Narendra Modi: the divisive manipulator who charmed the world


This week the Indian “ministers ” makes a triumphant visit to the UK after cosying up to everyone from Silicon Valley CEOs to Rupert Murdoch. Whats behind the uncritical embrace of a human who has presided over a rising tide of assassinations and religion zealotry, and driven the countrys writers and artists into insurrection?

In 2005, when Narendra Modi was the chief minister of the wealthy Indian state of Gujarat, local police murdered a criminal called Sheikh Sohrabuddin in cold blood. At an election rally in 2007 for the ruling Hindu nationalist BJP, Modi assured his citizens that Sohrabuddin got what he deserved. What should be done, he asked, to a human found possessing illegal limbs? The pumped-up mob screamed back: Mari nakho-mari nakho !( Kill him, kill him !)

The lynch mobs cry was repeated in a village near Delhi last month as zealots beat to demise a Muslim farmer they suspected wrongly of maintaining beef in his home. While Modi makes a triumphant visit to the UK after more than a year as Indias prime minister, the Hindu supremacists are, as the novelist Mukul Kesavan wrote last month, in full hunting mode, head up and roar. In recent weeks, activists and scholars have been shot dead amid a nationwide campaign against Hindu-baiters that targets secular intellectuals and westernised women as well as public figure with Muslim and Christian names, and western NGOs such as Greenpeace. The assassinations follow months of violence and intimidating rhetoric by Hindu supremacists. A scope of public figure, from Shah Rukh Khan, Bollywoods biggest superstar, to Indias respected central banker, Raghuram Rajan, have spoken out against the rising tide of sectarian hatred. More than 40 of Indias most distinguished writers have returned their awardings to the Sahitya Academy, “the member states national” literature academy. Many others, including artists, scholars, filmmakers and scientists, have since joined the protests, which reached boiling point after Hindu fanatics lynched at the least four people in connection with beef-eating.

Modi with David Cameron in Australia last year. Photo: LUKAS COCH/ POOL/ EPA

Modi turned beef into an incendiary issue during his run for Indias highest political office; he and his party colleagues reinfused it with anti-minorities venom during recent local elections in the state of Bihar. The chief minister of one of Indias richest nations proclaimed last month that Muslims could only live in the country if they stopped feeing beef. The house magazine of the RSS, the parent outfit of Hindu nationalists, quoth ancient scriptures to justify the killing of sinners who slaughter cows. The culture pastor Mahesh Sharma told of protesting authors: If they say they are unable to write, let them first stop writing. We will then see. On Saturday, Modi hinted at his own opinions on the subject by posing for pictures with organisers of a Delhi demonstration against protesting writers, where slogans such as: Reach the fraudulent literati with boots and, Presstitutes suck up to Europeans had echoed.

On the day of Modis election last May, I wrote in the Guardian that India was entering its most sinister phase since independence. Those who had monitored Modis words and deeds , noted their consistency, and feared that Hindu supremacism could deliver a mortal blow to Indias already enfeebled democratic institutions and pluralist traditions had come to much the same conclusion. Modi is a stalwart member of the RSS, a paramilitary organisation explicitly modelled on European fascist parties, whose members have been procured routinely guilty of violence against Indian minorities. A pogrom in Modi-ruled Gujarat in 2002 killed more than 1,000 Muslims and displaced tens of thousands.( It was what inspired the US and UK governments to impose a visa ban on Modi ). Whether or not Modi was personally complicit in the murder and gang rapes, they had clearly been planned in advance, as Human Rights Watch said in the first of countless provides information on the violence, and organised with the extensive participation of the police and state government officials. Among the few people convicted was Maya Kodnani, Modis ministerial colleague, and a fanatic called Babu Bajrangi, who crowed to a journalist that he had slashed open with his sword the womb of a heavily pregnant girl, and claimed that Modi sheltered him after the riots and even changed three judges in order for him to be released on bail( Modi has not responded to these allegations ).

Though sentenced to dozens of years in prison, Kodnani and Bajrangi are frequently granted bail and allowed to roam free in Modis India. Indias foremost investigative body, the CBI, had accused Modis consigliere, Amit Shah, who is now president of the BJP, of ordering the execution of Sohrabuddin( among others ), but receded its case against him last year, quoting absence of proof. Meanwhile, Teesta Setalvad, a human rights activist and one of Modis most persistent critics, is saved from arrest only by the interventions of the supreme court.

