In the many critiques of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s mode of political functioning, one of the knee-jerk characterisations has been to call him a fascist. This reaching for historical parallels from elsewhere shows a lack of introspection, and of imagination, regarding India’s own cultures of authoritarian rule, brutal hierarchies, and forms of political imagination. Demonetisation was presented as a yajna through which the nation would be reborn through public suffering. In this exercise, Parliament was seen as merely an advisory body rather than representing the sovereign will of the people. Just as Parliament was not consulted, neither was the Reserve Bank of India. The actions of the government were presented as proceeding from the will and whim of the prime minister himself.

There is something very monarchical about this form of functioning, which draws upon the memory of Hindu kingship. Kings, ascending the throne, announced the new era with the introduction of a new currency. Starting afresh meant an effacement of the past, of history and of the achievements of previous rulers. We live now in the Modi era where images of him performing service (sweeping, spinning), meeting with world leaders, and unerringly looking at the camera are constantly produced and circulated in the media. It is the art of being a monarch in the age of the democratisation of technology.

The latest usurping of history has been in the replacement of Mahatma Gandhi by Modi in the Khadi and Village Industries Commission calendar for this year. It is quite clear from the photograph that Modi has little knowledge of spinning khadi: an exercise that requires complete absorption in the creation of the fragile thread. What for Gandhi had been a lesson in mindfulness and the subduing of the ego has become in Modi’s hands an exercise in sheer absence of mind. It is not enough to say that there have been other instances where the commission’s calendar has dropped Gandhi’s image. What we are witness to here is the ongoing replacement of all other images and sources of authority by the image of the new monarch.

Evacuation of history

Woody Allen’s film Zelig had the eponymous character present at watershed events in world history. The Hollywood film Forrest Gump riffed on this and inserted the character played by Tom Hanks into the events of 20th-century American history. These were examples of the longing to be part of history working creatively with the desire to say I-was-there. What Modi is engaged in is the evacuation of history and the stripping of its events of any resonance. It is an example of history-is-me. This is not about an erasure or airbrushing of people out of history alone. Joseph Stalin merely removed all evidence of the Marxist revolutionary and politician Leon Trotsky from historical photographs. He did not put himself into every photograph, morphing into every known hero of the Russian Revolution.

Modi’s monarchical frame of all history – past, present and future – being a record of his life and achievements has three distinct elements to it. The first is the stopping of time and restarting it: an “exploding of the continuum of history”. An act that would have been revolutionary had it arisen from a social churning, is now merely a narcissistic and conservative one since it is the decree of one individual. The second is the condensing of all historical achievements in the life of one person: Modi has appropriated all existing historical legacies from Nehru and Indira to the achievements (such as they were) of the United Progressive Alliance government and presented them as his own. If Atal Behari Vajpayee was the yugpurush (man of an era) to LK Advani’s lohpurush (iron man), Modi has cannibalised both images. Finally, there is the question of what might be termed teleology: that idea that all history was leading towards the coming of Modi. He, therefore, presents himself as the perfected form of all previous avatars of public service, excellence, and of heroism. There is no need for other heroes in this theological dispensation. As Krishna says to Arjuna on the battlefield, “Maamekam sharanam vraja.” (Take refuge in me alone). We have transitioned from the ethos of democracy to that of surrender and bhakti.

However, we must also think about the ironic continuities with a Gandhian performance of politics even as Modi seeks to transcend Gandhi. Gandhian politics was about his being the sole spokesperson of the Indian people against colonialism. BR Ambedkar, Subhas Chandra Bose and many others were sidelined through moral persuasion as much as realpolitik. Gandhi was the exemplar who performed politics on behalf of the Brahmin, the Dalit and the Muslim; the masses could only watch with admiration and applaud. Modi taps into this deep strain of bhakti that is immanent in the political psyche of the Indian. Ambedkar warned the Constituent Assembly in 1949, “In politics, bhakti or hero-worship is a sure road to degradation and to eventual dictatorship.” And to a performance of kingliness, one might add.

Dilip M Menon is the Mellon Chair of Indian Studies and the Director of the Centre for Indian Studies in Africa at the University of Witwatersrand.