Modism and Maoism Have a Lot in Common

The similarities between the Maoist regime and the Modi government are striking -- from puffing up a personality, to distaste for democracy and disregard for plurality.

Earlier this month, senior BJP leader Arun Jaitley darkly insinuated the existence of a ‘half Maoist’ threat to undermine Indian democracy.

Jaitley wouldn’t define these half-Maoists but made sure the framing was sweeping enough to cast in its net any political opponents, intellectuals, journalists or activists whose views might be deemed suspect.

This insidious effort to delegitimise government critics by the use of an expansive label was, paradoxically, classically Maoist. The Great Helmsman, after all, spent his entire career vanquishing his critics by branding them ‘bourgeois rightists’. Ascribing illegitimate motivations to your opponents, Mao Tse Tung understood, was a prudent method not only to deflect criticism and shut down any debate but to escape the very possibility of accountability.

A voracious appetite for labelling – anti-national, anti-Hindu, presstitutes etc – isn’t the only thing, however, that the ruling party and its fellow travellers have borrowed from the Maoist toolkit. From the use of culture as a battlefield to the unleashing of militant foot-soldiers, from harnessing the narrative of historical victimhood to the cultivation of the cult of personality, rampant anti-intellectualism to myth-making and the subordination of truth to ideology, the tactics and methods of the ruling party bear a remarkable similarity to those of the Maoist regime. It is, then, a delicious irony, of course, for defenders of the government to portray some of their opponents as ‘urban Maoists’.

What many critics often miss is that Prime Minister Narendra Modi, and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh view his election as a historical opportunity to remake society and culture, ways of thought and being in the image of their ideology. In one of his first speeches to parliament, Modi spoke of  ‘1200 years of slave mentality’ that was holding back India. The belief undergirding the ruling party is that the country has been enfeebled and conditioned from centuries of ‘Muslim’ and colonial role. The historical purpose of the party, then, is to inject vigour and self-confidence in the nation by restoring it to its native roots from an earlier ‘golden period’.

“Down with the slave mentality” was also the slogan used by Mao while resisting certain proponents of military modernisation. The Maoists viewed their nation as emerging from a ‘century of humiliation’ at the hands of imperialists and 2000 years of feudalism of the Chinese empire. It was not enough for the state to be communist, to usher in the communist utopia, culture too had to be remade in the Maoist image, which necessitated weeding out the “bourgeois intellectuals” who “dominated culture”. On the eve of embarking on the Cultural Revolution, Madame Mao, wife of the chairman and a key leader in the Central Cultural Revolutionary Group, charged that “the literary field and most professors have stood as a black force trying to dominate our politics”.

Police stop a protest march by JNU students and faculty early this year. Credit: PTI/Files

The primary targets of the Cultural Revolution, therefore, were university campuses, along with writers and other intellectuals. These were the sections that could possibly resist the ideological and cultural hegemony of the Communist Party and hence had to disciplined. The attacks on university campuses across the country over the past four years – from Jawaharlal Nehru University to Jadavpur to Ramjas to Hyderabad Central University and others – while lacking the sheer brutality of the Cultural Revolution era, stem from the same strain of anti intellectualism. Instead of ‘bourgeois intellectuals’, the targets here are leftists and secularists who dare to challenge the ideology and actions of the ruling party. In an echo of the Cultural Revolution era, teachers were assaulted, along with students, inside Ramjas College by RSS-affiliated Akhil Bharatiya Vidyarthi Parishad (ABVP) activists driven by the same fervour embodied by Red Guards half a century ago. Only these new Red Guards probably thought they were attacking ‘urban Maoists’.

The primary targets of the Cultural Revolution were university campuses, along with writers and other intellectuals. Credit:: Wikimedia Commons

Radical students of the ABVP though are just one component of the varied senas, militias and groups who have been emboldened, even tacitly encouraged, to unleash violence on the ‘enemies of the nation’. The targets for the attacks are defined at the political level, through coded messages, while the attacks are outsourced to society.  Lynchings of Muslims over the the issue of cows have become so commonplace as to hardly even constitute news.

This perpetual state of violence would be familiar to scholars of Maoist China, where peasants were encouraged to get their retribution against ‘class enemies’ in campaigns that took tens of thousands of lives. Conflict, for Mao, was a necessary and creative process. Without destruction of the old, the new wasn’t possible. Perpetual conflict, against rolling targets of landlords, ‘bourgeois rightists’, ‘imperialist lackeys’, ‘KMT remnants’ etc was, therefore, an essential part in realising the communist utopia.

