Patrice Riemens on Sun, 18 May 2014 14:07:41 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Pankaj Mishra: Narendra Modi and the new face of India (The Guardian)

original at:
(for 2 videos, pictures, and an absurd number of hyperlinks)

(Bwo GoaNet)

Narendra Modi and the new face of India

With the rise of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi culminating in this
week's election, Pankaj Mishra asks if the world's largest democracy is
entering its most sinister period since independence

By Pankaj Mishra, The Guardian, Friday 16 May 2014

In A Suitable Boy, Vikram Seth writes with affection of a placid India's
first general election in 1951, and the egalitarian spirit it momentarily
bestowed on an electorate deeply riven by class and caste: "the great
washed and unwashed public, sceptical and gullible", but all "endowed with
universal adult suffrage". India's 16th general election this month, held
against a background of economic jolts and titanic corruption scandals,
and tainted by the nastiest campaign yet, announces a new turbulent phase
for the country ? arguably, the most sinister since its independence from
British rule in 1947. Back then, it would have been inconceivable that a
figure such as Narendra Modi, the Hindu nationalist chief minister of
Gujarat accused, along with his closest aides, of complicity in crimes
ranging from an anti-Muslim pogrom in his state in 2002 to extrajudicial
killings, and barred from entering the US, may occupy India's highest
political office.

Modi is a lifelong member of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), a
paramilitary Hindu nationalist organisation inspired by the fascist
movements of Europe, whose founder's belief that Nazi Germany had
manifested "race pride at its highest" by purging the Jews is by no means
unexceptional among the votaries of Hindutva, or "Hinduness". In 1948, a
former member of the RSS murdered Gandhi for being too soft on Muslims.
The outfit, traditionally dominated by upper-caste Hindus, has led many
vicious assaults on minorities. A notorious executioner of dozens of
Muslims in Gujarat in 2002 crowed that he had slashed open with his sword
the womb of a heavily pregnant woman and extracted her foetus. Modi
himself described the relief camps housing tens of thousands of displaced
Muslims as "child-breeding centres".

Such rhetoric has helped Modi sweep one election after another in Gujarat.
A senior American diplomat described him, in cables disclosed by
WikiLeaks, as an "insular, distrustful person" who "reigns by fear and
intimidation"; his neo-Hindu devotees on Facebook and Twitter continue to
render the air mephitic with hate and malice, populating the paranoid
world of both have-nots and haves with fresh enemies ? "terrorists",
"jihadis", "Pakistani agents", "pseudo-secularists", "sickulars",
"socialists" and "commies". Modi's own electoral strategy as prime
ministerial candidate, however, has been more polished, despite his
appeals, both dog-whistled and overt, to Hindu solidarity against menacing
aliens and outsiders, such as the Italian-born leader of the Congress
party, Sonia Gandhi, Bangladeshi "infiltrators" and those who eat the holy

Modi exhorts his largely young supporters ? more than two-thirds of
India's population is under the age of 35 ? to join a revolution that will
destroy the corrupt old political order and uproot its moral and
ideological foundations while buttressing the essential framework, the
market economy, of a glorious New India. In an apparently ungovernable
country, where many revere the author of Mein Kampf for his tremendous
will to power and organisation, he has shrewdly deployed the idioms of
management, national security and civilisational glory.

Boasting of his 56-inch chest, Modi has replaced Mahatma Gandhi, the icon
of non-violence, with Vivekananda, the 19th-century Hindu revivalist who
was obsessed with making Indians a "manly" nation. Vivekananda's garlanded
statue or portrait is as ubiquitous in Modi's public appearances as his
dandyish pastel waistcoats. But Modi is never less convincing than when he
presents himself as a humble tea-vendor, the son-of-the-soil challenger to
the Congress's haughty dynasts. His record as chief minister is
predominantly distinguished by the transfer ? through privatisation or
outright gifts ? of national resources to the country's biggest
corporations. His closest allies ? India's biggest businessmen ? have
accordingly enlisted their mainstream media outlets into the cult of Modi
as decisive administrator; dissenting journalists have been removed or

Not long after India's first full-scale pogrom in 2002, leading corporate
bosses, ranging from the suave Ratan Tata to Mukesh Ambani, the owner of a
27-storey residence, began to pave Modi's ascent to respectability and
power. The stars of Bollywood fell (literally) at the feet of Modi. In
recent months, liberal-minded columnists and journalists have joined their
logrolling rightwing compatriots in certifying Modi as a "moderate"
developmentalist. The Columbia University economist Jagdish Bhagwati, who
insists that he intellectually fathered India's economic reforms in 1991,
and Gurcharan Das, author of India Unbound, have volunteered passionate
exonerations of the man they consider India's saviour.

