Modi's Hindu Civilizational Project
Understanding the grandeur and pitfalls of Modi's Vision for India
I have long struggled to understand Modi and what makes him tick. First, as a ruthless and cunning provincial politician, when he was CM Gujarat; and then as a phenomenon, when he came to straddle the national scene.
The support, adulation, and devotion, he attracts from his base, but also others, surprised me. It puzzled me no end to see a person given to fibbing, hype, and lies, as a way of life, could be so revered.
I always had an inkling that there were some deeper reasons for his phenomenal popularity, that went beyond demagoguery, and the binaries of adversarial politics. But the underlying phenomenon was elusive.
In this essay I propose explore some of the insights I have gained in studying the person, the persona, and the phenomenology that is entwined with what he stands for in the popular imagination.
Modi is the simulacrum of a deeply held, and popular, aspiration in our collective psyche. Which is to restore India, or Bharat, to its past glory and honor. It is something thought to have been derailed circa 1001 CE, when the Somnath temple was plundered and laid waste, by invaders from the Northwest, and the many invasions since. It includes the 200 years under British Rule. Whether this perception is based on our objective past or not, it is a deeply embedded theme in every Hindu imagination. It is widely shared among liberals, and the illiberals. To deny it is to deny your very self.
Modi is not merely a persona or a politician. He embodies an indestructible idea, nay a deeply held faith, that the Indian Civilization, warts and all, long denied its due, must be restored to a respectable place under the sun. You cannot view the Modi phenomenon as something distinct from this collective aspiration. In fact, Modi has become the embodiment of this popular yearning.
Modi championed the Hindu civilizational project long before it was mainstream. He lived with ignominy of championing something deeply unpopular, and contrary to the official dogma, for decades. Until he was able to use the propaganda resources of the RSS, to turn the tables on his detractors within the BJP, and outside.
Modi owns the civilizational project through his deep commitment to it. This deep commitment, sustained over much adversity, makes his ownership of the project unassailable. In popular imagination, Modi is this Hindu civilizational project in person. And Modi plays to this perception with consummate artistry. The shots of him meditating alone in a Kedarnath cave are of a piece of this creative folklore.
Modi has created this civilizational project riding on the success of economic reforms initiated in 1991. These reforms created the base for accelerated economic growth. The explosion of software services exports to the US, in late 90s, announced to the world that Indians had arrived on the Global stage. As in the case of Japan, South Korea and China, this initial success on the global stage, generated a euphoria of “we can do it too” nationalistic pride. Modi was able to tap into this spirit of national resurgence and harness its potential as a theme for national imagination.
Very adroitly he captured the momentum of this nationalist stirrings. The reforms that initiated this resurgence were largely carried out by those who oppose him. Congress failure to own its own economic reforms, and take visible pride in their success, enabled Modi to own and embody this success as his own. He became the leader of this triumphalism by default. Congress intellectual ineptitude helped.
Since coming on to the national scene, Modi has used his unusually brazen chutzpah, and demagoguery, to sketch out his civilizational aspirations with a few strikingly vivid strokes. India is the fastest growing economy in the world. It is the mother of democracy. It has much to contribute to the world such as Yoga. Its ancient culture, philosophy, and science have played a large role in human epistemology. The Aryan treatment of autochthons was much more humane than that of the dark people by the Celts in British History. India lives by Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam.
The point is not that these are wishful myths. The point is that these are as good a set of myths as those advanced by others. It is part of the process of the Hindu civilization laying claim to a heritage of its own. The process can tolerate a few grand lies.
The brazen chutzpah has won Modi many laurels, even if his dubious claims ring hollow. It shows his boldness in making such claims, his deep commitment to the civilizational project that he champions, and his imagination to carry it through. That he makes the ridicule of his ridiculous claims look ridiculous is a masterly achievement of his grasp of the idiom, a triumph of his demagoguery.
Where liberals like me see fibs, myths, and exaggerated claims, his believers see sincerity, commitment, and devotion to a cause. And commendable bravery in advancing such claims in the face of withering scorn.
We are truly in a rabbit hole where value systems invert. But the essential point to grasp is not one of value inversion, but of commitment. Modi gets full marks for trying to make up for the lost 1000 years. Never mind the incongruity of his claims.
It is the determination to carry forward the civilizational project, in the teeth of opposition at home and abroad, that gives Modi immunity against his self-created disasters.
The economic woes of demonetization, flawed GST, incoherent IBC, lingering choke points in the banking system, abrupt shutdown in the pandemic, delays in ordering vaccines, the floating corpses in Ganga ji; these are all dismissed as the floundering of a sincere man, valiantly trying to do his best, in the face of all odds. His critics at home are seen as the enemy, trying to derail the holy civilizational project.
Hence every policy disaster is stoutly defended; every blunder becomes an occasion to renew and reinforce faith in the ultimate victory of the civilizational project; and to reaffirm allegiance to the leadership of the messiah, chosen to carry it through.
In the process, his critics become insidious saboteurs of India’s manifest destiny, the enemies of his Civilizational State, the Cassandras who cannot bear to see India succeed. They must be put down by any means available, fair and foul.
Modi’s success in carrying forward the Civilizational Project is measured against internal parameters. Demonstration of cultural dominance through a ban on beef, political dominance by building the Ram temple, laying the foundation of claims to other temple sites, establishing the supremacy of Hindus over all others by selective application of the law, use of militias to enforce party writ, the toppling of opposition Govts and brazen purchase of MLAs; are all part of the parameters by which progress towards a Civilizational State is measured.
What liberals see as flaw is really feature. If this leaves the liberals perplexed and dazed, that is also design; part of the genius of being Modi; the inevitable fallout of a Holy Mission to establish a Hindu Rashtra.
