The great Indian celebration

The country’s politics has changed, and new analytical tools are required to understand it

June 08, 2019 12:02 am | Updated 10:44 am IST

The American sociologist, C. Wright Mills, known for classic works like The Power Elite , dubbed the years of the Dwight D. Eisenhower presidency (1953-61) as the great celebration. The United States was celebrating its sense of dominance even as the Cold War and the McCarthy era were gnawing its entrails. Something of the hypocrisy and the complacency of the time haunts the India of today. We seem to belong to the future, yet the more outdated we become as a country. The Narendra Modi government seems to celebrate a series of ironic events as a great victory. The very scale of its electoral score and the puniness of the Opposition seem to have unhinged it.

Lost pluralism

We celebrate democracy at the very moment that our majoritarianism has destroyed our sense of pluralism. The dissenting, the marginal, the minority seem to have no place in the juggernaut rolling before us.

We are hailing a nation state where ideas march in uniform, where the jingoism of the masses is labelled as patriotism.

We hail an alliance between corporate power and the nation state dubbed as development without realising that such a theory of growth has no ethical space for the idea of the Anthropocene. We have confined the challenge of climate change to the dustbin of dissent, indifferent to the vulnerability of our tribals or of our coastlines. Our piety as a Third World nation state has emptied our ethics as a civilisation. The emptiness of our Swadeshism has destroyed the creativity of our Swaraj, our ability to see locality and planet as one whole.

We pretend that we are in pursuit of a knowledge economy, when our sense of knowledge has lost meaning as a culture and become totally instrumental. At the very moment we are being outthought and outfought by the West and by China, we claim a priority for our ancient civilisation as a knowledge economy. We have a regime which is committed to an ancient past, but is clueless about the problems it confronts in the future.

Yet the drum beat of this election has made us think that India has arrived on the world stage. It is a piece of news our intellectuals are afraid to challenge lest they be seen as anti-national. The question is, how do we challenge such a situation when we celebrate the very things that are driving us to the world of mediocrity?

The general tom-tomming that the Congress has been put in its place, that liberalism is dead, that Marxism is as stale as yesterday’s newspaper makes one feel that India was suffering from a deep sense of inferiority. We saw ourselves as victims of history. Where else would politicians spend time rewriting the Battle of Haldighati as if a victory then was more critical than any battle in the future. India today feels as if it has won a victory against the Nehruvian model that had haunted it. We feel that we have exorcised ourselves and this victory is the psychological beginning to a new India. It is this psychological state that we need to understand. We seem to think that we have outgrown our past illusions. The electoral score is literally presented as a catharsis, a purging of the past where a renaissance India emerges ready for a global future. An India tired of being a failure.

Reading the popular mind

We face the irony not that Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Bharatiya Janata Party president Amit Shah were successful psephologists, but that they were such brilliant readers of the contemporary Indian mind. For all our talk of our great nationalism movements, our sense of civilisation, Mr. Modi realised the sense of puniness that haunted our minds. The Congress of Sardar Patel, Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi was too arrogant to think of such a state. It could have thought of the poverty of the peasant, but not the poverty of philosophy, the little mindsets that haunted us. It is true we were aspirational, yet our sense of being aspirational hid our self doubts.

This election has created a new mindset, whereby we look confident having acquired the feathers, the plumage of those who conquered us. Before one reacts in ire, remember no regime has been more colonial than the present. It is as if the whole country was waiting for a few certificates from the advanced nations. India has dressed itself in the plumage of nationalism, development and science, pretending that this millenarian arrival was India’s first step to the future. In an ironic way India became Modi and Modi became India. We have transformed ourselves into a mimic nation.

Let us face it. The ideas of our elite, our liberals, our Marxists, our celebrations of the plural and civilisational had no sense of those who felt left out. The latter felt they had not joined history, that the bandwagon of the nation state, development had taken them nowhere. Mr. Modi realised the sense of loss and resentment, the need for recognition. It was a cultural envy, a bit like his attempt to take the place next to Gandhi in the KVIC (Khadi and Village Industries Commission) calendar. This sense of being left out haunted us as a nation. Mr. Modi harnessed this envy, found the right epidemic of hate and legitimised it. The Other had to be recreated and defeated, and 2002 became the myth for that inauguration. Riot or mob lynching became a moment of history. Every rioter felt he was conquering history. Violence became the rite of passage by which we recovered our lost sense of masculinity.

But recovering masculinity is not enough. It needs a framework of legitimation and communalism expanded into patriotism. Majoritarianism became the new nationalism.

The electoral analyses presented are antiseptic, almost rituals of avoiding analysis. There is a banal sociology which either shows that political parties did not matter or a hosanna to leadership. It fails to confront the collective psyche or the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) ability to convert folk psychology into mass psychology. Attempts to read it like a chartered accountant reading election counts is irrelevant. It was like watching an epidemic or an avalanche. The RSS had a deeper sense of the resentment that was local to India, and it sublimated this violence to the Other with the right categories such as nation, security and patriotism. It understood the power of the irrational and harnessed it. Mr. Shah’s sociology of the nukkad had more creative power than the official sociology textbooks. As defeated activists and scholars, we can watch it voyeuristically, sense an India we need to understand.

There is space

Now Mr. Modi is Lutyens’ Delhi, and we need to understand the consequence of it. We need a different set of insights to critique him. The challenge of the future will lie in our ability to invent a different democracy, and not get caught in the banality of policy critique or a critique of choices, where law and order displaces democratic inventiveness. Our idea of India is still hospitable to impossible possibilities.

Shiv Visvanathan is an academic associated with the Compost Heap, a group in pursuit of alternative ideas and imagination

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