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Unmasking Modi
Part III






Continued …

The shortcomings of the Gujarat model are not particular to the state but to India as a whole. The difference, however, is that Gujarat’s supposed economic achievement helped distinguish Modi from other political leaders in India trying much the same things. So Gujarat was a success, even as India was something of a failure to the Indian elite supporting Modi - a paradox that was resolved by making him prime minister.

How, with the violent scandal and the political failure, to account for Modi’s rise?

The narrative of a growing India fed into it, stoked by the Indian elite and a Western media untrained to see nuances beyond the success of global capitalism in the aftermath of the cold war. The outsourcing of Western IT and office services played into it, as did the granting of visas to Indians to work in the West.

Even the rise of a security state targeting Muslims found deep echoes in the West. The killing of Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 came less than a year after the attacks of September 11, 2001, which meant that the old animosities of the Hindu right towards Muslims, Islam, and Pakistan found fertile ground in a United States whose wars abroad, in Afghanistan and then in Iraq, featured the same enemies.

Thus, India was an ‘ally’ in the marketplace and in the war against Islamism, and was a contrast to both the overly religious, anti-Western militancy that would consume Pakistan and the godless manipulators of market capitalism in China.

For many in the Indian diaspora, and for their upper-tier elite relatives back in India, the endless cover stories, op-ed articles, books, and films praising the new India - even as Islam, Muslims, and Pakistan were regularly criticized as failed systems incompatible with modernity - meant a kind of double bonus for their self-image, confirming their arrival as the white man’s favorite kind of Indian.

Thomas Friedman became a best-selling author and a hero to Indians with his account of rising India in ‘The World Is Flat‘. It was a long way from Henry Kissinger’s comments in the 1970s that Indians were “bastards” and Indira Gandhi a “bitch.”

All of this had been achieved not through Gandhian anticolonialism or the mystical self-abnegation associated with India by the counterculture in 1960s America, but through the materialist terms acceptable in contemporary America: money, long hours, and power.

The model minority status of the Indian diaspora in the United States was an uneasy one. It depended on an uncritical identification with the American ethos of success through work and competition, as well as with its counterpart, what Toni Morrison has called the “most enduring and efficient rite of passage into American culture: negative appraisals of the native-born black population.”

It meant attacks on the ideas of the welfare state, of affirmative action, of impoverished and incarcerated minorities - a method transferable back home through Modi and the Hindu right’s assault on minorities and the poor and contemporary India’s valorization of wealth maximization and conspicuous consumption.

But the truth remained that India was not America, and the gilded elite of the former toasted their lifestyles in a context of far greater poverty, surrounded by hundreds of millions of the dispossessed - potentially militant and far too great in numbers to be housed in the prisons and reservations favored by America. The status quo remained fragile, easily disrupted, and it required not just a party or a program - the BJP’s rival, the Congress, favored the same kind of economics and national security state - but a strong man like Modi who could grasp the present in both fists, as he had done in Gujarat.

The West, with its selective talk of human rights, was an uncertain ally in this respect, desirable for its power but also resented for its superior status. Its approval, suddenly granted, could also be taken away, denied as easily as the visa refused to Modi in 2005.

Modi, at the time, was planning to attend a U.S. trade convention of Asian-American hotel owners. With 700,000 Gujaratis living in the United States, the State Department was well aware of the sensitivities involved. A press release about his visa denial noted “the great respect the United States has for the many successful Gujaratis who live and work in the United States and the thousands who are issued visas to the United States each month.”

Yet Gujarati support (and it is worth reiterating that many Gujaratis have resisted Modi’s sectarian agenda at great cost to themselves) formed only one strand in Modi’s valorization among Indians of Hindu origin in the diaspora, regardless of their ethnicity. Indians from minority faiths (Muslims, Sikhs, and Christians), and those belonging to progressive groups, kept a critical distance from Modi. These groups were instrumental in pressuring the United States into denying him a visa, and they later attempted to serve him with a legal summons for genocide during his triumphal visit to Madison Square Garden.

For many in the Indian diaspora, however, the denial of Modi’s visa highlighted the double standards of the West, especially since the Bush administration was hardly a benign power when it came to Muslims. It also confirmed the diaspora’s suspicion of liberal factions in America, the media, universities, and the human rights sector, which they believed were out to humiliate Indians and Hindus by pointing out their deficiencies.

