An Indian Fascism? Doing the Modi Wave

Now that it seems certain that Narendra Modi will be the next prime minister of India, and his opponents are duly horrified, it is worth asking – from inside the circle of opposition – whether the horror is justified. A crude but concise way of doing that is to focus on the trope of fascism that has marked the rhetoric of being ‘against Modi.’ Is the man a fascist? Yes. Is he ‘like Hitler’? Also yes. (I mean, ‘jawohl.’) Does that mean a regime of unprecedented repression and viciousness is imminent? Not necessarily, because it is unlikely that the Indian political system will allow him to act as Hitler or even Slobodan Milosevic. But barbarism on a less dramatic scale is another matter, and that is reasonable cause for anxiety on the part of those who worry about things like the rights – not to mention the lives – of minorities and individuals. And, of course, that a Hitler-like person has evidently been elected into the prime minister’s office is reasonable cause for anguish for those who believe that Indian democracy is, on the whole, a good thing.

The f-word should not be used casually in serious commentary; fascism is not a synonym for obnoxious political behavior. But Modi is quite remarkable in that nearly the full range of ‘fascist’ qualities can be applied to him. Aggressive nationalism, lionization of the military, hypermasculine thumping of an allegedly fifty-six inch chest, ethnic enthusiasms, obsession with ‘traitors’ and ‘anti-national elements’ in the population, thirst for historical revenge, mistrust of intellectuals, intolerance of dissent, disdain for rights and constitutional freedoms, corporate intimacies, glorification of the charismatic leader, unification of the leader, the government and the nation: he has it all. Many of those traits are possessed in abundant measure by other Indian politicians – there are no liberals in that bunch – and leaders in other democracies, but very few bring it all together like Modi-bhai.   

I say that Modi is like Hitler, and not just a run-of-the-mill fascist, because he is a little mad. What I mean by madness is not racism itself, which is normative in modern society, but its irrepressibility within the person, which is not. In most democracies in this age of instant media, politicians who aim to be statesmen acknowledge a certain code of propriety, if not decency. And Modi, for all his (well-advertised) humble background, is not a naïf: he knows that code, and has even tried to follow it, trying to represent himself as simply a better, truer advocate of the Indian ideology of ‘development.’ In that rhetoric, he is a sober advocate of big business and the hard state, and has nothing against Muslims specifically. The problem is that he cannot follow the code: his hatred of Muslims bubbles up through the cracks in his skin. It is impossible to listen to him speak of Muslims-in-India without being reminded of “Die Juden sind unser unglück.” When Muslims are murdered and raped by his own political followers, under his watch, he appoints the killers (like Maya Kodnani) to positions of high responsibility and talks publicly about the insignificance of running over puppies. He can put on a Sikh turban on the campaign trail, but not the Muslim skull-cap. And when Muslim migrants from Bangladesh (Muslims, in this rhetoric, must by default be ‘migrants from Bangladesh’ or ‘infiltrators from Pakistan’) are murdered by Bodo militants in Assam, he rants not about the heinousness of shooting toddlers, but about how illegal immigrants must be encouraged to ‘pack their bags.’ There is, here, an undeniable and sociopathic failure of empathy. Not all Bangladeshi migrants are equally illegal, Modi clarifies: Hindus (‘our own people’) must be accommodated, Muslims ejected.

No Republican on the threshold of the American presidency would talk like that about illegal immigrants if, say, border vigilantes in Texas or Arizona gunned down two dozen ‘Mexicans.’ Not only would there be a political price to pay, it would also come across as insane. And indeed, that mad idiom is extraordinary even in Indian politics. Other politicians were quick to express shock and sadness about what happened in Assam. When children are murdered in cold blood, the sane response is to express shock, even if the regret is insincere. Insincerity is the stuff of civilization, after all. When it is eschewed so totally, we have reached a level of savagery in which anything is permissible as long as it is done in the name of the tribe.

