Politics of spectacle

Style over substance

Print edition : October 13, 2017

Prime Minister Narendra Modi after receiving the guard of honour on Independence Day in New Delhi on August 15. Photo: PTI

Narendra Modi, as Chief Minister of Gujarat, speaking at the Statue of Unity project implementation workshop in Gandhinagar in December 2013. Photo: PTI

Modi launches the 'Make In India' project in New Delhi on September 25, 2014. Photo: RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “think big” projects such as the bullet train and the Statue of Unity are at best attempts to showcase the politics of spectacle that the Prime Minister is adept at, in the context of the growing negative perceptions about his government.

“I don’t think small. When 125 crore people are with me, I cannot think small,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while dedicating the Sardar Sarovar dam—built across the Narmada over a span of 56 years—to the nation on September 17. The day also marked his 67th birthday. The Prime Minister’s highfalutin proclamation came barely three days after he along with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe laid the foundation for the Ahmedabad-Mumbai bullet train project, expected to cost an estimated Rs.1,10,000 crore.

Modi had consistently projected this as his big idea. In fact, on May 2, 2013, approximately a year before he was elected Prime Minister, Modi propounded this idea. He did this at an interactive meet between him as the Chief Minister of Gujarat and members of the Indian Merchants’ Chamber (IMC) and the All India Business Council (AIBC) in Mumbai. It was nearly an hour-long session, which opened with Modi’s lengthy presentation in Hindi.

A broad translation of the portions where Modi held forth on the linkage between “thinking big” and the “bullet train” went as follows: “It is of no use we keep doing things in a small scale. We have to think big, in big scale and in a big canvas. Instead, what do we do? We think in terms of going up by 0.1 per cent, then 0.2 per cent. Finally, we would reach a stage where we think in terms of growing by 0.001 per cent. This is not going to help. I met the Prime Minister [Manmohan Singh of the Congress] recently and we were talking exactly on this point. I told him that no discussion is happening on the whole of China [hailed as a nation with high growth]. They do not show the whole of China to us. They only show what the world will appreciate. So I told him [Manmohan Singh] that we too have to do such things that would showcase our strengths to the world. For example, I told him, do a small thing. Start the Ahmedabad-Mumbai high-speed bullet train. What will be the outcome of this? The world will know about our strength. It is not as though anybody is going to come and sit in this train. But to tell the world that we are not any less we need to do things like this.”

The sum total of the articulation of his idea is unambiguous. To him, “thinking big” is essentially about showcasing “our strengths” and not necessarily bringing any benefit to the people. An excerpted video clip of this presentation is doing the rounds on social media after the September 14 launch of the bullet train project. The fact that Modi had linked yet another big idea of his—of building a Statue of Unity to commemorate Sardar Patel, India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, and fixing its height at 186 metres, twice as tall as the Statue of Liberty (United States)—has also been highlighted on social media, exposing the deep fascination for spectacle that the politician, termed widely “as the most powerful ever after Indira Gandhi”, nourishes within his political self.

Modi’s penchant for thinking big has a chilling similarity with Mussolini’s Fascist Italy as depicted in the professor of sociology and author Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s Fascist Spectacle: The Aesthetics of Power in Mussolini's Italy (University of California Press, 1997). Summing up the key aspects of Simonetta Falasca-Zamponi’s cultural history tome, the reviewer Vitalie Sprinceana points out that in the Mussolini regime, politics starts to be less concerned with the act of governing people in an efficient way, for instance, in solving their economic problems. “Instead, it is focussed more on the spectacle of power, on the visual and impressive display of symbols, myths and rituals. Verbal and non-verbal forms of discourse are more than mere means of political legitimation—they are fundamental to the construction of the power of the regime. Politics itself assumes the form of an artistic act—to govern means to Mussolini to create (a new man, a new Nation, a new Empire), and Mussolini views himself as the creative soul of the nation, the guide to a future renewal of the country, the propeller of new ways of living. In terms of everyday life this aestheticisation of political power takes the shape of a domination of form—visual appearance, effects—over the content. It also means that politics ceases to be measured by political criteria,” she writes.

