By Shiv Visvanathan
The Narendra Modi fast was held at the University Convention Centre. It is part of what I call the new Shamiana State. Earlier kings camped at different points and wherever they camped, a world of tents came into being. This is where the monarch held forth, made decisions and this was where court politics played itself out. The Convention Centre looks like a huge shamiana, the festival site for the new monarch in power.
The ethnography of the fast is a part of the new ethnography of power.
The day begins impeccably. He visits his mother and she gives him a copy of Ram Charitra Manas. That morning, his second letter is already making news with a full-page proclamation in the newspaper. The first letter was about solidarity and harmony and titled “Sadbhavana mission”, evoking the technology missions of Sam Pitroda. The second is more personal.
He does not express regret, but asks forgiveness for his mistakes. Even that seems a lot from Modi. But he is quick to emphasise that his government has acted correctly during the 2002 riots. Acknowledgement of guilt, responsibility, forgiveness disappears like a snowflake in summer-time. He adds that he feels the pain of every victim and then claims communal violence helps no one. The letter is seen as historically significant as it oozes an occasional sense of warmth, with doubt acting as a surrogate for ethics.
One enters the premises of the fast, and is immediately impressed with the logistics, the efficiency of arrangements. Security is tight but instrumentally efficient. The right ID assures you immediate entry. What stuns you first is the army of sweepers, ruthlessly and redundantly cleaning up every bit of dirt. Arrangements for water are brilliantly done. An assembly line of purified water casks is arranged in neat rows. There is a sense of hygeine and sanitation. It adds to the sense of the sanitisation of power.
Narendra Modi is a political enigma wrapped in a popularity chart. He sits grandly and stiffly on a sofa, as if he already belongs at Tussauds. His attire is impeccable, the collection of angavastrams ritually correct. (Editor's note: DNA captured Modi's nimble and covert use of the hair comb to maintain his perfect coif.) There is a touch of Alice in Wonderland in the scene.
The crowds are representational. They represent ethnic power, religious power and the purifying power of uninformed school children. Within the first hour, a parade emerges of turbanised Sikhs, three huge battalions of Bohra Muslims walking with dignity. The Sants follow, more confident of their power, dressed in various shades from dull turmeric to deep saffron. They are soon followed by Lions International. The effect is like a magnified Noah's ark, instead of a two of each species, we have a few thousand of each category.
The trouble with the show is that it is too organised. This is not a crowd, it is a tableau and he is the director. He is in charge and in immaculate control of himself. One quickly realises logistics is the microcosm of Modi's dream of power. Here is a man who arranges crowds like a Republic day tableau.
They come to seek his blessing, and bless him with power. The logistics of the assembly, the long parade acknowledging his power is presented as a microcosm of Gujarat. As a wag put, he is the only politician who can go on a fast and look like a fat cat who has swallowed every ethnic canary. Each group that arrives is photographed with him. It is organised sycophancy passing itself off as acclamation.
The pathetic Congress party fast by Waghela at Sabarmati Ashram looks like a B-grade company hired for comic effect.
Modi is clear: what Gujarat does today, India will follow tomorrow. The keywords of achievement – Development, Governance, Growth — are all there. Gujarat becomes the ideal state and BJP, the ideal party. The power of BJP, he says, comes from two leaders: Advani and Vajpayee; their complementarity and partnership is unique in history, a partnership begun in 1952. One realises he has come to demand consensus, not admit to guilt. Gujarat’s display of solidarity is the birthday present he demands. The nay sayers look moth-eaten and petty while people in their Sunday best greet him with acclaim.
His interviews are tactical. The Congress is a genealogy of hypocrisy and waste. Any audit will prove he delivers money’s worth, whether it is in choice of the site for his celebration, or the quality of investments for Gujarat. He is clear he is History and that the future is on his side.
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What is missing is the smell of democracy, the power of dissent, the raucous debates of difference. The dissent of the Narodia Patia victims is quickly contained. This show is like a Cecil B Demille film on India’s new Ceaser. What he is offering is Ceaserism – the possibility of a popularly elected autocrat who can provide stability, efficiency and growth.
Yet despite his grand performance, he leaves two questions wide open.
Has he achieved closure after the riots? Has he healed a society and offered it reconciliation, promised it justice? He has not. Development is no substitute for justice. Reconciliation demands adjustment not a unilateral politics. Acclamation is not plurality.
Second, does this spectacle set the stage for a national leader? The answer is ambivalent. Modi might be good for the BJP. He is immaculate on attacking Congress and its hypocrisy, but does not realise that it adds little to his claims that he will be equally good for the nation. The shows of solidarity – stage managed – do not work at the national level. He speaks a standardised language when a nation has to see as a plethora of dialects, allowing for difference.
The wonderful thing about tyrants is they are self defeating. Modi has created a language, an idiom, a style, an early warning system for the future. The nation knows what it will have to avoid. A collection of growth indicators do not add up to a moral vision for the future.