*On Being at the Top of the World:   Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest

I opened the newspapers on May 24th to two disconcerting even stupefying stories that are wholly unrelated and yet, to my mind, seem strangely if not inextricably linked in several ways.  Both stories captured the world’s attention, if for altogether different reasons.  In India, the incumbent Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, had not only retained his seat in Varanasi by a huge margin but he had led his party to a crushing and decisive victory over his political foes, scattering his opponents like atoms in the dust.  The Indian Express’s chief political columnist, Pratap Bhanu Mehta, headlined the achievement of Modi with the phrase, “Staggering Dominance”.  Some in the media spoke of his “landslide reelection”, while others described the unambiguous “mandate” he had received from the country.

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The Tweeting Yogi: Narendra Modi meditating at Kedarnath. He tweeted this image, just before the conclusion of the elections. Source: Hindustan Times.

In neighboring Nepal, meanwhile, the summit of Mount Everest, the tallest mountain in the world at 29,028 feet, had become something like a clogged highway. “On Mt. Everest,” the article in the New York Times stated, “Heavy Traffic isn’t Just Inconvenient.  It Can Be Deadly.”  The photograph accompanying the article tells a story staggering in the extreme:  mountaineers are queued up, as people in South Asia often are at bus stations, railway ticket offices, cinema halls, and government offices, to climb the summit.  The line is several hundred meters long, perhaps even longer than a mile. Death at the highest point on earth can be caused by frostbite, oxygen depletion, long exposure to the inclement weather, high altitude sickness—and, now, a traffic jam.  Two climbers had died under these difficult circumstances when the first reports appeared on May 23-24; in the following days, at least another eight climbers died.  In 2018, by contrast, five climbers had died during the entire climbing season.

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The Zoo Atop the World: The line for the summit at Mt. Everest, May 2019. Source: Getty Images.

So what does it feel like being at the top of the world?  Narendra Modi would know, and what is wholly distinct about him is that he stands in singular and sinister isolation at the summit of Indian politics. The BJP had almost wiped out the Congress, and nearly all other opposition, in 2014; no one, barring perhaps the BJP, which in the voice of Modi has declared that it aims to win the votes of all 900 million Indian voters, thought that the 2019 election outcome would result in the further decimation of the opposition. Under the existing rules of the Indian Parliament, established by the first Lok Sabha speaker, G. V. Mavlankar, and finally codified under the Parliament (Facilities) Act 1998, an official “leader of the opposition” in either House cannot be declared until an opposition party has at least 10% of the seats.  With 44 seats in 2014 the Congress did not qualify as the “opposition” in the Lok Sabha, which has a membership of 543.  Having fallen short of the target of 55 seats by 3 seats this year, the Congress still does not quality.

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PM Jawaharlal Nehru with Ganesh Vasudev Mavalankar, the first Speaker of the Lok Sabha. Source: The Hindu Group.

We may say, then, that Modi rules the Indian political scene much as Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi did in their times.  It may be comforting for Modi’s critics to believe that those who rise so spectacularly to the top are likely to have a precipitous fall:  that is not always the case.   The greater concern, to invoke Lord Acton’s maxim, is that “power corrupts, absolute power corrupts absolutely”.  If Modi and the BJP have captured all the institutions of state power, and bankrupted or emasculated those which are not so readily pliable to the will of the party, the circumstances for the longevity of Indian democracy in any meaningful sense of the term cannot be described as propitious.  More than 70 years after independence, the summit should have been crowded—with ideas, with the play of the imagination, with parties speaking in different tongues and articulating compelling narratives of social justice.  Instead, what do we find?  The Congress has become moribund, the Communists eviscerated.  There is only one narrative now—call it Hindu pride or call it the Hindu nation-state, but it is more effectively captured by one word:  Modi.  “In New India,” as one newspaper put it, “the prime minister towers above all parties, including his own.”

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An Image from Pakistani Television. Source: You Tube.