The most visceral manifestation of these attitudes came in the writings and talks produced by Rajiv Malhotra, an Indian based in New Jersey who fulminated against the conspiracy directed at Hindu India by Western academics in Western universities. Like Modi, he saw himself as a mouse manager taken for a snake charmer, a victim of those identified as enemies of Hindus by the RSS from its very inception - Muslims, leftists, and the West.

Malhotra, described by the Indian journalist Shoaib Daniyal as the “Ayn Rand of internet Hindutva,” was an early exponent of the inverted postcolonial doggerel common among Modi and his supporters. He spoke of the “Eurocentric framework” of Western academics writing about an “indigenous non-Western civilization,” while still himself uttering breathtaking essentialisms about white women, India’s oppressed castes, African Americans, and “Abrahamic religions.”
Long influential among the Indian diaspora in the United States, Malhotra had to wait for Modi to become prime minister to achieve full respectability in India.

But Malhotra, with his YouTube videos, Twitter feed, and enormously popular books (shadowed by accusations of plagiarism), was only the most obvious aspect of the entrepreneurial approach to the Hindu-right project as manifested by Indian-Americans.

This approach, which involved think tanks, lobbies, social media, networking, and “nonpartisan” pressure groups, added a new, globalized dimension to the established cultish practices of the RSS and the mob politics of the BJP - something Modi grasped perfectly. He liked his Indian-American experts for the global aura they gave him and for the way they burnished his reputation as the Indian icon of the new century, committed to running India in a way it had never been run before.

So, while the Indian diaspora’s main fixation in the United States was a kind of cultural war - attempts to change references to Hinduism in school textbooks, smear campaigns against Western scholars of Hinduism, and the introduction at universities of programs and chairs in Hinduism that would be taught by individuals with questionable scholarly credentials but possessing the vital attribute of belonging to the faith - in India it would focus on bringing about Modi’s victory in the national elections.

Modi’s electoral campaign, described as India’s first “presidential” campaign, was carried out along American lines with the focus as much on Modi as on his party. Lance Price, a former BBC journalist turned spin doctor for Tony Blair, was brought in to write the story of the election; Andy Marino, an unknown British writer, was given full access to Modi for an atrociously written hagiography that defended him on everything, including the Gujarat massacres.

The campaign also featured the direct imprint of the Indian-American diaspora, including a purportedly nonpartisan group called Citizens for Accountable Governance (CAG). With members drawn from the alumni of Columbia and Brown, and former employees of JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs, the CAG provided data analysis and slick marketing tools for the campaign, with holograms of Modi beamed, like some kind of Sith lord, into distant Indian villages.

Yet beneath the modern, entrepreneurial campaign, there remained the minority baiting, the majoritarian aggressiveness, the riots, the intimidation, and the abuse. Among the crowds in India, Modi, having first softened them up with populist language that stood in direct contradiction to his business-friendly ethos in the boardrooms and conference centers of the West, poured out his usual sectarian invective, referring to himself as a sevak - a religious devotee.

In the eastern part of India, just days after more than 30 Muslims had been killed in riots targeting them for their supposed origins in neighboring Bangladesh, Modi, hands full of theatrical gestures, voice punctuated by dramatic pauses, spoke of how after the elections and his victory, Bangladeshis in India would have to pack up their bags and leave.

It was done with expertise, with subtlety, and always with an awareness of the business-friendly image being promoted abroad. Amit Shah was put in charge of campaigning in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh, an important arena for the national elections.

Three months after he took over, riots broke out between Hindus and Muslims, the majority of the dead and the displaced being Muslims. Shah made sure, in a subsequent speech in April 2014, to accuse Muslims of raping and killing Hindus and talked of the elections as an opportunity to teach a lesson to the perpetrators of evil.

The Election Commission of India, which prohibits appealing to voters on sectarian grounds, briefly banned Shah from campaigning, but Modi’s election drive proceeded without a hitch.

As Modi went about his business, wielding swords at rallies and berating “secularism,” the word used in India to emphasize its constitutional principle of equal rights for all religious beliefs, his devotees in India and the United States went about their mob business on the internet and in the media and social media.

There was the innovative abuse directed at the 69 percent who would not vote for him, who did not buy into his vision - the more polite terms being “presstitute,” “sickularist,” and “libtard.” The new Indians boasted of Modi, of his manly 56-inch chest (it’s actually 44 inches, his waist 41, and his belly 45, if his personal tailor is to be believed), but inches were only another way of expressing Modi’s machismo. Teenagers tattooed images of Modi on their bodies, and he was lauded as the country’s most eligible bachelor. The fact that he was in fact married, to a woman with whom he had never lived, who has never been given financial support - and who, after Modi became prime minister, would be denied a passport because she possessed no marriage certificate - was largely forgotten, or drowned out with abuse and threats.

