The Modi Mandate – A Belated Response to S Varadarajan: Pradip Datta


Siddharth Varadarajan’s article raises some very important dilemmas before Modi which is really a rehearsal of the development versus welfare debate now bound to be exacerbated with the runaway capitalism that Modi promises to unleash.

But it raises another important question. Can we simply forget the past and get on with the future? Can we join the futurist chorus of Modi and his Thatcherite – Reaganite followers? Can an electoral mandate, even one as powerful as this, remove permanently the memory of 2002?

The immediate analogy comes with the anti Sikh riots followed by the 1984 verdict. 1984 returns every election to haunt the Congress even after they have made a Sikh prime minister for 10 years. Some historical memories are very stubborn and refuse to leave off the haunting of the future. It is not as if there have not been many riots. But only some riots achieve a historically emblematic status that remove them from the realms of simple memory alone. Some events become symbolic rallying points and they invite an excess of documentation, of witness testimonies, of cultural representations, all of which memorialize and fix them in chronology as a rupture in time that can never quite be bridged by the stitchings or blurrings of popular oral memory alone. In such events the archive becomes memory.

Such pasts cannot but haunt the present even if both past and present are sought to be forgotten in the future.

But there is another issue here. I do not recall the anti Sikh riots being so cleanly wiped out of memory after the 1984 verdict. Was there something different in this election?

There was. And this is Modi, the image of a face and the artistry of a demogogue. Modi has acquired a larger than life image that has overshadowed the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. His infights with the Sangh Parivar have been magnified to suggest that he is autonomous of his organization. Nor is he averse to promoting this understanding. His victory speech at Vadodra mentioned the BJP just once – and did not mention the RSS – while he dwelt on his loving personal relationship with the mass audience of his constituency. Nor is the RSS averse to this effacement: it joins in with Modi to erase its presence even as it proclaims that it will make him its PM candidate and proceeds to campaign for him.

Well, there may be one sphere in which Modi can be said to have made a decisive change in Sangh policy. If there is a really major strategic battle that Modi has won inside the Sangh Parivar it is on the ground of defeating the Swadeshi lobby. It is this victory – with which he has been able to provide clarity to the RSS leadership – that has allowed him to wield the stick in disciplining his opponents or those elements inside the Sangh Parivar that could undermine the authority of his governance. He can use his superior position as knower of the corporate world in acquiring a relatively powerful position within the Parivar. But this autonomy is because of two things. He speaks from the heart of the Parivar and has gone the furthest in enacting the theatre of cruelty by which Muslims can be made to trade off their sense of equal citizenship against the fear for their security. And secondly, he has not broken the conventions that bind inner party conflicts to the boundaries of a party discipline and its ideology. Modi represents a changing Sangh but a Sangh alright in all its networked viciousness.

The comparisons with Hitler and Mussolini – or even Putin – may be illuminating but up to a point. It should be remembered that the RSS predates Modi and is bound to remain separate from him even if he succeeds in commandeering the BJP. There are many more from the stable where Modi comes from.

Otherwise its certainly strange that the Sangh Parivar should change one of its core principles, that is disapproval of the single leader organizations and go along with promoting the personality cult of Modi. Indeed the degree to which it has collaborated in the process is marked by the fact that the machinery that promoted Ram has now promoted Modi. It has the same marks of a strategy of temporary but intense media saturation which is generated from an independent party source using a multiplicity of genres, technologies, sites and from this octopus like platform and through the work of PR agencies, networking with mainstream commercial media. And all focused on a single person, earlier a full body (Ram) now a face. What was previously a virtual but transcendental embodiment has now got virtual with a real point of reference.

The problem is that Modi has become so big that he has overshadowed the Gujarat riots itself. And for this we too are also responsible. Our faith in liberal governance is so deep and our desire for fixing individual responsibility so pressing that all our attention has been focused on pinning the blame on Modi. Meanwhile the man has changed his image even as he retains the 2002 memory as a trace and a silent tribute to his Hindutva credentials (to be referenced indirectly like the riots at Muzzafarnagar). And through this route he becomes doubly successful as a governance artist. Not only is he the person who can both bend and enforce rules helpful for corporate interests, but he can also show himself as a politician who can reshape even the evidence of history and produce it as a virtue of electoral politics. This double success is also the new programme of Hindutva: pro-corporate policies with half hidden and legitimate anti-minorityism.

What has been forgotten in this politics of personal embodiment are the activities of the Sangh Parivar in conducting the riots. The same organizations that will on the one hand proceed with anti minority propaganda mixed with moral policing and cultural affirmations of Hindutva and on the other hand, through their overconfidence and success, provide an opportunity to Modi to reaffirm the rules of governance as one that is autonomous of their interference. Among other things Modi marks the achievement of a system of checks and balances within the network of Sangh Parivar organizations which had, by acquiring hegemonic status in Gujarat, begun to acquire too much relative autonomy with increasing popular influence of Hindutva as a whole.

