The media has been seduced to redefine its role: run the Opposition out of town. No other government since Independence has had the media so eagerly eating out of its hand, not even during the infamous Emergency.
A revolution was deemed to have been ushered in on May 26, 2014, in the forecourt of Rashtrapati Bhavan. Three years later, it is all too obvious that the meretricious cult has not been allowed to go stale; nor, have the “revolutionaries” lost their swagger. If anything, the revolution and its high priests seem inexhaustible and unstoppable. The prime minister’s reputation as the greatest demagogue of our times stands undiminished; he has been blessed with, to use Tiruvallavar’s words, “the gift of the gifted tongue.”
As a nation, we remain seduced. Our anxieties and animosities are kept bubbling; and, we are all comfortable with #hashtag illiberalism. We have been induced to believe that we are being governed by less corrupt and more effective rulers than we were during the days of the parasitic Gandhis; we are unceasingly bombarded with facts and fiction, all intended to convey a sense of competence and accomplishment. Indeed, we are not allowed to catch our breath; we are being constantly transported from one crisis to another — and, a sense of relief that there is someone out there who is willing to use violence against those who threaten us with violence.
There is no denying that the new revolution continues to demonstrate untiring political energy and populist verve; perhaps its greatest – uniquely unprecedented– strength remains its ability to control the national narrative, what we think or are allowed to say in public domain. It has mastered the new communication techniques and technology. The result is a bit of national incongruity. The same media that only a few years ago thought its primary institutional responsibility – rather its very raison d’etre – was to ask uncomfortable questions, to show a mirror to power, to speak up to authority, has been enlisted, unresistingly and self-consciously, as a government surrogate. Night after night, dissent and disagreements are shouted down in television studios; those in disagreement with the government are simply told to “stop cribbing.” This has been one of the most remarkable achievements, that too without seemingly any recourse to the coercive instruments available to any government. The media has been seduced to redefine its role: run the Opposition out of town. No other government since Independence has had the media so eagerly eating out of its hand, not even during the infamous Emergency.
Yet, three years later, the character and direction of the revolution stand changed. It can be argued, admittedly with a bit of exaggeration, that the “revolution” has been reduced to a fight over Indira Gandhi’s legacy between her biological grandson (Rahul Gandhi) and a putative political grandson (Narendra Modi).
The revolution changed direction once the Bihar electorate in the late 2015 put an end to the emerging Modi presidency; and, suddenly, the man who was widely hailed to be an Indian Deng Xiaoping, dextrously changed course. After the Bihar voter settled Modi’s hash, the reformist platform was pushed on the back-burner (even though the FICCI and ASSOCHAM continue to sing paeans, perhaps out of habit.)
Let us make no mistake. Three years after the revolution, the Indian state is back with a bang – back with all the Stalinist impulses of the Indira Gandhi era. The state and its authorised functionaries breathe down the citizen’s neck, in the most intrusive and demanding manner. At least, three elements of the Indira Gandhi state stand restored as functioning mantras of the new revolution.
First, the poor have been rediscovered, a la 1969. The grand disruption that went by the name of demonetisation was dressed up in pro-poor rhetoric in a manner that would have earned a nod of approval from Indira Gandhi. All those who thought that corporate imagination and market innovation would be relied upon to find answers to our problems of economic stagnation and unemployment have watched in silence as the state was now charged with the responsibility to ameliorate the poor’s plight. Shades of ‘Garibi Hatao’. All the Indira Gandhi acolytes have noted with satisfaction that the 2014 revolution has not meant the withering away of the welfare state.
Second, the inspector and his stick are back. In the name of unearthing black money, the raid raj has been brought back. Not since the brief period of V.P. Singh’s tenure as finance minister has the country been invited to celebrate the daily visits from the CBI or the Enforcement Directorate. It is being harshly demanded that taxes be paid up; otherwise be prepared for a visit from the income-tax man. Rather than the citizen being asked to live up to his or her obligations to the state, a collectivist mindset appears to be at work. And, where the legal functionaries are unable to be persuasive, there is the lynch mob, out to enforce and impose new prejudices and preferences. The state has asserted its right to oversee all spheres of cultural and social activity. The state is more muscular, more muzzling, and more manipulative than at any other time in recent decades.
And, the third Indira Gandhi mantra at work is the invocation of nationalism and its unremitting demands on our emotions and loyalties. Our nationalism has been reoriented as an anti-Pakistan mantra. Stupid and shallow men in Islamabad and Rawalpindi continue to fuel our sense of righteous indignation. Indira Gandhi remains the historic role model. Our present leaders cannot be faulted for remembering that she enjoys the status of being the only “Hindu” ruler in our history to have inflicted a crushing defeat on a “Muslim” adversary. Even Atal Behari Vajpayee had to hail her as Durga. History carries its own allurements for the current saviours.
And, just as it was Indira Gandhi’s wont, these mantras are being pressed to good use for a single-minded pursuit of personal political dominance and hegemony. The pursuit of personal political hegemony has, necessarily, to be non-ideological, practical, pragmatic and tactically ambiguous. The purists can keep on bemoaning the ideological flakiness and the absence of a Margaret Thatcher-like clarity and conviction, the hegemon has no doubts about his aims and direction: maximalist power as a personal entitlement, as a necessary requisite for orderly and stable governance.
A political leader defines himself as much in terms of what his regime stands for as in terms of who he chooses to designate as his putative enemy. The Modi revolution continues to position itself as the antithesis of the Gandhis, and to appropriate for itself a moral and spiritual superiority – a very Indira Gandhian ruse – as it seeks to lay its own claim to the historical legacy of Indira Gandhi. In this quest lie the seeds of the revolution’s own disintegration.
Harish Khare is Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared.