It is likely that much of the coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to California will focus on business, since that is what governments do and talk about these days. But describing Modi as nothing more than an efficient pro-business leader is as simplistic as describing the Bay Area as a decent place to build some office parks, without recognizing the rich history of idealism, intellectual adventure, creativity, and social consciousness that has underscored revolutions here.
One might call it a mythology, but one of the great things about the Bay Area is its propensity for frequent dreams of a better world: Gadar in the early 20th century, the United Nations Charter in 1945, Free Speech and Anti-War movements in the 1960s, Marriage Equality in 2004, and most of all, in recent years, the worldwide promise of social media for free speech and democracy.
While some utopian dreams about how Facebook and Twitter would topple dictatorships and enshrine democracy proved premature in some parts of the world, in India something close to that did happen, and is happening, still. Conventional news narratives have failed to notice this.
Established academic paradigms on South Asia with their colonial-era tropes on religion and secularism have not accounted for it. Modi’s victory was not just about a smart campaign strategy, but also the apex of a wave of new thinking; hope and change in India’s digital generation about what it means to be Hindu, Indian and human.
The truth is that a renaissance is taking place in India and its diaspora today. It may not be fully pretty, because it is a postcolonial renaissance, an attempt to take decolonization beyond the nominal political independence that was obtained in 1947.
It has challenged a profoundly corrupt, selfish, and dishonest political-media nexus that has occupied primacy over the very definition of what it means to be Indian for several decades.
It has given a jaded nation, and its overseas children, a sense that they belong to not just a land or a clan, but to an ideal about what it means to live on this earth in ways that respects nature’s integrity and humanity’s diversity.
If it sounds like a rebirth, a stirring of a deep passion, a love, indeed, after centuries of colonialism and decades of self-denial, we are not mistaken. After several centuries of having financed and inspired (to say it euphemistically) renaissances and economic and scientific revolutions elsewhere in the world, India is having a renaissance on its own terms now. And its face is Narendra Modi.
Claiming the Dream
There is a reason Narendra Modi is not well understood, sometimes even among his own supporters, who see only the “strongman” but not the poet and ascetic beneath. The intellectual resources to make sense of the philosophy that animates him have simply not been created and made available on a wide enough scale. These are not simply tools for glorification, though the social media strategies that helped Modi outflank one of the longest-running, relentless, and dishonest global media smear campaigns might seem that way sometimes.
With his 3D Modi Hologram campaign appearances, ubiquitous masks, one-man public persona (recall how he went straight to speak to the people at Madison Square Garden without stopping for pleasantries with the several political dignitaries on stage already), and alleged vanity written even into the seams of his coat, it is easy to apply a whole palette of Frankfurt School era theories about celebrity, fascism, and the like on to him.
Yet, to anyone who has been listening to Modi, and observing the profound resonance his words have with the people in India, the inappropriateness, if not occasional ludicrousness, of such comparisons are obvious.
Postcolonial India is not Nazi Germany, and Hindus are not ancient Nazi settlers from Europe lording it over native minorities (even if some Hinduism “experts” seem to think so). Narendra Modi, most of all, is speaking to his audience from a position not of identitarian power and authority (as allegations of Hindu majoritarianism view it), but from a place that is profoundly different. We might call it simplicity, humility, selflessness, but these are words that don’t fly in today’s vitiated media-intellectual climate where reverence and kindness are held to be ideologically suspect. We don’t understand it because the paradigms are shifting, and slippery.
Modi’s words and actions cannot be explained without recognizing where he’s coming from. The received explanation, repeated ad nauseum in classrooms and editorial pages in clueless capital cities far from ordinary people, is that Modi comes from a rabid Hindu nationalist ideology called Hindutva that hates minorities and believes India belongs exclusively to Hindus and is “prepared to use violence.”
The Gujarat riots of 2002, when over a thousand people, “mostly Muslims,” (to use the common phrase, though the exact figures were about 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus, which suggests an uneven riot rather than a “pogrom”), were killed, led to one of the most singularly focused media campaigns to discredit an individual in recent history (it has to be noted that the media hardly noted the terrible terrorist act that precipitated the riots, the burning of a train carrying Hindu pilgrims including women and children by a Muslim mob).
When Modi won in 2014, the same media observers predicted great doom for minorities in India, and to this day, a shameful pattern of front-page hysteria against Modi’s government followed by inside-page corrections and retractions continues to take place even in some once esteemed Indian newspapers.
