Shiv Visvanathan: Four ways I was wrong about Narendra Modi three years ago

A report on the completion of three years of the Narendra Modi regime should lead to a moment of reflectiveness. A report has a sense of being objective, distanced, a list of observations by an observer dispassionately watching a regime. There is a dualism here that we must break because a report, rather than being objective, is a dialogue between storyteller and subject. The storyteller is not the analyst but part of the case study that he is reporting. He has to ask critically whether his own narrative has changed in these three years. Did he make mistakes in assessment or description? Where did he miss out on the total picture?

1) Underestimating Modi

First, I think one of the big mistakes I made was in underestimating Modi. The scale and size of his victory, and his impact on India is stupendous. It is not that I was marginally wrong in assessing the power of the majority. I was colossally wrong in sensing that Modi, as a Rorschach of middle class majoritarian Indians, wields unbelievable power. Modi has contempt for intellectuals because they got him wrong. They did. But I think that the power of intellectual life resides in recovery, in rebuilding critique in more creative ways. Intellectuals confronted violence at a different scale, and were also surprised by the silence around Modi. It is as if the Opposition lost its voice, and dissent its tongue. The marginalisation of dissent, and the power of celebration around Modi is worrying. The irony is that we saw a monster being created. We also saw the middle class loving the monster, and realising that the monster was us. Modi, in that sense, was not just a figment of the communal mind, but a representative of middle class resentment, which needed nationalist jingoism to cover up its inferiority. He belonged more to the people than intellectuals did.

2) Misreading middle-class India

The second phenomenon we did not understand was the Indian ability to normalise violence and be happy with authoritarianism. Modi, Bollywood style, believed that goodness was weak, socialism was slow and that he needed to create an assertive aggressive Indian for whom the end justified the means. Middle class India is quite happy to be Chinese, Indian style, to argue that democracy beyond a point does not make sense. Majoritarian rule is middle class India’s answer to the success of authoritarianism elsewhere. India is now committed to erasing plurality in the name of development. The normalisation of brutality and violence is not something we anticipated fully. We somehow felt that democracy would curb the majoritarian evil. We did not realise that one of the ironies of a democracy tired of itself is that it adds to violence, and evil. Many social scientists trapped in secular concepts were ambushed by the dangers of Modi. Admittedly, social science did not function as a critique, an early warning system about Modi. The only two domains that did – marketing and management – had already been appropriated by Modi.

3) Over-ideologising Modi

Third, in narrating Modi’s rise to power several people over-ideologised him, seeing him as communally obsessed. It took us some time to realise that the only aphrodisiac Modi responds to is power. Modi loves power, and wants more of it. In their love for power, Modi and his right-hand man Amit Shah work in tandem. They are ideological when they need to be, but it is the pragmatism of the BJP that has surprised this commentator. As they chart their invasion of the North East, or their plan for South India, it becomes clear that Modi is quite happy with politicians crossing over from any party. Modi realises that the loss of power corrupts absolutely. Second, his pragmatism of playing to film stars long after their careers are dead or moribund, shows his sense of the fan club being the equivalent of the cadre and shakha. Shah and Modi showed astuteness at a tactical level that we did not expect. There was a realisation that it was not the movements devoted to social justice that they were committed to. Modi and Shah were more interested in movie stars playing out the fiction of social justice. Modi understood that democracy in India needed the myths of justice enacted by these fading stars more than the realism of politics.

4) Propaganda guru

Finally, Modi’s understanding of the information society – in which the creation, distribution, and manipulation of information is a significant political, economic and cultural activity – and its logic was more acute than I imagined. He realised that unlike knowledge, information allowed for erasure and amnesia. What he created through development was an erasure of the crimes of the past. Modi sensed that information bowdlerised and simplified India into simple dictums and slogans. Modi mastered the use of these simplistic proverbs to lethal effect. In this he was a match for China’s Mao Zedong or North Korea’s Kim-Il Sung. The cliché as chorus acquired tremendous political force. In that sense, Modi was a shrewder modernist than his critics.

Modi realised that electoral democracy, like Bollywood, loved fictions. It gorged on B-grade sentimentality, was carnivorous about populist fables like his chaiwala story, and enacted scripts to cater to this need for everyday myth. In that sense, Modi understood propaganda better than his critics did. It was not ideology that he mastered but the power of communication systems, the uses of performative language, where saying becomes a form of doing, where the articulation of a mere utterance evokes a sense of competence.

I must confess that as an analyst and storyteller, I misread Modi here. It is not his goodness but his competence that has come as a surprise. I labeled Modi in a narrow way as a communalist without realising that power and evil cater to a wide world of symbols.

I should just hope that in admitting to underestimate him, the pages that will follow will be more astute in tracking the slow disaster he is subjecting India to.

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