By Shiv Visvanathan
December 11, 2014
The rise of the Modi regime has led to a decline of the political, the lack of debate, a blunting of civil society and where the media is tom-tomming establishment approval. The way out is for civil society, social movements and human rights activists to challenge the right wing to an open debate
Every social scientist is doubly a witness, first as a citizen and second as a scholar. As an academic who watches politics, I begin my observations often as a lament, as a bit of nostalgia and then add to them a touch of despair. Hope takes a bit of time to ignite but more because I do not want it to be a window dressing. I see politics as a life-giving activity, and I enjoy and celebrate the cultural life of political debate and difference.
As a witness, I now sense that the grand celebration we call the rise of the Modi era, has led to a decline of the political. There is a decline of the political at the level of information. There is a real scarcity of gossip, which also helps set thought experiments in politics off. Beyond the absence of news, there is an absence of debate. This sense of absence takes two different forms. There is first a lack of opposition. The Left, as a social force, has failed to mount a systematic critique of the Modi regime. This is compounded by attempts by the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) to domesticate and banalise Gandhi’s teaching. When the RSS talks of Gandhi, it has the historical memory that Gandhi, like Tagore, was critical of nationalism and the nation state. For the RSS, for its Shakha, the nation state is both god and the ultimate good. Its sanitisation of Gandhi has to be seen as an attempt to banalise Gandhi so that he is no longer a subversive challenge to them. The regime has also blunted civil society, equating its dissent on development to sedition.
The Rise of the RSS
At this stage, where the political is literally somnolent, where the media is tom-tomming establishment approval, what can a Left or liberal academic, with a faith in the creativity of civil society do? In a strategic and tactical sense, he has to challenge the RSS to open debate. If politics is the art of difference, and if politics is in Carl Schmitt’s classic sense the domain — where struggle moves from enmity to rivalry — civil society, social movements and human rights activists have to challenge the RSS to an open debate.
There is another reason why the RSS has to be challenged. At this time, the government is attempting to differentiate between politics as struggle and governance as policy planning and emphasising the latter. Political and cultural activity is now more of an RSS prerogative. The RSS is no longer a backstage structure conveying a shadowy coterie of grey eminences playing Old Testament sages from the confines of Nagpur. It is out in the open, mentoring elections, organising struggles, emphasising its catalytic power and media prominence. It is clear it wants to help retain power for at least a decade. The battle now is clear. It centres around the emerging dominance of the RSS. It provides both the current frames and the future directions of the regime.
My move is inspired more by a faith in democracy’s ability to create stability and sanity. I believe, while being critical of the RSS, that we should now be open to a long-term debate. I am suggesting that the Left should be less paranoid about the RSS, and hope it has gone a bit beyond the Golwarkar era. But I see this is more than a ritual for democracy. I believe the future directions of India democracy, its vision of ideas, its sense of culture and ethics will be marked by such a debate.
Issues for Debate
I want to begin by thinking of a critical, self-reflective, non-party Left in conversation with marginal groups and movements. Let us admit that we have left behind the obsessive Stalinists as they progress from the 20th century to the inquisitional twelfth. What immediate issues do we debate?
Two issues became crucial and critical to the tenor of the debate.
First, we have to open the question of nation, nationalism and nation state. Given both the debates during the national movement, the various critiques of Tagore, Gandhi, one has to ask whether the idea of the nation state as articulated by the RSS is still valid. One major critique which has already emerged in Kannada is U.R. Ananthamurthy’s last essay, “Hindutva Athava Hind Swaraj?” where he describes the current nation state as a brutalisation of India. Mr. Modi, he explains, is an inflated Savarkar. We have to ask, can a religion called nationalism play a creative role or is it only a form of witch-hunting, a way of labelling as seditious whatever the majority community finds threatening?
Almost as critical is the role of religion as an imagination, as a way of life. The empty opposition between secularism and communalism is futile. We need to engage with believers in critical introspection. One interesting example of such an experiment is Ziauddin Sardar’s journal, Critical Muslim, where he invents his way beyond fundamentalism. Sardar, as a physicist, an expert on culture, as a practising Muslim, can relate to Islam in a credible way. The question is can we, in a parallel way, look the critical Hindu, create a space where Hinduism and Hindutva are separated? To do so, one needs to look at religion more playfully and desist from reducing religion to con-man cults, to communalism, to a snobbery which believes that the elite can survive on a diet of secularism but the poor need the fodder of religion. One has to realise that India is a civilisation base for Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism and a host of tribal gods. One has to explore new forms of syncretism, new notions of economics and science emerging out of religion.
Third, one has to challenge the RSS into extending the debate on democracy beyond electoralism and majoritarianism. We have to challenge the RSS and ourselves to creating new relations between knowledge and democracy, new ideas of citizenship which redeem the informal economy. We have to show that while the RSS has much to say on Swadeshi, it has little to say on Swaraj, or the idea of Satyagraha. The question is this: how much of the native genius and its inventiveness actually resides in the RSS and its ideas?
Notion of History
At one level, the RSS claims the indigenous, yet an examination shows that it is a semiticising force, an imitation, a copy of western missionary aggression. Its idea of history needs examination and one has to look critically at the way its notion of history scienticises folklore and myth. This in fact creates the trauma of Babri, the idiocy that plastic surgery was invented in India, with Ganesh as the evidence. We have to avoid both positivist history and even the ersatz history of Hindutva. All this demands a new hermeneutics of history, a more plural idea of science, a playful sense of ideology. One has to avoid attempts to redeem history as a salvationist force. I still remember a middle class engineering student celebrating the Gujarat riots by announcing; “Now we have answered centuries of Mughal misrule.”
The problem becomes acute when ideas then enter education, when the Dinanath Batra runs amuck, tending to rectify history. Let us be clear that the RSS has a right to its view of education, of indigenising it. Let us be equally clear that in terms of pedagogy and pluralism, the RSS view of education is flawed. Majoritarianism cannot provide the basis of the rule of law or the rule of reason. Nitpicking on petty issues is inadequate. We have to challenge the RSS frame and open it up to the public mind. More constructively, civil society and members of the academe in particular have to provide the basis of the new education report criticising the regime’s idea of culture, pedagogy and knowledge, realising that Mr. Modi’s idea of digitality and skilling is sheer tokenism.
In challenging the RSS-Modi idea of culture, we have to challenge its idea of environment, of nature as sacred, and the hybridity of technocratic fundamentalism. The regime has interesting ideas about the Himalayas but it has emasculated environmental dissent. One lethal move was the way in which it dumped the Gadgil report on the Western Ghats.
The RSS efforts to look at tribal life and livelihood, its attitude to orality have to be critically examined. In looking at environmentalism, we have to challenge Mr. Modi’s notion of smart and global cities. Deep in the regimes unconscious is a myth of Singapore as the ideal city, the ideal model of development and the ideal mode of governance. The authoritarian shades are seductive, and civil society, especially in the name of the informal economy, has to challenge the future Shangai-isation of India. At the global level, the RSS and Mr. Modi can be quite thoughtless and even more dangerous.
All this will take patience, a sense of humour, playfulness, courage and a sense of survival. The RSS has waited long for power and the time has come to confront it about the power of truth. The Satyagrahi and the Dissenter has to return to confront an imagination which has little place for difference. In this ritual confrontation lies the key to the future of democracy and governance.
Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.