There are two ways of making the shorter line on a blackboard longer: you either increase its length or rub off the long line till the shorter one seems longer even though it is the same.
When the BJP came to power in 1999, it did so under the shadow of the immensity of what previous governments had achieved. PM A B Vajpayee – thus surrounded by many longer lines on the blackboard – mostly chose to work hard to increase the length of his own line.
The BJP that came to power in 2014, was no longer Vajpayee’s Bharatiya Janata Party. It had become MoJP – Modi Janata Party with the old guard told to shape up or ship out and Narendra Modi departing from tradition to choose the second option: rub out all the long lines on the board.
It has so far worked like a charm, making him win elections despite little improvements in the lives of farmers and workers who have overwhelmingly voted for him and most of his good work relegated to already prosperous groups.
One of the strongest weapons in Modi’s rub-off-the-longer-line arsenal is the bogey of the anti-national. Anyone who supports Modi is the greatest nationalist. Those against – sometimes even inside the party – become anti-nationals.
There is a nationalism that encompasses the entire nation whose merits M K Gandhi espoused but whose dangerous demerits Tagore argued with Gandhi. Tagore even wrote an essay called ‘Nationalism’ that sadly is becoming more relevant – over a century after it was written.
What Modi supporters, ‘lovingly’ called Bhakts follow, is a much narrower version of this nationalism, a sort of Modi-nationalism. I call it NaMoationalism.
NaMoationalism (note the Moat) is a reverence for Narendra Modi and anything he says or does coupled with the belief in his infallibility to such an extent that the faithful build moats around the fortress of their devotion and violently oppose any argument that has the potential to shake their beliefs - even if it were true; especially if it were true.
Its face is of innocent love; like say our adulation of celebrities. The only problem is that while dumb celebrities merely entertain without real power over our lives, a political celebrity like Narendra Modi can directly affect the lives of both fans and detractors. Thus, reverence for a political figure – living or dead – has real-world consequences.
The chief problem with NaMoationalism is that it has not yet acquired enough strength to stand on its own feet. To get up, it not only leans on others but tries to pull them down in an effort to look taller than it is. Thus for this brand of nationalism to work, there have to be anti-nationalists.
NaMoationalism is a childish way of looking at the world and people as either black or white instead of the shades of grey everything is. Yet, this very simplicity is what is appealing. In a world full of ideas and choices that demands rational thought, at least one thing asks for no such efforts – devotion to their leader. This type of orgasmic simplicity is almost the exclusive domain of abusers of religion, drugs and alcohol. That’s the reason why for its adherents, even rape, arson, and murder are permissible in the defense of their idol as long as it is against those defined ‘anti-nationals’.
It’d still have been okay except that the love of Narendra Modi demands hatred of almost every other opponent or politician, not just in the present but the past. Take their easy pickings off Rahul Gandhi – a reluctant, perennially oscillating politician who can rarely make up his mind or has the temperament for a good fight. Yet Bhakts regale in miscomparing the slow, presently rotting apple to the future possible rot of that apple seed.
Absurd stories are manufactured about long-dead leaders like J Nehru openly and M K Gandhi obliquely. The need for NaMoationalists is not just to shorten other lines on the board, but to rub them off completely.
This is tribalism at play. Thousands of years ago, what united us was not the love of something, but our hatred or fear of it. Weather, animals, certain bits of nature were enemies whose hatred united us to live in clusters and ultimately in the safety of villages, then towns, and now cities. Most religions formed in those ages – despite good about them – also stand upon the bedrock of hatred, calling upon followers to rise against the infidels.
The modern world demands the opposite and many have done just that – gather together for the love of something – planet, animals, forests, human rights etc.
Yet, our brains are no different than our ancestors and politicians regularly find the sweet reverence spot in the brains of followers like NaMoationalists for whom the high point of the day are the moments spend brutally defending the absurdly fragile 56-inch chest of their leader.
The strong fortress protected by the moat may seem impossible to impregnate. Yet, adulation built on fakeness, ultimately fades. It seems NaMoationalism may have hit a roadblock, put up surprisingly, by the powerless farmers.
