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Will there be space for dissent in Modi's India?

By Shiv Visvanathan
May 19, 2014 11:58 IST
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In Modi's moral majority, words like security become problematic and a moral majority can turn devastatingly inquisitorial. It turns history into a preferred flatland of the nation State challenging cultural diversity in the name of majoritarianism expressed as patriotism. Dissent almost immediately becomes seditious, says Shiv Visvanathan.

Election 2014 was literally a decimation by numbers. The National Democratic Alliance obtained 323 seats, romping home with an unbelievable majority. One can understand this contrast. Two major parties with nationalist pretensions, the Bahujan Samaj Party and the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, did not even open their account. The Congress has been destroyed in many states.

The real metaphor is that of a powerful epidemic or cyclone sweeping populations aside in its ruthless march to assertion. Oddly, democracies can feel more devastating than any Genghis Khan in their unforgiving responses to regimes they are tired of.

I am a Modi watcher and as an anthropologist I have watched Modi's campaign from its moments of birth to the moment of victory. What strikes one today is the triumphalism. Many commentators called it a presidential victory. It was much more. It was a referendum, an acclamation, where a populace affirmed its faith in a leader in a public spectacle.

Leaders in Imperial Rome achieved that success in political circuses. Modi is a Roman politician with a 21st century propaganda machine. One saw it reasserted in the first speech he made after elections. Political scientists define fascism as an untrammelled relation between leader and masses. One witnessed it as Modi spoke in Vadodara and the audience responded to every diastole and systole of his thought.

One moment, in particular was devastating as Modi asked the crowd to recite 'Vande Mataram' after him. The moment was electric, but many in the margins, at thresholds of dissent, minorities shivered and asked whether there is place for them in such a society.

As a man who sees the State as all-encompassing, Modi is hostile to civil society. He has no problem with sects like Swaminarayan or leaders like Ramdev. They create the ambience for the rise of Modi by constructing that classical hybridity of civilisational confidence and modernist entitlements that allows a Modi to germinate. But civil society as NGO, as social movement, as dissenting imagination, as groups in search of diversity and alternatives, as minorities in search of ways of life which can be eccentric would shrivel in such an atmosphere.

As one listened to Modi's speech, one first sensed magnanimity in his attempt at the great consensus, of carrying everyone with him as India advanced. Such a consensual model is different from an inclusiveness model. Inclusiveness does not ask for agreement. It includes those who differ in the bundle of rights.

Consensual models often move to the level of the lowest common denominator. Consensual models often tend to seek uniformity. What one confronts is three political models, two of which are threatening.

The first is the Congress model which begins with nominal attempts at inclusion through reservation, sensitivity to entitlements but regress electorally to appeasement of minorities as a lazy but manipulative way to obtain votes. Such an appeasement by the regime alienates the majority, convinces it that fairness in terms of law is distant. The majority feels that some minorities are more equal than others by the sleight of hand of policy of government.

Michel Mann, the British sociologist, warned that such a majoritarianism is dangerous when democracy becomes an illegitimate rule game between majority and minority. It then leads to genocide. Mann admits his observations seemed paradoxical, but through case studies of African regimes he shows that frustration with electoralism leads to exterminism.

One saw evidence of it during the Gujarat carnage of 2002 where the language of riots was exterminist. The Muslim was not an opponent, but an alien one wanted to eradicate. This is witnessed in the sheer brutality of violence and the demand to eliminate children and women.

The Modi majority may have a problem of a different kind than the see-through hypocrisy of appeasement and the corrupting influence of doles. There is an intelligence here which broke through Congress hypocrisy and ideology. However, the majority Modi creates has a different set of problems.

It allows for citizenship, but creates uniformity. It calls Congress pseudo-secular, but its assertion of jingoism may reduce dissent or pluralism to the margins. It disallows democratic discourse or a sense of nuance or even thoughtfulness.

One does not need Modi's elections to understand this. Ten minutes with Arnab Goswami's TV show reveals the vigilante power of this jingoism. In Modi's moral majority, words like security become problematic and a moral majority can turn devastatingly inquisitorial. It turns history into a preferred flatland of the nation State challenging cultural diversity in the name of majoritarianism expressed as patriotism. Dissent almost immediately becomes seditious.

Neither the Congress nor BJP can serve Indian democracy creatively. There is a third syncretic model which has less claims to officialdom. Like Hinduism, it seeks not to be an ideology but a way of life built on plural time and pluralistic epistemologies. It is cultural in its diversity, pluralistic in the economic livelihood it seeks. It allows for disorder and diversity, absorbing alternatives as one more way of constructing reality.

India has always contained the seeds of such a possibility and civil society movements have sought to magnify it. The Western ideas of citizenship and liberal tolerance acquire an epistemic anchoring where the other is one more possibility for us. Sadly, the social construction of the nation State both under Congress and the BJP vitiates this. One is hypocritical about difference, the other jingoistic.

There are other dangers in the current triumphalism. Such a triumphalism seeks a stereotypical redressal of historical injustices. First, as the election results were announced, one had supporters say 'Now minorities will behave' or others saying 'We will now handle Pakistan'. An eerie evidence of this was on display on TV show in the interviews with Nitin Gadkari on TV.

Once the initial rituals of congratulations and the usual reference to laddoos consumed at the BJP office were over, Gadkari moved to TV channels to discuss more serious questions like Pakistan. Gadkari, when provoked, had no problems endorsing a nuclear option with Pakistan. In fact, he did not convey the difference between a nuclear war and a gili-danda match. Both seem to be nukkad battles fought by street gangs. Unless he was creating a future dystopia, Gadkari's observations were frightening. One needs a deeper sense of nuance and responsibility.

Observers might complain that attacking a Modi majority is premature and stupid. Political courtesy would demand a temporary suspension of judgement. Others would call it ill-advised in this moment of mob enthusiasm. But the nature of debate, though, has its own code. Doubt has to be articulated even if unwelcome or seen as noise. One can take hope in a great communication theorist's words. Colin Cherry called 'noise, unwelcome music'. I hope my noise is read in a similar way.

Image: Narendra Modi performs aarti on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi on Saturday. Photograph: PTI Photo.

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