Against the low-pitched rumble of someone addressing a large crowd of protestors over speakers in Mumbai, a smaller group of women were shouting a shrill slogan that was getting louder: “Jo Hitler ki chaal chalega, wo Hitler ki maut marega (He who makes moves that Hitler made, shall also die Hitler’s death)!” From being “he who cannot be named” to being openly trashed as Hitlerian, Prime Minister Modi’s stature as a man who strikes fear and admiration in people’s hearts has taken quite a beating after the recent Citizen Amendment Act protests.
As they say, the difficult is done at once, the impossible takes a little longer. And now would be a good time to step aside from the usual restrictive templates of political analyses and take another look at PM Modi and his followers from the point of view of psychopathology and political philosophy.
These perfectly legitimate genres make for the only correct lens through which the prime minister and his followers can be read accurately.
Why the Ramlila Maidan speech was gas lighting
The prime minister’s staunch supporters are both victims and enablers of the terribly dangerous and divisive Hindutva ideology. Communal politics feeds their poor self-esteem to such an extent that they still don’t understand that their political leaders gaslight people everyday.
Prime Minister Modi’s speech at the Ramlila Maidan after 11 days of widespread protests over the Citizenship Amendment Act was very telling. Not because it was any different from his other speeches but precisely because it just wasn’t!
Here’s why his speech amounts to gaslighting. It deploys:
1. Projection and victim-blaming (I’m the victim. You are violent.)
2. Deception and inversion (You’re being lied to by Urban Naxals. Policemen are under attack.)
3. Veiled threats (Respect Parliament for passing CAA. Don’t harass the poor.)
4. Falsification and deflection (All but Indian Muslims love me. We have never let paperwork come in the way of doing good work for the marginalised.)
5. Forthright lies (There’s been no talk of NRC. There are no detention camps.)
6. Megalomania (Refers to self-repeatedly, and in third person.)
7. Apathy (Nothing to allay fears. No word on people killed in protests.)
8. Diversion (1.5-hour-long speech but no talk of the economy or any of people’s real challenges. Expresses concern about plastic use and asks people to clean up their colonies in groups instead.)
9. Emotional manipulation (Burn my effigy if you hate me but…If I ask for something will you give it to me?)
10. Crazy-making (You’re overreacting. I’m your sewak. Will do what’s good for you even if it makes you feel bad or hurts you.)
Why are his followers still eating straight out of PM Modi’s hands and what about the rest of us?
After many jumlas and much gaslighting, why are some of Prime Minister Modi’s hard-core followers still clinging on to him?
Hannah Arendt wrote the answers to some of these questions back in The Origins of Totalitarianism in 1951. If we frame questions to apply what she has written to the Indian scenario, it shows why we can continue learning from her work.
1. Why do facts, figures and evidence not make any dent in the image they have of Modi?
Arendt: “Before mass leaders seize the power to fit reality to their lies, their propaganda is marked by its extreme contempt for facts as such, for in their opinion fact depends entirely on the power of man who can fabricate it.”
2. What makes the Modi camp so confident that people will believe them?
Arendt: “Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow.”
3. What happens when Modi’s followers are provided with proof against him?
Arendt: “The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they’d protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
4. Is there anything communalists in India have in common with anti-Semites during Hitler’s time?
Arendt: “The anti-Semites who called themselves patriots introduced that new species of national feeling which consists primarily in a complete whitewash of one’s own people and a sweeping condemnation of all others.”
5. Why do bhakts deeply believe that being anti-Modi is wrong?
Arendt: “Hitler’s motto that ‘Right is what’s good for the German people’ is only the vulgarised form of a conception of law which can be found everywhere and which in practice will remain effectual only so long as older traditions that are still effective in constitutions prevent this.”
6. Who gets to decide if you are a citizen or not?
Talking of nation states and the failure of international human rights to protect stateless people and “brutalized citizens”, Arendt has also famously written about “the right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity” and the arbitrariness of the fact that it should be guaranteed by humanity but isn’t.
7. What happens when “unequal” laws are passed and “stateless” persons persecuted?
Arendt: “Laws that are not equal for all revert to rights and privileges, something contradictory to the very nature of nation-states. The clearer the proof of their inability to treat stateless people as legal persons and the greater the extension of arbitrary rule by police decree, the more difficult it is for states to resist the temptation to deprive all citizens of legal status and rule them with an omnipotent police.”
Since Arendt wrote all of this, the speed at which people, things and information move has become much faster, but our ideas of nationhood and borders have not evolved fast enough. The crisis of displaced people is deepening everyday.
8. Looking in the mirror and calling a spade a spade.
Seeing through PM Modi’s supporters is not enough. We must acknowledge clearly and more often that the Indian socio-cultural fabric has been deeply patriarchal and casteist. The authoritarian streak in us shows in some of our attitudes to parenting. In The Body Keeps A Score, Bessel Van der Kolk, one of the world’s leading experts on trauma, writes about how avoidant children often grow into adults who are out of touch with their feelings and those of others. He cites the example of those who say, “There’s nothing wrong with a good spanking. I got hit and it made me the success I am today”. Indians say this all the time.
Moreover, we are afraid to see the systemic nature of problems. No amount of TV studio analysis will yield any useful answers if everyone is petrified of openly conceding that the state-capital nexus is real and it is crushing people everywhere, everyday. Police violence only comes as a surprise to those who are privileged enough to never have had to face it. Nowhere in the world is the police force benign to the oppressed or to anyone who starts challenging the state.
9. Why should we take special note of the mainland response to Assam and NRC?
The same people who are upset about their own protests being labelled “violent” now where casually calling protests in Assam “violent” just days ago. The people in the northeastern states of India have repeatedly called out mainland apathy and its colonial mind-set.
When Assamese people say they don’t want an influx of people, whether Hindu or Muslim, the label “anti-immigration” or “anti-Muslim” to view their positions is the erasure of their own suffering and marginalisation by mainland India. There’s a difference between an “anti-immigration” sentiment of the bigoted kind by a powerful majority and the resistance to immigration by people whose autonomy over their own land has been historically undermined by people they consider outsiders or oppressors.
10. Who will bring the bigots down?
Activists from lowered castes and marginalised sections have always spoken out more fearlessly not only against the Bharatiya Janata Party’s upper caste Hindutva politics but also against casteist and mainland liberal hypocrisy. They have been on the frontlines for long and they deserve far more credit than those of us who have joined the fray relatively recently.