Friday, Dec 02, 2022

Power Defangs

Politics has blunted the edge of his ideology, making him less dangerous

Power Defangs
illustration by Sandeep Adhwaryu
Power Defangs

Narendra Modi, everyone forgets, is one of those who, like Mulayam Singh Yadav, Laloo Prasad Yadav, H.D. Deve Gowda and Mayawati, comes from previously marginalised social groups. He belongs to the caste of oil-pressers, like most of Godhra's Muslims. One can speculate whether his role in the pogrom of 2002 had something to do with self-hatred, but I won't go into that here.

However, unlike all others in this category, Modi has not projected himself as a backward class leader. Nor is he seen as one. Though he calls himself the leader of five crore Gujaratis, his "caste" constituency is the Gujarati middle class and his rhetoric and political style are geared to that class. Even the Muslims who support him seem to come from the same class. His language, dress and mannerisms are quintessentially modern and upper middle class, like that of the well-manicured sanyasini, Uma Bharati.

Why Modi has retooled himself as a typical, middle-class politician is obvious: he has larger, pan-Indian ambitions; he has to cut across the boundaries of local cultures, which means he cannot but flaunt capabilities and skills identified with the Indian middle class. Also, Gujarat is a small state studded with a large number of cities—at least 50 of them. It therefore has an urban middle class that matters much more than in other states. Lastly, Modi began his life as an RSS pracharak and the RSS is typically a product of middle-class India: it involves a rejection of both folk Hinduism and ordinary Hindus. Built on Hindu self-hatred and hostility to what is seen as the disorganised, folksy, anarchic, non-rational style of Hinduism that pervades village India, the RSS and the Hindu nationalists might make compromises with it for the sake of electoral politics, but like their alter-ego, the Leninist Left, they presume that an enlightened middle class of partly deracinated Hindus will act as the vanguard and lead the Hindus towards an European-style nation-state. It is not an accident that the founding fathers of the RSS were mostly non-believers or weak believers. And even the present leadership of the RSS is not known for its love of Hinduism as it is; they want to retool Hinduism and make it more like Islam and Christianity.

I first met Narendra Modi over 15 years ago when I interviewed him. As a clinical psychologist, my interview went into his inner life, but it would be unprofessional to go into that. However, I can say this much: I found him dangerous. He was just getting into politics then and as a young RSS pracharak, his ideology, especially his almost paranoid perception of Muslims, was neat, earnest and frightening. I fear the earnestness of ideologues, and the incorruptible among them are the worst. It's a disastrous combination: incorruptibility and earnestness. They will self-destruct rather than compromise on ideology.

Modi's earnestness, thankfully, has declined; he has become more instrumental. He is at once less threatening and more dangerous. He can now go farther in politics with his personality and psychological resources, exactly as the bjp over the years has become a less ideological party and therefore politically more skilful and accommodative.

I do not consider Modi as dangerous and as invulnerable now as I did when I met him first. Now, Modi's ambitions and his political aspirations protect us. He has changed in other ways as well—he is more polished, even more determined, but without that touch of desperation you see in many politicians of this kind. Modi is quite unlike these other politicians, whose anxiety to stick to power is as obvious as their blatant attempts to make money or to put their own people in decision-making positions. He is far more sophisticated. Politics has blunted the edge of his ideological sharpness. His rhetoric is more calculative, or instrumental, than it was then. To that extent, democracy has tamed him and exposed him to other possibilities.

Many people will not like what I'm saying, but I'm inclined to believe that the Gujarat riots were not indiscriminate and mindless. Instrumentality was an important part of it. If you see the geography of the riots, you will see that the riots did not take place in Saurashtra and south Gujarat, where the bjp was strong. Modi's love of Hinduism extended from north Gujarat to central Gujarat, the two areas where the Congress was stronger and he could snatch the initiative from the Congress.

