The Pro-Establishment Intelligentsia and the Modi Phenomenon

For several months, I have been hearing Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches quite regularly, paying attention to his themes, rhetoric and imagery. As expected, he has vigorously attacked key political opponents — the Nehru-Gandhi family, Nitish Kumar, Mulayam Singh Yadav. But a systematic silence has also marked his campaign. Quite remarkably, Hindu nationalism has been absent from his speeches.

This is the opening paragraph from an article by an important US-based Indian political scientist, Ashutosh Varshney. This article, published in the Indian Express on 27 March 2014, under the caption “Modi the Moderate” has been now followed up by another piece in the same newspaper that somewhat modifies the earlier position, this time by “Hearing the Silence”. Strange that he did not hear the silence in the first instance, even after having listened to Modi’s speeches closely (‘paying attention to his rhetoric and imagery’). Not that he did not ‘hear the silence’ then. He did, but just two weeks ago, identified the silence as being about Hindu nationalism. In the second piece, the silence is apparently about  minority rights. How did he read the silence as one thing two weeks ago and as just the opposite two weeks down the line? What exactly was he reading?

Intellectuals generally take words very seriously. Words in their insularity, words in their most manifest meanings. But really, do words mean anything in and of themselves? One line of argument that derives from within the ancient Mimamsa tradition, for example, would argue that meaning lies in the way words are chosen, arranged and formed into sentences. There is something that happens in this process which Mimamsa scholars call ‘akanksha’ – or the expectation that this arrangement within a text generates in the reader of the text. The meaning that a text produces then, is a matter of a complex negotiations between the text and the reader – the bearer of akanksha. And since the reader is never one but many, the expectations that the text generates in different readers could arguably be many.

The Mimamsa theorists were of course, concerned with the meanings of the Vedas and not really with political speech. Not certainly with modern political speech. Nonetheless, they gesture towards a far more complex understanding of meaning. Contemporary theories of reading and meaning production would direct our attention towards matters like silences in speech or a text, the unsaid, the subtext that runs through the speech or text – not to mention of course, body language and tonalities of the spoken word.

Equally importantly, one might need to assert that the text or the speech is not simply a sum of all the words and gestures at the moment of the production of the speech/text, for this text is part of a larger text that we might call the political field within which the speech in question acquires meaning. This political field is not a terra nullis – it is always already inhabited by meanings and structured in ways where meanings are generated not through individuals and what they say but through ‘networks’. An ‘individual’ here is a post through which messages pass and get partially transformed. But the individual is not the author of the message.

A Narendra Modi exists within a field that has been so structured (over the last hundred years but more specifically, over the last two and a half decades), as part of a network where apart from the RSS machinery, the likes of Babu Bajrangi, Haresh Patel, Praveen Togadia, Raj Thackeray, Pramod Muthalik, Vinay Katiyar and so on, all constitute each other. Their internal differences and conflicts do not matter. If any proof is required of this then one simply has to look at the way in which the very announcement of Modi’s prime ministerial candidature has activated a whole range of such elements who may or may not themselves belong to the RSS family, strictly speaking. One need only look at the way the storm-troopers have suddenly become active and how the media and different segments of the state themselves (the Election Commission, for instance) have begun to behave as if Modi has already taken power! The ‘face’ itself begins to generate meanings; it sends out signals – both to its own and to its opponents. The ‘face’ is not a neutral entity in this political field. How can this face appear benign to any Muslim or member of any other minority community?

In the rest of this piece, I want to respond to some of the ways in which pro-establishment intellectuals have taken it upon themselves to present before us a ‘benign’, moderate Modi.

I am leaving out of our discussion, a certain brand of right-wing intelligentsia, who have a vested interest in seeing Narendra Modi become the next prime minister of India.  These luminaries, most of whom write with Modi himself on a site called NitiCentral include people like Arun Shourie, Tavleen Singh, Ashok Malik, Swapan Dasgupta, Kanchan Gupta and other less known journalists, have a clear cut position on politics. We know where they stand – boldly on the right, as they themselves put it. We could add some more to this list – Madhu Kishwar, Surjit Bhalla, Shekhar Gupta, Gurcharan Das and so on. I’m not interested in these right-wing intellectuals here.