In an essay a few months after the Gujarat massacres, Ashis Nandy, a clinical psychologist and one of India’s best-known public intellectuals, recalled how he had interviewed Modi in the early ’90s, when he was “a nobody, a small-time RSS pracharak trying to make it as a small-time BJP functionary.”

Nandy wrote, “It was a long, rambling interview, but it left me in no doubt that here was a classic, clinical case of a fascist. I never use the term ‘fascist’ as a term of abuse; to me it is a diagnostic category.”

Modi, Nandy wrote, “met virtually all the criteria that psychiatrists, psychoanalysts, and psychologists had set up after years of empirical work on the authoritarian personality. He had the same mix of puritanical rigidity, narrowing of emotional life, massive use of the ego defense of projection, denial, and fear of his own passions combined with fantasies of violence - all set within the matrix of clear paranoid and obsessive personality traits. I still remember the cool, measured tone in which he elaborated a theory of cosmic conspiracy against India that painted every Muslim as a suspected traitor and a potential terrorist.”

Nandy soon found himself the subject of a criminal case lodged by the Gujarat police. It accused him, of all things, of disturbing the harmonious relationship between religious communities. In a way, it proved Nandy’s point about the authoritarian personality who attempts to silence all dissent while expressing no doubts at all about his own actions and beliefs.

Vinod Jose, in a meticulously researched profile published in 2012 in ‘Caravan’ magazine, had noted how Modi made others apologize, turning criticism into entrepreneurial opportunity. In February 2003, two Indian industrialists, at an event with Modi, commented on the Gujarat violence; Modi engineered a written apology from the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII), the trade association that had organized the event. “We, in the CII, are very sorry for the hurt and pain you have felt,” the letter stated, adding that it regretted “very much the misunderstanding that has developed since the sixth of February, the day of our meeting in New Delhi.”

For those who have not apologized, and who have continued to stand up to Modi, different measures have been applied: legal intimidation, government pressure, social abuse, scurrilous gossip, police cases, and mob violence.

Setalvad, one of Modi’s staunchest opponents, found her residence in Mumbai raided last July by the Central Bureau of Investigation, a federal agency, even as the Gujarat government attempted to have her arrested for financial fraud.

The Ford Foundation, which has funded some of the projects carried out by Setalvad’s organization, discovered itself in the crosshairs of both the federal government and the state of Gujarat, the latter accusing the foundation, in a repeat of the charges against Nandy, of “abetting communal disharmony.”

With a defeat in November’s state elections for Bihar, in the eastern part of the country, Modi’s new India has amped up its sectarian Hindu nationalism, unleashing an astonishing degree of violence against all those who might not subscribe to this worldview, training its rhetoric and weaponry against anyone who might be identified as “anti-national,” which includes all those critical of Modi, the Hindu right, and Indian nationalism.

In January 2015, immigration officials prevented a Greenpeace India staffer from boarding a flight to London, where she was scheduled to speak to British members of parliament about the environmental risk of a proposed mine in Madhya Pradesh, in central India, co-owned by a company listed on the London stock exchange.

The government also identified Greenpeace India as working against the national interest, cancelling its license to receive funds from outside India.

Later that year, the writer Arundhati Roy was issued a criminal contempt notice by a Nagpur court, for an article she published in ‘Outlook’ magazine about G.N. Saibaba, a disabled political dissident confined to a wheelchair, who had been awaiting trial for a year. Roy argued Saibaba should not be prevented from getting bail if Bajrangi and Kodnani, convicted for their role in the 2002 massacres, could, and if Amit Shah, once charged with ordering extrajudicial executions, functioned with impunity as president of the BJP “and the right-hand man of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.”

Shortly afterward, Rohith Vemula, a 26-year-old Ph.D. student at the University of Hyderabad who was a Dalit, the most oppressed of India’s castes, committed suicide. Vemula had protested the BJP student wing’s forcible disruption of the screening of a documentary on riots provoked by the BJP as part of Modi’s prime ministerial campaign, and had been targeted by the Hindu right.