Modi's attitude to Muslims is understandable. His ideology, perhaps like all ideologies, has to set up a fall guy or anti-self. And that anti-self defines him. But politics has changed the nature of his commitment; he may be now more willing to sell out his party and his ideology for the sake of power. The encounter of a politician with politics is different from that of a political analyst. Power and politics have changed him. The older Modi is not dead but there's more calculation in what he says: he says these things because his constituency loves it. Gujarati middle class is at the moment having a love affair with hatred and paranoia. Like Bengali babus and Kashmiri Muslims, they were traditionally classified as non-martial by the British Empire and they smarted under that classification. Even when they themselves do not embrace violence, they vicariously enjoy it. They enjoy it even when the violence is directed towards them. In Surat city there's now a statue of Shivaji, who sacked Surat more than once! Modi has tapped into that self-hatred of the Gujarati middle class and the sanction for violence that flows from it.

As the only upwardly mobile caste leader whose constituency is not his caste, Modi knows how to keep the middle class captive—through rhetoric, fear and anxiety. He knows only too well that his success lies in keeping that fear and anxiety alive. Thanks to the dramatic way he broke the threshold of violence in a society where the tolerance of violence has always been low, Gujaratis have begun to feel heroic. Modi has given them the vicarious pleasure of participating in violence, even while maintaining a certain distance from it. That is why the Gujarati middle class has become so hostile to any criticism of the present political culture of Gujarat. In many ways it's a sick culture. K.P.S. Gill, no stranger to violence himself, once said there was no expiation, no guilt or shame in Gujarat about the violence in 2002.

But relying on a middle-class constituency makes Modi a more anxious politician than most, because the fidelity of this class is notoriously unstable. He has to take more risks, be more theatrical and perpetually mediagenic. That is probably why some call Modi a megalomaniac. I wouldn't, for what he's doing is what Mayawati or Laloo Prasad have sometimes done—they have presumed total immunity. The political culture of immunity has been built carefully over the last few decades by some of the so-called stalwarts of our political system. They believe they have to be barefaced about the way they flout laws and norms, because they do not have the sophisticated networks that other politicians have with industrialists and the press. They have to arm-twist the prospective financiers, openly make money out of the policy decisions they take, sell postings and transfers, and treat the media with disdain. So they look megalomaniac.

The swagger extends to intra-party affairs as well. Modi acts as if he's the leader of a regional party. He knows that the political culture of Gujarat is distinctive and that he can challenge the party and get away with it. He may change his style if he loses this election, but at the moment he's doing what some other politicians are doing, probably on a larger scale because he thinks he has Gujarat sewn up. Of course, he has a streak of narcissism, but which politician doesn't?

His present incarnation, as part of the political mainstream, makes him less fearsome but more dangerous. He can go far even if he loses this election. In five years, he has a fair chance of making it to the top of his party at the national level. No pan-Indian party could have picked him as a leader in his earlier incarnation, as a clone of someone like Bal Thackeray or Praveen Togadia. Thackeray and Togadia are captive to their rhetoric and leave themselves no space for manoeuvre. Modi has cleverly created some space for himself in recent years.

All of us have a bit of Modi in us, but we don't acknowledge it. The ruthlessness you see in him is the ruthlessness of an ideology that believes it has a superior understanding of history. Anyone who believes in the ideology believes he has the right to intervene in history, even if it costs the lives of millions. It's this self-righteousness that is frightening. This dependence on killer ideologies is a feature of our modern times.

Fortunately, Modi is not a highly intelligent politician, like say P.V. Narasimha Rao. The highly intelligent in Indian politics always pretend that they are less intelligent and less colourful than they actually are. Modi is more intuitive than intelligent, with a sense of survival that comes from his background. It is the instinct for survival of a person coming from a social sector that has never tasted power. There is always a touch of desperation about their attempts to hold on to power, a tendency to live at the margins of law and social decency. Unlike Narasimha Rao, Modi is not fully in control of his self—his passions and emotions are not fully monitored all the time. What Narasimha Rao did by not doing, Modi has to do by doing. The system will not allow him to get away with it. To understand this is to understand a key component of the culture of democracy in India.

(As told to Sheela Reddy) The author is a clinical pyschologist.

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