I read any written material first and sometimes only from a stylistic point of view. The test of the written word has to be its readability first and then its substance.
Being sure of my worldview, such as it, I do not feel threatened or menaced or discommoded or enraged by others’ take on any subject no matter how controversial it is.This has been my general philosophy while reading anything. The least the writer can do is serve something that is readable.
It is from this angle that I approach Pankaj Mishra’s rather unhappy view of the rise of Prime Minister Narendra Modi and what it can potentially do or is already doing to upend the political, cultural, historical and religious arrangements in the country. His general thesis seems to be that Modi and the kind of assertively Hindu cultural awakening he represents is fraught with grave consequences.
In a telling and portentous warning Mishra writes, “Largely subterranean until it erupts, this ressentiment of the West among thwarted elites can assume a more treacherous form than the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban. The intellectual history of right-wing Russian and Japanese nationalism reveals an ominously similar pattern as the vengeful nativism of Hindu nationalists: a recoil from craving Western approval into promoting religious-racial supremacy.”
Here is what I mean when I say that I read any written material from a stylistic point of view. While reading this particular passage, which is obviously provocative, my attention was more focused on the expression “thwarted elites”. It is a memorable way to describe how in Mishra’s view India’s elites simultaneously harbor envy and admiration for the West. The reason why I gravitate toward style rather than substance is because by temperament and by intellectual necessity I am superficial. I approach any content, be it cinema, literature, music or painting, primarily as a means to be engaged and entertained/compelled.
With that out of the way, a couple of observations about Mishra’s piece. As is his wont, he marshals a diversity of global historical references, most of which would be lost on the shallow, attention-challenged, intellectually fractured Internet tribe, to make his case. Unless you spend your time as a research scholar scouring world literature for powerful references, you are unlikely to be able to challenge Mishra’s scholarship. Even if you do manage to do precisely that it eventually comes down to how you connect broad trends and discern a pattern. It is about individual interpretation.
He talks about comparable “thwarted elites” in Russia and Japan who, he says, also did something that the Indian elites, bolstered by Narendra Modi’s rise, may now be doing, namely “to match Western power through both mimicry and collaboration..” (There, “through mimicry and collaboration”, another telling expression).
Mishra’s assertion that “ressentiment” of “thwarted elites” in India can become more treacherous than “the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban” is ballsy and yet demonstrably wrong. He both overestimates the ability of the Indian elites to mount a global project to establish Indian/Hindu supremacy and underestimates the inhibiting power of India’s internal fractures and discontents to prevent it.
In a country where as of 2012, 360 million officially lived below the poverty line and more than twice that number unofficially, the kind of concerted effort required to become all that Mishra says India could become under Modi is simply not possible. The elites certainly can and may try but the prospects of its success are dim at best.
There is a reason why it is called an elite. It is necessarily small in number and therefore eventually incapable of realizing many of its thwarted dreams. The problem with the kind of analysis scholars such as Mishra offer is that they presume an element of fiendishly meticulous planning behind the emergence of figures such as Modi. While there is certainly some of that for sure, he is still subject to and vulnerable to all the enormous uncertainties of a political system that exists in India.
I do not subscribe to the rather popular view that Mishra and those who share his vision are propelled by a peculiar kind of self-loathing and India/Hindu phobia. That is non-sense and embarrassing. That said, I am never sure what it is that would make them even grudgingly appreciative of some of the strengths that India as a civilization that is very old and a nation-state that is very young has consistently displayed. After all, there ought to be something that glues together over 1.2 billion people who speak 22 languages and close to 1700 dialects, practice six major religions and countless other sects and live across wildly varying economic achievement without generally killing one another. That something cannot be just a delusional vision created by the country’s “thwarted elites.”
There is also that little detail that Prime Minister Modi has emerged on the strength of a predominantly fair electoral victory which has given him the first clear parliamentary majority in 30 years. Notwithstanding that his Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) vote share was a niggardly 31% makes it the lowest to win a majority, it still managed to get a majority 282 seats. In fact, the vote share is instructive because it is an indicator that only 31% of the Indian electorate subscribe to the BJP’s and therefore Modi’s ideology enough to vote him into office. While this may not necessarily stop India from becoming the kind of place which, according to Mishra, is more treacherous than “the simple hatred and rejectionism of outfits such as Al Qaeda, the Islamic State and the Taliban”, it will certainly not speed it up.
I feel no particular necessity to defend India or, for that matter, any great civilization because that is generally a futile endeavor. I take a detached view of the world and treat it with a transient curiosity because I can never lose the perspective about how we are so insignificant in the cosmic scheme of things that we do not even qualify to be insignificant.