Let us concentrate, rather, on the pro-establishment liberal intellectual’s attempt to make Modi more palatable.

So, how does Varshney present a more palatable Modi before us? First, like many of the others in the right-wing category, he makes every effort to convince us that in this round of campaign speeches by Modi, “(G)overnance and development have been the overarching ideas” and that “(T)he overall campaign has been quite in contrast to “Garv se kaho hum Hindu hain”, that was a running theme in LK Advani’s campaign in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Varshney then goes on to say that “in the late-1990s, this theme was dropped“, “when the BJP-based NDA came to power, led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee.” But it was in  the late 1990s when the BJP-led NDA was in power, led by the Moderate AB Vajpayee that there were increased everyday physical attacks on non-Hindus. The gruesome killing of Graham Staines and his two sons while they were asleep became emblematic of that ‘moderate Hinduism’. It was also during this phase that the 2002 carnage took place in Gujarat – ostensibly the phase when the ‘garv se kaho ham Hindu hain’ theme had been dropped!

The point I am making here apropos of Varshney’s argument here is that as a matter of fact Vajpayee was a moderate and that it does not matter that he was a moderate. The very presence of a BJP-led government with the RSS-VHP-Bajrang Dal and the whole bundle of messages that these send out, activates certain kinds of forces. The moderation or otherwise of the leader does not matter in the least.

But such is Varshney’s gullibility that he goes on to say:

Modi’s most striking rhetorical tropes, however, are about India’s Muslims. In Bihar as well as Uttar Pradesh, he has made arguments truly unexpected from a Hindu nationalist viewpoint. He has said that the Haj quota of Bihar and UP is rarely filled, whereas Gujarat’s quota is always oversubscribed. What is the reason? Gujarati musalman samriddh hain, lekin Bihar aur UP ke musalman garib hain (Gujarati Muslims are prosperous, but Bihar and UP Muslims are poor). If the Muslims of Bihar and UP could be as rich as Gujarat’s, they would be able to make the Haj pilgrimage, one of the five pillars of orthodox Islam.

Surely, reading statements like these do not require any sophisticated equipment – especially when they form part of an election campaign, particularly when Modi and his advisors know that it is precisely in these two states that his fate hangs in balance. And to be able to make a dent here, he must be seen to be making positive overtures to the Muslims. To refuse to read this most obvious maneouvre here and instead spin a yarn about his reaching out to Muslims seems disingenuous, to say the least.

We could go on with specific statements culled out from Varshney’s pieces but we will let these suffice for the time being. It is important, rather, to dwell at some length on two sets of claims that undergird this attempt to present a moderate Modi. These claims, it is important to realize, form the ‘common sense’ that rules among pro-establishment intellectuals.

First is the claim that Indian politics is marked by a “persistent centrism” that shuns both extremes – those of the Right and of the Left. Some intellectuals like Pratap Bhanu Mehta have even argued that in this respect Modi has already shown far greater acumen, meaning perhaps that he recognizes this cardinal fact about Indian politics. Thus, he claims, “For all the paranoia about Modi’s centralising tendencies, the interesting fact about the BJP’s evolution in the last few months is this: Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders.”

And just to underline how recurrent this theme is, let us recall that shortly before the 2004 elections, the famous “India Shining” elections, Sanjaya Baru (of Accidental Prime Minister fame) had penned what a friend has called ‘an ode to Atal Bihari Nehru’ (25 February 2004, Business Standard). This piece was tellingly titled “Vajpayee’s Nehruism: Neither Right, nor Left, India Shines from the Centre”. Baru was telling us then that

“Vajpayee has demonstrated so clearly to his party that its sectarian and divisive platform of the past cannot provide the route to lasting power, even if it did work well for a Narendra Modi in Gujarat, and that the future for the BJP lies in occupying the political “centre”.”

