One of the inexplicable features of the recent elections was the ease with which parties like Congress, SP and BSP allowed the BJP to make the election Modi-centric, especially in UP and Utrakhand. This helped the party considerably in achieving the impressive tallies in these areas. In contrast, my speculation is that in Punjab, the election was not as Modi-centric. The main reason for this perhaps was the availability of an easier target in the form of Badal &Co- where there is no moral ambiguity involved. Morally ambiguous targets evoke strong emotive reactions and hence attract much greater attention and energy which enables them to acquire a centrality which often works to their advantage.
This Modi-centricity is starkly visible in several aspects of contemporary India. Virtually every academic/literary/artistic event that I have attended in the last few years had direct or indirect reference to the changing socio-political scenario in the post Modi era. Even casual social encounters are not free of it- a large part of humour centres around issues like notebandi, surgical strikes, swatch bharat, ghar wapsi, beef-ban, bharat mata etc. etc. It is reasonable to infer that as a society we are going through a huge emotional churn and beneath the churn are some moral ambiguities pushing and pulling us in two seemingly opposite directions. Thus invariably one finds a clear split between Modi bhakts and Modi bashers. Since the issues involved have a strong emotive/moral dimension, it becomes virtually impossible to have any meaningful dialogue between these two groups.
It is therefore important to understand the moral ambiguities that we are confronted with.
For Modi-bashers, Modi is associated with all that is morally repugnant. He is seen as autocratic, megalomaniac, divisive, intolerant, power hungry, expedient and communal. His success is attributed to his tremendous ability to manipulate and control either through fear and paranoia or through empty promises or through pandering to “baser” instincts of a communal/parochial nature. Not surprisingly, the bashers see him as huge threat to the very idea of a secular, liberal, plural, inclusive, progressive, egalitarian and democratic India i.e. everything that we value and aspire for. They see the Modi bhakts either as gullible fools or as a group of reactionary goons or as self absorbed privileged lot who are completely insensitive to the social inequities in the larger context. Not surprisingly, they fear that if Modi is not checked, we will become a totalitarian, fascist, hegemonic society where there will be no space for dissent and no protection against social/state tyranny.
When I look at Modi through the eyes of his bhakts a very different picture emerges. He becomes a strong, hardworking,honest,selfless, decisive leader who is deeply committed to making India great. He transforms into the torch- bearer of the second independence movement- where we are fighting not against the “white man” but against the “brown sahibs” who have been oppressing this country in all spheres- political, economic and cultural. These brown sahibs have captured all institutions- political parties, corporate houses, government machinery, media, judiciary and academic establishments. Through rhetoric such as secularism, socialism, liberalism etc. they pretend to safeguard the interests of the underprivileged and marginalised but in fact are their biggest exploiters. The bhakts see in Modi as someone of their own who has managed to break the glass ceiling and who will cleanse the system of all accumulated dirt and dismantle the corrupt structure which supports it. Understandably, they see the Modi bashers as people who are either corrupt themselves or at least have a vested interest in the status-quo.
Are these two pictures of Modi irreconcilable with each other? If not, how do we create a dialogue between them. I believe this is a significant question not just from a political and macro point of view but also from a social and personal point of view. The moral ambiguity which is playing out at the macro level is perhaps a reflection of a conflict which resides within ourselves. Talking of myself, one of the things which I hold as very precious is my plurality i.e. the multiple parts of myself. However, this multiplicity also becomes a source of difficulty in experiencing my integrity or wholeness. I am often caught between the pulls and pushes of these different parts of me and then find it difficult to take a stance. It has not been easy for me to recognise that just as my plurality is important, so is the interconnectedness between these multiple parts. Plurality without interconnectedness can only create fragmentation.
Extending this issue to the macro level, I find the same difficulty of co-holding plurality with inter-connectedness. Modi bashers are right in their fear of hegemony and consequent loss of plurality, but the bhakts are equally right in their fear of loss of integrity. Just as dissent and individual freedom suffer under hegemony, so does collective will and strength with loss of interconnectedness. Plurality can be a convenient card for “divide and rule”, just as anti-national can be a convenient card for internal suppression.
Perhaps cliches like “uniformity in diversity” are no longer enough to guide us in this messy path of living with plurality and interconnectedness. This is equally true of other frames like secularism, liberalism, nationalism, cultural heritage and the like. The present churn is a great opportunity for revisiting them and reinterpreting them afresh.This can only be done through dialogue, which necessitates leaving the comfort zone of moral certitude and entering the messy world of moral ambiguities.