On world human rights day a small group of farmer protestors in Delhi’s border held up photos of ‘anti-nationals’. The confusion that ensued was entertaining. Not of NaMoationalists for they are rarely confused, but of farmers, protestors, and their supporters many of whom argued that pictures of farmers holding up images of Umar Khalid, Anand Teltumbde, Sudha Bharadwaj, etc. were fake. When they realised they were real, they couldn’t believe it, the hidden NaMoationalism inside them shaken.
Few bothered to ask why those people were labelled ‘anti-nationals’ and put in prison in the first place? Or what proofs did their charge-sheets state? Or if charge-sheets had even been submitted on all of them? Have cases even begun years after their imprisonment? You see, these questions are irrelevant when the media has already held a screaming trial and passed judgment.
These same proudly NaMoationalist news channels jumped with delight at the opportunity presented by photos of ‘anti-nationals’ in farmers’ protests. Unlike JNU, Shaheen Baug, or other protests before – hilariously even the initial coronavirus spread – which they had painted as the uprising of anti-nationalists, they had been struggling with farmers. They tried the bogey of the ‘Khalistani’ but it hadn’t stuck for one simple reason – how do you demonize the hand that feeds you?
Now, they painted the farmers as both Khalistani and anti-national supporters and thus anti-nationals themselves. It was a potent accusation the news channels cut and pasted to their readymade template in which only the enemy changes – students, Muslims, Tablighi-jamati, tukde-tukde gang, urban-naxals, khalistani, farmers. The rest of the script always remains the same.
Yet, this is unchartered territory. When they tacitly branded every single Indian Muslim an anti-national, few opposed them and those who did, they booed them with tags like urban-naxals, tukde-tukde gang, leftists etc. It wasn’t difficult for the resistance had come from small pockets. How do you do that to an entire state, especially a state that had a good concentration of not two, but three religions – Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims all of whom have shown unprecedented unity during this movement. How do you brand every farmer – almost 40% of the nation’s population, antinational?
And when they see Sikh-Muslim brotherhood – be it through langars Sikh groups put up in Shaheen Bagh or now when their Muslims are returning the favour in Singhu Border and Tikri Border, it confuses them further. That’s because NaMoationalists – through endless films like the Akshay Kumar starrer Kesari - have painted Sikhism as ancient opponents of Muslims, hoping the memories of Partition violence were fresh.
Turns out the poor farmers – besides having a taste for pizza – also like common sense enough not to mix the past with the present or to forget that the Partition was a three-sided carnage where Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus each killed and got killed.
They had also hoped that being close to the Pakistan border and with family in the military, Punjab farmers would fall for the anti-Pakistan rhetoric - the staple of NaMoationalist channels; that they, like many Indians who know more about what’s wrong in Pakistan than in the street down the road, would believe that India is in the golden age of prosperity. Not only has that not happened, but the sheer scale of the protests has also forced many NaMotionalists to question their blind reverence.
I may be in support of the three laws in the Farm Bill or be against it. Or I may take the middle path to highlight what is bad and support what isn’t. Whatever be my opinion on the bill, I can’t deny that the farmers' protest has put the spotlight on the violence of blind political bhakti. The rooster of NaMoationalism might be forced to come home to roost.
PM Narendra Modi – as almost always – refuses to look mellow or human. How could he? He’s the superhuman who loves mangoes and peacocks. It is the NaMotionalists who are in a bind and who like the shape-shifting Terminator in the last scene of Judgement Day are desperately trying out different forms hoping one of them would help them survive the molten liquid destroying them.
Even if they do survive, the infallible fortress of anti-nationalism would have been breached. And though initially only a trickle of light may enter their dark, blind fortress, ultimately sense would prevail.
That, if nothing else, would perhaps be the greatest achievement of this farmers’ protest. And when that happens, maybe Narendra Modi can look at the blackboard and realise that there’s another way to make oneself bigger than desperately trying to show all others as inferior. It’s a tougher, time-consuming way, but is one that guarantees a good place in history and the happiness of all people in the present.
(Satyen K Bordoloi is a scriptwriter, journalist based in Mumbai. His written words have appeared in many Indian and foreign publications.)