To understand Narendra Modi’s rhetoric, it is important to understand his mental universe. It is a composite of several trends. Like the reformers of the 19th century, he believes in the regeneration of Hinduism as he understands it. This is a colonial legacy which believes that the entity called Hinduism is a victim of undesirable influences as well as atrophy and degeneration. His response to this is to cloak the violence, power and ruthlessness of the West in what he understands to be the indigenous equivalent of the otherwise debilitating trend. Hence, his regular exhortation of strength, masculinity and efficiency has to be understood as foils to the Western models of power and glory. To legitimise this imitation of the West, he resorts to comfortable cliches about the Indian masses, celebrates the villages and the romantic notion of them. The celebration of a mythical Indian spirituality is part of the same legitimising function. All these elements are bound together by an inflamed nationalism that is forever looking for enemies and seeks to assimilate them or respond to them in kind. There is a simple-mindedness to the mind caught amidst such glaring contradictions: it inhabits a universe devoid of paradox, irony, complexity and, above all, humour.
The last bit about humour hides a paradox. Modi’s language, delivered usually as a harangue or sound bite, approximates most to that of the vidushak in Indian literature, distinct from the court jester or clown in the Western tradition. In Indian bhashas, as also in Sanskrit drama, the vidushak’s words offer an immediate, tangible connection with what is perceived as the truth, especially in a world filled with banal abstractions. His language is one that clears the web of complexity and brings us face-to-face with a crude, horrific and non-dramatic reality. In his role as a garrulous and convincingly eloquent individual, the vidushak supposedly conveys uncomfortable truths in a direct, sometimes crude, and blunt manner. Despite his linguistic dexterity, his words are ultimately cloying, ineffectual and debased. Why is this so?
His words and his eloquence are never his own. They are derived and lack originality. He is a mere translator. Even as a translator, he is an imperfect conveyor of the words and thoughts of the original. His volubility and comic flourishes, entertaining at one level, also betray a fragile, limited and tenuous hold over truth. He is a prisoner of his own wit and trapped in the web of words he creates around himself. He thinks his mission is to bust and spoil others’ illusions but he is a victim of his own words. The reason is twofold: he misuses his power of language to change perceptions without having the purpose or the power to transform reality. This is because he is the supreme advocate of an illusion and the most deft salesman of ordinary reality: that fear and realpolitik are the final and only foundations upon which reality can be based, to the exclusion of everything else.
In sharp contrast to the vidushak, the sage, the faqir, the poet and the statesman understand the limitation of language. They choose either to keep quiet or use language judiciously and imaginatively. They transcend the ordinariness of language or break its rules. The vidushak, by contrast, is the embodiment of literal-mindedness. As pointed out above, his linguistic flourishes excite, intimidate, and even transform perception, but ultimately lead to an abyss. He is the master of the literal, the vakya, but his language has no place for the metaphorical usage, the lakshana. And as all bhashas in India tell us, language is no language without lakshana.
In his traditional role, the vidushak is the companion and friend of the hero. Modi has no heroes in the real sense. He is a supreme narcissist, who loves his own voice, is enthralled by his own wit and amazed at his own capacity to sway people. Like the vidushak, every curse for him is a blessing, every moment of fear and terror for him is life-enhancing. And not because he confronts the curse like a hero or faces terror and fear upfront. He just uses language in order to survive by his wit and by making a mockery of reality, or rather his illusory version of it. The mental universe he inhabits makes no extraordinary demands of him or his intellect. He flourishes by establishing an alleged link between his words and the world. His favourite word is yathartha, a view of the world where things are taken to be as they are, and he transforms this world into one totally arbitrary and meaningless.
(Jyotirmaya Sharma is the author of Cosmic Love & Human Apathy: Swami Vivekananda’s Restatement of Religion.)