The most undeniably revealing statement on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s bid to regain power in the coming Lok Sabha elections, comes from a tweet on April 4:
Imagine how badly a person has performed if he has to release a movie, start a channel, launch a web series, sell t-shirts, put his name on tea cups and whatnot, just for votes..
— Paresh (@hi_paresh) April 4, 2019
The opposition raised objections against NaMo TV, a channel dedicated to Modi. The Election Commission stalled Modi’s biopic citing Article 324 of the constitution, that it disturbs “the level playing field during the elections”. But efforts are on to ensure that propaganda wins over constitutional rules.
Modi seeks to cover up the bad report card on his government’s performance by producing the trump card he knows best: himself.
Sreenivasan Jain, who anchors NDTV’s ‘Reality Check’, informed viewers on its April 25 show, that the word Modi used the most in his election campaign so far (an incredible 176 times) is, well, “Modi”.
It signifies a narcissism that seeks to obfuscate the diverse reality of a nation, by fixing its hypnotised gaze on a personality cult. It deliberately ignores serious questions regarding the government’s performance, and focuses on something as frivolously self-indulgent as the PM’s love for mangoes.
The adulation of Modi by his cheerleaders and followers is not a problem in itself. Democracy is often utilised by populist figures to serve political ends. The problem is when adulation turns into glorification. The shorthand of his name, “NaMo”, becomes a sign of sacred salutation, while an election rally in Varanasi is termed, “Namostav”, a sacred festival. These acts of naming are not of a secular-democratic nature. Eulogising a leader in sacral terms blurs the distinction between the leader in a democracy, and someone lording over a theocracy.
Modi is also the first Indian prime minister in India’s 72 years of independence to finish his tenure without a single, open interaction with the press. There was a 95-minute interview on January 1 this year, that was allegedly “scripted”. The Congress Party found it nothing more than the prime minister’s “monologue”.
It provoked a Twitter user to imagine that the news channel completed their questions after having received the answers. The ANI interviewer at no point felt the need to ask a counter-question.
Modi has made it known that he does not like, nor believes in, questions. Questions put to him are seen as politically motivated. His answers alone are supposedly objective, and above politics. The institution of the press, as a body that raises questions in a democracy on behalf of the people, was completely ignored, and undermined. It gave the impression that Modi feels he is a monarch, above questions from the people.
Modi has never missed a chance to pose for selfies with important political leaders around the world, as well as with popular celebrities of his own country, and display them on social media. He is not squeamish about hiding his narcissism, under the cloak of being media savvy.
No Indian prime minister before has marketed himself on a daily basis with the help of a round-the-clock team promoting him. Advertising agencies Soho Square, Ogilvy and Mather, and media buying agency Madison World, have contributed to the making of brand Modi.
When it came to technology and business, Modi turned global, making deals with even a rich Muslim nation, like the United Arab Emirates. When it concerned beleaguered Muslim migrants caught in the territorial politics between partitioned nations, Modi’s government drew an anti-humanitarian line. A ruthless distinction made between (poor) people and capital.
Since 2014, the advertising machinery has kept Modi’s political ad campaign alive with catchy slogans. The belief in the invincibility of his media image kept Modi impervious to mounting criticism of his economic policies including demonetisation.
Despite being a quick responder on Twitter regarding political and social issues, Modi kept silent on growing cultural intolerance and a consistent nation-wide lynching and attack on Muslims over alleged beef eating and cow slaughter.
When he finally spoke, in June 2017, a week after a 16-year-old boy, Hafiz Junaid, was stabbed to death in a train over suspicion of carrying beef, he did not address Junaid’s killing. Invoking Gandhi, he spoke in general terms against cow protectors taking law into their hands.
But violence by Hindu vigilante groups against Muslims in state governments ruled by the BJP continued unabated. The motive behind reminding the people of the Gandhian spirit of nonviolence was strategic, not sincere, or ethical. Modi exempted himself from Gandhi’s commitment to sternly address (and condemn) Hindu majoritarian violence unleashed against Muslims. The lip service to Gandhi is a veneer against the indifference to the fate of Muslim lives.
As elections approached, Modi increasingly brought the whole focus on himself. In an election rally in Ahmedabad in March, Modi said in reference to the Balakot airstrike on February 26, whose casualties are under dispute, “It is my nature to avenge every wrongdoing.”
The airstrikes were turned into an occasion to showcase personal bravado. Political decision, instead of being a calm reflection of the country’s objective interests, got identified with the language of vendetta.
This language of vendetta was turned into a hyper-masculine ethic of nationalism. At the India Today Conclave on March 2, Modi made a significant remark:
“Today’s India is fearless, unintimidated, and decisive. The nation moves forward due to the masculine fervour of crores of Indians, and their self-belief. This togetherness has instilled fear in anti-national elements, both inside and outside the nation. In the current atmosphere, this fear is good.”
Modi packaged unity in masculinist terms, with a militarist ring behind “decisive”. Warning people of internal enemies is an attempt to manipulate people’s fears and create an emergency of trust. The implications are far more sinister and devastating than Indira Gandhi declaring the Emergency in 1975 that had led to two years of democratic upheaval.
Mrs Gandhi’s political opponents and India’s civil society had come together to oppose the government. Modi’s insinuation, in contrast, is a government ploy to divide people along ideological and religious lines. Manufacturing mistrust between people allows the Modi government to play protector and buy the Hindu majority’s paranoia. By justifying the fear spread against political opponents and minorities, it lays the ground for state-sponsored coercion.
The claims of internal enemies bank upon the effectiveness of manufactured fear. How come so many people turned “anti-national”, all of a sudden? Why did we not hear of “anti-nationals” before 2014? Has some anti-national ‘bug’ been released in the air by an enemy country, after Modi came to power?
The questions reveal their inherent absurdity.
Instead, we may ask a saner one: Why has Modi and his government invented this anti-national ‘bug’? It helps to spread revulsion against the supposedly bug-infected body of political opponents and minorities. The right-wing imagination is obsessed with bugs, and prone to invent its enemies as such.
Why has the Modi government been injecting fear of anti-nationals into people’s minds and circulating it on social media? The impetus is to keep people on the edge, and to ignite rage and fear. All sane voices that counter this absurd accusation are drowned by the abuses of a psychotic mass. Trolls comprise this psychotic mass.
Many have shared their bewilderment regarding Modi following trolls on Twitter. There is a political logic behind this gesture. The attempt to topple the old, secular political order with a “new India” that Modi defines in his own image represents a hate-nation that is vengeful and won’t tolerate (imaginary) enemies.
Right-wing politics seeks to destroy the democratic social order by encouraging and unleashing vendetta and hate gangs. Replace arguments with wild accusations. Reduce all political debates to a wartime preoccupation: But, who is the enemy?
Despite invoking Gandhi at will, Modi is not experimenting with truth, but with hate. The politics of enmity seeks to transform society into a laboratory, where an elaborate program of hate is laboriously manufactured.
It remains to be seen if India retains its capacity for sanity or succumbs to absurdity.
Manash Firaq Bhattacharjee is the author of Looking for the Nation: Towards Another Idea of India, published by Speaking Tiger Books (August 2018).