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Modi, Mediocrity, and the Crisis of Hindu Masculinity

It is as tacky a photo as you can imagine, right up there in the annals of architectural dictator chic, and one more step, literal and symbolic, in the annihilation of everything decent that independent India has stood for. Modi, dressed as if ready to gatecrash another celebrity wedding, standing beneath a hideous 16-ton bronze statue featuring four pissed-off lions, a radical aesthetic reinterpretation of India's national emblem. The emblem perches atop the new parliament, in itself an eyesore built atop the ruins of historic Indian buildings as part of the folly of the Central Vista Redevelopment Project.

Adopted on January 26, 1950, the day the India became a republic, the national emblem is based on Ashoka's Lion Capital at Sarnath, which dates back to 250 BC. Familiar to every Indian schoolchild, the emblem carries a rich history, and, as a matter, of law had been left unmolested---till now, that is. As is the case with the Central Vista project, the new parliament building and Modi's four lions are meant to erase the Indian past in every sense of the word. India's history and heritage, much like its traditions of democracy, dissent, and pluralism, are collateral damage in Mr. Modi's never-ending battle with the ghosts of Nehru's legacy, the sorry detritus of one of the many big complexes of a small, petty man. The lions also represent the Hindu Right's decades-long project of the political management of historical and cultural memory to rewrite Indian history as the teleological unfolding of an aggressive, world-dominating Hindu spirit.

That India should have suffered all of this is terrible enough. That the desecration of India's civilizational ethos and its material embodiments should have been orchestrated with the sensibility of a Vivek Agnihotri film makes it even worse. Snarling at the world with hostility and aggression, the lions are not just pointlessly angry. They look comically ludicrous too. There are surely ways of showing lions growling with gravitas. This sculpture does not exemplify any of them. The lion above Modi, for instance, looks a bit like a disgruntled Amrish Puri forced into a sweater against his will. Judged by their aesthetic qualities, the angry nationalistic lions of the new India belong right next to scary Lucille Ball and grinning Ronaldo.

In combining the principles of aggression and ineptitude, though, the lion statue is an ideal symbol of Mr. Modi's India. It encapsulates quite perfectly the confluence of a crisis in Hindu masculinity and an epidemic of mediocrity that has engulfed practically every aspect of Indian life in the last few years. The ideology of Hindutva was born of the same crisis of masculinity, articulated as a response to the imagined emasculation of Hindu men through subjugation at the hands of Muslim invaders, which, in the Hindu nationalist imagination, is also what led to India's colonial domination at the hands of the British. In this excellent reflection, the political scientist Rajeev Bhargava points out that any value that challenges India's pervasive culture of toxic masculinity is deemed 'unmanly,' 'weak,' and 'feminine.' Bhargava notes: "For the Buddha, compassion was not a feminine virtue but a key moral value for all humans. Mahavira tried to inculcate the ethical significance of ahimsa not merely towards all humans but every living species. Asoka realised the futility of social and political violence and advocated harmonious coexistence among different religio-philosophical groups. The early Dharmasutras proposed that knowledge is not the exclusive preserve of professionally learned men (Brahmins); much can be learnt from women and those falling low in status-hierarchy. In our times, Gandhi showed how peaceful resistance against the oppressor can be more effective than violent confrontation. But in the world of violent masculinities, these are unmanly attributes fit only for women and the weak." Since the ascendancy of the Hindu Right and Modi, living or affirming the values of secularism, pluralism, and even common decency have been reframed not just as weak, and unmanly but 'anti-Hindu' and 'anti-national' in Indian mainstream discourse. Defending the right of a Muslim to practice their faith, standing up for a member of a religious or caste minority, like Virat Kohli did for Mohammed Shami, or questioning a discriminatory policy like the CAA, instantly draws the wrath of the Hindu Right, the BJP IT cell, and hordes of pro-Modi trolls. Take the Kohli case. As a response to sectarian slurs and abuse hurled at Mohammed Shami following India's defeat in a cricket match, Kohli remarked that, in his view, "attacking someone over their religion [was] the most pathetic thing that a human being [could] do." Predictably, this drove the Hindu Right into a rage, inciting everything from poor-quality passive-aggressive snark to threats aimed at Kohli's infant daughter. The source of the anger was not hard to see. For every major Hindu Right wing leader, including Modi, Shah, and Yogi, has attacked Muslim Indians precisely on the basis of their religion, as have scores of minor ones. That is exactly what got this fool bhakt's goat about Kohli. In the bhakt view, Kohli should have stayed silent about the anti-Muslim abuse hurled at Shami, presumably out of some sense of Hindu loyalty and national pride.