A “Hitler,” a “merchant of death,” Modi has been called. Yet, to paraphrase British Prime Minister David Cameron’s phrase after Modi’s election, more people spoke up to clear his name and claim his dream for themselves than had happened for any other politician in history. Even if some small portion of his supporters voted for him because of some crude tribalistic logic (and this logic was not innate to India but left there like a slow poison by the divide-and-rule politics of the British duly inherited by the Congress party after independence), the sheer facts of Modi’s actions in public life were what ultimately spoke to India last summer.
RSS and Modi’s Ideal of Service
Narendra Modi cannot be understood correctly without recognizing two things. One is an acronym that has been recklessly used in media and academic discourses to evoke fear and confusion. The other is a philosophy that sounds so quaintly well-meaning no one would imagine it having a place anywhere other than an ephemeral election manifesto, and yet it is that philosophy that is being brought to life by Narendra Modi today on an increasingly global stage at that.
First, the RSS.
Narendra Modi is indeed a child of the RSS (for “product” sounds too sterile a word), and shed tears of gratitude while speaking about it soon after his election last year. There is a tendency at the moment to rationalize a grudging acknowledgment of Modi’s peaceful and inclusive track record by either distancing him from the organization he views as a mother or by holding on to the notion that Modi’s inclusiveness is only the deceptive face of a sinister, racially-obsessed far-right group.
This is not surprising, given that for several decades the RSS was viewed with suspicion by academics and media. It is clear now that the academic and media consensus on Hinduism and Hindus has been largely flawed, and so has the demonization of Narendra Modi since 2002.
It might well be the case that the dominant assumptions about the RSS, too, require re-examination and for that one might choose to look at what the RSS has been saying and doing.
What one finds, for example, in Jyoti Punj, a book of essays written by Modi about elders in the RSS who have inspired him, is a sense of humility, love, and service. In the lives of the RSS elders he admires, we see a history of effort being made to cleanse Hindu life from within, both of internal inequities like casteism, and colonial legacies like fear and loss of self-respect.
At its core, what the RSS seems to stand for in the life and worldview of Modi is a family-like association of volunteers determined to bring certain deeply felt Hindu values of dharma and seva into organized action. If there is such a thing as an RSS sensibility, it is the idea of the body as an instrument to be deployed in seva.
India is not some Hindu-race homeland in Modi’s book, but simply a land where a sage would give up his bones if asked, a king his land, and a teacher his teachings for free. Idealistic (“the purpose came with a body”), but not the militaristic fantasy critics have made it out to be either.
One reason for the paradigmatic confusion that exists in academia and media about Modi and the RSS is the fact that there has rarely been an effort to make honest inquiries, and the RSS for its part, like any organization that has been battered and pushed to borders of respectability, if not existence, has remained intellectually slow off the bat. For Modi, what the RSS represents is ultimately a “journey in the refinement process,” a process of self-transformation that happens through friendship, company, and most of all, service.
The second point of general confusion about Modi and the RSS is that their reigning social philosopher is not the “homeland” ideologues of the colonial or pre-partition era, but a simple, sage-like philosopher who could barely even keep up with the RSS’s physical regimen. Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya (1916-1968), whose birth centenary year is being noted by Modi with great respect, is the architect of Modi’s intellectual and moral model, more than anyone else perhaps.
Upadhyaya’s “Ekaatma Maanavta” or Integral Humanism lectures of 1965 represent a profound moment in Indian intellectual decolonization along the lines of Mahatma Gandhi’s Hind Swaraj, written in 1909. While the Mahatma’s incredible vision was not taken seriously even by his own Nehru, much less by the Congress party that ruled in his memory for decades afterwards, Integral Humanism has not only been kept alive in the RSS (it remains the official philosophy of the BJP), but has been brought into public play today with the full force of convictioncharisma of Narendra Modi.
The Integral Humanism lectures seek to answer the question of “what will be the face of the new Bharat after independence?” Pandit Upadhyaya’s answers should serve to reassure skeptics who still fear for secularism and minorities in India. He rightly warns against pursuing fantasies of some pure golden age in the past, and also cautions against blindly subscribing to Western notions of progress defined in material terms.
