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Unmasking Modi
Part I





In September 2014, at Madison Square Garden in New York, India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, addressed a crowd of nearly 20,000 people. It was a sold-out spectacle worthy of a lush Bollywood production, with dancers warming up the audience and giant screens flashing portraits of Modi in the style of Shepard Fairey’s 2008 Barack Obama “Hope” posters.

There was a revolving stage, a speed portrait painter, and a bipartisan coterie of American politicians, including senators Chuck Schumer and Robert Menendez, and South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, who is of Indian descent.

When Modi appeared, dressed in saffron, a color associated with the ascetic, martial traditions of Hinduism, his first words were “Bharat Mata Ki,” an invocation of India as a Hindu goddess that translates as “For Mother India.” The crowd, almost entirely Indian-Hindus, some with the Hindu religious tikkas dotting their foreheads, finished the line for him. “Jai!” they shouted. (“Victory!”) “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!” Then they broke out into the chant, “Modi, Modi, Modi!”

Modi’s hourlong speech touched on every element of the received wisdom about India as a vibrant democracy and rising economic power. He spoke of its special prowess in information technology and the particular role played by Indians in Americans in this. He spoke of India’s youthful population, with 65 percent of its billion-plus people under 35; of Make in India, a program that encapsulated his plans to transform the country into a manufacturing powerhouse along the lines of China; and the ways in which his humble origins and meteoric political ascent served as an example of what might be possible in India today.

This address was followed by many similar ones around the world, but it was the first to establish on a global stage an idea that had been doing the rounds, in India, in the Indian diaspora, and among Western nations keen to carry out business in India: Modi and India were versions of each other, doppelgangers marching through the world and conveying a new era.

Even Barack Obama made the comparison, writing in Time’s annual list of the hundred most influential people in the world: “As a boy, Narendra Modi helped his father sell tea to support their family. Today, he’s the leader of the world’s largest democracy, and his life story - from poverty to prime minister - reflects the dynamism and potential of India’s rise.”

Dynamism, potential, rise: These are the states of being captured by the entwinement of India and Modi. In the minds of India’s elite, and in that of an admiring, supportive West, India has been rising for a while, ever since it fully embraced Western capitalism in the early 1990s. Modi’s Madison Square Garden appearance was but an expression of that ascendance, from slumdogs into millionaires.

But Modi was also in New York because of something that accompanies the rising India narrative: the perplexing reality that having been rising for so long, India is still not risen.

In the past 15 years, the top 1 percent of earners in India have increased their share of the country’s wealth from 36.8 percent to 53 percent, with the top 10 percent owning 76.3 percent, and yet India remains a stunningly poor country, riven with violence and brutal hierarchies, held together with shoddy infrastructure, and marked by the ravages of lopsided growth, pollution, and climate change.

Modi at Madison Square Garden, then, stood for the promise that India’s rise would finally be completed, the summit reached. It had not yet been achieved, but he would change that. He would change it because he was an outsider, a man of humble origins, leading a political party - the Hindu right Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) - that had a few months earlier been given a clear electoral majority, the first time for any Indian party in 30 years. He was at Madison Square Garden to mark this triumph, and to declare himself the new Indian icon for a new Indian century.

Modi referred, naturally, to the icon he had supplanted, the one from a previous century. Stumbling over Gandhi’s first name, calling him “Mohanlal” instead of “Mohandas,” Modi compared Gandhi to the members of his audience, as a person who had lived abroad as a diaspora Indian before returning to India. Modi’s Gandhi, however, had nothing to do with anticolonial politics, mysticism, or nonviolence. Those had been left behind with the old India, as demonstrated by some of Modi’s supporters outside the venue.

Gathered in large numbers, they heckled and jeered at the Indian television anchor Rajdeep Sardesai for being part of what they saw as the liberal wing of the Indian media, which is ill-disposed toward Modi. To Sardesai’s attempts to ask them questions, they responded with shouts of “Modi, Modi, Modi.” When he retorted, “Did Mr. Modi tell you to behave badly? Did America tell you to behave badly?” a brawl ensued, some of the men chanting, “Vande Mataram,” or “Praise Mother India,” while others shouted, “Motherfucker.”

This episode could be seen as an aberration, but the combination of adulation and violence, sanctimoniousness and abuse, is never far from Modi and those who support him.

It is, in fact, the essence of his appeal. He is a representative Indian not merely because he signifies potential, outsider status, and an Indian form of do-it-yourself upward mobility, but also because he embodies violent sectarian and authoritarian tendencies: so much a modern man belonging to the new century that he has dispensed with the pacifism associated with Gandhi.