Bhargava's superb reflection compels us to ask several burning questions of Hindus today. What forms of masculinity and masculine patriotism require that Modi bhakts and 'real' Hindus should issue rape and death threats online to anyone that they disagree with? Why does being a proud and strong Hindu demand the denigration, abuse, and humiliation of Muslims, Christians, and Dalits? Why is Hindu masculinity so fragile that it is threatened by works of scholarship, a poem, or an unflattering article about Modi in Time magazine? Why have Hindu television anchors suddenly developed the insatiable itch in the last eight years to act as proxies for the Indian military? Instead of doing a real story, why do they waste their time screaming at Pakistan and yelling about how the Indian tiger has bested the Chinese dragon while the Chinese army, at this point, is practically camping outside Mr. Modi's bedroom? (Small sidebar: How about the Indian media doing a story on the astronomical rise in Mr. Amit Shah's finances? Or one on the mysterious deaths of many of Mr. Shah's political opponents, the quality of the case made by the CBI against him, or the dozens of witnesses that turned hostile? Or a story on Mr. Modi's competence with respect to the economy? Or one on India's isolation in the international community, despite the banal niceties muttered by various first-world powers every now and then about her greatness?). Hindu masculinity in the Modi-era spans a gamut of avatars. One, relatively benign, form of this self-parodying masculine performance art is the virtual saluting to assorted security forces on Twitter, developed into a fine art by Anand Ranganathan. At the other end of the spectrum are the anti-Muslim riots engineered by thugs and small-time politicians with ambitions to rise high in the BJP. Engendering anti-Muslim violence is a political performance meant to impress Mr. Modi, an act of guru-dakshina, if you will. Close to this violent extreme one can plot a particularly warped form of Hindu masculine anxiety: the fear of Love Jihad or the dark art by which Muslim men seduce Hindu women in order to weaken Hinduism, spread the glory of Islam, and, in the more paranoid versions of the fantasy, ultimately establish an ISIS-like caliphate. The notion of Love Jihad draws on old tropes and tired cliches about Muslim male sexuality, the idea of the Muslim male as a sexual predator, and fears of a Muslim demographic explosion. But it has been reinvented and renewed and has been deployed by the Hindu Right to devastating effect to generate political capital and harass Muslim communities. The very concept would be laughable if it were not the source of religious and gender policing that more often than not leads to savage violence against Muslim men and Hindu women. Viewed in terms of its patriarchal logic, though, is the very idea of Love Jihad not an admission of a failure of Hindu masculinity, a lack of Hindu sexual prowess, or even an absence of plain charm and affability on the part of Hindu men? Or are proponents of the theory of Love Jihad too thick to realize even this?

What species of Hindu masculinity, we may also ask, compels the Prime Minister, his Lady Macbeth, Amit Shah, and their flunkies down the food chain to misuse the institutions of the Indian state for the express purpose of haranguing, framing, and hounding those Indians who in any real democracy would be treasured and celebrated for their commitment to justice? Teesta Setalvad, Medha Patkar, Gautam Navlakha, Sudha Bharadwaj, Mohammed Zubair, Aakar Patel, Father Stan Swamy, the list goes on. The BJP and Hindu Right, finally, are not even consistent in implementing their perverse idea of masculinity. The vicious campaign against Mohammed Zubair, which is being stretched out on the basis of lie after lie, is very clearly payback for his simple act of highlighting the comments made by BJP spokesperson, Nupur Sharma, about Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. For all its bravado at home, the BJP government could not even stand by its anti-Muslim bluster. It was forced, instead, to eat crow in front of Muslim-majority nations, accompanied by pitiful and unconvincing squeaks about how the party and government respected all religions. In return for having to throw Nupur Sharma under the bus to save face in front of Muslim-majority nations, the BJP, in truly honorable fashion, is now going after Zubair. What kind of masculinity is this? The significant other of present-day Hindu masculine anxiety is the zeitgeist of mediocrity, nowhere more visible than in public, intellectual, and mediated spaces. After 2014, the new definition of 'merit', that word so beloved of privileged Hindus, has essentially boiled down to: (a) praising Mr. Modi publicly (and, presumably, in private as well); (b) engaging in the vilification of minorities, the opposition, Modi critics, and liberals; and (c) performing one's Hindu bona fides or, if a non-Hindu, going to absurd lengths to defend the greatness of Hinduism. No surprise, then, that the post- 2014 landscape has seen the emergence of an army of the incompetent, across the worlds of journalism, media, business, academia, diplomacy, sport etc., whose only achievement is mirroring Mr. Modi's signature mix of ineptitude, delusions of grandeur, and vengefulness. In the Modi's government's view, after all, demonetization and its handling of the second Covid-19 wave were both grand successes.

