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Modi's masks may erase the more human face

July 11, 2014 11:51 IST

'Today when we see the man behaving in a controlled, almost genteel fashion, creating a government with Prussian efficiency, colonising Delhi with a strange silence of expectation, one must ask is this Modi? Or is Modi all the trails he has left behind?' asks Shiv Visvanathan.

A friend of mine, one of the most acute analysts I know, told me that a week is a long time not just in politics, but in analysis. The same words acquire a different meaning and even, gain a new texture. The trouble with political science, he complained, is that psephology and the media have made facts too literal.

The focus is always on the concrete individual, not on the collective forces he represents. 'Take the name Modi,' he said, 'Modi is now prime minister, head of the Bharatiya Janata Party, he is the electoral victor. But Modi can no longer be analysed merely an individual. That is too easy and complacent.'

Narendra Modi, he claimed, is now a collectivity, a bundle of forces that brought him to power. In analysing Modi, one has to map, tap into the whole subconscious, a collective anxiety, he created. It is true he unleashed them, but the question to ask today is whether he shapes them or they control him. Is he puppeteer or puppet?

Let us consider Modi not as an individual, but as a rubric, a collective label. Who does he represent and what do these representations mean. Is he middle class, Gujarati, BJP or is he hydra headed to include the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal?

Is he a patriot, a communalist, a nationalist? Who does his model of development talk to, Gujarat or the rest of India?

As a leader of the majoritarian Hinduism, which Modi talks to minorities? The mind is intrigued at the possibility of such questions. Modi becomes a tension between the various constituencies he represents.

The questions first appeared acutely when he unilaterally raised the height of the Narmada Dam. If Modi had demanded it as chief minister of Gujarat one could find it understandable. But as a PM does he represent Gujarat alone? Or does he also need to connect to Madhya Pradesh? The fact that there is a BJP leadership in the state does not erase the question. The dam is no longer a Gujarat issue. It is a national problem. The question is can Modi be parochial about Gujarat now or does he have to look at dams from a wider prospective?

There is a second factor that we have to consider. Dams bear the scars of displacement and the displaced usually belong to nameless villages or distant tribes. One has to ask is Modi only a middle class PM or does he also represent the displaced tribes? Or does the word development make such questions irrelevant?

My friend gave me a homely example. One of the most successful gimmicks Modi's propaganda machine unleashed was the plastic mask. It was crudely made, but intensely popular, a collector's item, which his supporters wore in huge numbers. It is almost as if there is a Modi in all of us and a bit of us in Modi. In that sense the mask and the man will be difficult to differentiate. As a collective persona he represents all these trends.

Today when we see the man behaving in a controlled, almost genteel fashion, creating a government with Prussian efficiency, colonising Delhi with a strange silence of expectation, one must ask is this Modi? Or is Modi all the trails he has left behind? I am not saying a man cannot grow up, but sometimes as he changes, he unleashes or connects to forces which cannot be capped easily.

Remember the middle-class which wants security, the communal Hindutva, the younger generation, the Diaspora all voted for him. He is a bit of each, but how does he integrate their competing interests?

The BJP as a party helped vote him to power. The question, however, is does the BJP make decisions or is it the RSS? I am not talking about the RSS as some secret organisation. It is out there and it played a major role in bringing him to power. Now that the RSS has brought him to power, is it going to retreat into its ideological closet or insist on shaping power and policy?

Modi is PM, but he is also a loyal pracharak. Which voice does he listen to? The RSS or the nation and to say that because the RSS is nationalist, there is no contradiction is a form of political naivete, even cowardice.

His aide Amit Shah's election as BJP president raises this in an acute way. How will Modi stand up to the RSS or VHP as a PM? We have to look whether he can control the bullying Bajrang Dal, a style he was once associated with.

It is interesting today that NGOs and forces of civil society are increasingly being brought to question, cross examined about their intentions and interrogated about their audits. I think any elected leadership has the right to question NGOs, but does not that same imperative operate for the RSS, the VHP and the Bajrang Dal? Or do we assume Orwellian style that some parts of civil society are more equal than the others?

For instance, we have to ask whether the RSS monopolises the idea of nationalism or is the idea of the nation, the idea of India open to debates as part of a pluralist drama. This demands that the paranoia that has haunted both the Left and the Right weaken. Groups need to challenge each other in public debate where cat calls of sedition or pseudo-secular do not add to the understanding.

The RSS has remained too long in the shadows. It needs to enter the sunlight and face scrutiny like the Communist parties. Such debate consigned the Communist Party of India-Marxist to the margins of politics, one must and wait and watch to see how the RSS performs.

In an odd and sometimes tragic sense, a man cannot always sanitise himself and escape from his past. His earlier roles which drew crowds and won him a following are played by the VHP, the Bajrang Dal and the Giriraj Kishores threatening to send all dissenters to Pakistan. Modi is a collection of his pasts which includes a whole set of roles and interests. The point is can he distance himself from some of the more questionable of these.

There is a strange sense that majoritarianism creates access to the truth. Is majoritarian truth meaningful to minorities, marginal, dissenters? The question now is how does Modi as PM mediate these debates. As PM he has to sustain public spaces and public debates. Yet there is little confidence that Modi can control the forces he has unleashed.

As a wag said the United Progressive Alliance-II defeated and drowned UPA-I. The irony is in Modi's case is that Modi Phase II might eventually be swept aside by Modi phase I, which was a collection of more questionable communities.

The nature of language becomes critical here. Modi cannot go around defining security, secularism, nationalism treating words as territories he has captured.

When language marches in uniform, a country is on its way to tyranny. A certain kind of intolerance disguised as majoritarianism will cripple the pluralism of our lives.

The masks of Modi might erase the more human face. As a collection of masks he represents a senses of impersonal forces. As a face he has to mediate and moderate between them. It is his balancing art where his past can become demanding that worries one.

Finally, the Modi victory is seen as creating a new middle class that is aspirational, that wants efficiency, whose ego demand global recognition. This is a middle class that needs to flex its muscle, claim a Security Council seat, insist on nuclear power. The danger here is the jingoism, a sense that security over-rides every other concern. This middle class is emotionally hysterical, has little sense of policy and strategy.

The danger is that Modi catering to its fancies could commit us to war externally and internally. One needs a mellower middle class like a more futuristic Modi. The question is whether Modi as PM is bigger than the sum of the contradictory parts or will the assertiveness of parts destroy the Modi and the nation he is claiming to recreate. It is only that time will tell, but it is the uneasy job of social science to ring warning bells about the future.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

Shiv Visvanathan