One could see that in the jostling bodies and shouting faces gathered around the Indian television anchor. At work, these clean-cut, middle-class Indian men in their saffron t-shirts displaying Modi’s face probably exuded deference and respectability, at least toward those they associated with power and wealth.

But gathered in numbers, with their puffed-up chests and clenched fists, they replicated what they admired most about Modi - a kind of unmoored nihilism that dresses itself in religious colors and acts through violence, that is ruthlessly authoritarian in the face of diversity and dissent, and that imprints the brute force of its majoritarianism wherever it is in power.

During his speech, Modi told the crowd the story of an interpreter in Taiwan who had asked him if India was a land of black magic, with snakes and snake charmers. This drew nervous laughter from the men and women in their professional clothes. The story was in a familiar genre, that of the Indian humiliated abroad, and can be found even in Gandhi’s accounts of colonialism and racism when traveling to the West.

For Gandhi and his contemporaries (and in fact for all colonized, marginalized cultures), that experience of humiliation had led sometimes to a kind of nativism - a reaffirmation of the superior values of one’s humiliated society - but it had also provoked an anticolonialism that was internationalist in spirit, identifying with other marginalized groups.

But Modi was speaking for a new India and to a new India, one obsessed with completing its rise as an economic power. Neither the speaker nor the crowd acknowledged that snake charming in India is an occupation based on caste, and that they were far removed from such livelihoods. They were simply angry, afraid, and humiliated that their Indianness could be tainted by such associations, and it is not hard to empathize with that sense of being patronized.

But where the anticolonial, Gandhi-inspired Indian might have worn the snake-charmer tag as a badge of pride, the new, Modi Indian merely wanted it destroyed. The new Indian instinctively understood the point of Modi’s anecdote, which was that it was set in Taiwan, not a Western country, but still ahead of India in terms of modernity.

“Our country has become very devalued,” Modi said.

Cheers resounded through the stadium, the well-dressed professionals at Madison Square Garden united in their common sense of humiliation.

Modi waited for the cheers to die down. Then he said, “Our ancestors used to play with snakes. We play with the mouse.” The applause this time was deafening. In the twist of a metaphor, Modi had restored the honor of the nation and of all those present. India was not a nation of snake charmers but of high-tech mouse managers.

And Modi understood this, because he too was an Indian driven by rage and humiliation, a newcomer to the system and a latecomer to modernity, a leader who would transform India into a land of Silicon Valley white magic, but who would retain its authentic Hindu core.

Listening to the crowd finishing off his call-and-response of “Bharat Mata Ki … ,” he said, “Close both your fists and say it with full strength.” The crowd rose, fists clenched, shouting out the promise of triumph, of victory: “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!”

*   *   *   *   *

In 1893, more than a century before Modi appeared at Madison Square Garden, a Hindu preacher called Vivekananda arrived in Chicago. The popular version of the story, as told in India, describes him as a solitary, charismatic figure dressed in saffron robes and turban as he faced the harsh cold and desiccated materialism of the West.

The more prosaic, if still dramatic, truth is that Vivekananda had come to attend the World’s Parliament of Religions, a sideshow to that year’s World’s Fair. There were representatives from many religions at the parliament, hoping to speak to a West relentless in the assertion of its double-barreled superiority, Christianity and the Enlightenment.

Soyen Shaku, whose student D.T. Suzuki became the most famous Zen teacher in the United States, came as part of a Japanese delegation. The Sinhalese preacher Anagarika Dharmapala was there representing Theravada Buddhism. Mohammed Alexander Russell Webb, a former American consul to the Philippines who had converted to Islam, spoke on the faith he had embraced.

Vivekananda was a remarkable, complex figure, introducing his distinct, modernized version of yoga and neo-Hinduism to the United States. But if his legacy in the West was to be yoga, in India it would morph - helped, no doubt by his early death at 39 - into a muscular Hindu nationalism centered around the idea that Hindus needed to become more aggressive in challenging both Islam and the West.

He became a symbol of the Hindu warrior monk who had gone into the West to conquer it for Hinduism, an idea embodied loudly by Modi in his own self-presentation, especially in the cross-armed pose and saffron turban he affected.

And just as Vivekananda, in this populist version, took the battle to the West, so did Modi when he arrived at Madison Square Garden.

In India, it took an organization and the onset of race-based nationalism in the early twentieth century to give Vivekananda’s vision a more sinister touch and ultimately connect it to Modi.

Founded in 1925 in the central Indian city of Nagpur, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the National Volunteer Organization, took Vivekananda’s ideas of Hindu revival a step further, combining them with racial theories popular in the West and drawing inspiration from the Italian Fascists and the Nazis.

