World

The Indian Election: Real Politics vs. Reel Politics

By Vashna Jagarnath 31 March 2014

India is no stranger to spectacle, and contemporary Indian politics is deeply entwined in the politics of spectacle. And with the world’s largest film industry operating out of Bombay, there’s plenty to work with leading up to the elections. By VASHNA JAGARNATH.

Since the days of the Pharaohs, spectacle has been an important way to legitimate certain kinds of political power. And since Nero, the Roman Emperor whose credibility problem was such that his subjects believed that he had deliberately set fire to the city to clear space for his new palace, which, with its gold leaf exterior and artificial lake made Nkandla look like small potatoes, spectacle has often masked the venality of power. As Nero feasted ever more excessively off the state, the spectacle that he offered his subjects in the gladiatorial arena became ever more extreme and brutal.

Today Barack Obama brings Bruce Springsteen to his electioneering when things look tight, while the Republicans have to make do with Kid Rock. Closer to home, blue light cavalcades and phalanxes of bodyguards perform political power, Jacob Zuma dances with Chomee, Helen Zille sings Koekie Loekie and Julius Malema tries to whip up millennial fervour with militaristic posturing.

India is no stranger to spectacle, and contemporary Indian politics is deeply entwined in the politics of spectacle. And with the world’s largest film industry operating out of Bombay, there’s plenty to work with.

India’s sixteenth general election will begin on 7 April 2014. The elections will be held over a period of seven weeks, with 814.5 million eligible voters. Just over 100 million new voters will be eligible to participate in this election. The armed militants in Bihar, Jharkand and Andhra Pradesh will look on with contempt but a dazzling cast of characters including corrupt politicians, ethnic and religious ranters, Bollywood stars and well-meaning but largely ineffective activist types are waiting in the wings, baying for blood and hoping to dethrone the young prince of the Congress party, Rahul Gandhi. There’s a real possibility that the Indian National Congress (INC) party might be pushed out of No. 7 Race Course Road for the third time since India won its independence in 1947.

Since 1947, the INC has been dominated by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and his scions. Power within the party and the government of India passed from Nerhu to his daughter Indira Gandhi, and, after her assassination, to her son Rajiv Gandhi. Since Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination his wife Sonia Gandhi has held tightly onto the reins of this juggernaut of a party. In 2014, Sonia Gandhi’s son Rahul Gandhi, is the main Prime Ministerial contender for the INC. The INC looks more like a hereditary monarchy than a democratic political party but, aside from the second half of the 1970s, and the period between 1996 and 2004, it has ruled India with an electoral mandate since independence.

However, Rahul Gandhi, a young shahzada (prince), may not have as an easy ride into the seat of power. Hot on the heels of his campaign trail, whipping up support amongst crowds across this vast country, is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by ex- chai wallah (tea seller) Narendra Modi. In Brazil the election of an ex-shoe shine boy lead to important progressive reforms. But Modi is the ruthless enforcer of a toxic mix of ethnic and religious communalism with hyper-capitalism that Indian intellectuals routinely describe as fascist.

Rahul Gandhi might have the appeal of youth and fresh ideas but the Congress party’s record, which includes endemic corruption and periods of authoritarianism, does not amount to a good story for Gandhi to tell. The slowing down of the Indian economy has not helped matters.

The BJP ruled India from 1996 to 2004. During these years corruption remained endemic, markets were thrown open, the state acted as a tool of capital rather than society, ethnic and religious communalism was actively backed by the state as was a programme of extreme social conservatism. The eight years under the BJP were a time of unprecedented power and success for capital and a social disaster that, in the classic manoeuvre of fascism, saw ordinary Indians turn on each other.

But unlike Gandhi, Modi has proven to be a highly effective spin doctor. His good story to tell takes the form of spin about the economic success of the state of Gujarat under his stewardship. With catchy slogans like “Vibrant Gujarat, or India Shining” special economic zones such as the Adani port, state subsidization of big business and business friendly state policies have made Gujarat a haven for the big Indian cartels, which are also families, like the Tatas and Ambanis. But just below this shiny surface of success the life of the lower classes and castes are increasingly declining and Gujarat is ranked number 21 out of 28 states in terms of human development. Many farmers have been evicted in favour of big business and large tracts of agricultural land has been rendered into waste by unchecked pollution of big business. Modi’s rise to political power has been littered with corruption and bribery and an astonishing number of the leading figures in his party have criminal records for crimes including murder, attempted murder, kidnapping and rape. There is clear evidence of his role in orchestrating and supporting the pogrom that saw around 800 Muslims murdered by Hindu mobs in Gujarat in 2002. Yet despite the fact that Modi offers a free reign to the most predatory forms of capital while he divides society with his ideology of Hindu fascism it is not impossible that he may succeed in his campaign to govern India.

