Sometimes we look at social change as a grand, even grandiose, idea where we visualise change in global categories of climate and class. Such a social science is often deceptive. We can look at the BJP as an attempt to redo history, redefine nationalism, create a new kind of technocratic fundamentalism.
But social science categories and their textbook expectations can be misleading. Most politicians operate in a mix of folklore and bowdlerised social theory creating a hybrid world which makes more sense to them. Narendra Modi and the BJP did look like an attempt to tinker with social science like history and think of new projects on social engineering.
But more and more one senses a different architectonic of change. The social science is there but what we have is a discourse whose categories and rhetoric cut across three dimensions — the oral, the textual and the digital. It is this triptych of sites which defines what I call the Modi model of change.
The arrogance of Modi begins with the oral. His sense of oral rhetoric was far superior to Manmohan Singh or Rahul Gandhi who looked almost autistic before the Modi rhetoric. In that sense Modi, like Vajpayee, was a traditional politician who realised that the rhetoric of orality defined political finesse and competence. The oral disability of the leaders of the Congress in a way spelt out its future obituary.
Yet orality was a prelude to the way BJP approached print and the digital medium. The Nehruvian legacy was a legacy of print. History was a typological medium. In fact, the BJP was both illiterate and barbaric in its handling of print as a medium. Whether it was the reinventing of history books or tinkering with the syllabus, there was bumblingness to the BJP.
First, they did not have the range of historical characters the Congress possessed. In that sense, the Congress dominated print. A Deendayal Upadhyaya or even a Savarkar was no real match for a Gandhi or an Azad. In a subtle way, the BJP realised that its role as a typological warrior was limited.
The Congress was more true to type but this led the BJP to a more powerful insight which took time to articulate. It was the simple rule that the digital world was a post-Nehruvian world. Modi did not have to imitate Congress icons because he was the true digital gamesman. From selfie to Twitter, to apps, to trolling, the BJP understood the power of digital technology.
The digital world became a metaphor for the way the BJP constructed social change. Modi realised that the digital mode was not just a technology but a presentation of the self, a construction of community, a style for signalling a contemporary self. In a McLuhanesque sense, the medium was the message and Modi played it beautifully.
More, he made the idea of digital, a metaphor for a certain kind of change, where citizenship moved from identity to identity cards, where modernisation challenged the folklore of governance. Modi’s idea of demonetisation has to be looked at sociologically. Banks and corporations loved it. They realised that this was the new Swachh andolan where the financial and the formal were clean.
Demonetisation devastated the informal economy, savaging the daily wage worker, the mandi, the craft system and huge parts of the agricultural sector. In fact, digitalisation produced an inversion in the perception of corruption. Now the informal, the little economies relying on cash looked unclean.
Digitalisation seemed to be providing the new heuristic for democracy. Last week one went to a seminar organised by Microsoft for its major invention, the swift key process. It is odd how each person celebrated multilingualism but defined language as a form of life that needed a script.
In full swoop, the corporation like the government eliminated 1,800 oral languages. Yet the very innovations in digitality create a new legitimacy around multilingualism, which was earlier seen as a problem. Now with one piece of software, multilingualism rather than being a problem is a new market for ethnic styles.
It is as if technology now determines what is democratic. The Aadhaar card, rather than being a reform is spreading like an epidemic because everything from phones to school admission needs an Aadhaar card. By digitalising access, the card redefines the entitlements of citizenship. Without it one is now a non-person.
The extent of the change is like a new enclosure movement. Nikhil Dey of the MKSS points out how thousands of people have been declared dead by clinical sleight of hand. As a result, they have no entitlements and returning to life in the digital domain is still a Kafkaesque clerical process.
It is tacitly recognised by the Modi regime that digitalisation has become both a way of defining and legitimising change. It sets a prelude to forms of automation but deeply what the Modi regime has done is to break the tacit constitution of democracy which was a live and let live relation between orality, literacy and the digital world.
Today to be digital is defining citizenship. As a result, democracy is losing its sense of pluralism, because digital economies show contempt for the oral and the informal. If Hindutva is challenging the minorities, digitalisation is threatening the informal and the oral. In this Modi has created a masterstroke of change.
Critics of demonetisation, the Aadhaar card, now belong to the compost heap of the past because of what governance in India is articulating as a preference for the digital world. In terms of governance, identity, security, entitlement and access have all been digitalised. Earlier regimes at least listened to the objections of civil society.
They at least had a common language of politics. Today’s regime which fancies itself as technocratic has little respect for civil society. One of the great ironies I visualise is a battle between MKSS which pioneered in creating a right to information battling it out with a digital regime over the future of democracy. This is an irony that might prove more expensive.