For several months, I have been hearing Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches quite regularly, paying attention to his themes, rhetoric and imagery. As expected, he has vigorously attacked key political opponents — the Nehru-Gandhi family, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav. But a systematic silence has also marked his campaign. Quite remarkably, Hindu nationalism has been absent from his speeches.
This is the opening paragraph from an article by an important US-based Indian political scientist, Ashutosh Varshney. This article, published in the Indian Express on 27 March 2014, under the caption “Modi the Moderate” has been now followed up by another piece in the same newspaper that somewhat modifies the earlier position, this time by “Hearing the Silence”. Strange that he did not hear the silence in the first instance, even after having listened to Modi’s speeches closely (‘paying attention to his rhetoric and imagery’). Not that he did not ‘hear the silence’ then. He did, but just two weeks ago, identified the silence as being about Hindu nationalism. In the second piece, the silence is apparently about minority rights. How did he read the silence as one thing two weeks ago and as just the opposite two weeks down the line? What exactly was he reading?
Intellectuals generally take words very seriously. Words in their insularity, words in their most manifest meanings. But really, do words mean anything in and of themselves? One line of argument that derives from within the ancient Mimamsa tradition, for example, would argue that meaning lies in the way words are chosen, arranged and formed into sentences. There is something that happens in this process which Mimamsa scholars call ‘akanksha’—or the expectation that this arrangement within a text generates in the reader of the text. The meaning that a text produces then, is a matter of a complex negotiations between the text and the reader—the bearer of akanksha. And since the reader is never one but many, the expectations that the text generates in different readers could arguably be many.
The Mimamsa theorists were of course, concerned with the meanings of the Vedas and not really with political speech. Not certainly with modern political speech. Nonetheless, they gesture towards a far more complex understanding of meaning. Contemporary theories of reading and meaning production would direct our attention towards matters like silences in speech or a text, the unsaid, the subtext that runs through the speech or text—not to mention of course, body language and tonalities of the spoken word.
Equally importantly, one might need to assert that the text or the speech is not simply a sum of all the words and gestures at the moment of the production of the speech/text, for this text is part of a larger text that we might call the political field within which the speech in question acquires meaning. This political field is not a terra nullis—it is always already inhabited by meanings and structured in ways where meanings are generated not through individuals and what they say but through ‘networks’. An ‘individual’ here is a post through which messages pass and get partially transformed. But the individual is not the author of the message.
A Narendra Modi exists within a field that has been so structured (over the last hundred years but more specifically, over the last two and a half decades), as part of a network where apart from the RSS machinery, the likes of Babu Bajrangi, Haresh Patel, Praveen Togadia, Raj Thackeray, Pramod Muthalik, Vinay Katiyar and so on, all constitute each other. Their internal differences and conflicts do not matter. If any proof is required of this then one simply has to look at the way in which the very announcement of Modi’s prime ministerial candidature has activated a whole range of such elements who may or may not themselves belong to the RSS family, strictly speaking. One need only look at the way the storm-troopers have suddenly become active and how the media and different segments of the state themselves (the Election Commission, for instance) have begun to behave as if Modi has already taken power! The ‘face’ itself begins to generate meanings; it sends out signals—both to its own and to its opponents. The ‘face’ is not a neutral entity in this political field. How can this face appear benign to any Muslim or member of any other minority community?
In the rest of this piece, I want to respond to some of the ways in which pro-establishment intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to present before us a ‘benign’, moderate Modi.
I am leaving out of our discussion, a certain brand of right-wing intelligentsia, who have a vested interest in seeing Narendra Modi become the next prime minister of India. These luminaries, most of whom write with Modi himself on a site called NitiCentral include people like Arun Shourie, Tavleen Singh, Ashok Malik, Swapan Dasgupta, Kanchan Gupta and other less known journalists, have a clear cut position on politics. We know where they stand—boldly on the right, as they themselves put it. We could add some more to this list—Madhu Kishwar, Surjit Bhalla, Shekhar Gupta, Gurcharan Das and so on. I’m not interested in these right-wing intellectuals here.
Let us concentrate, rather, on the pro-establishment liberal intellectual’s attempt to make Modi more palatable.
So, how does Varshney present a more palatable Modi before us? First, like many of the others in the right-wing category, he makes every effort to convince us that in this round of campaign speeches by Modi, “(G)overnance and development have been the overarching ideas” and that “(T)he overall campaign has been quite in contrast to “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain”, that was a running theme in LK Advani’s campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s.
Varshney then goes on to say that “in the late-1990s, this theme was dropped“, “when the BJP-based NDA came to power, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.” But it was in the late 1990s when the BJP-led NDA was in power, led by the Moderate AB Vajpayee that there were increased everyday physical attacks on non-Hindus. The gruesome killing of Graham Staines and his two sons while they were asleep became emblematic of that ‘moderate Hinduism’. It was also during this phase that the 2002 carnage took place in Gujarat—ostensibly the phase when the ‘garv se kaho ham Hindu hain’ theme had been dropped!
The point I am making here apropos of Varshney’s argument here is that as a matter of fact Vajpayee was a moderate and that it does not matter that he was a moderate. The very presence of a BJP-led government with the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal and the whole bundle of messages that these send out, activates certain kinds of forces. The moderation or otherwise of the leader does not matter in the least.
But such is Varshney’s gullibility that he goes on to say:
Modi’s most striking rhetorical tropes, however, are about India’s Muslims. In Bihar as well as Uttar Pradesh, he has made arguments truly unexpected from a Hindu nationalist viewpoint. He has said that the Haj quota of Bihar and UP is rarely filled, whereas Gujarat’s quota is always oversubscribed. What is the reason? Gujarati musalman samriddh hain, lekin Bihar aur UP ke musalman garib hain (Gujarati Muslims are prosperous, but Bihar and UP Muslims are poor). If the Muslims of Bihar and UP could be as rich as Gujarat’s, they would be able to make the Haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of orthodox Islam.
