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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 26, New Delhi, June 12, 2021

A Country of Political Godmen | L K Sharma

Saturday 12 June 2021


by L K Sharma

Signs of fake modernity proliferate in an India trudging back towards the medieval era. A number of Godmen have been exposed in recent years but many continue to make hay. Laughable “scientific” statements are made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and other BJP leaders, reflecting the diminishing scientific temper. Miracle remedies gain popularity. Some BJP leaders claim that faith can banish Corona, devaluing the role of modern medicine and the importance of following Covid protocol. Close down all scientific labs, an eminent scientist cries out.

It is not just ignorance. It is a political Godman’s project to bury the Nehruvian India in which masses cheered Nehru when he called development projects India’s “modern temples”. They paid heed to his warnings against blind faith and superstitions. Tagore, Gandhi and Nehru inspired the people to control hatred and fear and imbibe modernity and rational thinking. The faith-driven people of India learnt to keep religion and politics apart. This frustrated the Hindu right-wing formations who hated secularism and pluralism. In Opposition, they used civil liberties and free press to popularise a “Hindu Rashtra”. They did extensive groundwork to “awaken” Hindus, overcoming the setback caused by Gandhi’s murder by a Hindu extremist. Their dream of wresting political power remained a dream till a party worker in Gujarat demonstrated that an aggressive anti-Muslim campaign could make a leader popular, invest him with charisma and let him propagate an ideology that caused tragedies but never lost its appeal. Modi tried this formula in Gujarat and was hailed as Hindu Hridhay Samrat.

Modi’s victory in the parliamentary elections resulting from the consolidation of Hindu votes empowered his bands of political activists to punish “the other”. As Prime Minister, he uses state power to control the opponents and the media. The Republic of Fear has become a functioning entity. The versatile leader, bathed in public adoration, brings to office a rare package of talents. He knows India’s social, regional and religious fault-lines and exploits these to win political battles. He has perfected the Piety-Politics-Profits business model with the Ram Mandir as its key feature.

For those not impressed by his Godman-like qualities, Modi has a different message: “I am a Gujarati. Business is my business. I mean business.” He demonetised currency notes and monetised faith. He endeared himself to temple owners by sending more devotees and to tycoons through land grants and permission grants. And what the media moguls and so-called journalists would not do for a Rajya Sabha nomination! The Prime Minister knows there is no one who cannot be bought or bamboozled and proves this every day. Vengeful and ruthless and are two words that are heard frequently these days.

Even the retired IAS and IPS officers are being shown their place. They have written half a dozen letters to him with a plea to safeguard constitutional morality and all of these were perhaps binned. When some former civil servants, who had held sensitive posts, started writing articles and books criticising Modi, the Government held out a threat to stop their pension.

Narendra Modi plays a variety of roles and knows the importance of choreography, theatrical entrances and exits, sartorial devices, camera angles, masks and quick responses. His mentor called him the best events manager! Modi safeguards self-interest at all costs. Never lets an opportunity go.

Modi presents his handicaps as virtues. What all he does not have are projected as despicable traits and legacies. So, higher education, intellectual prowess, pedigree, political work and public service by one’s forefathers, cultural inheritance and decent upbringing are “undesirable” features of India’s political life that he would clean up. He knows the elite that he maligns nurtured democracy in India.

Modi gets away with lies and knows it. He distorts language, changes meanings and turns respectable words into terms of abuses. He is obsessed with his image. Modi rewards loyalists and uses and discards mentors and is lauded for that by selfish society. He outwitted a cultured Prime Minister of his own party who wanted him to resign as the chief minister of Gujarat in the wake of communal violence there.

Modi has gone on to believe even more in the power of his dramatic gestures and shock decisions, leading to undesirable consequences. India’s social fabric has been torn asunder and democracy has started faltering. Its global ranking in the areas of freedom of speech and free press has fallen. Social development indices are pathetic. The Prime Minister’s cultural revolution has undermined rational thinking.

In the Republic of Fear, the people feel insecure. The minority community feels besieged. The majority community has lost self-confidence as it hears politicians shouting “Hinduism in danger” all the time. It is made to feel like a minority. It seeks safety in identity.

