Saroj Giri raises some important questions in his recent piece, "How Not to Fight Modi." The crux of the argument that he makes is that voices like that of Amartya Sen and UR Ananthamurthy, who have taken a highly strident stance against Narendra Modi becoming the prime minister, are indulging in an empty moralism which is devoid of any real content.
To illustrate this argument about empty moralism, Giri uses a few other examples, which includes a recent article of mine, “The Banality of Evil.” There I had argued that one of the major factors contributing to the rise of Modi is the banalisation of evil, in which evil acts committed by the state and personnel associated with it are rationalized and justified by the masses and the elites alike in various ways. Evil acquires an everyday and “unthinking and systematic character.” It becomes “faceless” evoking no moral revulsion. Giri, on the other hand, posits that what this line of argument exposes is, in fact, the “banality of moralising against Modi."
For Giri, the “elite ‘radical democrats’” (since my argument is sandwiched between Amartya Sen and Ananthamurthy, I take it that I am put in this group) even while opposing Modi, operate within the framework of a “liberal, progressive order” (which we consider as “essentially democratic”). We also, in his view, subscribe to a beautiful “idea of India” which is actually built on exclusions like the corpses of Naxal youths or Adivasi Maoists. We want to keep out Modi at any cost, but ultimately seek to “reinstate the liberal dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
Thus, the problem that Giri puts forth is that by misidentifying the nature of fascism and the solutions to it, the “elite and their empty politics” along with Modi is “equally the recipe for the emergence of authoritarianism and soft fascism."
Keeping aside the question whether the other people cited by Giri actually believe in what he ascribes to them, my position (as I have elaborated elsewhere) is neither built on the beautiful idea of India, the inherently progressive nature of its constitution and the “ample resources” it has to squash fascism, nor do I seek to reinstate “liberal dictatorship of the bourgeoisie.”
I do not see Modi, as Giri says, as an “absolute embodiment of evil” and leave it at that. I also go on to argue that the banalisation of evil happens (not just through Hindutva, which is obvious) but also through development, which is its main tool. There is a moral and material dimension here. That's why I argue that development itself has become banalised in the mainstream discourse along with evil. There is a ceding of the meaning of development to Modi, and the contending forces have let him appropriate it. In this idea of development equated reductively with economic growth, what is missing is a larger conception of human development, flourishing and freedom. In this big capital and corporate-led trickle-down model, the Adivasis, the Dalits, and the other oppressed groups are cannon fodder to attain the goal of making India like China. And the other major casualty in this model is, of course, the environment. In it the only reliable bellwether of a healthy economy is a bounding Sensex.
Giri also questions the tactic of putting “true facts” about the Gujarat economic model as well as the 2002 riots (I too devote some space to this mode of questioning in my piece) as an ultimately useless and foolish enterprise because, according to him, “evidence and facts cannot break the Modi narrative.” Is this correct? People who are voting Modi for reasons like the restoration of “the Hindu pride,” of course, will not be swayed by the “true facts” about the Gujarat economy. But I am surprised that Giri would argue in this fashion because it seems that he does not have faith in the capacity of some people, if not all people, to be influenced by facts. It seems to me a fatalistic and pessimistic view of the people. And it is opposed to what he argues later when he says that “people are all [not] brainwashed”. I agree with his latter comment. Is it not reasonable to assume that if people are not brainwashed at all time, then they will be amenable to facts?
The number of people who will be influenced by true facts maybe comparatively small, and not enough to stop Modi from coming to power. But the number does exist. There are many who genuinely believe that Gujarat is the best economic model for a poor country like India just as they do not know that states like Himachal Pradesh have made rapid strides in human development. Not because they are necessarily brainwashed, but because that is what the information that is available to them, through mainly corporate-controlled media sources, tells them. It is a question of the inequality of information dissemination in which independent and critical media sources are very weak. But these people are not fanatics either, and thus they are open to new information which is vital for building a critical mass of counterculture.