Modi communicated early the boldnes and tawdriness of power when in May 2014 he flew from Gujarat to the oath-taking rite on a private corporate plane emblazoned with the name of his closest corporate chum. In January this year he turned out in a $ 15,000 Savile Row suit with personalised pinstripes to hug Barack Obama. Launching Digital India( a programme to connect thousands of villages to the internet) in Silicon Valley last month, the eager new international player apparently jostle Mark Zuckerburg aside to clear space for a photo-op for himself( the video has run viral ). One of his most fervent cheerleaders in India now complains that the “ministers ” is like a new bride remaking herself for her powerful and wealthy in-laws.

Consequently, many in his own forgotten household are turning against him. On Sunday, his partys vicious and lavishly funded campaign in elections in Bihar, one of Indias largest and poorest nations, ended in humbling defeat. But Modis glossy makeover seems to have seduced many in the west; Rupert Murdoch tweeted after a recent session that Modi is Indias best leader with best policies since independence. Sheryl Sandberg proclaimed she was changing her Facebook profile in honour of Modis visit to Silicon Valley in September. His libertarian hosts did not seem to know or care that, just as Modi was arriving in California to promote Digital India, his factotums were shutting down the internet in Kashmir, or that earlier this year his government advocated a draconian statute that the Indian police utilized repeatedly to arrest people posting sentiments on Facebook and Twitter. Nor did the Bay regions single-minded data-monetisers fuss about the fact that Modi had launched Digital India in India itself with a private party for his most fanatical troll-troopers people who are, as the publication Caravan set it, a byword in online terror, abhor and misogyny. In a dog-eat-dog world primarily organized around lucrative deal-making, the only value seems to be economic growth albeit, for a small minority.

Modis speeches about our own countries cruelly postponed and now imminent glory have packed stadia around the world with ecstatic Indian. At Wembley this weekend, some more grownup men and women chanting Modi, Modi! will embarrass themselves in history. The apparently unembarrassable Tory government detected new muscles while kowtowing to Xi Jinping, and will no doubt find them useful for some Indian style-prostration, sashtanga pranam , before Modi.

Modi was always an odd option to lead India into the 21 st century. Satisfying him early in his career, the distinguished social psychologist Ashis Nandy assessed Modi as a classic, clinical occurrence of the authoritarian personality, with its mix of puritanical rigidity, constricting of emotional life and fictions of violence. Such a figure could describe refugee camps with tens of thousands of Muslim survivors of the 2002 pogrom as child-breeding centres. Asked repeatedly about his culpability in the killings, Modi insisted that his only mistake was bad media management. Pressed repeatedly over a decade about such extraordinary absence of repentance, he finally said that he regretted the killings as he would a puppy being run over by a car.

With Facebook boss Mark Zuckerberg. Photo: Bloomberg/ Bloomberg via Getty Images

More importantly, Modi was a symptom, easily identified through his many European and Asian predecessors, of capitalisms periodic and unavoidable dysfunction: he was patently the opportune manipulator of mass disaffection with uneven and unstable growth, who confuses a fearful and atomised citizenry with the demonisation of minorities, scapegoating of ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan and rootless people, and promises of developing, while facilitating crony capitalism. To aspiring but thwarted young Indian Modi presented himself as a social revolutionary, the son of a humble tea-seller challenging entrenched dynasties, as well as an economic moderniser. He promised to overturn an old social and political order that they find, correctly, as dominated by a venal and unresponsive ruling class. His self-packaging as a pious and virtuous human of the people seemed especially persuasive as corruption scandals tainted the media as well as politicians and tycoons in the years leading up to 2014.

Modis earliest supporters in his bid for supreme power, however, were Indias richest people, lured by special favors of inexpensive land and taxation concessions. Ratan Tata, the steel and car-making tycoon, was one of the first big industrialists to espouse him in the aftermath of the anti-Muslim pogrom. Mukesh Ambani, another business tycoon and owned of a 27 -storey home in the city of slums, Mumbai, soon hailed his grand vision. His brother proclaimed Modi king among monarches. Even the Economist, reporting on Modi-mania among private-equity types, blue-chip executives and the chiefs of Indias big conglomerates was startled by the creepy sycophancy. It shouldnt have been: in Modis India the Ambanis are fast heading towards a Berlusconi-style domination of both news and entertainment content and delivery mechanisms.

Media management has ceased to be a problem for Modi; the television channels and press owned by loyal supporters hectically build him up as Indias saviour. Modi also attracted academics, writers and journalists who had failed to flourish in the old regime the embittered pedantocrats and wannabes who traditionally serve in the intellectual rearguard of illiberal movements. Predictably, these victims of ressentiment who languished, as Nietzsche wrote, in a whole tremulous realm of subterranean revenge are now taking over Indian institutions, and filling the airwaves with their rabid mendaciousness and rage.

