Narendra Modi's bully tirade: Crude, effective and unsettling

Narendra Modi gets high on the prospect of power. With the future as adrenalin, he attacks the past. For him the edifice of rottenness, the core of decay is predictably the Congress. Modi sees himself as a seer reading the entrails of the Congress to diagnose the nation's ills.

There is an ordering of history which is both pernicious and effective. Before this speech, Modi set up his dualisms externally. He posited oppositions between the durbar -- the Mughal Sultanate in Delhi -- and the dynamism of Gujarat, between Delhi and India, and the Gandhi family and the interests of the nation.

As he massages his career toward Delhi, Modi turns the technique inward, using it to characterize the decay in the Congress. Now he portrays a Congress split between dynasty and the urge toward achievement.

Citing a litany of stalwart Congressmen from Morarji Desai, Chandrasekhar, I.K.Gujral who had to step out of the fold of the Congress to be prime ministers, Modi makes two points. One, Congress is not an incubator for leadership but for dynastic continuity. Two, it only gestates chicks from one family, regardless of the incubation period required.

Narendra Modi's speech was crude, effective and unsettling. Reuters

Narendra Modi's speech was crude, effective and unsettling. Reuters

Modi then reaches a higher crescendo to argue that Congress dynastic narcissism had turned it schizophrenic destroying the best in the party. Paying a left handed tribute to Pranab Mukherjee, he claims the Congress had waived its claims to competence by ignoring Pranab Mukherjee, opting instead for an abstract intellectual called Manmohan. It is here he hits home with the metaphor of the night watchman.

The metaphor of the night watchman is hard in its connotations. A night watchman in cricket is a stand in, a weak player, sent in to play out the final overs of the game. He can be sacrificed. He is temporary. He is not expected to be a force of history, a mere substitute, dispensable by definition. A night watchman state, by definition, is a rudimentary state. It performs minimum functions, providing a minimum sense of stability. As a night watchman Manmohan plays that basic function passively and minimally.

The Congress response is clerical: that night watchmen do not function for nine years. As an exercise in logic and linguistic exactitude, the Congress is correct. Sadly, the logical does not control the sociological; an empirical statement lacks the power of gossip, the eloquence of its vitriol.

There is acid in Modi’s words and bile in Modi’s soul. Modi’s speech is not a critique. It is the taunt of the gladiator beating his BJP chest, calling his forces to battle, convincing them that the only answer to the corruption of the Congress is the courage of the BJP worker, the discipline of the cadres. One can understand such statements in the heat of the battle as semiotic signals.

The performance is crude, hurtful and it shows the style of the man. It demonstrates his ability to go for the jugular, to draw blood. Needless to say neither the matter of fact and minimally compact Lal Bahadur Shastri or the eloquent Vajpayee would have followed such a line of attack. They were political warriors who had a code of political chivalry. They were statesman. Modi is a street fighter with a bully boy attitude to opponents.

I am not saying Modi’s Speech was not effective. It cut to the quick and drove home the message that the Congress had become slow thinking stegosaurus, a dinosaur with two brains, one located in Manmohan and the other in Sonia. The distance between the two created a phlegmatic Congress perpetually waiting for a successor.

For all the populist entertainment, however, Modi’s behavior raises some unsettling questions. And these are not about the Congress and its lazy tactics for the future. What is questionable is Modi’s bullyboy style. There is a touch of the vindictive in celebrating the opponent’s embarrassment. Even in his moment of minor victories, Modi's style raises unease about his tactics, his sense of civility , his sense of grace, his ability to be at home in the world of difference. If the style is the man, the Modi leaves behind a sense of doubt about his behavior in the future. It makes you wonder whether in shooting others, he might shoot himself in the foot. Only time can answer this.

Shiv Visvanathan is a social science nomad.

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