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Mainstream, VOL 62 No 14, April 6, 2024

It’s All About Modi, Only Modi | Papri Sri Raman

Saturday 6 April 2024, by Papri Sri Raman



India’s Soul Possessed

by L K Sharma

Kindle Edition

Notion Press
July 18, 2023 | 471 pages | ASIN ‏ : ‎ B0CF53VX53
via Amazon

The writer of the book, India’s Soul Possessed: New India – Secular? Democratic? would have us believe it is. The title also raises the questions: Is India secular? Is India democratic? The answers cannot be straight forward. Cannot be in Yes or No.

The answers cannot be one or the other because as a nation India of 2024 is enveloped in a cloud of grey. Much like the television serial 3 Body Problem, where a Sophon envelopes the world and can see everything that goes on within it.

Many of us know L K Sharma as India’s most-known science and technology correspondent. Others know him as a journalist covering criminals and prime ministers. In Britain, his interaction with the Indian community and the writer V S Naipaul led him to write creative nonfiction that reflects this weird world better. A Very British Coup is part of The Englandia Quartet. Stories of the Indian diaspora and its discontents are told through ‘captured conversations’. The other volumes are Inside Curry Palace of London, A Parliamentary Affair and The TwainA Character Turns Upon The Author deals with the seminal issue of the writer as a person. Sharma has also published e-books covering non-fiction and poetry. The Love Song of K Anand Kak teleports T S Eliot’s hero to India. The Indian avatar has all the characteristic traits of J Alfred Prufrock. However, he meets a different end. In Bushland is a collection of light newspaper column written in Washington.

India’s Soul Possessed contains serious comments on the contemporary India in the grip of Hindu nationalism. ‘India keeps losing one battle of ideas after another. First, by becoming a Hindu Pakistan and then by reshaping an ancient faith tradition as Abrahamic Hinduism’, he has said in a recent news article.

As there are too many ‘if’s in Indian lives, reading L K Sharma’s book reminds me of Rudyard Kipling’s poem (Brother Square-Toes’—Rewards and Fairies) we were made to read in school:

If you can keep your head when all about you 
 Are losing theirs and blaming it on you, 
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
 But make allowance for their doubting too; 
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
 Or being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated, don’t give way to hating,
 And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise:
…If you can force your heart and nerve and sinew
 To serve your turn long after they are gone,
And so hold on when there is nothing in you
Except the Will which says to them: ‘Hold on!’
If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue, 
 Or walk with Kings—nor lose the common touch,
If neither foes nor loving friends can hurt you,
 If all men count with you, but none too much;
If you can fill the unforgiving minute
 With sixty seconds’ worth of distance run, 
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it, 
 And—which is more—you’ll be a Man, my son.

Sharma’s book, India’s Soul Possessed is a collection of 53 commentaries, mostly covering the summer of 2014 when the Modi government came to power to a run up to the 2019 elections, when the Modi government returned to power stronger.

So why am I reviewing this book now? It is because, it is always good to recap the past to take stock of the present and guess what the future is going to be. It is that kind of a book. On the eve of the 2024 general elections, this book is like a catalogue of pointers, telling us… nothing much has changed from five years ago… the issues are the same and the electoral goal is power, as before. This future foretold book ends with the obvious: ‘Power even in the states and every local body matters to Modi. He would clip the Delhi chief minister’s wings. He helps his party in every way possible, taking time off from his Prime Ministerial duties to lead the BJP’s poll campaigns in every nook and corner of this vast land! Modi’s supporters feel confident that the people will reward their leader with a second term as the Prime Minister and the opposition will be crushed. Modi starts his next election campaign as soon as he wins one.’

Exactly what Narendra Modi was aiming at in 2019 is what he has achieved today – he has ‘clipped the Delhi chief minister’s wings’, Arvind Kejriwal is in no way flying before the 2024 polls, and if fate and mother RSS does not intervene, Modi is likely to be rewarded with a third term.