Does this not sound like a consensus among the pro-establishment intellectuals? It needs to be pointed out however, that this belief remains one of the biggest shibboleths about “Indian politics”. There is nothing special about India, as far as this move towards ‘centrism’ is concerned. All representative politics oriented towards state power exhibits this same tendency everywhere. That is why, eventually, all parties even begin to look and sound like each other. Indian politics perhaps distinguishes itself by managing to allow the most violent forms of politics to be ensconced within a supposedly democratic outer-shell.

The second claim has to do with what these intellectuals see as the “facile attempt” to label Modi “a fascist”. In a recent piece, Pratap Bhanu Mehta has once again raised this question, dubbing such reactions from left-liberals as hyperbolic. Though Sanjay Srivastava has responded to it adequately, one intriguing question remains. Consider this from Pratap:

The best way to respond to accusations of fascism is not to dismiss them. It is to make them look silly by your own exemplariness.

But those scare-mongering on fascism also need self-reflection. Many of those dropping the “F” word also betray a will to simplification that tells you more about those making the accusations than it does about politics.

Who precisely, is the addressee of the first sentence? Who should make the accusers look silly by “your own exemplariness”? This, I am afraid, goes far beyond a critique of the Left – the ‘scare-mongers on fascism’, for it expects that the ones accused of ‘fascism’ are capable of such exemplary behaviour that will make the Leftists look silly. Varshney too raises the issue of ‘fascism’ in his second piece where he tells us that  “Comparisons with fascism, often made, are too facile. India simply does not have the conditions of 1930s Germany.” Pratap and Varshney are of course, entitled to their opinions and I do not want to contest them on the substance of their claims. However, a brief comment on the issue of fascism will not be out of place here.

Sanjay Srivastava correctly points out that we use other terms like ‘democracy’, ‘civil society’, ‘citizenship’ – not to “to measure how well we approximate to their source but rather to express an entire range of aspirations, hopes and anxieties.” He suggests that fascism is used in the same way. I want to add that our use of the term may actually go beyond merely expressing hopes and anxieties.

In the first place, ‘fascism’ is not to be understood as linked to a specific class configuration as Marxists often believed, nor to a specific kind of ideological abnormality born out of a crisis of liberal parliamentarianism. It certainly was not an ‘abnormality’, but rather, expressed a reaction to elitism of certain kinds and therefore embodied what Wilhelm Reich called the ‘revolt of the small man’. But even these are not necessarily always replicable elements. What is crucial is that the core of the fascist idea was a violent intolerance of any sign of what it saw as disloyalty to the Nation (or the State). One could say that in some sense, fascism was the embodiment of the very pathology of nationalism and nation-statism. It represented a political culture that thrived on mass mobilization against everything that sought to ‘weaken’ the nation/state. And there is no doubt that this was something that has always appealed to the RSS family – they have explicitly referred to Hitler in particular in tones of great admiration. Their paramilitary organization (the RSS) and their mass mobilization against ‘left-liberals’ and ‘secularists’, their involvement in violent attacks on ‘intellectuals’ and artists – all point to the same elements of political culture that defined European fascism. Narendra Modi’s repeated invocation of Pakistan and branding of opponents as ‘terrorists’ express the same effort to mobilize mass opinion against political adversaries. Ideas, we know, travel across contexts, across time and space. They may get somewhat transformed in the process but they also transform.

The attempt by most pro-establishment intellectuals, then, to pass off the violent core of this political culture as an aberration can either be seen as a sign of their gullibility (at best) or complicity (at worst). In conclusion, let me cite another extract from Varshney:

Modi is often criticised for nurturing an all-consuming desire for power. From the perspective of political theory, that is not a damnable flaw unless it leads to the weakening of democratic institutions. We won’t know much about the latter until Modi comes to power.

As if Modi’s long years of power in Gujarat still leave something that we are yet to learn about this new statesman in the making!


