Why did some of us expect anything else from Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s address to the nation the other evening? Why did we imagine that this massive migration of dispossessed, wretched labourers, walking unspeakable distances with babies on their shoulders, an aging mother on the waist, indescribable pictures of hungry children, pregnant women, misery beyond imagination, would even be noticed by the country’s most awesome leader? Like King John signing the Magna Carta with his barons, Modi mollified the disgruntled business caste by giving a huge chunk to the MSMEs.
His silence on the 16 Gonds who slept between rail tracks to be run over by a goods train was stunning. Labourers were simply longing for what the Bard called “sweet nature’s second course” – sleep. And they got a surfeit of it.
Unlike western philosophers, who dwelt on society, our seers had the cosmos in their ken. In their elaborate framework, migrant labourers have all been given lottery tickets for upward mobility only in the next life.
The great sociologist M.N. Srinivas asked, “What is Hinduism without caste?” Modi knows the answer. Since he is engaged in an architecture of Himalayan proportions to take us back to our “golden Hindu past,” he has fallen back on divine sanction to neglect the underclass.
The pandemic and the lockdown have so secularised the political game that serious policy makers are speaking a vocabulary which would make Senator Joseph McCarthy turn in his grave
With lamentable naiveté, some of us began to expect tectonic changes once the lockdown was lifted. The build-up to the Bastille, we forgot, is a long process. What did the millions who migrated from the post 9/11 wars in Syria, Libya, Sudan, North Africa, Afghanistan, Yemen achieve in Europe? Nothing immediately. Initially Europe hid behind barriers. It takes a while for people to begin to cause organic changes. Since the countries from which the migrants came were Muslim, even fading images of Osama bin Laden and Jihad facilitated a revival of Islamophobia. Identity politics began to rear its head everywhere. Even post-war Germany’s most successful leader, Angela Merkel was unsettled. In Bharat, this genre of politics leads to communalism with which we have lived since 1947 but which, in Modi’s hands, is the brick and mortar for a Hindu Rashtra.
During this period of change, George Soros and Steve Bannon were hopping across Europe and the Americas, pushing for their respective visions of capitalism. Soros is a neoliberal capitalist within a democratic framework; Bannon, a known supremacist, seeks to promote the market in an illiberal, xenophobic order. Which one does Modi approximate to?
Soros has launched a $1 billion fund for campuses to fight authoritarianism and to promote liberal values and democracy among the youth. Will some of this charity trickle down to Jawaharlal Nehru University, Jamia Millia and numerous campuses which are fighting excesses with their backs to the wall? Soros, a Hungarian Jew, is involved in a cat and mouse with Viktor Orban, the Hungarian dictator who stands for, what he calls, “illiberal” democracy. Will Modi stand with Soros or with Orban?
Orban is very much on Bannon’s anti-Semitic, crypto fascist network. Anti-Semitic? But Modi is a buddy of Benjamin Netanyahu, is he not? Unlike in socialism, such contradictions are inherent within differing shades of capitalism. Recently, Bannon was accorded legitimacy on the Indian channel which defers to Modi on most issues.
Some months ago, Bannon told a crowd of far-right French politicians – Marine Le Pen, for instance – that they should wear labels of “racism” like a “badge of honour.” If they call us “xenophobes and nativists” let them “because every day we get stronger and they get weaker.” Modi, likewise, thumbs his nose at critics.
Jair Bolsonaro, of Brazil, whom Modi handpicked to be the chief guest for the Republic Day parade is another one of Bannon’s favourites. Bannon bolstered his media management which enabled Bolsonaro to topple Lula da Silva whom President Barack Obama once described as the “most popular politician on earth.” This was at the G20 summit in 2009 in London. Modi would do himself a favour if he watches The Edge of Democracy, a great docudrama on Netflix, on the rise and fall of Lula.
Bolsonaro has been quite as forthright about Brazil’s indigenous people as Modi has been about the yoke of “1,200 years of ghulami.” One of his quotes is a classic: “It’s a shame that the Brazilian cavalry was not as efficient as the American (cavalry), which exterminated all the Indians.”
Bannon, Bolsonaro, Orban, Modi and many “soul mates” waiting in the wings have got their fingers crossed. They are aching for a second term for Trump. But there is a huge fly in that ointment. The pandemic and the lockdown have so secularised the political game that serious policy makers are speaking a vocabulary which would make Senator Joseph McCarthy turn in his grave. Socialism is becoming a kosher concept in the post pandemic mayhem.
Little wonder, a brand new mantra of Universal Basic Income is acquiring wide acceptance. A productive work force, 40 million strong, is staying at home in Europe and receiving salary. Finland has done a path breaking study: 2000 Finns were paid UBI of 560 Euros per month for two years. They were able to improve their lives in every possible way. They were so productive that the Pope endorsed UBI in his Easter message.
Can Modi buck this trend? Ironically, Lenin provides him comfort. Human misery even on a gigantic scale does not by itself provide objective conditions for revolutionary change. Other factors are needed. A middle class willing to give the lead, for instance. Fortunately for Modi, this class is in his thrall. Even so, there is little doubt that an upheaval lurks on the horizon but what its contours will be is less than clear. Who knows, it may not be possible to lift the political lockdown quite yet. Which means no protest marches. Protesters, please return home, otherwise the nation runs the risk of expiry from coronavirus.
The writer is a journalist based in India