Bhagwati, once a fervent supporter of outgoing prime minister Manmohan
Singh, has even publicly applied for an advisory position with Modi's
government. It may be because the nearly double-digit economic growth of
recent years that Ivy League economists like him ? India's own version of
Chile's Chicago Boys and Russia's Harvard Boys ? instigated and championed
turns out to have been based primarily on extraction of natural resources,
cheap labour and foreign capital inflows rather than high productivity and
innovation, or indeed the brick-and-mortar ventures that fuelled China's
rise as a manufacturing powerhouse. "The bulk of India's aggregate
growth," the World Bank's chief economist Kaushik Basu warns, "is
occurring through a disproportionate rise in the incomes at the upper end
of the income ladder." Thus, it has left largely undisturbed the country's
shameful ratios ? 43% of all Indian children below the age of five are
undernourished, and 48% stunted; nearly half of Indian women of
childbearing age are anaemic, and more than half of all Indians still
defecate in the open.

Absurdly uneven and jobless economic growth has led to what Amartya Sen
and Jean Dreze call "islands of California in a sea of sub-Saharan
Africa". The failure to generate stable employment ? 1m new jobs are
required every month ? for an increasingly urban and atomised population,
or to allay the severe inequalities of opportunity as well as income,
created, well before the recent economic setbacks, a large simmering
reservoir of rage and frustration. Many Indians, neglected by the state,
which spends less proportionately on health and education than Malawi, and
spurned by private industry, which prefers cheap contract labour, invest
their hopes in notions of free enterprise and individual initiative.
However, old and new hierarchies of class, caste and education restrict
most of them to the ranks of the unwashed. As the Wall Street Journal
admitted, India is not "overflowing with Horatio Alger stories". Balram
Halwai, the entrepreneur from rural India in Aravind Adiga's Man
Booker-winning novel The White Tiger, who finds in murder and theft the
quickest route to business success and self-confidence in the metropolis,
and Mumbai's social-Darwinist slum-dwellers in Katherine Boo's Behind the
Beautiful Forevers point to an intensified dialectic in India today: cruel
exclusion and even more brutal self-empowerment.


Such extensive moral squalor may bewilder those who expected India to
conform, however gradually and imperfectly, to a western ideal of liberal
democracy and capitalism. But those scandalised by the lure of an
indigenised fascism in the country billed as the "world's largest
democracy" should know: this was not the work of a day, or of a few
"extremists". It has been in the making for years. "Democracy in India,"
BR Ambedkar, the main framer of India's constitution, warned in the 1950s,
"is only a top dressing on an Indian soil, which is essentially
undemocratic." Ambedkar saw democracy in India as a promise of justice and
dignity to the country's despised and impoverished millions, which could
only be realised through intense political struggle. For more than two
decades that possibility has faced a pincer movement: a form of global
capitalism that can only enrich a small minority and a xenophobic
nationalism that handily identifies fresh scapegoats for large-scale
socio-economic failure and frustration.

In many ways, Modi and his rabble ? tycoons, neo-Hindu techies, and
outright fanatics ? are perfect mascots for the changes that have
transformed India since the early 1990s: the liberalisation of the
country's economy, and the destruction by Modi's compatriots of the
16th-century Babri mosque in Ayodhya. Long before the killings in Gujarat,
Indian security forces enjoyed what amounted to a licence to kill, torture
and rape in the border regions of Kashmir and the north-east; a similar
infrastructure of repression was installed in central India after
forest-dwelling tribal peoples revolted against the nexus of mining
corporations and the state. The government's plan to spy on internet and
phone connections makes the NSA's surveillance look highly responsible.
Muslims have been imprisoned for years without trial on the flimsiest
suspicion of "terrorism"; one of them, a Kashmiri, who had only
circumstantial evidence against him, was rushed to the gallows last year,
denied even the customary last meeting with his kin, in order to satisfy,
as the supreme court put it, "the collective conscience of the people".