24 thoughts on “The Pro-Establishment Intelligentsia and the Modi Phenomenon”

  1. I am glad at least someone is analyzing the manner in which ‘liberal’ intellectuals are yielding to Modi either through active advocacy or through tacit silence/neutrality.


  2. I think this could have been a longer piece. But I guess people may not have the patience for details. Still, I hope you come out with an expansion of the ideas presented here. That it is merely the tip of the iceberg will not suffice. It is a little late in the day to dissect this as the country goes to vote. Though, it could be still an interesting one in future as well. Please see if you can add to this. If what the fraud surveys and polls have been claiming turns out to be true, I greatly fear that your capacity to write any more of this would be severely curtailed :))
    Just joking. But it is only half a joke. No one really thought Kristallnacht would happen either and I suppose if the inevitable is coming, then I better hoard all the books, articles and writings that I can gather before the great bonfires of cultural resurrection start.
    Really well written,. but like I said, needed a little elaboration and expansion of the theme.


  3. Tejaswi need not fear the bonfire, as it is all virtual now ! I liked Aditya’s reference to mimamsa, as Hindutva is completely oblivious of the evolution of Hindu spiritual themes in the Bhakti movement and later. Historical truths that controvert Hindutva’s Manichean positing of Hindu tolerance and Muslim intolerance are flatly ignored. One example is that Kulothunga, the Chola ruler in the 11th/12th century banished from Kanchipuram , Sri Ramanuja, the founder of Visistadvaita vaishnavism , and of the Iyengar community in the south. Likely reason was Ramanuja’s comparative liberalism on caste. (The then Shankaracharya in the kanchipuram mutt may have contributed to Kulothunga”s decision, though I do not know of any history on this).Ramanuja then went to Melkote in karnataka for 12 years; Melkote remains an inescapable duty pilgrimage for Iyengars. In contrast, in Badshah Akbar’s Ibadat khana at Fatehpur Sikhri, all sects were welcome including a sect like ramanuja’s. Hindutva is a recrudescence, in some respects, of pre-bhakti movement attitudes .


  4. It is quite interesting to see how intellectuals fall in line when expediency propels them in a certain direction. It did happen once before during the Emergency and just a handful showed gumption enough to hold their ground. One needs to recall the alacrity with which the intellectuals and others not so erudite, rushed to get their denazification certificates once the Third Reich collapsed.


  5. In case of Ramanuja it was shivaite vs. vaishnavaite as the King patronized Shivaites and punished Vaishnavaites. The Shankaracharya had nothing to do with that.So please learn some history and facts before offering your wisdom.
    Many support BJP/NDA/Modi not because they have a special liking for it/him but due to the functioning of UPA II and the absence of an alternative. The federal/third front is dead before being born. The unstable govts. in 89-91 and 96-98 are a case in point of the failure of the non-bjp/non-congress coalitions to survive. Left practices pseudo secularism and favors appeasement on the basis of religion and its refusal to acknowledge real threats to the nation like cross-border terrorism make it unacceptable . So what is the choice among the three.


    1. Point taken and tnx for the correction.True, Kulothunga, the ruler was an ardent shaivaite, doctrinally distinct from the smartha allegiances of the Shankaracharya and so on.But even earlier, when Ramanuja first flouted the rules by broadcasting from a rooftop, the secret mahamantram, the adverse reaction came from the existing brahmin hierarchy. The fact is that the mughal ruler Akbar was more tolerant than a hindu ruler like Kulothunga.This history should moderate the demonisation of muslims in the minds of many.


      1. Was Akbar a muslim? Didn’t he found a religion (Din-e-illahi) himself? Infact he took the best practices (according to him) from all religions to form this religion.


  6. Just a few thoughts on the fascism and the Janus-faced politics of the BJP.

    As a friend of mine had once commented, maybe we need to stop looking at the West, esp. Europe in c. 1930s, for an explanation of what fascism and totalitarianism are. Instead, he said sarcastically, we need to see more successful forms of the same that have emerged in post-colonial nations in South Asia (Cambodia, Myanmar etc.), Africa, and so on.