Similarly, there are small sections people who believe that Modi is not directly involved in the 2002 pogrom because the highest court of the land (which for many is on the only reliable institution in the country) has given him a “clean chit.” But they are also receptive to new evidence. Here can we argue that exercises like that of the journalist Manoj Mitta whose work, The Fiction of Fact-finding: Modi and Godhra (a brave work for the times that we live in) which throws new light on the Gujarat pogrom investigations, are a part of an empty politics that leads to soft fascism rather than countering it?
Another argument that Giri counters is the one about “Brand Modi” being a product of Corporate India. Giri calls this a “lame duck approach” for he wonders if the ordinary people are on the payrolls of Corporate India to buy this and vote for Modi. Again, it is not because the people are paid by capitalists to toe their line. It is that many ordinary people genuinely believe that this brand is the best to solve the nation’s problems because there is an emphasis on factors like stability, governance, vibrant economy, corruption-free polity and a strong and united society, which Modi promises on the basis of his supposed track record. There is a genuine absence of critical pedagogical sources which subject these terms to scrutiny and strong social forces like parties and movements which represent them.
This is not an extraordinary development for this tendency has been observed in many developing as well as developed countries. People’s consciousness is contradictory; even when it has the capacity to think critically [and not be brainwashed], it can also be led not to think critically [and be brainwashed] when the social forces and conditions that foster the former are missing. After all, at a certain historical conjuncture, the working classes elected Margaret Thatcher to power in Britain, supposedly against their very own class interests.
“Brand Modi” triumphs especially when either the alternatives like that of the Congress Party have become vacuous and lost the moral right to rule or those like that of the mainstream Left (even after six decades), and the AAP have not yet emerged as a national force.
Giri is caught simultaneously positing a revolutionary role for the masses and negating it by seeing them as opiated and brainwashed. This is because he does not articulate effectively the contradictory nature of people’s consciousness. Countering Siddharth Varadarajan’s argument of Modi’s support for crony capitalism, he points out, with a touch of sarcasm, that it is not as if “the masses would have wanted to oppose capitalism itself!” Here it seems the masses are under the spell of capitalism, a false consciousness which Giri criticizes above. The same is true also when he argues that “actually it is not Modi's innocence which is fetching him support but precisely his guilt”, and “for Modi, this guilt is better than innocence, for it stands for his truthfulness to the Cause”. Here it seems that the masses are under the spell of Hindutva.
The other fundamental argument that Giri raises along with empty moralism is that in the so-called liberal elite’s narrative “there is a refusal of any engagement with the masses and with the many crucial levels and mediations that mark Modi's rise to power through mass electoral politics.” This is the crux of his critique, but he himself does not spell out these mediations.
Giri does provide a link to his argument about the rise of Bal Thackeray and the decimation of the powerful communist movement because of the latter’s own spinelessness and pusillanimity in realizing working class power. Much of that argument is well taken, and we see in the present the effects of oppositional vacuum and the abdication of the secular space. But other than the obvious links and parallels, can we reduce Modi and India of the 2010s to Bal Thackeray and Maharashtra of the 1970s? Is Modi, like Thackeray, only “a tacit ruling class response to a particular conjuncture of the class struggle”? What are the contending powerful working class forces that have occasioned the rise of Modi? And what is specific about the Modi phenomenon?
Giri’s point about people’s struggles and going “deeper into India” rather than leaving India if Modi comes to power (as Ananthamurthy threatened to) is also well taken. At the same time, there is no elaboration of this fundamental criticism on which his piece hinges, and the forces that will lead these struggles. Moreover, as I noted above, he does not see any value in the pedagogical practice of raising consciousness through the presentation of facts and counter arguments, for people cannot be changed. This pessimistic view paradoxically strikes at the heart of the central agent of social transformation: the people.