Ironically, at the summit of Mt. Everest, where it should have been all quiet, the parking lot is full. The Arizona doctor who arrived on the summit was in for a surprise:  on the flat part of the summit, about the size of two ping-pong tables, 15-20 mountaineers were jockeying for positions to take selfies.  He thought he had arrived at a “zoo.”  The saints who in India have for millennia been arguing that there is no solitude anywhere except within one’s own self perhaps knew a thing or two that we may be recognizing today—even atop Everest.  Why do people climb Everest?  We doubtless know all the answers:  the thrill associated with taking risks, the flirtation with death, the challenge it poses to even experienced climbers, the human need to continue to scale new heights, and others in that vein.  One person, I forget who, put it starkly, and with likely greater plausibility:  because it is there.

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Line Up, Please, for the Summit: The delights of Mt. Everest and Being on Top of the World. Source: National Geographic.

The history books which speak of Everest being first “conquered” by Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norway in 1953 are still closer to the truth in that they suggest, if unwittingly, that the narrative of conquest has all along triggered the exodus to Everest.  This exodus has, besides the zoo at the summit, created a veritable garbage dump all along the path from the base camp to the summit.  Though Modi stands singularly at the top of the world, and Everest as the top of the world has become a crowded place, Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest share, in more ways than we can imagine, threads of the same narrative of conquest, of twitter and selfies, and the difficulties of solitude and reflection in these times.  We don’t know how many lives have been discarded on the ascendant path to Mt. Modi and Mt. Everest and where it will stop.

(First published on ABP Live Blog under the same title, here.)

 

 

 

 

 

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*The Victory of the Hollow Men:  India’s Lost Generation

(First of an occasional series on the Indian Elections of 2019 and its outcome)

In the mid-1920s, a few years after he had published his early masterpiece, The Wasteland, T. S. Eliot wrote a poem which is apt for our times.  He called it “The Hollow Men”.  Eliot had witnessed a generation lost to what, until that time, had unquestionably been the most brutal war of modern history.  World War I took millions of lives, leaving behind a trail of misery, destruction, and deep depression.  The wise men of the times, and those with a sunny disposition, called it the “war to end all wars”; and, yet, it paved the way, though scarcely anyone could have imagined it at that time, for a still more destructive war.

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Narendra Modi and Amit Shah: Architects of a Victory.

Narendra Modi has achieved in India a victory of such calamitous proportions that its consequences will reverberate for decades to come.  He has amassed power on a scale unwitnessed in the experience of the vast majority of Indians.  The BJP and its supporters are describing it as a magnificent achievement, a stupendous outcome—and stupendous it is, not merely on account of the evisceration of what one even hesitates to call “the opposition”, but because the victory has been delivered by a massive and largely unsuspecting electorate rather than having been achieved at the barrel of the gun or even by coercion.  It is pointless at this juncture to argue whether some EVMs were tampered with, or whether the outcome was foretold by the extraordinary resources that the BJP brought to this election, including vast sums of unaccounted money contributed by the crony capitalists who must be exulting yet again at the victory of their champion, a self-proclaimed ordinary chai-wallah.  The indisputable fact established by the electoral results is that the BJP, even if the playing field had been somewhat more level, would easily still have been triumphant.

Most analyses of the election have focused on Narendra Modi’s spectacular success in projecting himself as indispensable to the nation and as the only person at all capable of catapulting India on to the global stage as a supposed world power.  One study after another has shown, or has attempted to establish, that many electors cast their vote for Modi, and Modi alone.  If Donald Trump is now the Republican Party, Modi is the BJP.  Doubtless, the BJP has a massive following, and many among the ranks of the party’s acolytes have an ideological commitment to political positions advocated by the party, just as Amit Shah has displayed, as he has since his rehabilitation within the BJP before the 2014 election, a mastery of organizational details and a ravenous appetite for propaganda.  Nevertheless, it is also necessary to recognize that Modi stands, singularly so, at the summit of Indian politics.