If votes were gold, Modi is the Magic Man with the Midas touch, no doubt. Sharma reminds us, ‘campaign control rooms of the BJP could perhaps beat Google in their access to the data related to the voters, the party’s campaigners and the opponents. Just count the tweets, videos and social media likes in favour of the BJP.

‘The Gujaratis excel in their organising ability. The institutions of Gujarat can run massive relief operation at a very short notice, a temple can organise a feast for 10,000 people in a day! This efficiency saves lives and serves the people well in times of drought, floods or earthquakes. But one also recalls that the groups who went to torch homes and shops during communal riots in Ahmedabad had computerized lists of the owners and their religious affiliation. Add this organising power to the charisma of the leader while analysing Modi’s winning formula. BJP runs an ideologically fired huge cadre and a team of voluntary and hired experts who operate with what is known as ‘‘western” efficiency.’

Modi marches on…. Much was made of Modi’s use of social media in 2014, and the BJP IT cell’s use of fake news booster shots to the 2019 campaign. There can be no doubt, the Bharatiya Janata Party and mom Rashtriya Swamsevak Sangh are tech-savvy. In several interesting chapters, Sharma reminds us what happened from 2014 to 2019 and how Facebook went from being a friend to a foe vis-à-vis Modi. Sharma, writing before 2019, recalls: ‘Besides, last September in America, didn’t the Indian Prime Minister publicly hug Zuckerberg with warmth that would have melted the Arctic snow? That video kept on streaming into Indian homes for weeks. Zuckerberg had once visited India for spiritual solace. He must have heard of a hugging Godwoman of India granting the wishes of those whom she hugged. Alas, in the case of Zuckerberg, the hugging Indian Prime Minister failed!

‘A Facebook official describes how its experts ‘‘protect’’ Indian elections. Who says the USA has declined? This private company’s remote policing operation proves that if America sneezes, the world would catch cold. If Facebook’s 40 watchdogs were to get drunk on a Friday night, India’s electorate, drugged by fake news and rumours, would gladly vote for a scoundrel. Mark Zuckerberg may have pasted a poster at the entry of his war room: Eternal Vigilance is the Price of Democracy.

‘Mark, the young American Facebook founder, has no vote in India but he moves millions of votes in an Indian Election’, this was what Sharma writes before the entry of Elon Musk in this cyber kingdom.

‘His Facebook runs ad campaign financed by Indian political parties Indian elections have a foreign watchdog, and it is not an NGO. Facebook is showing off its “war room” in California where natural-cum-artificial intelligence purges India’s poll campaign of all rumours and fake news. The hi-tech monitoring room with arrays of computers and human faces looks like a Star War Command Centre. It tracks and shoots down verbal missiles fired in any Indian language. It inspires a song “California Defending…” Move over “California Dreamin” that entered the list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

‘A WhatsApp ad campaign is asking Indians to “spread joy not rumours”! Rumours popularise social media whose DNA is characterised by fake news. These companies unintentionally promote rumour-mongering for entertainment. So, social media asking its clients to shun rumours is like Sharon Stone selling hijab. Facebook has opened a 24-hour channel of communication with the Election Commission in India. Forty Facebook experts at the India monitoring centres in California, Dublin and Singapore keep a day-and-night watch. The company can deploy as many as 30,000 employees belonging to its safety and security team.

‘An Indian TV reporter was invited to California to see Facebook’s India “war room” and to hear buzz words such as machine learning, data science and automated translation system. A gigantic brain translates every Indian language into English. No Indian should think that Facebook would not know what he posts in Telugu! If someone conveys his voting preference to his Facebook friends in Gujarati, the company would know. WhatsApp claims that its messages are securely encrypted.’ Sharma also tells us what happened after the Great Hug. ‘India’s decision to uphold the principle of net neutrality and outlaw Facebook’s Free Basics service, suffused with symbolism and irony, has highlighted the emerging digital empires and features of neocolonialism. “Free Basics” are two words that are unpacked differently by different sections. The critics point out that these do not mean what the FB wants these to mean.