A ruthless and unfair regime has worsened the internal security situation. Such a regime breeds terrorism and separatism which in turn strengthen a majoritarian ruler. India’s image as a secular and democratic nation has been sullied. A term such as ‘Hindu terror’ diminishes the reputation of Hinduism. An instrument for tracking mental pollution would show a horrendous reading. Social media lies have increased general ignorance. The nation seems to be going from light to darkness.

The judiciary and administration are subverted through offers of plum assignments to retiring judges and civil servants. A politician using threats and inducements is admired for his success. Modi’s image remains unsullied by the BJP’s acquisition of real estate throughout the country and the hi-tech luxurious headquarters in New Delhi. If a newspaper exposes a financial scam involving the Government or a dodgy contract or an import deal, the Opposition is unable to engineer moral panic.

Modi bewitches the people with rhetoric, mockery of his opponents and interesting allusions to a minority. His sign language protects him from prosecution for spreading communal hatred. He sneers and entertains people with dramatic gestures. The Twitter-Age politician instils the fear of the other. He makes people respond to his questions and calls. When he asks them, they come out banging utensils and lighting candles. When he asks them, they faint in long queues to get cash from the banks. When he asks them, they walk for miles without food and water.

His words touch the heart-strings and make the people feel that they are suffering for a worthy case. Everyone is out to be classified as a patriot and avoid the stigma of being called anti-national. Modi is an illusionist who has turned Indians into delusionists!
Modi is convinced that only the despicable tribe of intellectuals whines while most people still see him as he wants to be seen. The great orator knows how they would respond if he were to ask them in his pet style: “Doesn’t the sun rise in the west? Tell me, doesn’t the sun rise in the west?” “It does. It does”, the mesmerised crowd would roar! The keyboard patriots and FB nationalists will repeat the same with gusto. A million posts will start floating in the cyberspace, hailing the Great Leader’s mastery of the “Vedic science”!

Narendra Modi claims to fight the “elite” but has established an unprecedented nexus of big business and the new political elite. The state-capital alliance is Modi’s achievement. The rampant crony capitalism is noticed only by the alternative media. Corruption has found liberalised India even more hospitable than the socialist India.

Such dismal features do not go entirely unnoticed by the masses but their hope of a better future is kept alive through slogans and rhetorical flourishes. The slogan Modi hai to mumkin hai (Anything is possible when Modi is there) brought him to power and now when something goes wrong, his critics throw back the same slogan at him. The establishment’s claim that it will win every election and rule for the next 50 years is designed to spread the aura of invincibility that brought Modi so far.

Millions still have faith in Modi. If told what ails India, they shoot back: What about the ills when so and so was the Prime Minister? Political strategist Prashant Kishor replies that every Government had wanted votes, but this Government wants more than votes. It wants to control your mind and your personal life. It seeks the possession of mind-space.

Modi’s reputation is not diminished by his disastrous decisions. This is an intriguing feature of his political career. Also, Modi is lucky. Whenever Modi begins to gasp after his failure, some development pumps oxygen into his lungs. This time, he poured all his energy and corporate money into the West Bengal elections hoping that a win there would come to his rescue at a time when the demand for his resignation has started growing. Modi pitted himself against chief minister Mamta Banerjee during the election campaign and tried to electrify masses by sneering at Didi.

Modi was confident of winning West Bengal with money power, communal polarisation, and the slogan of Jai Shri Ram. Afterall, he had won the UP state elections despite the demonetisation. The Bihari migrant workers suffered disproportionately due to his nation-wide lockdown and still the BJP managed to come to power in Bihar in alliance with a leader who had won the election by opposing the BJP. In a UP election rally, Modi had talked of a kabristan (Muslim graveyard) and a shamshan (Hindu crematorium) to charge the opposition with appeasement of Muslims. He wanted a gathering to be recognised by the clothes the participants wear (a dig at any Muslim crowd). And in West Bengal election campaign, the Hindutva card was played even more wildly as the BJP leaders kept calling Mamta Banerjee “Mamta Begum”. Modi stooped to vulgarity by shouting “Didi-ohh-Didi” in a tone used by roadside Romeos to tease a girl.

Mamta Banerjee fought off the mighty forces descending on her state during the protracted election campaign and dashed the BJP’s dream of coming to power in West Bengal. The voters were not swayed by the Modi Cult. They were not taken in by Modi’s mockery of Mamta at his public rallies. Mamta assumed the office of the chief minister for the third term. The voters of West Bengal denied oxygen to Modi. They gave it to the gasping democracy instead. Some saw the West Bengal voters halting national degeneration. Modi could not win power in West Bengal but he can take comfort from the fact that his party has now acquired more than a foothold even in a state where Lord Ram is not a favourite deity of Hindus.

