THE DRAMA IS a distraction, a denial and a disappointment. It reduces Karnataka, where there is only one winner, as in any competition, to an autonomous, isolated piece of uncertainty, to a dispute that highlights the ungraciousness of the losers. Karnataka is bigger than the combined worth of all those damaged totems jostling for the microphone, and its message is louder than their nauseous ventriloquism. It is the newest sentence in a passage of India re-imagined. It just shows how we have come to take the history-shifting change in the largest—and most nonlinear—democracy for granted. It is as if we want to remain static and content with our received truisms even as India discards its oldest political superstitions. Everything has changed, and as Karnataka comes on the fourth anniversary of Narendra Modi in power, here is India, still incomprehensible to the dramatic personae, in five paragraphs.
THE ONLY ONE
There comes a moment in the evolutionary tale of nations when one man’s quest becomes a people’s destiny. Modi, in this era of strongmen and populists, is unarguably the strongest of them all with the biggest mandate of a democracy, something a Putin or an Erdogan cannot claim. After perhaps the longest campaign in contemporary politics, from the embers of Gujarat 2002 to the liberation of Delhi 2014, he has still not paused. Power, for some, is more than governance. It is a state of permanent war, waged in people’s minds. That is what redeems ‘change’ from the banalities of stump speeches. His words alone still form the arguments that win India, Karnataka being just another turn of phrase.
THE INSIGNIFICANT OTHER
Modi’s argument has already made the other party redundant. The Congress-free India that he promised during the campaign for 2014 is no longer a rhetorical wish. As you read in this space last week, ‘Karnataka could be the moment—the beginning of a new argument that breaches the last resistance of the Vindhyas.’ The idea of anti-Congressism has had its share of apostles, socialists being the ideological adventurists and opportunists—among them. Modi has made it singularly unambiguous, a prerequisite for national renewal.
IT’S A CULTURAL SHIFT
The nation has come back to concentrate the Indian mind, formerly secularised by the Nehruvian project of the New Indian. The project remained more or less intact in spite of irregular assertions of independence; the cultural establishment, built over decades of entitlement and entrenchment, was too strong to be challenged by weak, sporadic rejoinders. In the past, the challengers, accidental or elected, were too busy managing power rather than making use of it. For Modi, being in power is more than a political fulfilment. It is a mandate for retrieving the nation from a false argument in which religion was an apology rather than an identity. In Modi’s hands, the Gandhian spirituality of politics has become an aggressive assertion of the nationalist mind. Earlier, it sounded dismissive and dreadful whenever BJP was translated as the Hindu Nationalist Party. In Modi’s India, which is not culturally unipolar as liberals may lament, it is the natural party of governance. As natural as, say, Germany’s Christian Democratic Union. Why is it that only religious adjectives need vindication? India doesn’t have to struggle for an answer any longer. The cow jihadis and other armed culture warriors from the fanatic fringe may provide tailor-made examples of regressive Hindu nationalism to those who are in need of them, but the shift Modi has made in four years goes far beyond the vulgar and the spectacular.
THE GLOBAL NATIONALIST
There are two kinds of nationalists at play today: those who seek the global stage and others who retreat from it. Modi belongs to the first category, and in a short span of time, he has become the new wise man from the East, a title for so long held by the Chinese. He is the first true internationalist in power after Nehru, but he is not building on a legacy. He is not playing out the script of Third Worldism; he is not championing an ideological division of the world. At a time when rogues are still in power, the foreign policy of any global player should have a moral content. We still tend to confuse morality with ideology. Modi, as a hyperactive globalist, has added a new dimension to India’s engagement with the world: moral pragmatism. It is about humanising ideology through ideas. It’s about not being paranoid like the Chinese, or isolationist like Trump’s America. Anti-Americanism is no longer the official religion of South Block, but Modi’s conversation with the world is not influenced by moral lessons borrowed from elsewhere either. That is a big deal for a country that lost much of its formative years because of free lessons from the socialist bloc.
THE LIBERAL IN DENIAL
In his powerful little book, The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mark Lilla, himself a disillusioned liberal, says that liberals ‘are losing because they have retreated into caves they have carved for themselves in the side of what once was a great mountain.’ They have become evangelists. ‘The difference is this: evangelism is about speaking truth to power. Politics is about seizing power to defend the truth.’ They are wilfully trapped in identity politics. ‘At a moment when political consciousness and strategizing need to be developed, we are expending our energies on symbolic dramas over identity. At a time when it is crucial to direct our efforts into seizing institutional power by winning elections, we dissipate them in expressive movements indifferent to the effects they may have on the voting public. In an age when we need to educate young people to think of themselves as citizens with duties toward each other, we encourage them instead to descend into the rabbit hole of the self.’ He writes in an American context, but his argument rings true in India, where the intellectual class that sustains anti-Moditva is weighed down by the enormity of ‘Me’—‘the rabbit hole of the self’. They can only hate him; they can’t escape him. They might as well dismiss the people, as Burke would have suggested—those ‘deplorables’, the people, unless they are easily ‘identifiable’ as groups and sub-groups. The liberal lives in an echo chamber.
IT’S NOT FOR the first time that India is in thrall to the Leader with a Capital L.Then it was power with a historical pedigree. It was the entitlement of a bloodline, though the original Mrs G was a natural while playing with the mass mind; it was as if she was born to play Mother India. The new Leader, whose legend has to be written in his own words, marks the revenge of the outsider, the man who came from the ordinariness of India, its possibilities in the politics of change. Modi is the change India is yet to comprehend fully.