The Modi Cult Relies on an Edifice of Virtual Realities

India’s organised political formations must choose between meeting the ruling onslaught on its own anti-intellectual turf or striving to forge a politics that appeals to a dormant awareness enslaved by the fake charm of the cult.

In a strongly rendered article, Kapil Kommireddy speaks of the “cult of personality” that has overtaken Indian Democracy.

The article in question forcefully lists all the relevant bullet points that bear on the substance of the new leadership in India.

What perhaps remains to be considered is why this totalitarian right-wing lurch has had remarkable success in most parts of north, west, and east India.

The middle classes who backed first the struggle for independence and then the first two decades or so of India’s post-Independence life understood and accepted politics as a progressive collective converse among a diverse people looking to make a better future on principles of equality and inclusiveness.

A whole baggage of reactionary propensities notwithstanding, including within the Indian National Congress that by and large led the anti-colonial movement, a commitment to rationality imbued most segments of the then elite. That an enlightened plurality of existence and endeavour could result only from a politics of ideas found general acceptance. This, of course, had not a little to do with leaderships who shared a new ascendant global vision of emancipation and of the need to redress historical inequities.

Inevitably, it seemed a sine qua non that the new India could not but be forged on fundamentals that were the diametric opposite of colonialism.

Democracy, thus, came to be understood as not merely an alternate form of governance but a testament to an open society that found its way forward through the collective discourse of politics, however riven or brutal at times, given the disparity of living conditions and of aspirations across a sub-continental demography of unprecedented diversity.

Politics was thus not identified with the corpus of politicians but seen as an archive of the mind charged with delivering a new social and economic order. (Might it be quickly added, though, that there was no dearth of preferences in high places even in that moment of newness which looked upon the colonial model as not wholly a bad one.)

As Marx had said, in its first phase of ascendance, the nascent bourgeois class expressed a willingness to own the burdens of the making of a new republic, and its achievements during the Nehruvian era still stand as monuments to that enlightened resolve and leadership.

Democracy, thus, came to be understood as not merely an alternate form of governance but a testament to an open society. Group photograph of members of the Constituent Assembly of India (Legislative), 1949.

Advancing capitalism

Not too long after, “growth” began to become the chief mantra of the new elites—one that began to be pushed as a solvent for the many problems of social and cultural relegation and oppression which a majority of Indians continued to suffer, unremedied by mere increases in purchasing power, modest as those increases were and continue to be.

Slowly but surely, this new emphasis required that questions of progressive social transformations and democratic sanctities be relegated to secondary status, although notable cautions kept being voiced by social thinkers who disagreed with this pecking order of national priorities.

The adoption of neoliberal economic policies in the wake of the Washington Consensus of 1990 yielded over the next decade a new Indian elite that now came to be consumed with commercial and speculative prospecting of all kinds, setting in a distaste for politics as the collective converse of the republic. Commitment to democracy began to be a proforma genuflection to a necessary evil – and a concession to world opinion – that could not yet be wished away as the legitimising source of government formations. But, with every passing day it began to be obvious that the preference now both of the bourgeoisie and the elites that lauded it veered round to the desire for strong governments led by an unchallenged leader. Economic centralisation clearly now looked for a political closure that rested in a corresponding political centralisation.

Not surprisingly, political activity began to depart from a rational consideration of policy options to retrograde appeals to subjectivisms of diverse kinds. Those subjectivisms had of course always been with us, but now came to dominate popular appeal, and the wherewithal of the democratic process.

It was inevitable that the new desire for cultism came to embrace a concourse between politicians, their monetary mentors, and media associates that sought not to sharpen the faculties of the citizen to a fairminded, or analytic consideration of national life and its new priorities, but, through relentless propaganda, to evacuate the public mind of any capacity to think at all.

The goal of the ascendant lobbies of “growth” was to dislodge the human subject and produce the unquestioning consumer, as much of goods and services as of depoliticised constructions both of citizen identities and of the nation at large.

The Left that had played a stellar role in the anti-colonial movement curiously for long years till quite recently failed to see that this depoliticisation involved in itself a politics of dangerous import. Its failure to think, even as a concession, outside the framework of the economic model, and its trashing of subjectivisms as epi-phenomenal things that would vanish with “growth,” and the depletion of the strength of the working classes through infusions of new technologies rendered it suddenly without a mooring strong or ideologically potent enough to meet the challenge of the right-wing with any consistent or consequential success.