"People who were not born then," Robert Musil wrote in The Man Without
Qualities of the period before another apparently abrupt collapse of
liberal values, "will find it difficult to believe, but the fact is that
even then time was moving faster than a cavalry camel ? But in those days,
no one knew what it was moving towards. Nor could anyone quite distinguish
between what was above and what was below, between what was moving forward
and what backward." One symptom of this widespread confusion in Musil's
novel is the Viennese elite's weird ambivalence about the crimes of a
brutal murderer called Moosbrugger. Certainly, figuring out what was above
and what was below is harder for the parachuting foreign journalists who
alighted upon a new idea of India as an economic "powerhouse" and the many
"rising" Indians in a generation born after economic liberalisation in
1991, who are seduced by Modi's promise of the utopia of consumerism ? one
in which skyscrapers, expressways, bullet trains and shopping malls
proliferate (and from which such eyesores as the poor are excluded).


People who were born before 1991, and did not know what time was moving
towards, might be forgiven for feeling nostalgia for the simpler days of
postcolonial idealism and hopefulness ? those that Seth evokes in A
Suitable Boy. Set in the 1950s, the novel brims with optimism about the
world's most audacious experiment in democracy, endorsing the Nehruvian
"idea of India" that seems flexible enough to accommodate formerly
untouchable Hindus (Dalits) and Muslims as well as the middle-class
intelligentsia. The novel's affable anglophone characters radiate the
assumption that the sectarian passions that blighted India during its
partition in 1947 will be defused, secular progress through science and
reason will eventually manifest itself, and an enlightened leadership will
usher a near-destitute people into active citizenship and economic

India's first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, appears in the novel as an
effective one-man buffer against Hindu chauvinism. "The thought of India
as a Hindu state, with its minorities treated as second-class citizens,
sickened him." In Nehru's own vision, grand projects such as big dams and
factories would bring India's superstitious masses out of their benighted
rural habitats and propel them into first-world affluence and rationality.
The Harrow- and Cambridge-educated Indian leader had inherited from
British colonials at least part of their civilising mission, turning it
into a national project to catch up with the industrialised west. "I was
eager and anxious," Nehru wrote of India, "to change her outlook and
appearance and give her the garb of modernity." Even the "uninteresting"
peasant, whose "limited outlook" induced in him a "feeling of overwhelming
pity and a sense of ever-impending tragedy" was to be present at what he
called India's "tryst with destiny".

That long attempt by India's ruling class to give the country the "garb of
modernity" has produced, in its sixth decade, effects entirely
unanticipated by Nehru or anyone else: intense politicisation and fierce
contests for power together with violence, fragmentation and chaos, and a
concomitant longing for authoritarian control. Modi's image as an exponent
of discipline and order is built on both the successes and failures of the
ancien regime. He offers top-down modernisation, but without modernity:
bullet trains without the culture of criticism, managerial efficiency
without the guarantee of equal rights. And this streamlined design for a
new India immediately entices those well-off Indians who have long
regarded democracy as a nuisance, recoiled from the destitute masses, and
idolised technocratic, if despotic, "doers" like the first prime minister
of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew.

But then the Nehruvian assumption that economic growth plotted and
supervised by a wise technocracy would also bring about social change was
also profoundly undemocratic and self-serving. Seth's novel, along with
much anglophone literature, seems, in retrospect, to have uncritically
reproduced the establishment ideology of English-speaking and
overwhelmingly upper-caste Hindus who gained most from state-planned
economic growth: the Indian middle class employed in the public sector,
civil servants, scientists and monopolist industrialists. This ruling
class's rhetoric of socialism disguised its nearly complete monopoly of
power. As DR Nagaraj, one of postcolonial India's finest minds, pointed
out, "the institutions of capitalism, science and technology were taken
over by the upper castes". Even today, businessmen, bureaucrats,
scientists, writers in English, academics, thinktankers, newspaper
editors, columnists and TV anchors are disproportionately drawn from among
the Hindu upper-castes. And, as Sen has often lamented, their
"breathtakingly conservative" outlook is to be blamed for the meagre
investment in health and education ? essential requirements for an
equitable society as well as sustained economic growth ? that put India
behind even disaster-prone China in human development indexes, and now
makes it trail Bangladesh.

