Apparently, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi has a 56-inch chest. This, of course, is metaphorical as it’s unlikely his chest is that large. He made this claim in 2013, during a campaign rally, in an attempt to indicate that he is man enough to tackle India’s complex problems. As it turns out, manliness is a political programme for India’s right wing.
To be manly, according to them, is to have all the answers. To be manly is to be able to beat down communities that speak out, and to intimidate oppressed castes and Muslims, the scapegoats in a tale of a dysfunctional society. To be manly is to take India’s economy by the throat and make it cough out jobs.
My career as a journalist began in 1993, in the midst of an anti-Muslim riot on the outskirts of Delhi. Men who would otherwise have vanished into a crowd painted their faces with saffron, clutched knives and machetes, chanted a combination of religious and political slogans and reeked of death and testosterone.
Their small, malnourished bodies were puffed up by their cockiness. For them, killing seemed like an easy way to feel important. Drenched in anti-Muslim and anti-Communist rhetoric, Modi’s right wing finds currency in the erroneous sentiment that Hindus have been mistreated by the secular state.
Modi was an ordinary worker of Indian fascism’s most disciplined and powerful body, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). As a courier for the RSS, Modi knew the secrets and served as a link between parts of the sprawling organisation. Over the years, Modi cultivated loyalty and built a strong network.
When weakness took hold in the Gujarat branch of the right-wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), Modi seized an opportunity and struck, becoming the party’s leader of that state. In the scheme of a country with a population of 1.3 billion people, becoming the chief minister of Gujarat (with a population of 60 million) is a minor matter, but for a man like Modi, with higher ambitions, it was a stepping stone.
At the time of Modi’s ascendance, Gujarat was faced by crippling agrarian distress and mass urban unemployment. In response, Modi turned over economic policy to his plutocratic friends, many of whom, such as the Adani family, made a killing. As it turns out, an economy that hums for the Adanis is not one that hums for the ordinary people.
How does a plutocratic government maintain control of a democratic society, and how do you conceal from the people the fact that while they are starving there are a few who luxuriate in wealth?
[T]he aspirational message to the common folk was to become the plutocrats and not [to] resist them.
The answer lies in the media: advertisements and film, music videos and fashion shows that offer a vision of a life that people with their feet stuck in everyday life can be left to sorely desire. Through mass media, the aspirational message to the common folk was to become the plutocrats and not necessarily resist them.
But generating desire is not enough as it does not necessarily cultivate loyalty. For that, it is important to give one’s followers the illusion of power, not in the form of money and a lifestyle, but in the ability to be violent.
The RSS has long promoted the view that Hindus, as a homogenous bloc, have been discriminated against by secularists and minorities. According to the RSS, it was secularism, not centuries of British colonialism or global capitalism, that stymied the country’s progress. The “sickularists”, as they prefer to label them, are to blame.
What the secularists did, the RSS argues, was promote members of the lowest castes (Dalits) and Muslims to positions of authority over meritorious Hindus. It’s always nice to hear that your own failures are not personal, and it’s even nicer to hear that they are not the cause of history (colonialism) or structure (global capitalism).
These would be too difficult to fix, so it’s better to hear that your strife is caused by others. It is the kind of attitude that led to the 2002 pogrom against Muslims in Gujarat, when Modi was chief minister.
Thousands of Muslims were butchered and tens of thousands lost their homes and livelihoods. The scar of the Gujarat riot is fresh. It instilled fear among minority populations and emboldened sections of people whose alienation was now salved by the spilt blood.
The 2002 pogrom catapulted Modi to become the Hindu right’s candidate for prime minister in 2013. When he bragged about his 56-inch chest, he meant he had the chest of a Vedic God; a chest that was not a shield but a weapon that could instil fear among his foes and sureness among his friends.
A McKinsey report shows that more than half of India’s population (700 million people) go to bed hungry, while at least 300 million are illiterate. Almost the same number would not be able to read the McKinsey report at night because they have no electricity.
Half of India’s population has no access to adequate sanitation or adequate water, which means that they would likely be too sick to spend time reading the report. Besides, the numbers would not surprise them. Do hungry people need to be told of their hunger?
Modi’s party won a majority in parliament in 2013 with less than a third of the vote. That’s the charm of the “first-past-the-post” system. Modi’s government is a minority government, but you wouldn’t think so because he rules like a monarch, with little humility from the cabinet. These are men and women who believe that India should be grateful for their presence and bow before them.
Rhetoric drives the agenda of the Modi government, with “Make in India” its slogan. But this slogan rings hollow because there’s not much of an effort to make things in India. Rather, there’s a greater effort to squeeze Indian workers and peasants and great enthusiasm to sell off most of India’s economy to transnational corporations.
The essence of the “Make in India” campaign is to promote a nationalist ethos, but simultaneously to create policy that has no positive impact on national development. This is a nationalism of shadows, a nationalism of promises that when betrayed turns its guns on its scapegoats.
And in this is the most dangerous part of Modi’s India. State power came to the Hindu right by winning less than a third of the votes. But its fascistic parent group, the RSS, has driven an agenda to intimidate people and toxify social life further.
Attacks against Dalits and Muslims, against intermarriage and beef eating, against dissent and debate, against students and teachers, against this good side of human life and that: this is the how Indian society is being treated by the Hindu right. Never does Modi feel the need to chastise his thugs or apologise for the violence.
Instead, it all receives a wink and a nod, and an allowance to bring fear into social life and a pledge to his well-healed supporters that everything is under control. Fascism is used in homeopathic doses. It is designed to control, not disrupt.
Slither of hope
Long before dawn, in a small village in Central India, Sita Devi wakes up and gets ready hurriedly. She meets other women, with whom she walks several miles to a railway station. They board the train for a ride to the nearest town. There, these women join hundreds of others who wait to see if a labour contractor will hire them that day.
If they get hired, they work long into the evening, reverse their journey and get home in the dark. For these women, there is no leisure, no time to be political. They sleep on the train and spend the few hours at home cooking and cleaning. These women are the heart of the Indian working class.
Over the past few years, the Indian trade union movement and agricultural workers’ unions have made a serious attempt to reach out to women like Sita. In 2015 and 2016, trade unions called for a strike in which they took up the demands not of their formal sector workers but of informal sector workers (comprising 90% of India’s workforce).
The strike was an immense success, with 180 million workers taking to the streets. This year, farmers and agricultural workers in Sikar (Rajasthan) brought the town to a standstill, while farmers and agricultural workers in Maharashtra marched 200km to force the BJP government to accept their demands.
Mass demonstrations by Dalits and other oppressed castes in Gujarat dampened the BJP’s hold on that state. Healthcare workers in Haryana have been militant against the government. So have women like Sita, whose day is stolen by the fight to prevent her family from dying of hunger.
Indian society has not surrendered before Modi’s fascism. These are flashes of a future, the possibility of an alternative politics.