Many non-resident Indian, denied full dignity in the white mans world, also hitched their low self-esteem to Modis hot-air balloons about the arriving Indian Century. The Modi Toadies, as they are widely referred to on social media, have turned out to be an intriguingly diverse plenty: they range from small-town zealots campaigning against romantic love between Muslim and Hindus to a publicist called Swapan Dasgupta, a former Trotskyite and self-proclaimed anglophile. But it should not be forgotten that a variety of global elite networks went to work strenuously on Modis behalf: the slick public-relations firm APCO that works with Central Asian tyrants and suave technocrats as much as the rented armies of cyberthugs rampaging through social media and the comment segments of online articles.

Protestors after the murder of a Muslim who was beaten to demise for allegedly feeing beef. Photo: Rupak de Chowdhuri/ Reuters/ Corbis

A former special adviser to Tony Blair authored a hagiography for English-speaking readers. The Labour peer Meghnad Desai helped alchemise Modis record of assisting big corporations into an electorally potent myth of efficiency and rapid developing. Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya two Ivy League Indian economists charged with poverty-denialism by the recent Nobel laureate Angus Deaton said in a letter to the Economist that the anti-Muslim pogrom in Modis Gujarat was actually a riot. As Modi appeared likely to become “ministers “, the intellectual grunts at American thinktanks churned out op-eds hailing Modi as “the mens” to accelerate Indias neoliberalisation, and reorient its foreign policy towards America and Israel. Many foreign correspondents and India hands lost their intellectual confidence and judgement before such diligently manufactured consensus.

Thus, Modi rose frictionlessly and swiftly from dishonor to respectability in a world where money, power and status are the measure of everything, and where human being, as Balzac bitterly wrote, are reduced to being either buffoons or knaves. He may be very far from fulfilling his electoral promise of creating adequate tasks for the one million Indian who enter the workforce every month. He still deals mostly in fantasy, gushing about smart cities and bullet train, and a digital India in which fibre-optic cables will bring remote villages online. But among global upper-class who see India as a fast-growing economy and counterweight to China, poverty-denialism shades easily into pogrom-denialism. A tweet by a New-York-based venture capitalist responding to protests by Indian writers sums up the persist morality: The icons of new India are the wealth inventors. Nobody dedicates a rats ass anymore about the writers.

Modis ascent through a variety of enablers, whitewashers and wealth-creators invites us to probe our own complicity as buffoons and knaves in increasingly everyday forms of violence and dispossession. For Modis ruthless economism is a platitude phenomenon, marked everywhere by greed, sophistry and a disdain for human life and dignity symptoms, as GN Devy, one of Indias most bracing intellectuals, set it last month, of a worldwide transition into a post-human existence.

In India itself, the prostration before Mammon, bellicose nationalism, boorish anti-intellectualism, and dread and animosity of the weak predates Modi. It did not seem so brazen previously because the now supplanted Indian elite disguised their hegemony with what Edmund Burke called pleasing illusions: in this case, reverential invocations of Gandhi and Nehru, and of the noble idea of India. Thus, the Congress party, which first summoned the malign ghosts of Hindu supremacism in the 1980 s and presided over the massacre of more than 3,000 Sikhs in 1984, could claim to represent secularism. And liberal intellectuals patronised by the regime could remain silent when Indian security force in Kashmir filled up mass graves with dissenters to the idea of India, gang-raped with impunity, and stuck live wire into the penis of suspected militants. The rare protestor among Indian writers was scorned for straying from literature into political activism. TV anchors and columnists competed with one another in whipping up patriotic rage and hatred against various internal and external adversaries of the idea of India. The secular nationalists of the ancient regime are now trying to disown their own legitimate children when they recoil fastidiously from the Hindu supremacists foaming at the mouth.

One can only hope that the barefaced viciousness of Hindu supremacists will jolt the old upper-class out of their shattered dogma and pieties while politicising a cheated young generation. It is true that Modi and his Toadies personify without disgrace, ambivalence or euphemism the brutality of power; they dont give a rats ass about pleasing illusions. Yet their assaults on the authorised idea of India are creating a rift in the unfeeling monolith through which a humane politics and culture might flow. The alternative, as recent weeks show, is a post-human India, where lynch mobs roused by their great leader call: Kill him! Kill him!

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