Dynastic politics froze the Congress party into a network of patronage,
delaying the empowerment of the underprivileged Indians who routinely gave
it landslide victories. Nehru may have thought of political power as a
function of moral responsibility. But his insecure daughter, Indira
Gandhi, consumed by Nixon-calibre paranoia, turned politics into a game of
self-aggrandisement, arresting opposition leaders and suspending
fundamental rights in 1975 during a nationwide "state of emergency". She
supported Sikh fundamentalists in Punjab (who eventually turned against
her) and rigged elections in Muslim-majority Kashmir. In the 1980s, the
Congress party, facing a fragmenting voter base, cynically resorted to
stoking Hindu nationalism. After Indira Gandhi's assassination by her
bodyguards in 1984, Congress politicians led lynch mobs against Sikhs,
killing more than 3,000 civilians. Three months later, her son Rajiv
Gandhi won elections with a landslide. Then, in another eerie prefiguring
of Modi's methods, Gandhi, a former pilot obsessed with computers, tried
to combine technocratic rule with soft Hindutva.

The Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), a political offshoot of the RSS that
Nehru had successfully banished into the political wilderness, turned out
to be much better at this kind of thing. In 1990, its leader LK Advani
rode a "chariot" (actually a rigged-up Toyota flatbed truck) across India
in a Hindu supremacist campaign against the mosque in Ayodhya. The
wildfire of anti-Muslim violence across the country reaped immediate
electoral dividends. (In old photos, Modi appears atop the chariot as
Advani's hawk-eyed understudy). Another BJP chieftain ventured to hoist
the Indian tricolour in insurgent Kashmir. (Again, the bearded man
photographed helping his doddery senior taunt curfew-bound Kashmiris turns
out to be the young Modi.) Following a few more massacres, the BJP was in
power in 1998, conducting nuclear tests and fast-tracking the programme of
economic liberalisation started by the Congress after a severe financial
crisis in 1991.

The Hindu nationalists had a ready consumer base for their blend of
chauvinism and marketisation. With India's politics and economy reaching
an impasse, which forced many of their relatives to emmigrate to the US,
and the Congress facing decline, many powerful Indians were seeking fresh
political representatives and a new self-legitimising ideology in the late
1980s and 90s. This quest was fulfilled by, first, both the post-cold war
dogma of free markets and then an openly rightwing political party that
was prepared to go further than the Congress in developing close relations
with the US (and Israel, which, once shunned, is now India's
second-biggest arms supplier after Russia). You can only marvel today at
the swiftness with which the old illusions of an over-regulated economy
were replaced by the fantasies of an unregulated one.

According to the new wisdom ? new to India, if already worn out and
discredited in Latin America ? all governments needed to do was get out of
the way of buoyant and autonomous entrepreneurs and stop subsidising the
poor and the lazy (in a risible self-contradiction these Indian promoters
of minimalist governance also clamoured for a big militarised state
apparatus to fight and intimidate neighbours and stifle domestic
insurgencies). The long complex experience of strong European as well as
east Asian economies ? active state intervention in markets and support to
strategic industries, long periods of economic nationalism, investments in
health and education ? was elided in a new triumphalist global history of
free markets. Its promise of instant and widespread affluence seemed to
have been manufactured especially for gormless journalists and columnists.
Still, in the last decade, neoliberalism became the common sense of many
Indians who were merely aspiring as well as those who had already made it
? the only elite ideology after Nehruvian nation-building to have achieved
a high degree of pan-Indian consent, if not total hegemony. The old
official rhetoric of egalitarian and shared futures gave way to the
media's celebrations of private wealth-creation ? embodied today by
Ambani's 27-storey private residence in a city where a majority lives in
slums ? and a proliferation of Ayn Randian cliches about ambition,
willpower and striving.


Nehru's programme of national self-strengthening had included, along with
such ideals as secularism, socialism and non-alignment, a deep-rooted
suspicion of American foreign policy and economic doctrines. In a stunning
coup, India's postcolonial project was taken over, as Octavio Paz once
wrote of the Mexican revolution, "by a capitalist class made in the image
and likeness of US capitalism and dependent upon it". A new book by Anita
Raghavan, The Billionaire's Apprentice: The Rise of the Indian-American
Elite and the Fall of the Galleon Hedge Fund, reveals how well-placed men
such as Rajat Gupta, the investment banker recently convicted for insider
trading in New York, expedited close links between American and Indian
political and business leaders.

