The Opposition leaders too fall in line since Hindus have been awakened! The drumbeat of placating the Hindu psyche becomes a deafening roar during election campaigns!

Modi displays spiritual leanings. How genuine, it is hard to say. He projects himself as a quasi-religious leader and gets politically rewarded for it. He knows the political clout of Godmen whose attributes he borrows. They conjure up from thin air valuable gifts for the devotees. Modi had promised to usher in good times. In public imagination, his visage and that of the Divine seem to merge like a GIF image. The suffering faithful take the Government-made disasters as divine retribution but see accidental benefits as boons granted by Modi.

The Covid vaccine certificate carries Modi’s photo! One person refused to take the vaccine unless his photo is removed from the certificate. That did not happen. Modi would love to see his photographs in a gallery running from Kashmir to Kanyakumari.

Who will reshape India more? Modi or Corona? Modi had an early start. The Corona virus will be controlled by science and technology. The anti-communal forces are yet to find a tool to put the genie back into the bottle.

(Adapted from A Tragic Update in a collection of articles on the Modi Years published in OpenDemocracy and Mainstream. Part II to follow.)

[see: India’s Soul Possessed Kindle Edition by L K Sharma]

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