‘To put simply, this controversial service offers free data usage but only to the websites prescribed by this social networking site. The two most seductive words “free” and “basics” failed to work their magic in India despite Facebook’s massive advertising campaign.

‘India’s telecom regulators ruled that such a service violates the principle of net neutrality and disallowed any discriminatory pricing for accessing data.
So, the Free Basics service was wound up and India’s poor, in whose name Facebook had campaigned, did not protest.

‘FB Director Marc Andreessen reacted. He denounced India’s ban on Free Basics and smelt the outdated anti-colonialism in India’s stand. He called it “another in a long line of economically suicidal decisions made by the Indian Government against its own citizens”.

‘Mr Andreessen tweeted: “Denying world’s poorest free partial connectivity, when today they have none, for ideological reasons, strikes me as morally wrong”. The country, according to him, would have been better off had it remained under British rule. Coming from an American, it was a bit ironical. Mr Andreessen only fanned the dying embers of anti-colonialism. Unwittingly, he drew public attention to the link between imperialism and neoimperialism or corporate imperialism.

‘In India, the protracted public consultations before the regulator’s ruling involved the policy wonks, pro-reform economists, activists and the Indian techies upscaling their innovative start-ups. These young men and women know the way the American corporations spread their tentacles. They warned against any move to let India become a “digital colony” for foreign interests to rig the rules and keep the native businessmen from flourishing.’

Reading Sharma’s book, one would assume, is going back in time. But, no, it is not. It is happening now, not five years ago and it will happen five years later, if we don’t vote him out. Sharma writes: V S Naipaul once remarked with contempt that only a peasant society needs a ‘strong leader’. Modi understands Indians and India’s social fault lines. He publicised his impressive chest size. He thundered that he would kill the enemies by ‘entering their homes’. This was seen as a reference to the Pakistani terrorists. But then, in the new India, popular imagination has also conjured up internal enemies who can be defeated only by a virile leader. During Modi’s first parliamentary election campaign, many voters told this reporter that Modi as the Prime Minister would fix ‘them’! ‘Them’ meant the newly minted ‘Other’.

In 2024, the Other has been fixed in many ways.
The CAA notified this 11 March, the Common Civil Code, Kashmir, over a Masjid’s ruins there is a million-dollar temple… ISRO, India’s Steller space agency today has a unique project (with government money) that is promising a refurbished Vimana, a green vehicle project that promised to bring back to life the flying chariots of the gods. His surgical strikes on Blackmoney and Balakot are history.

One can count a hundred reasons on the finger tips for Modi to be celebrated. Is the average Indian more prosperous…is the budgetary allocation for education increased… is there affordable healthcare for 1.4 billion people? No. The articles on #Me Too campaigns don’t tell us that sexual offences against women have reduced. In contemporary India, the abortion of girl foetuses is a major concern. There is a very interesting reference: The sarkari intellectual says the Supreme Court should not pass a law that cannot be implemented and the #MeToo movement should not raise a demand that cannot be met. Citing human nature, he asks the people not to pick on Akbar (M J) since there are no men of character when women are concerned!’

Thus, it’s a country where only what Modi and his fans want works, what they think is right becomes right. All else do not influence civil society, nor elections. After Ram it is Modi. Sharma writes: Modi’s idol was installed in a village temple in U P. During the parliamentary poll campaign, the Modi devotees paraded the streets of Varanasi chanting Har Har Modi, inducting him into the Hindu Pantheon, placing him alongside Lord Shiva. Modi miraculously yoked together the antithetical forces of sectarianism (called communalism in India) and capitalism to propel his chariot towards victory. Lord Shiva is one God who assimilates in his person all contradictions. Modi did the same!’

‘In India today, one cannot talk of science, history or politics without a reference to mythology’ writes Sharma. The RSS created a myth called Modi, that has possessed India. One would love to call out Shashi Tharoor on his posit that this general election is about choosing a group of capable leaders who can govern. This election, as the veteran journalist L K Sharma reminds us in his ‘must read’, is not about the economy stupid…. It about Modi and only about Modi. Nothing else. The deification has already happened.

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