    The Sangh Parivaar, I believe, presents a similar challenge, as its ideology is based on virulent nationalism (or, nation-building, and social engineering). And in this regard, I think that Umberto Eco’s idea of “Ur Fascism”, or “eternal fascism” is instructive. He writes:

    “…fascism [did not] contained in itself…all the elements of any later form of totalitarianism. On the contrary, fascism had no quintessence. Fascism was a fuzzy totalitarianism, a collage of different philosophical and political ideas, a beehive of contradictions.”

    But despite of this “fuzziness”, Eco outlines a list of 14 features that are typical to “Ur-Fascism”. A more contextual reading of Eco would thus render a lot of sense to the insidious politics of the BJP and, more importantly, of its allied bodies in the Sangh Parivar (more so when we put Modi in the picture). However, due to constraints of space it is difficult for me to explain and extrapolate entirely Eco’s points on Ur-Fascism to the discourse of the BJP & RSS’ Hindutva politics.

    In this space, I would highlight just a few.

    The first is the “cult of syncretistic traditionalism” which “rejects modernism”. Although Modi’s Gujarat model is, supposedly, pro-development, the Ram janmabhoomi debate features vociferously the BJP’s election agenda. An argument can also be made about the Janus-faced nature of the BJP’s political agenda here: their claims on development, and a regression to their idea of Hindu Rashtra. In fact, it would seem that only in the discourse of patriarchy and fascism can such glaring contradictions coexist.

    Second, is the fear of difference, and the obsession with a plot (which is an appeal to xenophobia); this grows with an appeal “against intruders”, which is why Eco terms Ur-Fascism as racist.

    Third, in relation to the second point, is pacifism is trafficking with the enemy…because life is permanent warfare—be it against the threat of our neighbours, or ISI-sponsored terrorists within the country – who, then, are killed in fake encounters, for display to the world.

    Fourth, is will to power to sexual matters…this is the “origin of machismo”, and perhaps, the most important point insofar as we are looking at the relationship between patriarchy and fascism. A few examples in this regard are: VHP Chief Ashok Singhal’s claims that Hindus should have “more children” to counter the growth of Muslims and “balance the population”; the use of rape and sexual violence to assert caste hierarchy and religio-political domination, like in the post-Godhra riots, and the riots in Kandhamal, Orissa in 2008. Also, the ‘moral policing’ organisations like Bajrang Dal, VHP, Shri Ram Sene, et al., engage in.

    The fifth condition of Ur-Fascism is an appeal to the frustrated middle class – who are (rightly) tired with ten years of the UPA’s corrupt regime and soft policies on terror, the economy, and so on.

    In continuation, the sixth is selective populism, where the people (in this case, the Hindus they represent) are only a theatrical fiction. Eco says, “…there is, in our future, a TV or an internet populism, in which the emotional response of a selected group of citizens can be presented and accepted as the Voice of the People.”

    And this brings us to the seventh and final condition of my interpretation of Ur-Fascism: it [a syncretistic faith] “cannot withstand criticism”. Eco sums up my thoughts, when he says that the modern community “praises disagreement as a way to improve knowledge. For Ur-Fascism, disagreement is treason.”

    The fact that these glaring contradictions coexist, and without any problems, in the BJP-Sangh’s grand narrative points out a fact that most pro-establishment academics and intellectuals have failed to highlight: the Janus-faced nature of the BJP, and of politics in general. But with the BJP this is more so, since it’s emphasis on the theme of “development”, “growth” etc. is used to deflect the attention and scrutiny of the violence that emanates from organisations that it itself is affiliated with.

    Perhaps, the biggest failure of not just academics, but even the media and general public discourse is, that the biggest problem with Modi is that he refuses to wear a skull cap, and “apologise” for 2002 riots. These, in my opinion, are non-issues, and very poor critiques of Modi, the BJP and the Sangh.

    And this is precisely why the BJP-Sangh is one of the most successful Janus-faced patriarchal moral-political economy we have seen in the last two decades.