The real change that has happened in Hindutva is in the politics of leadership. If in the past a range of leaders (Vajpayee; Advani ; Joshi ; Katiyar/Bharati/Rithambara etc) combined different roles of the Sangh programme in themselves, now Modi as a person will do most of it by himself. He will remove the growing factionalism of the BJP leadership that was a consequence of the model of multiple leadership and combine a range of personas in himself: modest, placatory, abusive, violent, intimate, politician, poet, ascetic and worker, each persona being deployed according to the needs of the tactical occasion. But like all the other past leaders he will exhibit these personas from the heart of the Sangh. Modi really represents a new important phase in the history of the flexibilisation of the Sangh which started in the 1980’s with its scenting of new opportunities in the new global era of middle class growth and strengthening corporate power. Modi represents a shift to the politics of personal embodiment. Ram, in retrospect, represented the need for the leadership principle which could not be embodied in a living person. Now “Ram” has been firmly located in our world.

It may not be a coincidence that with his dwelling on his personal relationship with the electorate, Modi in his speech to the Vadodra inhabitants, did not refer to the diversity of the country but to the nation marching in step that would multiply the number of steps that are taken. Nor may it be a coincidence that this was accompanied by the projection of a new self, that is, of the mazdoor who is no. 1 by virtue of the extraordinary work he puts in –  and of the figure of Ambedkar produced by Gaekwad (silently paralleling the way he was (re) produced by the RSS into a national hero). This may not be coincidence for what it may reveal is the production of an productivist notion of the self that plays on the class pride of the productive worker. The Worker Leader has migrated from Stalinism to Hindutva and class is now being sought to be mobilized as the basis of Hindu identity. For what Moditva may represent is the discovery of a social and economic logic of Hindutva selfhood that can complement its cultural programme of Hindutva. The Worker will motivate economic productivity, will try to give to the work ethic a populist appeal, even as it flattens social and economic identities which then complements the cultural project of homogenization. Modi represents the proliferation and the attempt to provide a wider basis for homogenizing identity than had been available to it so far.

This may mean many things for the minorities: structural marginalization together with selective economic empowerment, maybe the promotion of a small Muslim middle class held in check with the fear of violence unleashed against the Muslim masses \ migrants from time to time. But riot violence will no longer be gratuitous – unless an excess is temporarily needed (which it may be used in “ripening” places such as Bengal). Muzaffarnagar shows that riots can be deployed as a framing device to set up a polarized backdrop which can then be allowed to simply hover over the succeeding proceedings like a cloud. Of course this may not be the only mode: if at some conceivable future the gamble with the trickle down effect does not work out and the democratic traditions are not satisfied with Hindutva policies then another pogrom cannot be ruled out. For what has been produced over the last two decades or so is a reservoir of anti-minority sentiment that can be moulded in particular conjunctures of violence for temporary periods.

It is hard to conceive of the Sangh Parivar without anti-minorytism. The pride in the nation needs a necessary humiliation of an other.

The past should not be forgotten not because it simply haunts the present, but because the past can be (re) moulded and (re) mobilized by the face of a different future.

 Pradip Kumar Datta teaches at the Department of Political Science, University of Delhi



7 thoughts on “The Modi Mandate – A Belated Response to S Varadarajan: Pradip Datta”

  1. Let’s be clear here, please. My piece was not a plea to forget, far from it, just a recognition of the insurmountable odds that now attend the quest for justice. Please wait and watch how, one by one, not just any hope of justice for 2002, but also in the Sohrabuddin, Ishrat Jahan, Tulsiram Prajapati and other cases all fall come to nought. This is the harsh ugly reality, which is not to say that we should forget or forgive.

    1. Actually, Siddharth, PK’s piece is a ‘response’ only in the sense that he takes it as an opportunity to think about the question of memory. It is not exactly saying that you are saying that we should forget. Far from it we have all enjoyed reading this and the other pieces you have written over the election period.

  2. Nice analysis of Moditva encompassing a cult persona of Moditva elevated to a virtual Ram but, tactically Modi does not wield that mythical weapon (kulhaara) against the untouchables, rather, he manages to sweep them off the feet to make them ride the bandwagon of Hindutva. Surely, the Moditva wave that brought political dividends to the BJP bears an analogy to the December 1984 elections when persona of Rajiv ,too, got projection of an embodiment of the Hindutva. And the latent message it conveyed to the electorate that Rajiv was required to be made stronger for strengthening Indian Nation State threatened by the Sikh minority in league with Pakistan.Mere reference to Pakistan, for that matter Muslims, is sufficient to generate requisite frenzy of the Hindutva. In Rajiv Gandhi case, RSS backing was there, but not as pronounced as for Modi now, because unlike Rajiv, the latter is the RSS ideological progeny. Rightly said, the 1984 and 2004 pogroms have gone down in the history which will be remembered whenever India’s democracy will be coming for consideration of any sort.
    Some points are needed to be debated: How will the RSS’s Swadeshi agenda fit in the pro-corporate and market savvy outlook of Modi ? Will RSS be ready to relinquish its Swadeshi campaign ? How will the corporate-backed economic development leave the social base of the Hindu society unchanged and anchored to Verna-ashram (the caste system) –the prop of the Hindutva ?

  3. Dear Sir

    I was not even born at the time of anti-Sikh riots, and have a very limited knowledge of the pogrom and its aftermath. I wish to understand how these riots remained in collective conscience more so than Gujarat massacre (if I use the following twelve years as comparator), when Congress managed to win three successive elections and rule the country for 4/5th of that period? Congress’s relatively poor performance in 1989 also seems as an electoral punishment for corruption rather than its role in the pogrom.



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