Vinod Mubayi


Two demagogues, whose actions and words transformed Indian polity for the worse, have been in the news recently.  One of them, Bal Thackeray, who ruled Maharashtra and Mumbai, particularly, as a Mafioso Godfather, is, fortunately, no longer around although his poisonous legacy will likely foul the political atmosphere in the metropolis for many more years.  The other, unfortunately, is going on strong; Narendra Modi, the orchestrator of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002, has completed a hat trick by winning the state elections for a third successive time.  He can take full credit for transforming Gujarat from a “laboratory of Hindutva” when he began his career 15 years into a full-fledged “factory of Hindutva” it has become today.


With national elections due in a little over a year, the mainly right-wing media has, predictably, started anointing him as India’s next Prime Minister. The sort of pro-business, can-do language employed to boost Modi recalls the rhetoric that used to be employed for Mussolini: he made the trains run on time.


The vulnerability of democracy to the passions of the majority is well documented in the experience of Europe of the 1920s and 30s.  Simplistic and divisive rhetoric that laid the blame for socio-economic deprivations on the presence of the Other (religious minorities, socialists, communists, etc.) was trumpeted by a media led by business elites and eventually created the conditions in which an obscure Austrian house painter could emerge as Adolf Hitler, the Fuhrer.  Post-Ayodhya Gujarat bears a similarity where decades of pro-business and pro-Hindutva propaganda catapulted an obscure RSS pracharak Modi to power.  Of course, the innate authoritarian and fascist talents of Hitler and Mussolini in Europe and Thackeray and Modi in India, allowed them to fashion a rhetoric that could rouse the passions of the majority to a fever pitch where they were able to commit acts like killing Jews or killing Muslims that are normally considered unthinkable in “civilized” societies.


The saving grace of India, however, is likely to be its cultural and social heterogeneity and its multi-ethnic, multi-cultural society that, despite media hype, is likely to be a barrier to Modi’s rise beyond the bounds of his own state.  BJP’s victory this time around in Gujarat could hardly be called decisive as it actually lost a few seats compared with the last elections.


Meanwhile the acceptability of Modi on an international stage is also somewhat uncertain. The US remains a country that officially refused him a visa several years ago (during the Bush administration) and has not reversed this policy since. When the U.K. recently gave him a visa, 25 members of U.S. Congress issued a statement and read it at the State Dept. to reaffirm the visa denial, which was based on the 2002 pogrom in Gujarat.  These might be symbolic steps only but in official relations they do count.  Of course, the lobbying by Coalition Against Genocide in the U.S. that has united a broad spectrum from liberals to larger Christian and Muslim organizations has played the major role in this visa denial so far. Hindu business NRIs in North America are the most vocal supporters of Modi partly due to ideological motives. We have to recall their fervor during the Ayodhya “shilanyas” campaign.


While US capitalists are as welcome everywhere in India as they are in Gujarat, if they prefer to go to Gujarat it will be as much due to the perception of a better infrastructure like power, etc. as to the “business-friendly” hype in the media.  For the foreseeable future, those in charge of setting US govt. policy, beginning with the President, whoever he/she happens to be, would prefer to have India run by a centrist group like the Congress led by Manmohan Singh rather than a polarizing, divisive figure like Modi.


India has also seen a slightly more benign form of demagoguery when, a few decades ago, film stars who had gained a mass following through their screen heroics decided to cash in their popularity by entering politics.  The late M G Ramachandran in Tamil Nadu and the late N T Rama Rao in Andhra come to mind.  Despite the antics of their millions of frenzied fans, their mass appeal largely cut across the classic Indian fault lines of sect and religious identity; they were not accused of fostering or exacerbating religious or ethnic divisiveness or playing the communal card to cement or enhance their political status. It would have been easy for them to become demagogues but having achieved a measure of genuine fame in a competitive profession they chose not to exploit it in a poisonously divisive way when they turned to politics.


Modi and Thackeray are very different and it is the responsibility of all democrats inside and outside the country to reject them and their brand of politics.

Top - Home