A marginal defeat in state elections never bothers the BJP because it is able to attract defectors to put together a majority. Before the West Bengal elections, Modi had managed to get some key members of the chief minister’s Trinamool Congress defect to the BJP. Most of them were fielded as the BJP candidates. The West Bengal elections acquired national significance. Modi’s critics feared the consequences of Modi winning these. The political din generated by the BJP turned the Covid tragedy into a non-issue.

In West Bengal, Modi’s party cannot grab power by getting defectors from the winning party because the margin of the Trinamool Congress majority is not small. Some way has to be found to destabilise the Mamta Government. So the Modi Government now confronts her at every step.

The setback in West Bengal, Kerala and Tamil Nadu may lead Modi to intensify polarisation and launch more assaults on constitutional institutions. No time was lost in launching a Modi Bachao Andolan. Social media is suffused with messages of communal hatred, warning Hindus that their religion, families and their nation, all are endangered. Modi Hatao Andolan has not gathered many followers.

Assam which the BJP won is being described as a “nationalist” state. A former Congress leader who defected to the BJP made that victory possible. West Bengal is being called Bangladesh and Tamil Nadu is being called Sri Lanka as they rejected the BJP. The Modi devotees will find a name for the communist-ruled Kerala where a BJP leader said he was helpless because of the “high literacy rate” in the state. As per his logic, India must be kept semi-literate, if the BJP has to win elections.

“What Bengal thinks today, India thinks tomorrow”, it used to be said. Modi’s followers have already gone to work to ensure that this does not happen and Modi wins the 2024 parliamentary elections the campaign for which has begun. Its key element is consolidation of Hindu votes.

The Jai Shri Ram slogan did not work in West Bengal but Modi expects it to see him through in the vast Hindi belt. However, a political problem is developing even in UP ruled by the BJP’s monk-leader Yogi. As a Hindutva leader, Yogi presents himself blatantly, without sophistication. In his case, you get what you see. Since extremism is always followed by hyper-extremism, Yogi is well-placed to follow Modi if the Hindutva wave does not abate. Modi knows it and is afraid of Yogi. Modi has an impressive record of crushing potential rivals in his own party and it will be interesting to watch how he tackled Yogi.

Setbacks come and go but Modi goes on. With his quasi-religious appeal, Modi has continued to prosper. He is not held accountable and he takes no responsibility. For this quality, some western leaders were called Teflon-coated as no dirt sticks on them. Modi’s core constituency stands by him, ignoring every disaster caused by him. A cartoon shows a patient being asked by the doctor whether his family has a history of mental illness. The patient says: “Yes. My uncle still wants to vote for Modi.”

Modi has seen that a call by him makes those suffering pain experience it as pleasure on the voting day! They go through any suffering caused by him without a murmur if asked to do it in the name of the nation or in the name of Lord Ram! But for this strange Modi-effect, his kind of report card would have destroyed any leader. In a western democracy, barring America, the party would have thrown out a leader for making one communal statement the kind of which Modi keeps making.

Parakala Prabhakar, a noted commentator, explains this Modi-effect: “The Prime Minister’s political capital and communication skills seem to indemnify him from the impact of the incompetence, inaptitude and heartlessness of his Government. He is able to escape accountability. The Government and the ruling party are adept at outrage management. They understand that the initial sharp yelp after the pain will quickly be followed by the country becoming numb to suffering. They contained the fall-out of demonetisation because of this numbing. They could ride out the anger generated by the visuals of helpless migrant workers walking long distance, again because of this numbing. They are hoping to tide over the present mess-up also, expecting numbing yet again. But popularity and political capital have a habit of running out without notice. Communication skills, soon or late, begin to look like pantomimes and numbing will not last forever.”

As tragedies dog the nation, more and more people admit that they got fooled by Modi. The economic decline and Covid mismanagement are making them regret their political choice. A grateful post by a son says, at last his father, a staunch BJP-supporter, has started attacking Modi! Peace and harmony has been restored in the house. “Thank you Papa, I love you.”