M.S. Golwalkar, who became the chief of the RSS in 1940, wrote approvingly of Germany’s “purging the country of the Semitic Races - the Jews,” and urged Hindus to manifest a similar “Race Spirit” with Muslims.

After India became independent in 1947, Nathuram Godse, a ‘former member’ of the RSS, assassinated Gandhi for being too conciliatory toward Muslims and Pakistan. The RSS was banned briefly, but this was a blip in its steady expansion from its base in the Western state of Maharashtra into neighboring Gujarat, Modi’s home state, and beyond.

The RSS was known for its secretive, cultlike tendencies; it kept no written fundraising records, and produced a constitution only in 1949 as a condition for the lifting of its ban. It stayed away from anticolonial politics under the British and maintained a distance from electoral politics in the decades following independence.

It focused, instead, on the ideal of an upper-caste Hindu society within an unabashedly upper-caste, patriarchal Hindu nation. It recruited boys between the ages of six and 18, using doctrinaire lectures and a routine of paramilitary drills to mold their Hindu “Race Spirit,” while its adult members were unleashed as shock troops in riots against Muslims.

It maintained links with Hindu-right political parties and Congress leaders favorably inclined to its sectarian idea of India, but avoided direct involvement in parliamentary politics, calling itself a social organization rather than a political one.

This was the organization - disciplined, secretive, tainted by its association with Gandhi’s assassination and its role in sectarian riots - that Modi joined in 1958 as an eight-year-old in the provincial Gujarati town of Vadnagar. He was the third of six children, from a family that ran a tea shop at the railway station to supplement its income from pressing and selling cooking oil.

Leaving home as a teenager, Modi wandered the country, possibly to escape living with the wife who had been chosen for him in an arranged marriage at an early age - ironically, just the sort of social practice defended by the Hindu right, despite legislative attempts to make marriage and divorce more equitable, especially for Hindu women - and from whom he remains estranged.

He returned after a couple of years to the Gujarati city of Ahmedabad, where he briefly ran a tea stall before joining the RSS full-time. Modi soon completed the RSS’s one-month officer-training program and became a pracharak, or preacher/organizer.

One can see the attractions of the RSS for a young man like Modi, filled with ambition and intelligence but without much education or opportunity. Its warrior-monk structure would offer upward mobility and power even as its cultish ideology stoked a sense of humiliation about the place of India in the world, and of Hindus within India.

Decades later, when Modi wrote a book entitled Jyotipunj (Beams of light) about the people he admired most, his list would consist exclusively of RSS members, foremost among them the Hitler-loving Golwalkar.

Modi rose rapidly through the ranks of this organization, one not dissimilar - in its paranoia, violence, and sense of victimization - to the Ku Klux Klan. There were always questions about his egocentricism, such as his tendency to wear a beard rather than the look encouraged by the RSS - military mustache or clean-shaven - and his tendency to upstage his rivals, but he was an efficient organizer in an outfit that needed these skills as it became more directly involved in influencing electoral politics.

The RSS had always maintained a loose affiliation with Hindu political parties. As the BJP emerged in the 1980s as the primary political party of the Hindu right, led by men who were also members of the RSS, that relationship grew stronger, until the BJP, the RSS, and a range of other Hindu-right organizations formed what in India is called the Sangh parivar, or “Sangh Family.”

The BJP’s task has been to provide the political face of the Sangh parivar, while the RSS remains its shadowy soul.

The Hindu right, especially the BJP, grew in influence as the Congress, India’s main political party, weakened. By the 1980s, the Congress, dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family, had begun to dabble in sectarian politics and Hindu nationalism. When Indira Gandhi was assassinated by Sikh separatists in 1984, senior Congress leaders, joined by RSS members, directed a pogrom against the Sikh minority that resulted in the death of several thousand people in India‘s capital alone, with many more massacred in cold blood around the country.

Rajiv Gandhi, the next prime minister, took his mother’s sectarian politics further while also beginning India’s tilt toward the United States and toward information technology and a market-driven economy. This process would create a new Indian elite that was both aggressive and insecure about its place in the market economy, something it compensated for by reconfiguring itself as narrowly Hindu.

The BJP profited from these trends, using the RSS philosophy of Hindutva (Hindu-ness) plus the slogan, “Say with pride that we’re Hindus,” to go from two seats in the national parliament in 1984 to 85 in 1989, beginning a steady rise that, after a brief dip in 2004 and 2009, culminated in 282 seats, or 51.9 percent of the total, in the 2014 elections that made Modi prime minister.

Continued tomorrow ….

Siddhartha Deb is a contributing editor at The New Republic and the author of The Beautiful and the Damned.

[Courtesy: The New Republic. Edited for]
May 5, 2016

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Part I"

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