This is something new in Indian politics. Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the last Indian politician to stimulate such visceral dislike in a substantial section of the electorate, could be highly cynical in her populism and did not always discriminate between legal, semi-legal and extra-legal force in her governance, but she was not motivated by a politics of hate. The Emergency impacted Indians across the board, and the mistakes made in Punjab in the 1980s were mistakes, i.e., political opportunism (using Bhindranwale against the Akali Dal) and clumsy damage-control (the counterinsurgency operations); they did not flow from any anti-Sikh animus. The nation-state, if not the government, can come back from such mistakes, because the basic relationship between the state and the nation is not disturbed. But when the almost-prime-minister implies that particular ethnic groups are sub-human and expendable, and raises that expendability to the level of national discourse, it may very well be a sign of irreversible damage.

It should be remembered that the Assam killings were not the work of Hindu nationalists. As the BJP’s M.J. Akbar defensively noted,  attacks on ‘Bangladeshi migrants’ by northeastern tribal nationalists have a long history. These tribes are typically at the receiving end of the racism of other Indians and the violence of the Army. Moreover, Bodos – who carried out the recent killings – have not got their own state in the Union; they are a minority even in the so-called ‘Bodo areas’ and loath to accept any further dilution of their ethnic claim to a future state. (I once had a well-known Indian novelist express great sympathy for such defensive xenophobia on the part of the northeastern tribes, but my own liberalism is not so sympathetic.) Their resentment of Muslims is different from that of the Hindu nationalists; it is defined against regional and tribal identities, and not against a broader Indian nation. The Hindu nationalists have essentially sought to co-opt this local resentment of ethnic outsiders, in a strategy pioneered by the Shiv Sena decades ago and extended by the leadership of the Sangh Parivar.

Modi’s reaction to Assam is very different from what we might have expected from A.B. Vajpayee or even L.K. Advani. Vajpayee is not a bigot, and Advani is merely a cynical man who knows how to create and exploit political opportunities without being swept up in his own rhetoric. He admitted as much in a conversation with faculty and students at Berkeley at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi campaign: what is true and what people believe are two different things, he conceded with a smile. Such sophistication is beyond Modi. When he struts about in garish peacock turbans and poses with swords, it is not quite an act; he believes in the fancy dress. A man who can barely contain his virulence will be not transformed by the responsibilities of office into an inclusive and generous leader. Given the chance, he would not only encourage and facilitate the things he now tolerates and refuses to condemn, but follow through on what one of his aides recently threatened: when Modi is prime minister, his critics will be kicked out of the country. Nothing in his ideological or temperamental make-up would get in the way, and nothing in his political career indicates otherwise.

The question is, would other things get in the way? The most obvious obstacle would, of course, be the reality of coalition politics, which imposes brakes on narrowly partisan initiatives. It is closely related to the fuzzier concept of a ‘mandate.’ A party that gets about a third of the popular vote, and is imbedded within an alliance that has a bare majority in Parliament, cannot claim to have overwhelming public consent for what it does in government. But those constraints work only if certain other things are given: if there is, across all or most parties, a determination to hold the line on both the letter and the spirit of an ideology, which might be summarized awkwardly as ‘the Constitution’ or ‘the Republic.’ That determination can falter in the face of intimidation, indifference or seduction, as it did in Germany in 1933-34. As Peter Gay pointed out long ago, the Weimar Republic was a singularly unloved state: not even those who participated in it, governed it and supported it were especially invested in its principles. Under pressure and internally divided, they shrugged and let it go, not believing they were stepping into an abyss.

In India, where the liberal principles of the Nehruvian state were not deeply rooted in a popular ideology, the defence of the Republic was always reliant on a combination of inertia, commitment and popular participation. The first was the inertia of institutions like the Supreme Court and the Election Commission, which can be expected to function semi-automatically, to preempt or overturn unconstitutionality and illegality in governance. The second was the commitment of a limited elite, which might be loosely described as the urban middle class in its fiefdoms: the press, academia and civil society. The third was the masses, who in their various groupings are better mobilized than ever, vote in record numbers and are unwilling to be disenfranchised. It was the combination of the second and third that saved the Republic in its last major crisis, which was the Emergency of 1975-77.