Modi’s successful campaigning is due to his ability to appeal to both the poor and the rich with very little concern for the truth, all the while offering up a spectacle of power. A master spin doctor Modi has, like Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, used spectacle and the media to great effect. Spectacle is an important aspect of political campaigns everywhere but it takes on a particularly mammoth role in Indian politics. Emphasizing Modi’s salt of the earth character the BJP has recently launched the chai pe charcha (chat over tea) campaign. Along with an assortment of Bollywood stars, Modi is broadcast all over the country drinking tea with the people. Chai pe charha has developed into a popular campaign that is taking off across the country and amongst people of a variety of classes, including the growing Indian population of the United States. Rahul Gandhi’s rather lame response was to develop Google Hangout sessions. This went down like a lead balloon and even his own party members didn’t bother to participate, further demonstrating his inability to create the right spectacle to conquer the media. And while the Indian Congress party has historically been good at capturing support through large political rallies and campaigns, from Mohandas Gandhi’s impressive Salt March to Indira Gandhi’s deeply flawed Garibi Hatao (remove poverty) campaign, it is clear that the party that has lost its way and lost touch with it constituency.

At this point there seems to be a very real chance of Modi taking power in India. With corporate power in India and abroad behind Modi, the middle classes getting a sense that they too can now have gated communities and shopping malls as glitzy as those in Dubai and the poor being affirmed or terrorised on the basis of ethnic and religious identities Modi has built a broad range of supporters that even includes some Muslims.

Bollywood has traditionally been tied to the Indian Congress but it increasingly coming out in support, if not of Modi himself, then of his support for big business in Gujarat. Bollywood Badshah (emperor) Amitabh Bachchan, once an angry young man, starring in films about the struggle of oppressed people, claims that he does not support anyone politically but he has been willing to become the public face of brand Gujarat – a marketing concept developed by Modi, to literally sell off Gujarat to big business, while also making it an attractive destination for tourists. Bollywood stars like Shah Rukh Khan and Salman Khan with Muslims backgrounds have also followed the money and, ignoring the pogrom against Muslims in 2002, have joined Modi on a variety of platforms to lend their support. Others like Ajay Devgan and Anupam Kher have no problem doing business in Gujarat and actively promote the state on the grounds that it is a fantastic place for their own businesses.

There is no serious political thinking that goes into this form of political support. It is short sighted, dumbed down and motivated by very little other than the financial interests of some actors in Bollywood. But this is not unique to actors. India, despite its vibrant activist and intellectual milieus, is sinking into a political swamp where corruption is taken as a given, politics is about very little beyond self-interest and spectacle trumps real political discussions.

South Africa and India have long shared an interesting set of political similarities. Mohandas Gandhi was an important figure in both our societies and there are some striking parallels between Congress politics in India and South Africa. These points of connection are not just historical. Corruption is becoming endemic in South Africa and there are powerful currents in the ANC that, against the increasingly clear and bold warnings of people like Pallo Jordan and Desmond Tutu, are openly trying to assert a right to be corrupt. At the same time our ever cruder political discourse is plummeting into the realm of the farcical where people are accused of Satanism, or attacked for their looks. Malema’s EFF, like Modi’s BJP, is looking to the urban poor to build a political force for openly corrupt elites that is a more militarised than democratised. Unlike India we don’t yet have parliamentary seats reserved for celebrities. But our ruling party and the state it controls are both becoming a vehicle of enrichment for a few while politics increasing takes the form of spectacle with a discourse that is being rapidly removed from a serious discussion of the problems we face.

Last year there was a move to look to Brazil and the Lula Moment for a road map for a way out of our deepening crisis. But it’s not impossible that our future may come to look more like India where forms of fascism, rather than greater social justice, is used to contain desperate poverty and massive inequality in the interests of a predatory alliance between political and economic elites. DM

Photo: Congress party vice president Rahul Gandhi (L), Indian prime minister Manmohan Singh (C) and Congress Party President Sonia Gandhi (R) hold up copies of the Congress Party Election Manifesto at the party’s office in New Delhi, India, 26 March 2014. India’s ruling Congress Party unveiled its election manifesto and announced their policies ahead of the 07 April to 12 May nine phases Indian parliamentary elections. According to media reports, Rahul Gandhi, who will lead India’s embattled ruling Congress Party in general elections in May, but not named as prime ministerial candidate, is a move to protect his long-term prospects in case the party loses the elections. EPA/HARISH TYAGI

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