There is bound to be opposition to such a civilizational project. Who are those opposing? Minorities, some Hindus, some liberals. The Congress. They are to be ground to dust by means fair and foul. Whatever the regime can get away with is legitimate. So, there is ruthless stomping on dissent. Selective application of the law is routine. Marginalization and delegitimization of minorities are the new normal. Farmers are traitors. Workers are lazy good-for-nothings demanding a free lunch. The jobless are drones. Lefties are saboteurs. Communists are the enemy. Liberals are wooly headed, colonized, nay deranged minds; witless wokes under the control of an insidious Western script.
Anyone who opposes the civilizational project can be vilified, demonized, excoriated, indeed extinguished. Any dissent that can be construed as hindering the civilizational project is worthy of swift dissolution.
At the same time, effort is on to line up quislings from the minorities, to show the civilizational project is not just Hindu, but truly civilizational. If it appears Hindu in character, it is only because of the preponderance of sheer numbers. Hence, the thesis that all Indians are Hindus. [And not all Hindus are Indians.] The culmination of the civilizational project will be in declaration of a Hindu Civilizational State before 2024 elections.
The low hanging fruits of the Civilizational Project have largely been plucked. Internal domination of the polity using militias, carefully built up over decades, was always easy. They are being further strengthened. The Civilizational State yields an unassailable political dominance. Institutional capture is complete, except for a few pockets in the judiciary. The civil service and police are always with the regime. The military is seeing deep selection at every opportunity. The intellectuals are suitably cowed, and the popular media has been largely tamed, and domesticated.
In fact, the watchdog of democracy has recruited itself as the regime’s ludicrous chorus. Voluble imbeciles, who can do no more than amplify ruling party propaganda, under a sanitized neutral label. The tycoons who own it, know what is expected of them. Some exceptions soldier on, but I fear for their future.
The only things not falling in place are the economy, and the external environment.
While Modi owns the civilizational project, he has few ideas of his own of what the new Rashtra will do, to lift its 1.3 billion citizens out of the Malthusian hell in which they are trapped; never mind the high wage island in which the elites live.
Modi’s understanding of how a modern economy competes in the global marketplace is deeply flawed. None of his policy measures betray the vision that powered the 90/91 reforms. None of his programs have the capacity to lift 40 million of India’s poor above the poverty line as the reforms did. Instead, Modi’s policies have created 75 million newly poor over last 7 years. Modi has compressed real wage growth to near zero since 2014.
We can brush away the economic failures as minor irritants in a grand project, but hunger, poverty, and destitution, have undermined civilizations before. Modi’s project is not immune to this malady. Before long, the economy will have to perform at levels significantly above current capacities. It is not clear how Modi plans to achieve that.
Meanwhile, the huge flaw in the civilizational project has not gone unnoticed by our adversaries. You cannot be M K Gandhi abroad, and M S Golwalkar at home. You cannot champion a liberal Constitutional Democracy abroad, while laying the foundation of an illiberal electoral autocracy at home. There are limits to national schizophrenia. You cannot switch from Mr. Hyde to Dr Jekyll by merely boarding the Indian Air Force I for an overseas sortie.
You cannot demand free access to global markets, and close off your own, to shelter the profits of your crony tycoons. You cannot dream of doubling your exports through FDI, while pricing your domestic assets far above your competitors. You cannot be out of all trade pacts and grow your exports to attract the needed FDI to break through internal constraints on savings of a hungry population. You cannot claim to be Vishwa Guru, while your small neighbors beat you in such things as employment generation and per capita income. You cannot strut as a great civilizational power on the global stage while you are being ring-fenced out of the game in your own neighborhood.
At some point even such a noble and grandiose project as our Civilizational Mission, must be subjected to a reality check. And it’s the reality check that can cause the scales to fall off, exposing the fake hologram.
Modi hopes to find solutions to our real problems as he goes along, even as he creates new intractable ones that will trap the polity.
In time, he and his fellow dreamers in Nagpur, will discover that the true way to achieve their Civilizational Mission is by rediscovering the path that Nehru launched India on, with his tryst with destiny. One that carries all citizens, without distinction or discrimination, to greater wealth and prosperity. “Sab ka Saath, Sab ka Vikas,” cannot be a slogan to obscure the real process of ghettoization of minorities.
Realization will dawn that there is life beyond the caste system; that liberty, equality, fraternity, are not empty slogans, but the foundations of a polity that invites every citizen to give off her best, in her own enlightened self-interest. That it is the pursuit of enlightened self-interest - by itself - that produces the greatest good and glory, for the greatest numbers; and not some karma/dharma code wired into automatons, in obscure propaganda factories.
Nehru made many blunders but none as fatal as the ones Modi is making. Congress as a party may have failed to live up to Nehru’s promise. Much went right with Nehru’s vision; a lot went wrong. But none of it called for pursuing a grand Civilizational Project while dividing Indians at home; and/or ghettoizing minorities. Nor did it involve a futile attempt to shoehorn Hindu linguistic, cultural, and ethnic, diversity into a monochromatic Abrahamian conception, born of the blinkered imagination of a Brahminical priesthood in Nagpur, renowned for its myopia.
India is not China. Our Minorities are not Uighur. China did not launch its grand Civilizational Project before finding decent and productive jobs for 80% of its population. [Our employment rate is less than 40%.] Or creating the economic base necessary to sustain such a project. It did not bare its global ambitions before acquiring the hard power to back them up.
Our premature foray into pretend Greatness, at home and abroad, threatens our very existence. No player wins matches by playing beyond her game. Modi’s Civilizational project may yet falter again for the failings of its messiah.