Examining the choices before India presented by the postcolonial moment such as democracy, socialism, and capitalism, Upadhyaya calls for an understanding of the national self that is rooted in a universal ethical notion of dharma (which he emphasizes, should not be confused with religion, much less a theocracy).
The goal for Pandit Upadhyaya, is the creation of a state that will elevate “nara” to “Narayana,” or the human to a state of divinity.
Modi’s New Age
There is always a risk that such a nuanced manifesto could be reduced in less adept minds to a caricature, a golden age fantasy written into stone with modern instruments. But that risk should not feed the sort of arrogance that has made a small and increasingly disconnected intellectual class mischaracterize the Modi phenomenon as some gloomy disaster for Indian secularism.
The Modi we have seen and heard has been consistent with the ideals envisioned by Pandit Upadhyaya, speaking from its worldview rather than about it like some pedantic ideologue.
Modi seems too quick, protean, a master of both moment and spectacle in the digital-sharing age (hashtag selfie), to be seen as a paradigm-builder in any conventional sense.
He recognizes, perhaps, that the age of top-down cultural authority is over. Yet in his unquestioned moment of supremacy as the hope of a new India, he appears ever more humble, driven, even. His “cool,” unlike the creation of several marketing experts in Western politics, is not an act, for he bridges grassroots and hi-tech in a way that is his own.
He might sound as if he believes digital technology has all the answers, just like some other CEO-style technophile politicians in India did earlier.
But like Pandit Upadhyaya cautioned, he is unlikely to view technology (or American dreams of the same) as ends in themselves. The end of all our sharing and liking, ultimately has to be more than our selves and our vanity, if anything good is to still exist in this world.
Modi marks the beginning of a new age in media, culture and politics (and no wonder his campaign team liked to call itself “new age”). None of the usual assumptions and clichés about them might stand. After all, it was a supposedly “free” media in India and abroad that censored most accounts that were contrary to their idea of Modi, allowing a reckless fear campaign to run on to this day.
After all, it was supposed to be a “secular party” that ignored its own long record of complicity in inter-religious riots in Gujarat, New Delhi, and elsewhere to paint Modi as the enemy of secularism.
Modi carries the promise of a nation in long recovery from a long colonization that even the “free” media can sometimes be made “freer,” and even “secularism” can be done better by a man rooted deeply and devoutly in his religion.
Vamsee Juluri is a professor of media studies at the University of San Francisco and the author of Rearming Hinduism: Nature, Hinduphobia, and the Return of Indian Intelligence (www.rearminghinduism.com)
Narendra Modi In His Own Words
On democracy and digital media
“The future belongs to social media. It is egalitarian and inclusive. Social media is not about any country, any language, any color, any community but it is about human values and that is the underlying link binding humanity.”
-Launch of Digital India July 1, 2015
“A democracy can’t succeed without people’s participation. ‘My Gov’ empowers the people of India to contribute towards Surajya.”
-Launch of MyGov July 6, 2014
“Democracy is such a framework that everyone has the right to fix their dreams and how to achieve them according to their own choice.”
-Fiji National University November 19, 2014
On the value of knowledge and education
“International Yoga Day is a reflection of largest knowledge-based peoples movement the world has ever seen.”
-International Yoga Day June 21, 2015
“Can’t India dream of exporting good teachers of high caliber? Can’t we instill the desire in children to become great teachers?”
-Teacher’s Day September 5, 2014
“Our education apparatus can’t be one that produces robots.”
-Banaras Hindu University, December 25 2014
“India is the land of Buddha and Gandhi. Equal respect for all religions must be in.”
-National Celebration of the Elevation to Sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chevara and Mother Euphrasia, February 17, 2015
“Nation is one. We will not work for Hindus or Muslims, we will work for the people “The strength of the savior is much more than the strength of the person who kills.”
-Independence Day August 15 2014
“India is a nation that thinks about everyone. Using the sword we have never attacked other cultures. Such expansionist thinking is not in our blood.”
“Celebrate the birth of a girl child by planting 5 trees in your village.”
-Sansad Adarsh Gram Yojana, November 7, 2014
“In order to make India prosperous, all sections and regions of the society need to be prosperous.”
-Lok Sabha, June 11, 2014
Selections from Integral Humanism
Delivered as a series of lectures in Mumbai in April 1965 by Pandit Deen Dayal Upadhyaya, Integral Humanism seeks to find a culturally rooted vision of modernity for independent India beyond the limitations of capitalism and socialism. It is essential reading for anyone who wishes to understand Narendra Modi’s worldview accurately and on its own terms.
