The nature of news, as a form of narrative, creates a ritualistic set of responses. There is first the immediacy of news, a literal description of the event and this is followed in the later stages by a sense of reflection. The initial emphasis on the literal, the direct, or even the biographical as a linear narrative gives way to the reflexive, the symbolic and the interpretive.
In the first reports of Adityanath being appointed the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, the feeling was of a town crier, soaked in the historical immediacy of the event. In the second, as we got more distant, the event was located in a web of discourses. The news began with a sense of shock and then we sensed the logic and inevitability of it. The first reports talked of shock value, of the lightning strike called Adityanath and some in desperation sensed in him a local Trump. They emphasised the logic of inversion – if Trump was from Playboy, Adityanath was an ascetic. Both sought to unleash forces which had been backstage in their societies for long periods of time.
Sign and symptom
But once we go beyond the superficial and stop looking for obvious similarities, Adityanath has to be seen as part of a discourse. He is sign and symptom of a society, a part of a discourse on governance by the Bharatiya Janata Party which must be read and interpreted.
A friend of mine pointed out to me that while politicians were close to religious men and astrologers, the BJP, he said, “had an affinity for the Guru, the Swami, seeking them not just as consultants but as part of the logic of a regime”. We sense this in Modi’s affinity to the Swaminarayan movement and his recognition of Sri Sri Ravi Shankar and Sadguru Jaggi Vasudev. They seem to legitimise his regime but the appointment of Adityanath as central to the BJP regime in UP raises the question to a different level. We have to ask what is the relation between religion and governance, or between culture and development for the BJP.
To answer this, we have to remember Modi’s affinity for Swami Vivekanand. The visions of the ascetic monk arguing for religion not as a forest ashram but as being at home in the world is critical. The Ramakrishna mission is this worldly – seeking to bring change in this world. The math, in fact, is an almost Jesuitical entity, a fact of competence. Monks of the Ramakrishna mission were among the best managers of disasters and the mission’s role in combatting the Bengal Famine and other disasters is legendary.
For Modi, the shakha as the cadre and the math as religious organisations were two clear cut parts of the BJP strategy. We see it in the collaboration between the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and the Swaminarayan in the field of education, the takeover of thousands of schools in Gujarat. The math and the shakha were organisational and ideological entities designed to bring about change. We have to ask what is the mentality, the mindset behind these efforts.
There is evidently a clear-cut idea that some sense of spirituality adds to change. The first and obvious one is that the sense of asceticism is a minimum guarantee of personal probity. Generally, monks and yogis convey a sense of financial probity and in an ecology where corruption pollutes governance, many could read it as a reformist step. The “corruption-free” nature of such men is almost part of their brand recognition, their credibility for the BJP. Yet we sense a narrowing of the semantic domain. Corruption is visualised in a narrow sense here, reduced to a kind of personal restraint in terms of money and sexuality. However, the conspicuous poverty of the monk can be hyphenated to corruption in terms of violence, a threat to the plurality of society. This sense of spirituality could hide a style of intolerance which is deeply authoritarian. In fact, this brand of spirituality legitimises the authoritarian.
We sense the irony when Adityanath, whose long career as a creator of law and order problems, talks of “law and order” as a priority for Uttar Pradesh. He also talks of an inclusive regime when his very style has been particularistic and exclusionary. It is as if Adityanath is a part of that ideology, where majoritarian preferences become the core of well-being, combining it with a policing of minorities as aberrant or pathological deviations from the normal, that is majoritarian. For example, Adityanath’s various projects and campaigns from Love Jihad to Ghar Vapasi are an attempt to dilute or emasculate the Muslim presence in our pluralistic society. So, the first paradox we face is a situation where the spiritual becomes a form of intolerance as Hindutva, as a standardising force, corrupts the openness of Hinduism as a syncretic entity.
Secondly, Adityanath and other BJP activists focus not just on religious conversion but a programme for policing culture. Adityanath’s attitude to women puts them on the pedestal but in the very act of venerating them, he cages them into a protective patriarchy which creates a whole set of taboos around women. Deep down, he seeks to create a cultural policing, a panopticon which seeks to protect majority cultures while fundamentalising them. Force, violence, threat, vigilantism are freely used to create an iron cage of possibilities which people seem to accept. The violence here is unacceptable. Worse, this association of intolerance and violence, with an alleged sense of spirituality is what marks Hindutva and differentiates it from Hinduism.
Years ago, after the Gujarat riots of 2002, the Gujarat State Director-General of Police RB Sreekumar, who happened to be a deep believer, spelt out his objections to Narendra Modi as chief minister. Sreekumar saw Modi as a double danger, as a threat to the Constitution and to his sense of Hinduism. In a similar way, despite his election, Adityanath is not just anti-secular but anti-Hindu, a man who violates law and appears contemptuous of the Constitution. The presence of Adityanath raises issues about the BJP’s idea of spirituality and, worse, the project of combining Hindutva and development to create a new nation state. We have to ask the inevitable question: Does democracy get emasculated in the process and lose its pluralistic spirit? Secondly, we have to question this language of spirituality which speaks the language of threat but has no language of compassion and suffering.
The BJP seems to feel that the likes of Ramdev and Adityanath are going to provide, along with Amit Shah and Modi, a new model which combines values and development. It is a model that needs to be challenged.
There are small switches here in the mentality of Adityanath that we have to question. The original vision of the math embodied the spirit of the Bhakti movement. The yogis in the Gorakhnath tradition did not see themselves as Hindu or Muslim. We have to ask – how did the spirit of Kabir, the dream of Muslim and Hindu togetherness, lose out to the arid melodrama of the Hindu Mahasabha? Does spirituality make a fetish of ethics? Is ethics only a system of accounting in some narrow financial sense or does accountability as budgeting have to go beyond to accountability and responsibility? There is little sense or nuance of the latter two terms in the BJP discourse. As math combines with shakha, we get a parody of Vivekananda which we must be critically sensitive to. A false parodying of reformist wisdom becomes a parroting which shows little sense of civics or civilisation in a religious sense.
Beyond knee-jerk secularism
The great tragedy of today is the way the BJP has undermined our language, our confidence, even our ethics with its tutorial-college solutions to the modern world. We are almost diffident about confronting the BJP discourse, which can crudely call a spade a shovel, while we prevaricate through strange table manners. At the same time we have to avoid knee -jerk secularism of the Left-liberal kind which allowed the likes of Adityanath to enter by default. We have to understand religion more creatively and critically. We have to see Adityanath and Modi as case studies, no longer as analysts of our situation. In acting out their cultural repressions, they seek to repress us, create a sense of doubt and snivelling about the worlds we dreamt of. It is time this Micawberism of the intellect – waiting for something to turn up – ends and we regain our pluralistic confidence.
The secular liberal mind made mistakes. We misread religion, overdid our positivist faith in Science but it is our vulnerability that provided a self-critical strength. We have to recover that to challenge the Modis and Adityanaths of today. We are confronting more than an electoral victory. We are facing an attempt to encode our future and we need to challenge it.
The Modi-Adityanath-Shah syndrome needs to be confronted ethically, aesthetically, conceptually. We have to begin by creating an opposition within ourselves till it becomes a broader phenomenon. This is the challenge of the future, to return to media its sense of democracy and spirituality, and to expose the mediocrity of solutions today. To the math and shakha, we must offer the University and the Ashram as new experiments of the mind that create new options for the India of our imagination.