Modi’s style is being ridiculed and lack of substance criticised. Posts condemn polarisation, his gimmicks and lies. Social media is suffused with satirical posts such as: “If our family members are dying due to lack of medical facilities, why blame doctors. We did not vote for them. We did not demand hospitals. We wanted a temple to be built!” Such posts suggest that the people deserve the leader they get. A versifier says, “since we, the voters, gave credit to someone for communal killings, why mourn if funeral pyres burn all around us!” Another post: “Who burnt our houses is not the question. We should be asking who gave the matchstick to a mad man.” Covid is making many devout Hindus say that hospitals not temples are needed. They see the doors to many temples shut these days. And that has not hurt the “Hindu psyche”.

Satire helps to fight depression. Sampat Saral and other satirists say against Modi what the mainstream media does not say but the people now want to hear. Stand-up comedians and poets are getting popular. Modi gained by ridiculing his opponents. Comedians are giving him the taste of his own medicine. When Modi took the gift of 200 cows to Rwanda, Twitterati laughed. They wanted him to send a Gau-Rakshak (cow protection) Squad to that beef-eating country. Many rose in Modi’s defence, pointing out that Godan (donating cows) grants you a boon in this and the next life! It was a strange case of facts following fiction. Modi’s gift of cows (Godan) came some years after this writer’s book The Twain featured a fictional Indian Prime Minister taking the gift of cows for his hosts in Great Britain!

With most of the media organisations becoming cogs in Modi’s gigantic PR machine, individuals have taken to alternative media and social media for expressing dissent. One must thank Mr. Modi for the surge of creativity reflected not only in satirical poems and prose but in songs of resistance. During the farmers’ agitation, young girls composed and sang protest songs. A woman poet of Modi’s home state, Parul, wrote in Modi’s mother-tongue a poem titled Shav Vahini Ganga. It electrified the cyberspace. She referred to the river Ganga as a hearse carrying bodies and to a naked Emperor.

Ironically, oppression by the authorities made the suffering Indians turn to Pakistan’s famous poet Faiz who had challenged a military dictator by electrifying audience with the song “Hum bhi dekhenge...”. Who could have imagined that a song written against a military dictator would become relevant in India for protesting against a democratically-elected leader? Songs are being sung but will mountains of oppression and cruelty float away... as Faiz had envisioned.

At some stage, Modi’s quasi-religious appeal may start diminishing. His dramatic decisions and gestures, sartorial gimmicks, mendacity, threats and offers of sops — all will be rendered ineffective. With funeral fires raging in May 2021 because of the broken health infrastructure, Modi is having to intensify perception management. The BJP-RSS activists put out “positive” posts and conspiracy theories to suppress the growing disenchantment. They hope the people will join them in a macabre dance to the tune of “all izz well”. It seems unlikely.

With such misgovernance by the Leader, any other party would have split. Not the BJP. Its workers are trained by the RSS to never question the Leader. The RSS has nurtured its political wing and mentored the workers deputed for political work. It was the RSS that picked Modi as a candidate for the Prime Ministership. And the RSS let Modi ignore the RSS principles because it saw him promoting the cause of Hindutva and empowering the organisation with resources. However, the RSS will regret the transformative touch of Modi as it has started getting more unfavourable exposure due to Modi’s failures. The RSS can no longer continue its work quietly, remaining hidden from public gaze.

As to the cause of “Hindutva”, the BJP’s campaign to promote it is having unintended consequences. Calling “secular” Hindus “sickular” has put off many from the ritualistic Hinduism. Its campaign to make them repeat: ‘Garva se kaho hum Hindu hain” (Declare with pride that we are Hindus) actually makes some ashamed of their faith. Some have felt inspired to convert to Buddhism. Some see Sikhism as a more attractive faith. The brand image of Hinduism as an inclusive tolerant faith has been diminished. The term “Hindu terror” has gained currency.

Of course, such long-term consequences are of no concern to those who have encashed Hindutva for the consolidation of Hindu votes. Political power matters above all. Modi knows that the funeral pyres being seen around the world will not singe his political career. A revolt against him in the party is ruled out. As to the hashtag demand for his resignation, he will suppress it with dramatic decisions to distract the people from their present problems and by asking the social media corporations to delete critical posts and by uploading more favourable posts.