    Umberto Eco’s essay ‘Ur Fascism’ can be accessed here:

    See also an article by Sumit Sarkar in 1992, after the demolition of the Babri Masjid:

    And here is my own interpretation of the patriarchy and fascism embedded in the Political Hindutva Right:


  7. If someone recycles debates of 1990s on Hindu Right & Fascism then include Sumanta Bannerjee’s articles also on this issue. BJP can at best be described as a right wing party that seeks to mobilize mostly Hindus. Right wing politics can take different forms and it can include a strong appeal to nationalist sentiments. But appealing to nationalist sentiments or applying ideas of nation building and social engineering are not unique to right wing politics. Hindutva appeals to common sense of the masses seem to be effective and a section of the younger generation is willing to support Modi. The left and the so called intellectuals who keep on harping 1992, 2002 and threat to secularism argument do not seem to understand the changes in the public mood. Their threat perceptions and responses do not seem to match that of the public. The very fact Modi has won massively thrice since 2002 in that state indicates the gap between their perception and that of the public in that state. Finally raising the bogey of secularism is not going to be effective after this poll in 2014.


    1. TU, we do as a matter of fact sense the ‘change of public mood’ – but if your politics is about pandering to that mood you are most welcome to it. The change is mood does nothing to the fact that there are fascists who are behind this and will need to be fought. As for secularists ‘harping on 1992 and 2002’, you seem to be a fine one to talk when people of your ilk can’t stop ‘harping on’ Babar and 400/ 500 year old mosques! Finally, all political battles are not fought by arguments, fascism has to be fought on the streets and so we do not need your sane advice about what we should do with our secularism!


      1. Easy, Aditya. We are not all “Huh?!! TU, Brute”. ‘Fought on the streets’ will give it a different meaning. We cannot get into this Tu tu, main nahin.
        But, you may be right in the end. It will be fought in the streets, not by choice, but by necessity or desperation. That time has not yet come, so let us by all means enjoy the phoney war while it lasts.
        “The bogey of secularism” seems to worry a lot of people. I am actually heartened by that. So it is not such a dead idea, after all.

        PS: What a contrast! pacifichues’s comments above make me feel like an illiterate monkey and I yearn to learn more and know more. Whereas, little blustering chimps like Tu make me feel so erudite in comparison and smug in my belief that I am a little more civilised than I thought I was.


  8. Thanks Aditya sir for putting into perspective a lot of things in this article. Kafila is becoming a platform to politically educate ourselves in the times when we are constantly being fed by popular media as well as ‘pro-establishment intelligentsia’ the myths and ‘facts’ about Modi phenomenon.


  9. All my waking hours of the past month have been spent surfing and browsing to find those oases which are free from the meek surrender all around us. It is a strange time when those who value virtues like compassion, tolerance, and loving the “other” as one’s own feel embarrassment in espousing their views; and those who are crude and cruel and unthinking thump their chests around.
    If this is the vision of a fifth of humanity ……. All of us assembled here have this “hope against hope” that we shall escape the danger this time. But for how long? Win or lose this was as spectacular an assault as it comes.

    Kaafila keep it up. I hope tumhara karavaan banta jaaye.


  10. It will of course be interesting to find what these apologists for the macho leadership style will have to say post 16 th May if their conviction does not hold out to be true. But what is very worrying is the implicit assumption in a whole lot of these writings is that our institutions are strong enough to withstand such shocks. As if the country is a large experiment bowl which can be subjected to the acceptance of ideas which are plain anathema to the ideas in which the country was founded.


  11. With Pacific Hues’ permission , I’ll look back at Western experience one more time. Intellectuals all over accomodated to Hitler , clutching at some straw or the other. Hitler came to power in 1933, and soon after happened to make a meaningless speech which in this one instance , lacked the standard anti-semitic fare. Walter Lippman, in the New York Times said something to the effect, ” ..a voice has spoken, the voice of an old civilisation…”. Justice Felix Frankfurter at once conveyed his dismay to Lippman. Sadly. Walter Lippman was a Jew as was Frankfurter


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