Described as anti-national by two ministers in Modi’s cabinet, and barred by authorities at the University of Hyderabad from entering its hostels and public spaces, a practice reminiscent of the ostracization of Dalits by upper-caste Hindus, Vemula hanged himself.

In February 2016, Kanhaiya Kumar, a student leader at Jawaharlal Nehru University, a public university in Delhi portrayed as an elite left bastion by the Hindu right, was arrested by the Delhi police on the orders of a BJP minister for sedition. During two of Kumar’s court appearances, lawyers (or men who claimed to be lawyers) assaulted students and faculty who had come to show their solidarity with Kumar. For good measure, they also beat up journalists who attempted to record the violence.

As in the 2002 massacres and their aftermath, the degree of violence under Modi’s rule differs depending on the target. In the case of Mohammad Akhlaq, a Muslim man lynched in September on the suspicion of eating beef, it was a mob at the door with swords and pistols.

When a group of writers returned the national awards they had received in protest of the Modi government’s sectarianism, a Bollywood actor led a march against these writers for having “hurt the spirit of India,” ending with a much-publicized meeting with Modi.

Against this backdrop, with violence piling up almost faster than can be recorded, Modi has functioned as a talking mask. Despite his ubiquity on social media, with two Twitter feeds, one personal and one official, and despite being constantly photographed in expensive clothes - he wore a reportedly $16,000 suit made on Savile Row when meeting Obama in Delhi last January, a gift to him from a businessman, which was auctioned off later - he is perhaps the most closed-off head of state India has seen.

Modi rarely gives interviews to the media, and never to journalists who might be critical of him. But he is always making pronouncements, sometimes providing free internet for rural India with the assistance of Mark Zuckerberg, sometimes solving climate change for the world in a Twitter conversation with @potus, tweeting an endless stream of banalities.

His performance is a banal kind of greatness, calibrated finely over a decade, even as behind and around him violence moves in ranks that make it hard to tell the difference between the mob and the police. Yet the authoritarian personality of Modi would be without impact, without significance, if it did not resonate with the millions of authoritarian personalities among the professionalized classes in India and the diaspora, in Silicon Valley, and New Jersey, and Mumbai, and Delhi, among those who have risen so suddenly as to be suffering from vertigo, who feel liberated from all meaningful knowledge, whether from the past or the present, and who feel enslaved by their liberation.

While they harness their souls to the standards of professional, material, Westernized success, to the air conditioning that Modi mocks when on the campaign trail, their insecurity and humiliation about the West makes them extract sustenance from Modi’s utterances about Hindus having invented plastic surgery.

Modi cannot be held solely responsible for such rage and despair, even if he amplifies it. His supporters, at home and in the West, the West itself, which chooses to ignore the violence in India, and a complaisant liberal intelligentsia, concerned more with its career prospects than with standing up to Modi, have to share the responsibility.

There is also much continuity between Modi’s India and what preceded it, including the way in which the Congress [engineered the 1984 anti-Sikh Genocide and] stood aside during the 2002 massacres and their aftermath, selectively exploiting the culpability of Modi and his government but never genuinely interested in justice; nurturing Hindu majoritarianism under the guise of nationalism; promoting the enrichment of a select few.

From this hollowed-out form of success, bereft of love, spirituality, and justice, meaning can only emerge from banality and hatred.

Modi’s contradictions and lies channel the confusions of his supporters perfectly. In a manner reminiscent of the vanguards of China’s Cultural Revolution or the nativists flocking to Donald Trump, they accuse the old elites of holding back the nation and the culture from true greatness. They attack those responsible for the ruined past, the uncertain future, and the endless present. They assail the “anti-nationals” who stand in their way, beating and molesting people while shouting, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” They demand people say it to prove they are not traitors, emboldened by a meeting of the BJP in March, led by Modi, that declared a refusal to use the slogan as tantamount to disrespecting the Indian constitution. They hammer, with swords and guns and smartphones and double-digit growth, at the doors of the beef-eaters, the environmentalists, the university students, the feminists, the Dalits, the leftists, the dissenting writers, the skeptics, the “anti-nationals” - anyone who will not declare, both fists clenched, “Bharat Mata Ki Jai!”

They have a rage that must burn itself out, and all that stands between them and the ashes of their rage is the astonishing, amazing phenomenon of a world that can still produce, from the crushed bottom layers of Indian society, people who, with every bit of the dignity and courage they can muster, resist the lure of their silent, lonely, aloof, admired, and unloved leader.


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 10, 2016

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Part III"

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