India's upper-caste elite transcended party lines in their impassioned
courting of likely American partners. In 2008, an American diplomat in
Delhi was given an exclusive preview by a Congress party factotum of two
chests containing $25m in cash ? money to bribe members of parliament into
voting for a nuclear deal with the US. Visiting the White House later that
year, Singh blurted out to George W Bush, probably resigned by then to
being the most despised American president in history, that "the people of
India love you deeply". In a conversation disclosed by WikiLeaks, Arun
Jaitley, a senior leader of the BJP who is tipped to be finance minister
in Modi's government, urged American diplomats in Delhi to see his party's
anti-Muslim rhetoric as "opportunistic", a mere "talking point" and to
take more seriously his own professional and emotional links with the US.

A transnational elite of rightwing Indians based in the US helped
circulate an impression of an irresistibly "emerging giant" ? the title of
a book by Arvind Panagariya, a New-York-based economist and another
aspiring adviser to Modi. Very quickly, the delusional notion that India
was, as Foreign Affairs proclaimed on its cover in 2006, a "roaring
capitalist success-story" assumed an extraordinary persuasive power. In
India itself, a handful of corporate acquisitions ? such as Tata's of
Jaguar and Corus ? stoked exorbitant fantasies of an imminent "Global
Indian Takeover" (the title of a regular feature once in India's leading
business daily, the Economic Times). Rent-seekers in a shadow intellectual
economy ? thinktank-sailors, bloggers and Twitterbots ? as well as
academics perched on corporate-endowed chairs recited the mantra of
privatisation and deregulation in tune. Nostrums from the Reagan-Thatcher
era ? the primary source of ideological self-indoctrination for many
Americanised Indians ? about "labour flexibility" were endlessly
regurgitated, even though a vast majority of the workforce in India ? more
than 90% ? toils in the unorganised or "informal" sector. Bhagwati, for
instance, hailed Bangladesh for its superb labour relations a few months
before the collapse of the Rana Plaza in Dhaka; he also speculated that
the poor "celebrate" inequality, and, with Marie Antoinette-ish serenity,
advised malnourished families to consume "more milk and fruits".
Confronted with the World Health Organisation's extensive evidence about
malnutrition in India, Panagariya, ardent patron of the emerging giant,
argued that Indian children are genetically underweight.


This pitiless American free-marketeering wasn't the only extraordinary
mutation of Indian political and economic discourse. By 1993, when A
Suitable Boy was published, the single-party democracy it describes had
long been under siege from low-caste groups and a rising Hindu-nationalist
middle class. (Sunil Khilnani's The Idea of India, the most eloquent
defence and elaboration of India's foundational ideology, now seems
another posthumous tribute to it.) India after Indira Gandhi increasingly
failed to respect the Nehruvian elite's coordinates of progress and order.
Indian democracy, it turned out, had seemed stable only because political
participation was severely limited, and upper-caste Hindus effectively ran
the country. The arrival of low-caste Hindus in mass politics in the
1980s, with their representatives demanding their own share of the spoils
of power, put the first strains on the old patrimonial system. Upper-caste
panic initially helped swell the ranks of the BJP, but even greater shifts
caused by accelerating economic growth after 1991 have fragmented even
relatively recent political formations based on caste and religion.

Rapid urbanisation and decline of agriculture created a large mass of the
working poor exposed to ruthless exploitation in the unorganised sector.
Connected to their homes in the hinterland through the flow of
remittances, investment, culture and ideas, these migrants from rural
areas were steadily politically awakened with the help of print literacy,
electronic media, job mobility and, most importantly, mobile phones
(subscribers grew from 45 million in 2002 to almost a billion in 2012).
The Congress, though instrumentally social-welfarist while in power,
failed to respond to this electorally consequential blurring of rural and
urban borderlines, and the heightened desires for recognition and dignity
as well as for rapid inclusion into global modernity. Even the BJP, which
had fed on upper-caste paranoia, had been struggling under its ageing
leaders to respond to an increasingly demanding mass of voters after its
initial success in the 1990s, until Modi reinvented himself as a messiah
of development, and quickly found enlarged constituencies ? among haves as
well as have-nots ? for his blend of xenophobia and populism.

A wave of political disaffection has also deposited democratic social
movements and dedicated individuals across the country. Groups both within
and outside the government, such as those that successfully lobbied for
the groundbreaking Right to Information Act, are outlining the
possibilities of what John Keane calls "monitory democracy". India's many
activist networks ? for the rights of women, Dalits, peasants and
indigenous communities ? or issue-based campaigns, such as those against
big dams and nuclear power plants, steer clear of timeworn ideas of
national security, economic development, technocratic management, whether
articulated by the Nehruvians or the neo-Hindus. In a major environment
referendum last year, residents of small tribal hamlets in a remote part
of eastern India voted to reject bauxite mining in their habitats. Growing
demands across India for autonomy and bottom-up governance confirm that
Modi is merely offering old ? and soured ? lassi in new bottles with his
version of top-down modernisation.