Similarly, the creation of the Hindu Rashtra isn’t possible without conflict, and an array of targets –  ‘cow smugglers’, ‘anti nationals’, ‘separatists’ – would have to be constantly generated to provide for this outlet of creative violence. Lest we forget, the defining moment of Hindu nationalism was the Ram Janmabhoomi movement, which culminated in the spectacular destruction of the ‘old’ (the Babri Masjid), along with the destruction of hundreds of lives. The current phase of violence is, of course, deeply linked to that original spasm of violence by both ideology and personnel –  including our current prime minister, an enthusiastic participant in the temple movement.

The response of the prime minister to the simmering tension and violence engulfing the country has been a studied silence. The British journalist Jonathan Fenby argues that one of the great political virtues of Mao was his cultivated ambiguity. Mao oscillated between different positions and used silences and ambiguous statements to prevent anyone from gauging his actual position. The benefit of this, according to Fenby, was to provide Mao with the space to distance himself from the excesses of his numerous campaigns. Mao could, at different times, call for a “hundred flowers to bloom and a hundred schools of thought contend” and shortly afterwards revert to a campaign of prosecution against writers before again reverting to proclaiming the need for creative criticism.

This ambivalence allowed Mao to reap the political benefits of his campaigns while being shielded from their political fallout, which would be blamed on overzealous cadres or heavy-handed officials. Likewise, Modi seeks to benefit politically from the zealotry and violence of the mob, encouraged by the government, while simultaneously leaving enough space to distance himself from the consequences of their actions.

Lastly, the developing cult of personality around Modi is to some extent reminiscent of the Maoist personality cult. When a cabinet minister deems him ‘God’s gift to India‘ or an MLA declared him to the ‘incarnation of Lord Ram‘ they are effectively putting him on a pedestal that makes him above any questioning, let alone challenging. That is a recipe for disaster, as demonetisation starkly demonstrated. Far from having the temerity to challenge Modi’s harebrained scheme, every minister felt obliged to laud this ill-judged adventure as a visionary masterstroke.

The unparalleled disasters of the reckless ‘Great Leap Forward’ and the madness of the Cultural Revolution were possible precisely because of the Maoist personality cult, since the Great Helmsman could do no wrong, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary. In an emblematic statement at the start of the horrific Cultural Revolution, the chief of the PLA, Lin Biao, hailed Mao as a ‘genius’ whose words “will override the meaning of tens of thousands of ours”. The way to survive and prosper in the Chinese Communist Party was not through competence but through personal loyalty to the leader, a condition not untrue for the current BJP.

Mao after swimming in the Yangtze river. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This personality cult of the prime minister is also advanced by sympathetic sections of the media. One instance is the constant harping over his ‘remarkable’ energy and vigour even in old age, which some ‘independent’ journalists have even deemed proper as an interview question to the PM. The PM, meanwhile, helpfully uploads his yoga regimen to his millions of followers. This is, of course, full of political symbolism, and reminds one of the ‘historic swim’ by Mao at the Yangtze river, in which the chairman, aged 73, allegedly swam 15 miles in 65 minutes (a world record breaking performance) and was hysterically lauded by the Chinese media for his superhuman vigour and held as an example for the younger generation. It was 1966, and the vigour the younger generation was being primed for the convulsions of the Cultural Revolution.

Personality cults are both a function of the megalomania and messianic beliefs of the leader as well as a reinforcer of it. Both Modi and Mao share a highly puffed up view of their abilities and historical purpose of leading their nations to a glowing destiny. It led Mao to put his country’s resources in the service of highly unrealistic visions (like the Great Leap Forward’s target of overtaking Britain in 15 years) while failing dramatically in their realisation.

Modi too has made all sorts of wildly ambitious promises, from the more extravagant visions of bullet trains and broadband internet in every village to exacting targets on jobs, farmer incomes, housing and poverty alleviation, while little has changed on the ground. It is not comforting to note that the Maoist response to failures of signature programmes was always to find scapegoats and saboteurs and embark on the next campaign against internal enemies.

Modi pulls a child’s ears. Credit: Twitter

Admittedly, the scale and intensity of the tactics and methods of the Maoist regime cannot be compared to the Modi government, if only because India’s democratic traditions and constitutional system of government substantially restrict the scope of radical actions. Yet, in its attitude towards opponents, its disposition towards conflict, its visions of its own historical purpose and grand plans of remaking society, the current government ultimately displays the same distaste for democracy and distrust of plurality that characterised the Maoist regime. It seems that there is indeed, after all, a ‘half-Maoist’ attempt afoot to undermine democracy. Jaitley is only pointing his finger in the wrong direction.

Asim Ali is at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Mumbai.