The consequences of this election, however, cannot be reduced to questions about the future of the Congress, the personality of Modi or his style of governance, and whether the BJP will have the grace to rule with something that might be described as civility, and even whether the battle lines are likely to harden between the Hindu extremists who have been emboldened by the victory and all those who are rightly alarmed if not terrified at the prospect of a Hindu Rashtra.  The BJP’s warriors may already be starting to prepare for the next battle, but the rot has unfortunately, indeed I should say tragically, already set in.  The BJP spent the previous five years in decimating the institutions that are the bulwark of any democracy.  The country’s leading public universities, among them Delhi University and JNU, have been gutted; the Election Commission has not merely seen better days, but is shorn of much of its credibility; and the army, which was long been distinguished from the army of neighboring Pakistan as an institution that stayed outside the fray of politics, has increasingly been drawn into political scandals.

It would be difficult to identify institutions of the state that have not been hollowed out.  That is what hollow men do.  The BJP is utterly devoid of any imagination, and for intellectuals the party hacks and their devoted followers have nothing but absolute contempt.  The Prime Minister has made the customary noises, following the election, about carrying everyone along with him and the need for “inclusive growth”.  There are the usual slogans about sabka saath, sabka vikas, and the call to the party to strive for sabka vishwas:  all mindless chatter, the most predictable ploys to shore up the idea of the magnanimous victor.  Among the vanquished, there will be much talk about weathering the storm for the next five years.

I have described the electorate that delivered a victory to Modi and the BJP as “unsuspecting”, and I do so with the full awareness that, as will doubtless be pointed out to me, among those who voted for the incumbent many did so with the expectation that he will stand up for the Hindu, fill (as it is imagined) the much maligned Hindus with pride, make India Congress-free, and—to speak of hope against hope—vindicate “the common man”.   But the electorate is unsuspecting because there is, in my view, little realization that with this victory an entire generation of Indians is now lost to values of civility, decency, and moral probity.  It is, for the moment, immaterial whether the BJP implodes five years from now, or, miraculously, the Congress or some other force emerges to offer viable opposition.  An entire generation will now have to pay the price for the obliteration of social goods that we hold in common and the values that are enshrined in the Constitution of India.  The BJP has already, in effect, described this victory as total, as, so to speak, the war that ends all wars.  It will take a generation, I suspect, to recover our humanity even partially from what has been wrought by “the hollow men” of our times.

 

*The Greatest Show on Earth?  The Indian Elections and a Puzzle

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The Greatest Show on Earth: a poster from Barnum & Bailey Ringling Bros. Circus, 1913.

The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey Circus described itself for well over a century as “the greatest show on earth”.  Political sensibilities changed enough over the last few decades to send it into obsolescence.  Animal rights activists had long complained that the circus exploited animals and was an affront to the majesty of nature.  But one can be certain that video gaming, the modern obsession with social media, the morbid addiction to smart phones, and the internet played a role in sounding the death knell of traditional forms of family entertainment.

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Patience Personified: Standing in Line to Cast a Vote in the General Elections, India, 2019. Source: BBC.

In truth, however, the Greatest Show on Earth in the post-World War II era has been the general Indian Elections.  Some have even likened the Indian elections to a circus: though the campaigning begins only a few months beforehand, it is a lively, garrulous, and combative affair where the antics of one candidate after another are likely to lead a person to gasp for air.  In every state, a not inconsiderable portion of the candidates have criminal records, though the worst of these candidates are more likely to compete for seats in the elections to the state legislative assemblies. The charges, moreover, are often not for comparatively mild criminal offences, but rather for murder, attempted murder, arson, and rape, among others.  No one appears to think it rather odd that candidates who pledge to make the streets safe for women or induce respect for law and order among ordinary citizens should themselves be the most egregious violators of the law.