Modi, however, has opportunely timed his attempt to occupy the commanding
heights of the Indian state vacated by the Congress. The structural
problems of India's globalised economy have dramatically slowed its growth
since 2011, terminating the euphoria over the Global Indian Takeover.
Corruption scandals involving the sale of billions of dollars' worth of
national resources such as mines, forests, land, water and telecom
spectrums have revealed that crony capitalism and rent-seeking were the
real engines of India's economy. The beneficiaries of the phenomenon
identified by Arundhati Roy as "gush-up" have soared into a transnational
oligarchy, putting the bulk of their investments abroad and snapping up,
together with Chinese and Russian plutocrats, real estate in London, New
York and Singapore. Meanwhile, those made to wait unconscionably long for
"trickle-down" ? people with dramatically raised but mostly unfulfillable
aspirations ? have become vulnerable to demagogues promising national
regeneration. It is this tiger of unfocused fury, spawned by global
capitalism in the "underdeveloped" world, that Modi has sought to ride
from Gujarat to New Delhi.


"Even in the darkest of times," Hannah Arendt once wrote, "we have the
right to expect some illumination." The most prominent Indian institutions
and individuals have rarely obliged, even as the darkness of the country's
atrocity-rich borderlands moved into the heartland. Some of the most
respected commentators, who are often eloquent in their defence of the
right to free speech of famous writers, maintained a careful silence about
the government's routine strangling of the internet and mobile networks in
Kashmir. Even the liberal newspaper the Hindu prominently featured a
journalist who retailed, as an investigation in Caravan revealed, false
accusations of terrorism against innocent citizens. (The virtues of
intelligence, courage and integrity are manifested more commonly in small
periodicals such as Caravan and Economic and Political Weekly, or
independent websites such as and The owners of the
country's largest English-language newspaper, the Times of India, which
has lurched from tedium to decadence within a few years, have innovated a
revenue-stream called "paid news". Unctuously lobbing softballs at Modi,
the prophets of electronic media seem, on other occasions, to have copied
their paranoid inquisitorial style from Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh.
Santosh Desai, one of contemporary India's most astute observers,
correctly points out that the "intolerance that one sees from a large
section of society is in some way a product of a 'televisionised' India.
The pent-up feelings of resentment and entitlement have rushed out and get
both tacit and explicit support from television."

A spate of corporate-sponsored literary festivals did not compensate for
the missing culture of debate and reflection in the press. The frothy
glamour of these events may have helped obscure the deeper intellectual
and cultural churning in India today, the emergence of writers and artists
from unconventional class and caste backgrounds, and the renewed attention
to BR Ambedkar, the bracing Dalit thinker obscured by upper-caste
iconographies. The probing work of, among others, such documentary
film-makers as Anand Patwardhan (Jai Bhim Comrade), Rahul Roy (Till We
Meet Again), Rakesh Sharma (Final Solution) and Sanjay Kak (Red-Ant
Dream), and members of the Raqs Media Collective outlines a modernist
counterculture in the making.

But the case of Bollywood shows how the unravelling of the earliest
nation-building project can do away with the stories and images through
which many people imagined themselves to be part of a larger whole, and
leave only tawdriness in its place. Popular Hindi cinema degenerated
alarmingly in the 1980s. Slicker now, and craftily aware of its
non-resident Indian audience, it has become an expression of consumer
nationalism and middle-class self-regard; Amitabh Bachchan, the "angry
young man" who enunciated a widely felt victimhood during a high point of
corruption and inflation in the 1970s, metamorphosed into an avuncular
endorser of luxury brands. A search for authenticity, and linguistic
vivacity, has led film-makers back to the rural hinterland in such films
as Gangs of Wasseypur, Peepli Live and Ishqiya, whose flaws are somewhat
redeemed by their scrupulous avoidance of Indians sporting Hermès bags or
driving Ferraris. Some recent breakthroughs such as Anand Gandhi's Ship of
Theseus and Dibakar Banerji's Costa-Gavras-inspired Shanghai gesture to
the cinema of crisis pioneered by Asian, African and Latin American
film-makers. But India's many film industries have yet to produce anything
that matches Jia Zhangke's unsentimental evocations of China's past and
present, the acute examination of middle-class pathologies in Kleber
Mendonça Filho's Neighbouring Sounds, or Nuri Bilge Ceylan's delicate
portrait of the sterile secularist intellectual in Uzak.