Of late, Modi’s opponents and critics in thousands have taken to social media, ending his monopoly. In response, the Modi fans have launched a massive campaign urging the people to “be positive” and refrain from “negative thoughts”. In simple words, do not criticise Modi, just smile and bear whatever suffering he causes. Modi’s past utterances are coming to haunt him. Now that the pro-Modi forces have lost monopoly over social media, the Government threatens the American social media corporations with legal action. Earlier, Modi was on hugging terms with their owners. Now his Government asks them to delete critical posts in record numbers.

Voices against Modi are rising even in Gujarat that made him. Posts condemn his crocodile tears, false promises, heartlessness and relentless pursuit of political power in the midst of footpath funerals. They saw Modi addressing election rallies to gain control of West Bengal while the collapse of the health system caused a humanitarian disaster. They saw Modi determined to build a “Modi Mahal”, a vainglorious project that would replace the present Prime Minister’s residence, the Vice-President’s residence, some office blocks and the Parliament building. It is known as the Central Vista redevelopment project in the heart of administrative New Delhi. The public spaces in and around the present buildings are sought be turned into official spaces. Modi cannot hope to have more prestigious venue to memorialise his rule.

Those who live by social media, die by social media. The Modi Spectacle is becoming less attractive. Lies have begun to matter. The craftiest leader cannot fool all the people all the time. Even empires collapse. It is difficult to assess the magnitude of change in the national mood and to say when the day of reckoning will come. If the craving for political change grows, Modi may seek to subdue it by another “surgical strike” against Pakistan, as per a tried and tested formula. Some target would be found for diverting hate and protecting Modi. He has a mega tool-kit to influence public perception. It contains hate, envy, fear and hope. A modern-day Chanakya (Indian Machiavelli) hopes to outwit his opponents because public memory is short.

The era of misinformation will not end because as an expert says, an ‘ingrouping’ has taken place. The people come to believe that their religious identity is a source of their strength and superiority, and that other groups are to be blamed for their problems. Brendan Nyhan, noted political scientist, says the biggest culprit is social polarisation. “At the mass level, greater partisan divisions in social identity are generating intense hostility toward opposition partisans” which has seemingly increased the political system’s vulnerability to partisan misinformation.

Modi created a fertile ground by promoting polarisation, social destabilisation and reframing his political contest as grand battle between the patriots and anti-nationals. This boosted the moral of his warriors who are pumping in more misinformation designed to harm his opponents. No official document will erase the belief that “Nehru was a Muslim and Indira was married to a Muslim”. The people have learnt these ‘facts’ from a million videos and WhatsApp messages. One sees them watching such videos and hears them repeating these ‘facts’.

Modi would be gone one day but India will have to cope with his toxic legacy. No decent politician stands a chance now because the people have lost appetite for reasoned conversations and nuanced statements. They would want more of drama and more of cock-fights in TV talk shows. They would want public threats against Pakistan. Lies and rumours have become defining features of Indian life. The Leader had never imagined that he would be found out so soon by so many.

What lies ahead is also disturbing. The Emperor without clothes will be more ruthless and come up with some dramatic move. A leader out to memorialise himself with stadia, statues and grand buildings would do everything in his last days to prove: “After me, the deluge”. His army of political activists, trained to disturb social harmony, will not tolerate their Leader rejected by the people. Afterall, they were told that BJP would win every coming election for the next 50 years. So, they would go berserk. The BJP in the Opposition had scuttled the functioning of Parliament. It has the expertise. It can mobilise the people for any cause, noble or ignoble.

What should one expect if Modi goes? Achhe din (good times) will still not come even then. India’s institutions, enfeebled and compromised, will be unable to control the crisis that his devotees will cause. The steel frame (civil service) that protected India during the traumatic post-partition months has collapsed. Many of those who have not lost sanity are losing confidence in democracy. Protest songs against Modi now attack democracy itself. This discontent can grow unless a real democrat emerges to take charge of India.

In some countries, hyper-extremism followed extremism and military dictators took over from ugly politicians. Therein lies a bigger danger for a nation that has got addicted to the spectacle of perpetual confrontation and political porn and turned against itself. When will the Curse of 2014 be lifted? It is hard to say. A political Godman can tell his future.

(Adapted from A Tragic Update in a collection of articles on the Modi Years published in OpenDemocracy and Mainstream. Its first part appeared in the previous June 5, 2021, issue.)

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

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