Conflict, individualism, exploitation and the principle of ‘survival of the fittest’ cannot be the foundations of a society.
“The view that individuals have brought the society into being is fundamentally incorrect. It is true that society is composed of a number of
individuals. Yet it is not created by the individuals, nor does it come into being by the mere coming together of a number of individuals.
In our view, society is self-born. Like an individual, society comes into existence in an organic way.”
“Man, the highest creation of God, is losing his own identity. We must re-establish him in his rightful position, bring him to the realisation of his
greatness, re-awaken his abilities and encourage him to exert for attaining divine heights of his latent personality. This is possible only through a
decentralised economy. We want neither capitalism nor socialism. We aim at the progress and happiness of ‘Man’, the Integral Man. The protagonists of the two
systems fight with Man on the stake.”
“Unity in diversity and the expression of unity in various forms have remained the central thought of Bharatiya culture. If this truth is whole-heartedly
accepted, then there will not exist any cause for conflict among various powers. Conflict is not a sign of culture or nature; rather it is a symptom of perversion.”
Democracy is more than majoritarianism.
“Of the 450 million people of India, even if 449,999,999 opt for something which is against Dharma, this does not become the truth. On the other hand, even if one person stands for something which is according to Dharma that constitutes the truth, because truth resides with Dharma. It is the duty of this one person that he treads the path of truth and changes people. It is from this basis that a person derives the right to proceed according to Dharma. Let us understand very clearly that Dharma is not necessarily with the majority or with the people. Dharma is eternal. Therefore, it is not enough to say, while defining democracy, that it is the government of the people. It has to be a government for the good of the people. What constitutes the good of the people? It is Dharma alone which can decide. Therefore, a democratic government, Jana Rajya, must also be rooted in Dharma,i.e. Dharma Rajya. In the definition of democracy, viz. ‘Government of the people, by the people and for the people;’ ‘of’ stands for independence; ‘by’ stands for democracy; and ‘for’ indicates Dharma.”
Dharma Rajya is not a theocracy, but freedom to worship according to one’s religion: “Dharma Rajya does not mean a theocratic State. Let us be very clear on this point. Where a particular sect and its prophet or guru rule supreme, that is a theocratic State. All the rights are enjoyed by the followers of this particular sect. Others either cannot live in that country or at best, enjoy a slave-like, secondary-citizen’s status… There is no need to tie up State and religion. By such a tie-up, there is no increase in an individual’s capacity to worship God. The only result is that the State deviates from its duty. This does not happen in Dharma Rajya. Rather, there is freedom to worship according to one’s own religion.”
“Eco-destructive consumerism” and the “blind rat-race of consumption and When the fruits are taken, the fruit tree is not injured; it may even be helpful to the tree. However, in the effort to take a greater harvest from the land, chemical fertilisers are used, which in a few years time, will render the land altogether infertile. Lakhs of acres of land lie barren in America due to this factor. How long can this dance of destruction go on? The industrialist provides for a depreciation fund to replace machines when they are worn out. Then how can we neglect the depreciation fund for nature? From this point of view, it must be realised that the object of our economic system should not be to make extravagant use, but a well-regulated use of available resources. The physical objects necessary for a purposeful, happy and progressive life must be obtained. The Almighty has provided that much. It will not be wise, however, to engage in a blind rat-race of consumption and production as if man is created for the sole purpose of consumption. India should be neither a “museum” of its own past, nor a copy of America or Russia: “We have taken due note of our ancient culture. But we are no archaeologists. We have no intention to become custodians of a vast archaeological museum. Our goal is not merely to protect the culture but to revitalise it so as to make it dynamic and in tune with the times. We must ensure that our Nation stands firm on this foundation and our society is enabled to live a healthy, progressive and purposeful life.”
“We wish neither to make this country a shadow of some distant past nor an imitation of Russia or America.With the support of universal knowledge and our heritage, we shall create a Bharat which will excel all its past glories, and will enable every citizen in its fold to develop his manifold latent potentialities and to achieve,through a sense of unity with the entire creation, a state even higher than that of a complete human being. It is a state in which Nar (Man) becomes Narayan (God). This is the eternal and continuous divine form of our culture. This is our message to humanity at the crossroads.”