It may not be any exaggeration that not more than a per cent or two of Indian elites any more avow any principled allegiance to democracy as an article of political/ systemic faith, nor find themselves enchanted by the long and fascinating history of the arrival of democracy after centuries of struggle worldwide. If capital at its first point came riding the coat-tails of liberty and equality, new globalised elites think it best now to disengage the one from the other.

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If politics now matter at all, it does so only to the disempowered, since it continues to be their only avenue of social change. The new elites are never more than a phone call away from the fructification of their “growth” aspirations, no matter what organised party comes to rule, since most have come to embrace the neoliberal model of “growth” and know that this model cannot prosper without the cooption of the new elite.

Barring a voice here or there, most seem to have swallowed the reality that the unconscionable inequalities of income that now pervade the polity are here to stay. Hardly a mention can be heard of the fact that a handful in India, as in some other “democracies” as well, own more than 70% of national wealth, with more privatisations in the offing.

From the left: Mukesh Ambani, Gautam Adani and Shiv Nadar. Photo: Reuters and PTI

In the new India of cultism, therefore, elections, not surprisingly, have come to be occasions not for a fine sifting of policy options but a route to the continuance of clout. And to that effect, as we witness now, any shenanigans may be employed, chief among these being the power of money and muscle, besides the apparatus of deterrence that state power makes available.

It will remain to be seen how long this shamefaced need to engage in the theatre of the hustings will continue to be followed in its present form. It is not incidental that we have been witness over the years to concerted efforts to curtail this need to a bare minimum. Not voter suppression, but democracy suppression, if you like.

The other logic of cultism is of course that the constitutional autonomy of institutions be negated as much as possible without the risk of sullying the “democratic image” to a terminal point. That so many elites who man these institutions show an ever-increasing readiness to succumb to the argument that the cult leader must have his own loyalists in place in order to ensure “efficient” governance and national security are expressions of a familiar political/constitutional annihilation that the world has witnessed before.

As to the polity in general, if Indian democracy at its threshold encouraged a flowering of opinion, cultism requires that only such voices be heard as subscribe, wittingly or fearfully, to the propitiation of the cult leader. An edifice of virtual realities remains busy 24/7 to displace from view the hard facts of life.

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The farmers’ movement

It is in these contexts that the significance of the farmer’s movement is best understood. Closing ranks across retrograde allegiances, India’s farmers have come together to renew politics as that collective converse that it was in the early years of post-Independence India. Their dour refusal to be fibbed off by strategies of anti-intellectual deflections, and their determination to stay the course of analysed praxis brings the hope that similar renewals may come to be undertaken by diverse sections of the polity who reel under the deprivations wrought by a “growth-oriented” official discourse that in effect seeks only to rob the people to pay the paymaster. That the new putsch to pass on public wealth more comprehensively to crony privateers has come to be understood by them, and forward from there, as the final fatal trajectory of “growth” promises a route to a new clarity of thought and hopefully of action.

People attend a mahapanchayat as part of a farmers’ protest against farm laws at Bhainswal in Shamli district in Uttar Pradesh, February 5, 2021. Photo: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui

It is instructive that the redoubtable chief executive of India’s largest state has cautioned that “secularism” poses the greatest threat to national life. The caution clearly emerges from the coming together of farmers, transcending the communal divide that was engineered in Muzzafarnagar in 2013—a prospect that the right-wing views with tribulation.

It will also remain to be seen whether or not India’s many organised political formations choose to meet the ruling onslaught on its own anti-intellectual turf or strive to forge again a politics that appeals not just to the basest instincts but to a dormant awareness enslaved by dire livelihood realities and the fake charm of the cult.

A new class politics is asking to be forged—one that incorporates seemingly epi-phenomenal social and cultural urgencies as components of class, and therefore of a more sentient archive of mass movements that do not repeat the error of being doctrinally monochromatic and intellectually self-satisfied.

No cult, it may be recalled, has ever succeeded in fooling all the people all of the time.