Behind Modi’s “think big” syndrome is an effort to create a situation where politics ceases to be measured by political criteria and people’s concerns. The bullet train and Statue of Unity are not the only examples of this effort. The promises made by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government under Modi’s leadership day in and day out also belong to this category. Consider the following. Modi and other leaders of the BJP had repeatedly promised, through the 2014 Lok Sabha election campaign and even after the formation of the government, that the farmers’ income across the country would be doubled by 2022. Three years into that promise, both Modi and Finance Minister Arun Jaitley have asked farmers to look elsewhere. While Jaitley said it was for State governments to initiate measures to double the farmers’ income, Modi has exhorted cooperative societies to come up with their own facilitation.

Critics see the grand proclamations of Modi and his party as diversionary tactics in the context of farmers’ protests. Across northern India, farmers are restive since they are not getting remunerative prices for their produce. The intense agitations that started in Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra in April-May 2017, have spread to other States such as Chhattisgarh, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab. BJP governments in Chhattisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have apparently been cautioned by intelligence reports that this could turn into a major law and order problem. In Uttar Pradesh, the newly elected Yogi Adityanath-led BJP government announced a farm loan waiver programme in its first Cabinet meet in March 2017.

Again, at the level of the larger economy, the Modi regime has been repeatedly claiming that notwithstanding the global recession, India’s economic situation is good and that it has the potential to improve. However, even as Modi was holding forth on the bullet train project, Jaitley had to admit that the economy had decelerated to the slowest pace in three years and that there was a need for more concentrated and specific efforts to revive growth. The general consensus among a large number of economists was that the demonetisation drive launched by Modi in November 2016 would aggravate economic deceleration. The government had strongly denied it. However, more and more government agencies are now forced to admit that demonetisation has aggravated economic deceleration.

RSS warning

Apparently, the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS), the mother organisation of the Sangh Parivar, has taken note of the repeated reverses suffered by the Modi government. At a recent coordination meeting of 40-odd Sangh Parivar outfits, the RSS leadership reportedly warned the BJP to be wary of a repeat of the 2004 electoral defeat suffered by the then BJP-NDA government led by Atal Bihari Vajpayee. The Vajpayee government faced the 2004 Lok Sabha elections with a feel good “India Shining” campaign only to be humbled by a practically leaderless but broadly united opposition. By all indications, the BJP leadership, including party president and Modi’s close associate Amit Shah, has taken the RSS warning seriously.

According to Sivanand Tiwari, former Rajya Sabha member of the Janata Dal (United), the BJP leadership and other Sangh Parivar outfits could come up with two responses to this unenviable situation. “First, they would fall back on their time tested ploy of communalising society and polarising communities in the name of religion. This was employed to the hilt in the 2014 ascent of Modi, along with the raising of a vision of development. Now that Modi and his Ministry are increasingly displaying their inability to live up to their development vision, they would be planning to aggressively pursue the polarisation-communalisation route. The revival of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir agitation could well become an instrument for this. The second response would be by way of appropriating the gains made by other governments as their own through clever propaganda and media management. Even as Chief Minister, Modi had shown his mastery over this stratagem when he took credit for the Amul dairy, set up originally in 1946 and nurtured under several regimes, including the Congress. But then Modi’s propaganda and media management is what prevailed in the end.”

Tiwari’s view is endorsed by former BJP Union Minister Arun Shourie, who terms the Modi Ministry essentially as an event management company where everything is turned into a spectacle for one individual and a clutch of political courtiers.

There is a stream of opinion that the ruling BJP in Gujarat, which is to face the electorate later this year, needs a booster and that is why Modi inaugurated the Sardar Sarovar dam and initiated the work on the bullet train. However, field reports suggest that the BJP continues to be on a strong wicket in the State, essentially because of the absence of a cohesive opposition and a popular leader in the Congress.

Thus, the new spectacles on display in September 2017 are aimed at reinforcing the omnipotence of the big leader. That task is evidently of utmost importance given the warnings that are emanating from different quarters of the country and the RSS.