Finally, we come to the important question, “Do we need to fight Modi at all?” From Giri’s argument, it seems that we do not have to, for the Indian state led by Modi or anyone else is the same. The fight against Modi is useless unless it involves a comprehensive and structural transformation of state and society. The state is inherently fascist and communal, and rules in the interests of capital. Therefore, turning to the state, the rule of law, and the constitution to prevent fascism is to live in the ultimate liberal mirage and in “an imagined democratic court of high moral values and clean virtue”. The Indian state and security apparatus cannot be shamed to “become an ally in your anti-communal or anti-fascist struggle.” The leopard cannot change its spots.
Taking this for granted, my question is, what do we do in the interregnum till we establish a revolutionary state by building people’s power and struggles? Should we abandon all legal and constitutional attempts to reform the existing decrepit state and prevent its further corrosion? Along with the spectacular confrontation of the ruling order through “direct action” of the masses and the working classes, should we be not fighting the day-to-day small battles of legality, howsoever miniscule their contribution to ameliorating the condition of the oppressed?
Giri might pooh pooh a liberal and democratic constitutional order and the emptiness of saving or protecting any of it. But that position, I am afraid, will lead to an obfuscation of the limited uses and freedoms of such an order. Both India and China are states that rule in the interests of capital, but that does not mean that these states are the same.
On November 10, 1995, Ken Saro-Wiwa, the leader of the Ogoni people of Nigeria was hanged to death by its military regime—for the crime of non-violently campaigning against the environmental degradation wrought on his people’s lands by petroleum MNCs in collusion with the Nigerian state.On 15 August 2011, Binayak Sen was released on bail by the Supreme Court of India after being sentenced to life imprisonment for sedition by a lower court. The difference between Sen and Saro-Wiwa is a liberal constitutional order, even if it is only a fig leaf. And this fig leaf, admittedly, might save only a Binayak Sen not an Afzal Guru, only a Perarivaalan and not a Thangjam Manorama.
Recognizing these small mercies of the Indian state does not mean singing paeans to its glorious traditions or harbor any illusions about it as Giri would imply. When Noam Chomsky asks us to vote for Obama instead of Bush, he does not believe that the American state led by Obama will inaugurate an anarcho-syndicalist order of his conception, which is completely devoid of all kinds of domination. He only believes that the American imperial state under Obama will only be a lesser evil and cause lesser human suffering. Similarly, despite Obama being a letdown of gargantuan proportions, when Slavoj Žižek argues that “Obama is more than Bush with a human face,” it is not obviously because the latter has inaugurated a communist state. It is only because that for Zizek,Obama, through measures like health reforms, has opened up “tiny cracks” in the impenetrable American “ideological edifice” which need to be widened to “reinvent democracy.”
There cannot be, as Giri correctly argues a struggle against fascism only through moralism, or through the existing liberal, constitutional framework and dissociated from multifaceted struggles of the people outside it to transform power relations. At the same time, he downplays the power of moral outrage and anger in initiating action for radical social change (history is witness to that), and the limited benefits of a flawed democracy.
Ultimately, following Saroj Giri’s logic, there might not be much of a difference between a national government led by Modi, and say, by a Shivraj Chouhan, in terms of its consequences for the economy and the minorities. It might also be that a Modi in power might become sober and soft, and abandon the path of communal polarization as many hopefully posit. And India under Narendra Modi might not be a much bigger catastrophe than the other existing alternatives, and in the worst-case mathematical scenario might mean only the loss of an extra hundred human lives or, let us say, maybe even just one life.
But does this mean it is the banalisation of morality to still emphatically insist on the principle that a man who presided over a pogrom has no moral right to govern any nation, leave alone a culturally diverse one such as India? And does it mean there is something wrong with an idea of India in which fighting to save just one life in a population of a billion and more is the most worthy cause? After all, the idea of India is not one that has already been constructed. It is left for us to imagine, and reimagine it everyday.
Nissim Mannathukkaren is with Dalhousie University, Canada and the author of The Rupture with Memory: Derrida and the Specters that Haunt Marxism, Navayana