The element of the bizarre has, of course, a great many other dimensions.  Thus, in the 1996 general elections, 1033 candidates contested for a single seat in the Modaurichi constituency in Tamil Nadu.  The names were too numerous to be accommodated in a ballot; a booklet was issued.  Though the CPM dominates among the traditional communist parties, the dozens of communist parties have often disputed arcane points of ideology as though the interpretation of a particular passage from Marx, Lenin, or Rosa Luxembourg was calculated to shift the fortunes of a country.  I suspect the vast majority of the 2,293 political parties that are registered with the Election Commission of India—the Commission recognizes seven as “national” parties, and another 50-60 as parties of demonstrable regional strength—similarly differ from each other in minutiae.

It is, however, the gargantuan nature of this exercise that has long captured the attention of the world.  The Indian electorate, at 900 million, dwarfs the electorate in any other country.  It grows by leaps and bounds every five years.  In the 2016 Presidential elections in the US, 138 million Americans cast their vote, constituting around 58% of all eligible voters; in contrast, 815 million people were eligible to vote in India in the 2014 elections, and nearly 66.5% of them voted.  Over a million polling stations have been set up for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.  Nearly 11 million election personnel are helping to conduct polling, and 3.96 million electronic voting machines (EVMs) are being used.  One could reel off many more statistics in this vein, though, if I had to hazard a guess without tabulating numbers, I suspect that perhaps nothing is more impressive than the probable fact that the Indian electorate is greater than the electorate of all and certainly most of the world’s other democracies put together.

It is also a singularly impressive fact that, barring the imposition of an emergency by Mrs. Indira Gandhi in 1975, which also extended the life of the 5th Lok Sabha, India has held elections regularly.  Mrs. Gandhi did call for elections in 1977 and went down to a crushing defeat.  One might say that the desire on her part for adulation from the public and legitimation at the polls curbed her authoritarian instincts.  There is much in her decision to seek redemption by putting her political future in the hands of voters that is puzzling and merits introspection.

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Indira Gandhi at an election rally in 1980. Source: Hindustan Times.

For the present, however, there is another and much greater puzzle in the story of elections that confronts the student of Indian politics.  The Election Commission’s guidelines stipulate that a voter should not have to travel more than 2 kilometres to cast a ballot, and the country’s highest polling station is at an altitude of 15,256 feet above sea level at a village in the Spiti Valley where it serves 48 eligible voters.  Remarkably, where necessary, election personnel go to a voter to ensure that no eligible vote is ignored.  In a remote part of Arunachal Pradesh, a 6-person election team traveled for three days by bus, on foot, and across hilly terrain and rivers to reach a single voter in the village of Anjaw.  All this appear to be an admirable commitment to democracy on the part of the Indian state. Indeed, the rest of the world sees it that way, and nothing on the Indian elections has done the international news rounds as much as the item on a polling station established in the heart of the Gir National Forest, home of the majestic Asiatic lion.  Here, at least for one day every few years, it is the sheer pomp of the Indian elections that steals the show. The booth is intended to facilitate the exercise of the democratic rights of a solitary voter, the caretaker of the local Mahadev temple known as Banej.

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Darshandas, better known as Bapu, walks to the polling booth set up for him in the Gir National Forest, home of the Asiatic Lion.

“Bharatdas Darshandas, the lone inhabitant and caretaker of a Hindu temple deep in the Gir Forest,” the correspondent of the New York Times has written, “has become a symbol of India’s herculean effort to ensure that the votes of every one of its 900 million eligible voters is counted.”  In a similar vein, the Guardian, visibly impressed by both the country’s faith in democracy and the resolve of the local priest who has “not missed a single election since 2002,” noted that four election officials, escorted by a policemen, trekked for 70 kilometres (45 miles) to ensure that a “69-year old holy man” got to cast his vote “in the world’s biggest democratic exercise.”  When we consider that the news from the United States, which has the world’s second largest electorate and where the elections determine not only the future of the country but the fate of many other nations, has revolved in good measure around voter suppression, the commitment in India to democracy seems worth celebrating.

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Tashigang Village in the Spiti Valley, 30 kilometres from the India-China border, has the distinction of being home to the world’s highest polling station at an altitude of 15,256 feet.

