Cover Story

Modi and the Monk

S Prasannarajan is the Editor of Open magazine
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Empowerment is refinement, especially when the mandate is as big as UP...

THIS MAN IN power marks the lowest point of Indian democracy. As an embodiment of criminality and immorality, he makes the institutions of a much-battered civil society vulnerable to the perversions and pathologies of the kind of politics he practises: exclusivist and explosive. The fault lines of an exhausted system may have made his ascent inevitable, the range of his hate speeches may have won elections, but the repudiation of this evil is the only course available to us in the fight for the restoration of lost decencies and dignities in politics. India is too precious a place, even if lately corroded by the impurities of popular choices, to be left to the vagaries of mass minds fed on hatred. The size of the victory should not be interpreted as a licence for the perpetuation of majoritarian highhandedness. He has no right to be there. Out, damned despot!

Familiar blast, isn’t it? And uttered by the last guardians of an endangered India. But ‘he’ is not Yogi Adityanath, though. ‘He’ is Narendra Modi, and he has been living with the left-liberal indictments of the above variety ever since he won the popular vote in Gujarat in 2002. No courts of law may have sentenced him, but in the court of the lamenting class, he is still the bigot imposed on India by the worst instincts of the silly majority. Now the same class that continues to resist the reality of Modi has come down heavily on the new Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. It’s okay for the Yogi to be a five-term member of the Lok Sabha, it is still not okay for him to be elected as Chief Minister after an overwhelming popular vote. What make him unacceptable are the colour of his robes and the content of his speeches. A cursory look at the past texts of liberal condescension and secular transgressions alone will bring out the dubiousness of the current outrage. It is a secular necessity to empower certain kinds of bigots, and it is a secular-liberal obligation to condemn the other kind. The way India is evolving, maybe it is time to dissolve the people, as suggested by the wise old Brecht and increasingly felt by liberals, and elect another by the enlightened.

Till that happens, the Adityanath story is here to stay, in varied retellings. An earlier version of this story happened in Gujarat when Modi was the one who shattered the cosy consensus. He was not a man in orange robes presiding over a religious establishment, but he too, in his trademark half-sleeve kurta, was different. A young ascetic who realised the uses of political power, and a lone fighter armed with words that mobilised as well as divided. For Modi circa 2002, as for Adityanath 2017, the sweep of his personal popularity was a blessing and a challenge. He turned it into a mandate for development. The cult was a consequence. It was the cult that won the election for Adityanath in UP, and by elevating an untested Mahant to head India’s most influential state, Modi has set off a story in which he will be the leitmotif, as always.

For Modi, the Mahant in power is another occasion to stress the point: ‘Hindu’ is no longer an enforced adjective for nationalism, it is the essence of it; it is the normalisation of an idea that swung between aggression and grievance. The aggrieved Hindu as street fighter is the image Modi wants to replace. We could not have missed the fact that, as a stump habit or otherwise, Modi does not use the H-word. He never looks compelled to deploy Hindu exceptionalism to add nationalist legitimacy to development. The bogeyman too is dead: an exaggeration of the evil other is not a requirement for the realisation of your nationalist ideal. Empowerment is refinement, especially when the mandate is as big as UP, and an Adityanath is a necessary experiment. For his own and India’s good, Modi has to believe that it won’t fail.

So we need to pause before we grandly proclaim that the Mahant personifies the existential crisis of Indian democracy. The crisis is in the secular order—in the Actually Existing Secularism, which is different from the textbook version. In India, it has become the selective manipulation of religion and blatant exploitation of minority ghettos. In the Indian version, the idea of the nation is a throwback to tribalism; religious, cultural or ethnic affinities of a people are not what hold a country together but what tear it apart. Communalism for some is a necessary—and pardonable—route to assertion. Identity is a dangerous delusion when it is emphasised by the majority; it is an instrument of redemption when sold in the marketplace of slogans by professional secularists. In the Nehruvian secular order, used to optimum benefit by the party that had squandered its big opportunity to change India, the twin evils of religion and nation reigned supreme. That order is dying. The New Man is yet to be born.

A new India is in the making, and to remain a stranger in such a place, a normal place, is an intellectual cop out. It is convenient for the angsterati to banish the Yogi. The difficult part is to accept that he is the new argument India cannot escape.