Time, modernity and the BJP

The Opposition must harness the diversity of India to decentralise its challenge to the regime

July 28, 2018 12:02 am | Updated 03:11 am IST

Sociologists have often commented that outsiders have a more clear-sighted view of everydayness than us. Recently, I was ranting against the communalism of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) when a European friend of mine, a philosopher, observed that the categories of left and right were grossly overdrawn in India. They emphasised a world of deep dualisms, or even a richness of traditional thought, that does not exist in India. India, he said, cannot claim a Gramsci or a Rosa Luxemburg. Worse, our rightist parties have no sense of the creative traditions of conservatism. An Indian Edmund Burke is unthinkable. Beyond its corrosive communalism, the BJP has no idea of the right as a systematic ideology. The Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s idea of capitalism is adequate. Mohandas Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore were more creative nationalists than Veer Savarkar or K.B. Hedgewar.

My friend noted that Indian parties were more vehicles for modernity, and it is as exponents of modernity that they make sense. One has to explore how these parties use time, history, linearity as modernising forces. It is as vehicles of modernity that parties come to power.

Surrogate moderniser

When the Congress lost its modernising impetus, the BJP became the surrogate moderniser. It is in terms of its claims to modernity that the BJP has to be assessed. The BJP’s attitude to time has always intrigued me. So far, it has been dealt with eclectically. If the left saw economics as a classic force, history was always the collective impetus for the BJP. Its obsession with history confuses myth and the rationality of logos. At one level, it contemporarises the ancients by creating equivalences to current achievements in ancient times. The examples range from test-tube babies and plastic surgery to biotechnology. India is seen as one fluid continuity from the Vedic Age to now. While ancient history is rendered current, it rewrites the history of the last 500 years, unable to accept defeat. It desperately wants Maharana Pratap to win the Battle of Haldighati, and it insists Ram was a historical figure. It is perpetually encouraging people to rectify history at every stage, where even murder becomes an act of rectification, for instance of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri in 2015 or Afrazul Khan in Rajsamand in 2017.

Often the BJP’s use of time is more strategic and complex. It fetishes 2019, which it sees as the end of Congress history and the beginning of Ram Rajya. Everything focusses on 2019, and BJP president Amit Shah is the time-keeper, the impresario of 2019 as the beginning of a Congress Mukt Bharat. This is not just an electoral strategy. The BJP genuinely believes that a millennial moment it has prophesied is coming.

Attitude to time

Oddly, for all its fetishisation of 2019, the BJP is one party that has no systemic idea of the future. It might borrow a few glib ideas such as smart cities, yet it has no sense of the future as a set of strategies. The fetishisation of 2019 has to be understood in this context — 2019 is its end of history thesis. It has no sense of the future except of the NRI who combines modern consumerism with ancient history. The future is 2019 repeated.

The attitude to time is best caught in the complete absence of ecological thinking. It is content with linear time and progress. It dissolves the Planning Commission not because it was a Congress idea but because it was a futurist notion. The party is addicted to the ideas of nation state, progress and development pickled in the formaldehyde of the 19th century. Its patriotism is a deep devotion to repeating these ideas in the present. No other regime is as idolatrous of Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s appeal to ‘Make in India’ is an invitation to the likes of them to make India’s future because India as a regime is clueless about it — we are being out-thought and out-fought in every forum.

The BJP likes nationalism because it unifies time and history into a reign of uniformity. No party dreads plurality, diversity and difference as much as the BJP does. The Opposition has to re-read the BJP in this context. It should worry not only about a unified opposition or a unitary opposition but also decentralise the challenge to the regime. When the south appeals to a different language, the BJP has no answer. It has no idea of the vernacular. A decentralised strategy of multiple futures will be the first step in defeating the BJP because, as Mr. Shah knows, it is only when time is in official uniform that India marches to a single drum. The Opposition will lose if it imitates the BJP because its motley costume ball of ideas is no formal answer to Mr. Modi. But a set of plural strategies will confuse the BJP because it has no sense of dialects. In fact, the minute India responds either civilisationally or in the vernacular, the BJP is lost. It has no answer to the Bhakti movement, to Nanak or Rahim. The BJP’s idea of clock-time has no sense of what Raimon Panikkar called kairological time, i.e. time with cultural meaning. Once you multiply the notion of time, the inevitability of the BJP in linear time breaks down, and the RSS can no longer argue that it is a party whose time has come.

The BJP’s commitment to development, nation-state, big science are all attempts to subjugate time as history. No other party has less idea of alternative imaginations and alternative histories. The BJP’s notion of time is like a Tussaud’s exhibit where it wants to reduce politics to a five-year time-frame with Vladimir Putin, Shinzo Abe, Donald Trump as perpetual players where Mr. Modi returns in celebratory triumph after visiting them. Once India operates with a restrictive scenario of time, its rivals know it is predictable. In fact, desperate to be seen as well-behaved and investment-friendly, official India now presents itself as a simple extrapolation.

One has to now read the RSS as an organisation constructed in mechanical time. The shakha could be a creation of Frederick Winslow Taylor, founder of scientific management, as it is anchored on replication and repetitivity. It is frightening. Because it lives in time-linearity, the BJP is hostile to difference and diversity. The Congress, as Rajni Kothari showed, was built through accommodating difference, while the BJP suppresses any kind of difference as a sign of inefficiency. No other party is devoted to censorship of art, ideology, science as the BJP. By suppressing time as diversity, the BJP can control disorder.

Sadly, the two thought systems it has conscripted are spirituality and management, and both act as time-keepers to the nation. Both provide techniques of control. There is nothing spiritual about the BJP’s idea of yoga. It is instrumental, functional and more oriented to efficiency. It enforces a tutorial college sense of modernity without any sense of metaphysics or debate.

Beyond dualism

To reduce the Congress-BJP battle to the standard dualisms of left and right will not do. One has to focus on modernity, and the BJP’s sense of modernity is lethal and unaware as it has no critique of science or economics. It swallows Western categories unquestioningly. When the Indian middle class realises that what we call majoritarian democracy is a collection of inane modernities, the BJP will find it difficult to come back. Herein lies the challenge of 2019.

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

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