The long artistic drought results partly from the confusion and
bewilderment of an older, entrenched elite, the main producers, until
recently, of mainstream culture. With their prerogative to rule and
interpret India pilfered by the "unwashed" and the "gullible", the
anglophones have been struggling to grasp the eruption of mass politics in
India, its new centrifugal thrust, and the nature of the challenge posed
by many apparently illiberal individuals and movements. It is easy for
them to denounce India's evidently uncouth retailers of caste and
religious identity as embodiments of, in Salman Rushdie's words,
"Caligulan barbarity"; or to mock Chetan Bhagat, the bestselling author of
novels for young adults and champion tweeter, for boasting of his "selfie"
with Modi. Those pied-pipering the young into Modi-mania nevertheless
possess the occult power to fulfil the deeper needs of their needy
followers. They can compile vivid ideological collages ? made of fragments
of modernity, glimpses of utopia and renovated pieces of a forgotten past.
It is in the "mythological thrillers" and positive-thinking fictions ? the
most popular literary genres in India today ? that a post-1991 generation
that doesn't even know it is lost fleetingly but thrillingly recognises

In a conventional liberal perspective, these works may seem like
hotchpotches, full of absurd contradictions that confound the "above" with
the "below", the "forward" with the "backward". Modi, for instance,
consistently mixes up dates and historical events, exposing an abysmal
ignorance of the past of the country he hopes to lead into a glorious
future. Yet his lusty hatred of the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty excites many
young Indians weaned on the neo-liberal opiates about aspiration and
merit. And he combines his historical revisionism and Hindu nationalism
with a revolutionary futurism. He knows that resonant sentiments, images,
and symbols ? Vivekananda plus holograms and Modi masks ? rather than
rational argument or accurate history galvanise individuals. Vigorously
aestheticising mass politics, and mesmerising the restless young, he has
emerged as the new India's canniest artist.

But, as Walter Benjamin pointed out, rallies, parades and grand monuments
do not secure the masses their rights; they give them no more than the
chance to express themselves, and noisily identify with an alluring leader
and his party. It seems predictable that Modi will gratify only a few with
his ambitious rescheduling of India's tryst with destiny. Though many
exasperated Indians see Modi as bearing the long-awaited fruits of the
globalised economy, he actually embodies its inevitable dysfunction. He
resembles the European and Japanese demagogues of the early 20th century
who responded to the many crises of liberalism and democracy ? and of
thwarted nation-building and modernisation ? by merging corporate and
political power, and exhorting communal unity before internal and external
threats. But Modi belongs also to the dark days of the early 21st century.

His ostensibly gratuitous assault on Muslims ? already India's most
depressed and demoralised minority ? was another example of what the
social anthropologist Arjun Appadurai calls "a vast worldwide Malthusian
correction, which works through the idioms of minoritisation and
ethnicisation but is functionally geared to preparing the world for the
winners of globalisation, minus the inconvenient noise of its losers".
Certainly, the new horizons of desire and fear opened up by global
capitalism do not favour democracy or human rights. Other strongmen who
supervised the bloody purges of economically enervated and unproductive
people were also ruthless majoritarians, consecrated by big election
victories. The crony-capitalist regimes of Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand
and Vladimir Putin in Russia were inaugurated by ferocious offensives
against ethnic minorities. The electorally bountiful pogrom in Gujarat in
2002, too, now seems an early initiation ritual for Modi's India.

The difficulty of assessing his personal culpability in the killings and
rapes of 2002 is the same difficulty that Musil identifies with
Moosbrugger in his novel: how to measure the crimes, however immense, of
individuals against a universal breakdown of values and the normalisation
of violence and injustice. "If mankind could dream collectively," Musil
writes, "it would dream Moosbrugger." There is little cause yet for such
despair in India, where the aggrieved fantasy of authoritarianism will
have to reckon with the gathering energies below; the great potential of
the country's underprivileged and voiceless peoples still lies untapped.
But for now some Indians have dreamed collectively, and they have dreamed
a man accused of mass murder.

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