The government-approved public intellectuals of the Modi era are a joke: a rag-tag bunch of hagiographers, who have switched from praising Rajiv Gandhi in biographies to genuflecting before Mr Modi on Twitter; old men still harboring grudges against Indira Gandhi; casuists who can produce apologetics on tap for the most horrific violence committed by Hindus against Muslims; and acolytes who insist that the rule of law in India should be replaced by notions of the dharmic and adharmic. It is not difficult to see how, as is the case with much religiously-rooted argument, practically anything can be justified as dharmic in the name of some higher cause, from jailing government critics on flimsy grounds to revoking the special status of Jammu and Kashmir.

Unsurprisingly, some of Mr. Modi's biggest fans today are the same people who at another time, metaphorically speaking, had ripped him to shreds. Once vociferous defenders of secularism, pluralism, and minority rights, faux liberals who had churned out creeds against Mr. Modi's alleged role in the anti-Muslim pogrom of 2002 in Gujarat have turned sharply sectarian and pro-Modi. This, for instance, is what Suhel Seth, India's second most brilliant man after Chetan Bhagat, had to say on March 20, 2009 (thanks Way Back Machine!) "It would ideally be logical to assume that a country of India’s size and economic inequalities, development and social upliftment would be the ideal planks for winning an election, but sadly, things have not changed very much and hate is still widely believed to be a huge driver of votes. Or at least of media attention, which is why, it was not surprising for Jawaharlal Nehru’s great grandson, Varun Gandhi to spew venom against the Muslims in an election speech. It has put him in the spotlight; has created the kind of media frenzy that this Gandhi would have never imagined and placed him on a pedestal which is both communal on the one hand and right-wing on the other."

Ah, what would one give for Mr. Seth to hold Mr. Modi, Shah, and Yogi accountable in a column for any number of similar remarks? A girl can only dream, yes? The majority of self-described progressives of the pre-Modi age are also mostly silent now, possibly reluctant to give up stage space with Ram Madhav or miss out on a tango with the stellar intellect of Amish Tripathi at the Jaipur Literary Festival. Worse, they may have that sought-after India International Centre membership revoked for a slip of the tongue about constitutional rights in India. Their silence is understandable. India is not an easy place now in which to speak truth to power, and, arguably, never has been so for its most vulnerable. Indeed, if the Modi government has done anything remotely democratic, it has been to universalize the experience of violence that religious minorities, Kashmiris, indigenous communities, dissidents, alleged blasphemers against various religions, or those labelled as anti-national have always faced. What reeks of cant is the pretense on the part of those who insist that they stand for pluralism, democracy, and tolerance while they magically find virtues in the Hindu Right in the name of 'complexity' and 'balance.' Alternately, the alleged commitment to the values of democracy and pluralism is displaced from the world of Indian social reality to the realms of food, elite parenting, home decor, environmental causes, caring for dogs, or politics in remote lands. Mr. Sanghvi, for instance, is inclusive because he enjoys all kinds of cuisine and is thus not a culinary chauvinist or nationalist. Priyanka Chopra's heart bleeds for the people of Ukraine but for minority rights in India, well, not so much. Manu Joseph, to his credit, is consistent. He didn't make sense before Modi became the prime minister and he does not make sense now. In light of all of this, despite very well-founded aesthetic and political misgivings, India should perhaps just let the newly reimagined emblem be. Unintended, no doubt, the statue of the snarling, malcontent lions reveals the shabby truth about the state of the Indian republic at this historical moment. A magnificent and vibrant civilization, for all its flaws, India today has been reduced by the Hindu Right, BJP, and Modi to a mean-spirited parochial entity whose raison d'être is the preservation of Hindu power through the subjugation and exclusion of Muslims in all aspects of life. It is as if the Indian nation now exists as a means to very specific ends, those ends being the perpetual preservation of Modi-Shah's political power and the majoritarian fantasy of a Hindu rashtra. A few modifications to the statue of the four lions may be apposite, though, to more precisely reflect this state of affairs. One lion can continue to be pointlessly aggressive. One can be shown reading from a teleprompter. A third can howl the praises of the first two. And the fourth can look away, silent and indifferent.

Post-script. I read earlier this evening that the Indian parliament has outlawed a host of words, several of which were creatively coined to describe the shenanigans of the BJP government and its leaders. Goodbye, 'jumlajeevi' and 'untrue.' I will miss you.

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