Now, however, the urban middle class has been neutralized by the allure of the market, to which it is willing to sacrifice vague intangibles like constitutional freedoms, secular principles and, of course, agendas of economic justice. Its practice of democracy defies conventional categories of liberal and reactionary behavior. This is the class that, within the past two years, was in the vanguard of massive demonstrations to create a national ombudsman’s office that would restrict abuses of power by the government, took to the streets in unprecedented numbers to protest the government’s fecklessness in the face of an apparent culture of sexual violence, and turned out to vote for the AAP. But the ‘progressive’ crowds that demanded safety for women in public also demanded the death penalty, castration and assorted other medieval punishments for rapists, and had nothing to say about rapes committed by military personnel in Kashmir and the northeast under cover of the Armed Forces Special Powers Act. They had, in other words, no ideological package, in which women’s rights go with other considerations of rights, constitutionality and justice. They had only ad hoc ‘solutions’ to a ‘problem’ shaped by a frenzy of commercial television. Many of the same people are also enthusiastic about Modi: all too often, the AAP man is the BJP man in a different mood, more concerned with clean government than with the means of cleanness or the implications of order. The Indian middle class’ commitment to the Republic is entangled with the deepest roots of its longing for a charismatic leader who will ride in (like Netaji in a submarine, Advani on a Toyota ‘chariot,’ or Kalki on a white horse) to save the nation, cleaning it up and repositioning it in a world of strategy and competition. (It did not begin with Subhas Bose; the discourse can be traced back to the 1880s.) Even the radical fringe of this class is not blameless. The postmodern disdain for the secular, liberal nation-state has deprived the Republic of a source of legitimation and support that was reasonably organized and influential a generation ago.

While the ‘Modi wave’ is most visibly an urban middle-class phenomenon, it has seeped into the slums, villages and small towns, where less educated and poorer voters – whose fathers may have rallied around either Jaiprakash Narayan or Indira Gandhi – have been quite willing to respond to the rhetoric of militarism and communal grievance, not least because the UPA government has failed to meet its material expectations. ‘Political society’ can serve the fascist as usefully as it can serve the dissident, especially when the fascist shares its language. Modi is not the authentic mahapurush of middle-class fantasy, after all. He can never be the longed-for geopolitical genius; his knowledge of geography does not extend further than Pakistan and Bangladesh. (Beyond that, there be dragons.) He is an interloper: a man from a semi-lumpen background who has acquired just enough bourgeois mannerisms to allow the elites to shake his hand, which makes him one of the great success stories of upward mobility in modern India.

The implications of the handshake become clear when we acknowledge that one does not have to be a Hindutwit to find Modi acceptable; his victory is not entirely, or even largely, about chauvinism and bigotry. It is, very obviously, about the extraordinary ineptitude of the last government, the economic downturn, and the weakness of the electoral challenge. But it is also about the lumpenization of the middle-class ethic, which is now marked by an indifference, or rather, a refusal to care about the chauvinism and bigotry of those who promise cleanness and order. It is difficult, in the context of this refusal, to imagine the coalescence of any opposition to the abused power of the state. The Emergency was clearly a crisis of democracy; it disenfranchised people and shut them up. The ‘Modi wave,’ on the other hand, is crisis of the Republic that is also a triumph of democracy. The people have spoken in record numbers: a 66 percent turnout is magnificent by the standards of elections anywhere in the world. Where, it can easily be asked, is the abuse?

It is, of course, entirely possible that Modi will do nothing that is out of the ordinary. Not only will there be no Nazi-style death camps (such efficiency of organization would be highly un-Indian), there may not even be many pogroms, since naked disorder is bad for business. We may never see a fingerprinting campaign like what the Italian government recently created for Gypsies. But refugee camps for people displaced by riots are also ‘states of exception’ – constitutional black holes – where extremely unpleasant things happen and nobody on the outside knows or cares, and we can reasonably expect that the new government will operate on the assumption that there is nothing abnormal about the long-term presence of citizens in refugee camps. We can expect related things – which happen already – to quietly acquire the status of what is normal, even legitimate: discrimination against Muslims in housing, employment and policing, for instance. And certainly we can expect the new government to make it very clear whose country it is, and whose it is not.