However, just exactly how are we to understand this somewhat heroic narrative of a state that lives in thrall of the Indian voter?  Many critics of how elections are in reality conducted have pointed to the phenomenon known as ‘booth capturing’, partly in response to which India began to make extensive use of Electronic Voting Machines (EVMs) well over 15 years ago, though some have pointed to manipulation of these very machines as yet another problem.  One could also mention various other irregularities.  But these matters, important as they may be, are not at the heart of what I would call the puzzle behind the narrative of the sovereignty of the Indian voter.  It is not as if the Indian state cares at all for its subjects:  after 70 years of independence, India’s record with respect to nearly all the major indices of what conventionally counts for “development” is appalling.  Twenty-two of the thirty most polluted cities in the world are in India; the country is the so-called “defecation capital” of the world; a staggeringly large proportion of the population has no access to drinking water; state-run schools are, by everyone’s admission, in absolute shambles; the ranks of the unemployed are enormous.  One could go in this vein, ad infinitum:  the point is that everything suggests to the complete indifference of the Indian state to the vast majority of the citizens of the country.  The Indian state could begin by taking strident steps, as they have done so in China, to clean the air—and save millions of its citizens from early death and future generations from a nightmarish scenario.  Whatever one may say of other countries, it is no exaggeration to argue that in India there is no war on poverty but rather a war on the poor—for it the poor who suffer the most from dirty air, water, and soil, not to mention policies that have been designed with the intent of snuffing the life out of them.

Why, then, does the Indian state take such an interest in ensuring the right of every single voter?  It won’t do merely to say that political parties are cognizant of the power of the voter, or that in India, as in every other democracy, the “vote bank” has become a critical factor in how political parties position themselves to the public.  The state is not just a sum of political parties, and here it is not the conduct of parties that is in question; moreover, the notion of the “vote bank” does not explain the extreme lengths to which the Indian state goes in ensuring the right of a single voter in the middle of a thick jungle dozens of kilometres from the nearest polling station or remote Himalayan villages.  India must be singular among democracies in sending election officials with voting machines to remote villages, and it certainly does not send doctors to these same villages.  Apparently, by the reasoning of the state, the health of these people is less important than their vote—never mind that, if they are dead from lack of medical care, they cannot cast a vote.  One might also, perhaps with some plausibility, argue that India is aware that the world’s eyes are on its elections, and that the world delights in spectacles and narratives with a touch of the adventurous, the heroic, and the bizarre.  But that also seems far from being a wholly persuasive narrative.

Democracies the world over have sadly become merely electoral democracies.  It may be that in India, as some would say, this is most certainly the case. It is even possible to argue that elections, to the extent that they have overwhelmed the imagination and preclude the possibility of a democratic imaginary that moves well beyond the mechanics of voting, are profoundly anti-democratic.  That proposition needs careful and deliberate articulation—all the more so because, at least in India, the poor and the marginalized have been, understandably, more protective of the vote than those with privilege.  Universal franchise in India only came in with the first general election in 1951-52 and it is to the credit of the country that it was able to hold an election of that magnitude, with an electorate of over 235 million of which 45%, or almost 106 million, cast a vote—and this only four years after independence and 200 years of colonial servitude.  I suspect that, in the Indian state’s textbook and “herculean”—the word, the reader might recall, is from the New York Times article—effort to secure the right of every voter, there are residual memories of the anti-colonial struggle.  A critical part of this struggle, which Indian historiography does not recognize, was the effort that tacitly every Indian had to make to free themselves of the notion that they were merely part of collectivities—Hindus, Muslims, Brahmins, Sudras, Dalits, Kshatriyas, Bengalis, Tamils, and thousands of others.  The vote is precious to every Indian as it is one public exercise that permits the Indian to individuate herself or himself.  I started with the idea of the Indian elections as bearing the ambiance of a circus, but we should not scoff at what is undoubtedly the “Greatest Show on Earth”.

(A slightly shorter version of this was published at ABP [abplive.in], 2 May 2019)