Surely, reading statements like these do not require any sophisticated equipment—especially when they form part of an election campaign, particularly when Modi and his advisors know that it is precisely in these two states that his fate hangs in balance. And to be able to make a dent here, he must be seen to be making positive overtures to the Muslims. To refuse to read this most obvious maneouvre here and instead spin a yarn about his reaching out to Muslims seems disingenuous, to say the least.
We could go on with specific statements culled out from Varshney’s pieces but we will let these suffice for the time being. It is important, rather, to dwell at some length on two sets of claims that undergird this attempt to present a moderate Modi. These claims, it is important to realize, form the ‘common sense’ that rules among pro-establishment intellectuals.
First is the claim that Indian politics is marked by a “persistent centrism” that shuns both extremes—those of the Right and of the Left. Some intellectuals like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have even argued that in this respect Modi has already shown far greater acumen, meaning perhaps that he recognizes this cardinal fact about Indian politics. Thus, he claims, “For all the paranoia about Modi’s centralising tendencies, the interesting fact about the BJP’s evolution in the last few months is this: Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders.”
And just to underline how recurrent this theme is, let us recall that shortly before the 2004 elections, the famous “India Shining” elections, Sanjaya Baru (of Accidental Prime Minister fame) had penned what a friend has called ‘an ode to Atal Bihari Nehru’ (25 February 2004, Business Standard). This piece was tellingly titled “Vajpayee’s Nehruism: Neither Right, nor Left, India Shines from the Centre”. Baru was telling us then that
“Vajpayee has demonstrated so clearly to his party that its sectarian and divisive platform of the past cannot provide the route to lasting power, even if it did work well for a Narendra Modi in Gujarat, and that the future for the BJP lies in occupying the political “centre”.”
Does this not sound like a consensus among the pro-establishment intellectuals? It needs to be pointed out however, that this belief remains one of the biggest shibboleths about “Indian politics”. There is nothing special about India, as far as this move towards ‘centrism’ is concerned. All representative politics oriented towards state power exhibits this same tendency everywhere. That is why, eventually, all parties even begin to look and sound like each other. Indian politics perhaps distinguishes itself by managing to allow the most violent forms of politics to be ensconced within a supposedly democratic outer-shell.
The second claim has to do with what these intellectuals see as the “facile attempt” to label Modi “a fascist”. In a recent piece, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has once again raised this question, dubbing such reactions from left-liberals as hyperbolic. Though Sanjay Srivastava has responded to it adequately, one intriguing question remains. Consider this from Pratap:
The best way to respond to accusations of fascism is not to dismiss them. It is to make them look silly by your own exemplariness.
But those scare-mongering on fascism also need self-reflection. Many of those dropping the “F” word also betray a will to simplification that tells you more about those making the accusations than it does about politics.
Who precisely, is the addressee of the first sentence? Who should make the accusers look silly by “your own exemplariness”? This, I am afraid, goes far beyond a critique of the Left—the ‘scare-mongers on fascism’, for it expects that the ones accused of ‘fascism’ are capable of such exemplary behaviour that will make the Leftists look silly. Varshney too raises the issue of ‘fascism’ in his second piece where he tells us that “Comparisons with fascism, often made, are too facile. India simply does not have the conditions of 1930s Germany.” Pratap and Varshney are of course, entitled to their opinions and I do not want to contest them on the substance of their claims. However, a brief comment on the issue of fascism will not be out of place here.
Sanjay Srivastava correctly points out that we use other terms like ‘democracy’, ‘civil society’, ‘citizenship’—not to “to measure how well we approximate to their source but rather to express an entire range of aspirations, hopes and anxieties.” He suggests that fascism is used in the same way. I want to add that our use of the term may actually go beyond merely expressing hopes and anxieties.
In the first place, ‘fascism’ is not to be understood as linked to a specific class configuration as Marxists often believed, nor to a specific kind of ideological abnormality born out of a crisis of liberal parliamentarianism. It certainly was not an ‘abnormality’, but rather, expressed a reaction to elitism of certain kinds and therefore embodied what Wilhelm Reich called the ‘revolt of the small man’. But even these are not necessarily always replicable elements. What is crucial is that the core of the fascist idea was a violent intolerance of any sign of what it saw as disloyalty to the Nation (or the State). One could say that in some sense, fascism was the embodiment of the very pathology of nationalism and nation-statism. It represented a political culture that thrived on mass mobilization against everything that sought to ‘weaken’ the nation/state. And there is no doubt that this was something that has always appealed to the RSS family—they have explicitly referred to Hitler in particular in tones of great admiration. Their paramilitary organization (the RSS) and their mass mobilization against ‘left-liberals’ and ‘secularists’, their involvement in violent attacks on ‘intellectuals’ and artists—all point to the same elements of political culture that defined European fascism. Narendra Modi’s repeated invocation of Pakistan and branding of opponents as ‘terrorists’ express the same effort to mobilize mass opinion against political adversaries. Ideas, we know, travel across contexts, across time and space. They may get somewhat transformed in the process but they also transform.
The attempt by most pro-establishment intellectuals, then, to pass off the violent core of this political culture as an aberration can either be seen as a sign of their gullibility (at best) or complicity (at worst). In conclusion, let me cite another extract from Varshney:
Modi is often criticised for nurturing an all-consuming desire for power. From the perspective of political theory, that is not a damnable flaw unless it leads to the weakening of democratic institutions. We won’t know much about the latter until Modi comes to power.
As if Modi’s long years of power in Gujarat still leave something that we are yet to learn about this new statesman in the making!
This article was first published in Kafila