Every time Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels overseas, his party faithful work up a cacophony of hyperbole to present it as a diplomatic coup to the Indian public. It was no different for his recent visit to America – except, it did not go all to plan.
Their trolling of The Wall Street Journal reporter Sabrina Siddiqui for questioning Modi about his government’s treatment of India’s Muslims drew condemnation even from the White House, while their attacks on former US President Barack Obama for warning about the consequences of mistreating the nation’s minorities made more news than Modi’s visit itself.
This, of course, is not the first time the Hindutva troll army has earned international notoriety. In the past, they have gone after academics Wendy Doniger and Audrey Truschke, activist Greta Thunberg, journalists Mehdi Hasan and Mattew Yglesias.
For someone who has written about the Hindutva movement’s inferiority complex and its messianic reverence for Modi, the reaction of its trolls and even some elected leaders always throws up questions for me about their psyche.
Psyche of a troll
Modi veneration is a cultivated parasocial relationship: a deeply emotional response to his branding as the first pan-India leader who is open about his Hindu exclusionary politics – and, therefore, is the primary victim of all conspiracies against a Hindu India. A parasocial relationship is a one-way relationship, the illusion of a relationship.
As Modi rose on the national political scene, his life story appealed to many Indians who, even with socioeconomic privilege, believed themselves to be working class. The marketing blitz around the so-called Gujarat Model appealed to their material aspirations. To them, criticism of Modi for his communal politics only reinforced his aura as the strongman who had arrived to rid the country of decades of supposedly dysfunctional Congress rule.
Indeed, in the 189 constituencies where Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party went head-to-head with the Congress in the 2014 general election, it won 166. That is, nearly 60% of its total seats. In 144 constituencies outside Uttar Pradesh and Bihar where the BJP was not up directly against the Congress, it was competitive in only 56.
This trend largely continued in 2019, leading the election analyst Neelanjan Sircar to suggest that Modi’s supporters did not vote for him based on issues but rather found issues to rationalise their vote for him.
The result is a cult of Modi in which everyone from top leaders to common devotees sing from the same hymnal. At an event in America in September to celebrate India’s 75th Independence anniversary, foreign minister S Jaishankar asserted that “the fact that our opinions count, that our views matter, and we have actually today the ability to shape the big issues of our time” was because of Modi. Two years earlier, Supreme Court justice Arun Mishra had called Modi a versatile genius and an internationally acclaimed visionary who thinks globally and acts locally.
At the back of the congregation is the Modi fan who celebrates the leader’s birthday by chanting his name nonstop for 24 hours or tattoes his name or likeness on their body. Tying it all together is the mainstream media, which puts Pyongyang to shame in the way it fawns over Modi.
The online troll, then, is an extension of the Modi cult that exists in the real world.
Creating a schizophrenic republic
Fascism, the writer and philosopher Umberto Eco pointed out, “feeds on humiliation – whether economic, national, gendered, or racialised – and encourages followers to direct their frustration at enemy-others who, through some tenuous logic, turn out to be the source of all society’s problems. By a continuous shifting of rhetorical focus the enemies are at the same time too strong and too weak.”
Modi has fed the basal instincts of his supporters – and thrived on it. In 2005, when Modi was the chief minister, the Gujarat police murdered a wanted man named Sohrabuddin Sheikh and his wife in cold blood. The previous year, they had shot dead four people, including a young woman Ishrat Jahan, in a gunfight that was alleged to have been staged.
Criticised for such extrajudicial killings, Modi declared at an election rally in 2007 that Sheikh “got what he deserved”. What should be done, he asked, to a man found with illegal arms? “Kill him,” the crowd shouted, “kill him!”
Modi is also a master of casting legitimate criticism of himself and his political conduct into rousing rhetoric about humiliation and victimhood while fusing his own identity with that of the state. After the 2002 Gujarat carnage, when he was perhaps at his weakest politically, he conducted a statewide campaign called the Gujarat Gaurav Yatra to peddle victimhood.
He has perfected the script since. Whether addressing election rallies or responding to policy challenges like protests against the new citizenship law and the farmers protests, Modi invariably deploys the language of grievance. He recently counted 91 abuses that the Opposition had allegedly thrown at him, and conflated it with denigration of the OBC community, to which he belongs, and India itself.
On the flip side, the rhetoric of perpetual victimhood feeds into Hindutva’s inferiority complex. In this matrix, the Hindu Rashtra is at once a world leader and a fragile nation that everyone can destabilise or destroy at will. Personally for Modi, it chips away at his role as the Hindu Hridaysamrat, the Emperor of Hindu Hearts.
This dissonance has created a schizophrenic republic.
That is why any critical questioning of Modi’s conduct or policies or even an academic review of Hinduism or Indian history is met with ad hominem, strawman or plain abusive attacks.
Trolling as masculine posturing
Hindutva is an adopted ideology. It is founded not on a social or economic ideal like communism or capitalism but on fear and a sense of victimhood. As a consequence, when confronted with a critical argument, its online devotee resorts to a digital form of the masculine display of power. Quite like a man who will not move when walking down a street to compel you to move around them or who talks over you or whistles at you. If you do go around him or shut up or turn your head, he has his victory. That is the power trip.
Only the online warrior feels more emboldened. Psychological research shows that anonymity, asynchronous communication, and an empathy deficit contribute to online disinhibition.
The Hindutva troll is especially susceptible to empathy deficit. He cloaks the inferiority complex inherent to his ideology in victimhood. Since victimhood sells politically, the troll is convinced of his victimhood and, naturally, seeks to defend his tribe against all manner of conspiratorial enemies. Trolling then is an act of convincing himself that he can assert power over the enemy, real or imagined. If the enemy is annoyed, scared or shuts up, the troll has done his duty.
More often than not, the troll’s political positioning is an inherited tribal loyalty to ethnic, familial or religious worldviews that he fuses with his national identity. The inherited worldview could be Christian in the US and Hindu in India, but the common thread is a deep suspicion of anyone that he does not identify as his own. That is why calling the former US president Barack Hussain Obama or pointing to Siddiqui’s Muslim heritage seems an acceptable retort to him. That is simply how he sees the world.
It is also why he easily dismisses a Hindu who opposes him or his ideology as a secret Muslim or a paid Muslim agent. He simply cannot conceive of a member of his tribe coming to a different conclusion about the world. No wonder engaging with a troll often feels like talking to someone who speaks an alien tongue.
Getting away from a cult
One way to cure this malaise is to expose the would-be troll to a different social context, an out-group. That is how most people break away from a faith or a cult. The phenomenon is known as Contact Hypothesis. Sharing space with people from varied backgrounds and worldviews makes a degree of liberalism necessary just to get by.
It will do this country good to recognise that our trolls are a reflection of our society, that for an Indian to truly believe in universal brotherhood means for him to break down social, parasocial, emotional, and familial barriers. That is not easy to do. Most of us, George Orwell warned in 1984, prefer happiness over freedom. And so the trolls continue to chant war is peace, ignorance is bliss, freedom is slavery.
Raj Shekhar Sen is an Indian writer and podcaster who lives in the US. His Twitter handle is @DiscourseDancer.