I want to inject, here, a word about Indian Muslims, who the Hindutva brigade routinely describes not only as a historical enemy, but as a threat to national security in the present. If we hold back from insisting that Muslims are a part of the nation that is supposedly insecure, is security not a valid point? There is no doubt that violent groups like the Indian Mujahedeen exist, and that Kashmiri separatism has been both bloody and intransigent. But Kashmiri separatism is a Kashmiri and Indo-Pak issue more than it is a Muslim issue, and ‘Hindu nationalism’ cannot solve it any more than ‘secularism’ can. The Indian Mujahedeen is a tiny group with no coherent goals. What can they demand, after all? Not secession; that bird has flown. They can only make feeble, if sometimes deadly, gestures of anger and defiance, reminding other Indians that Muslims exist and cannot be sealed perfectly in camps. Indian Muslims are a widely dispersed community, relatively poor, under-educated, subject to discrimination in every walk of life, thoroughly intimidated by the police, constantly abused in nakedly racist terms (see the readers’ comments following any article in any mainstream forum by a Muslim writer critical of the Hindu right) and yet with no actionable political demands. Like black Americans, they have contributed their share of public figures and celebrities, but even these – like M.J. Akbar – have to bend over backwards to demonstrate their loyalty, and end up obscuring the predicament of those who are not protected by celebrity status. The idea that they constitute a threat to national security, or are a 'pampered minority,' is a bad joke.

It is, however, a joke that has led Indian democracy to a ‘triumph’ from which it cannot escape unscathed. The difference between Narendra Modi’s India and Jörg Haider’s Austria or Silvio Berlusconi’s Italy – distasteful but ordinary right-wing, racist regimes – is that the latter did not seek to normalize a state of war against fifteen percent of the population in their own country. Haider and Berlusconi were undeniably harmful, but they were less destructive. Five or ten years from now, when anti-incumbency sentiment inevitably (one can only hope) leads to another government in Delhi, a hundred and fifty million Indians will be even more alienated than they are now. Thousands more will have been harassed or tortured by the police, or politely informed that their son is not welcome at this kindergarten or that vacant apartment. Everybody will do suryanamaskars and sing Bande Mataram at school, and Kashmiri students will be beaten up for refusing to chant anti-Pakistan slogans on command. Textbooks will hammer home the point that Aurangzeb was the devil, Rama was God and Shivaji a ‘freedom fighter,’ that ancient Indian doctors knew the cure for cancer, that real Indian women prefer death to ‘dishonor,’ and that ‘we’ are the most tolerant of all people. And those tolerant Indians who supposedly own the nation, and want a clean government and a belligerently proud state, will find that it is their books that have been reduced to rubbish, their arts that have been impoverished and vandalized, and their voices that have been muted. They will find that the concept of legal governance has itself been damaged, that gay Hindus are just as ‘illegal’ as gay or Bengali-speaking Muslims (the BJP supports Article 377), and that their own children have been left more vulnerable to police torturers and mobs of men with kerosene cans.

May 13, 2014


Maine maana ki kuchh nahin Ghalib
Mufthaat aye to bhura kya hai?
It is not every day that one wakes up to election results like what we saw today. A ‘lost’ election is always depressing, but this is almost exhilarating; not since 1977 has there been a result this spectacular, in India at any rate. After the September 11 attacks, Damien Hirst got into some trouble for remarking that the sheer spectacle of the disaster was a kind of art. I find myself having a similar response to this massacre. It is also the excitement of standing at the edge of the chasm. (Admittedly, such excitement is a luxury of the safe.)

Modi now undeniably has a mandate. That in itself is not especially disturbing, since it is unlikely that most voters want him to get to work killing Muslims. The work they want him to do can be described in very general, bland terms like ‘development,’ ‘growth’ and ‘governance.’ And frankly, after the indecisiveness and paralysis of the last government, a capable administration not beholden to parochial interests of caste and region is not altogether a bad thing. There is a legitimate place in Indian democracy for a 'conservative' party if the element of communal chauvinism is dispensed with or kept to a minimum. One may disagree with particular economic or foreign policies, or with a particular legislative agenda, but there is something to be said for a democratically elected government that possesses the will to enact policies and agendas, as long as the electoral system remains intact. A wrong course can be corrected in the next election. Sometimes that is the only way to re-examine policies that have become institutions.

But the problem is that some wrong courses cannot be corrected before it is too late, i.e., before the mechanisms of correction have themselves been damaged. There are also less specific, but no less important, areas of damage: culture, for instance. If the new government manages to keep Ayodhya off the agenda, it will be a miracle. In Benaras, the BJP made a clumsy attempt to get Bismillah Khan’s family to endorse Narendra Modi. Such outreach to Muslims may not be entirely cynical, but the artistry and cultural eclecticism that Bismillah Khan represented is precisely what will now be moved to the margins of Indianness. The 'secular' argument against anti-Muslim bigotry in India rests only partially on liberal ideology. It rests also on recognizing and respecting the fact that what we call a Hindu, and what we call an Indian Muslim (or a Pakistani or Bangladeshi, for that matter), is a cultural mongrel peculiar to the region, and that we are whole only as mongrels. Shortly before his death, Eric Hobsbawm ruminated on the suddenness with which Jews emerged on the European ‘cultural scene’ in the nineteenth century after centuries of isolation, and the energy and volume of their participation in the making of modern European identities. Indian Muslims have never been isolated; they have been prominent participants in the making of Hindustan for a thousand years. Like European Jews, they have been disproportionate contributors: there is nothing in India – music, architecture, food, dress, language, cinema – to which this ‘minority’ has not made a major contribution. (What would remain of a Bengali-Hindu wedding if the Turkish-Muslim elements were all taken out? Guests would mutiny.) The attempt to articulate India in ‘predominantly Hindu’ terms, to steal a phrase from the Western media, will produce a nation that is moth-eaten, sterile, delusional and monstrous.

When I say delusional, I refer specifically to Modi supporters like Lata Mangeshkar and Asha Bhosle, who forgot their debt to the Muslim colleagues who wrote their songs and sang with them. And when I say monstrous, I have in mind not only the impact on musicians, weavers and brick-layers of a nationalism that considers them a problem to be solved, but also the Hindu who delivers the blow in a warm glow of self-love, whose self-love is wrapped up in hate, and who hopes that tearing the fabric of a thousand years of history will leave him and his country magically whole. I want to borrow a few brutally edited sentences from Günter Grass:

An entire gullible nation believed faithfully in Santa Claus. But Santa Claus was really the Gasman. In faith I believe it smelled of walnuts and almonds.

He’s coming! He’s coming! And who came? The Christ Child, the Savior? Or was it the heavenly Gasman with the gas meter under his arm, ticking away? And he said: I am the Savior of this world, without me you can’t cook. And he was open to reason, he offered special rates, turned on the freshly polished gas cocks and let the Holy Spirit pour forth, so that the dove could be cooked. And so they believed in the only true and saving Gas Company, which many  believed would bring them the Christmas they expected, but only for those whom the store of walnuts and almonds was insufficient survived the holidays – though all had believed there was plenty for everyone.

But once belief in Santa Claus turned out to be faith in the Gasman, they tried love, abandoning the order of things in Corinthians: I love you they said, oh, I love you. Do you love yourself too? Do you love me, tell me, do you really love me? I love myself too.

But after faith in the Gasman was proclaimed the state religion, after faith and pre-anticipated love, there remained only the third white elephant from the Epistle to the Corinthians: hope. And while they hoped they still had walnuts and almonds to nibble on, they hoped that it would soon end, so they could start anew or continue. And still didn’t know what it was that would end. Just hoped that it would soon end, end tomorrow, but, they hoped, not today; for what would they do, how begin anew, if it ended so suddenly? And when the end came, they quickly turned it to a hopeful beginning; for in our country an end is always a beginning and there is always hope in any end, even the most definitive of ends.

May 16, 2014