OPINION: New Ram Rajya democracy’s period of exile

India has created a new genre of surreal stories between religion and politics; Hinduism has to be open to new myths to revive democracy and faith.

ByShiv Visvanathan

Published Feb 08, 2024 | 5:34 PMUpdatedFeb 08, 2024 | 5:40 PM

The Ram temple consecration ceremony.

Reading newspapers or even magazines like India Today or Open in the last week would make one think that India has reached a millennial moment. The question is: How does one react to such reportage?

Reading through, one senses that the media has succumbed to the success of Hindutva and an ideology has become a utopia. A different Ram has returned to Ayodhya, and a new city and god are declared sacrosanct.

Narendra Modi is recognised as the prophet of this moment, and he has projected himself using charisma, aesthetics, and competence.

There is a new sense of a political carnival. In fact, there is a feeling of a new bicameralism, with gods occupying the upper house and majoritarian Hindutva in the lower.

A semiotician like Jean Baudrillard would call Modi’s creation simulacra. Simulacra is more wishfully real than the real. The Hindutva wish list is a map that covers Hinduism as a territory. A projection takes over reality.

There are redeeming moments. The young sculptor who carved the icons of Ram looked at them and suddenly confessed they were not his works. He felt that the gods had taken over the sculptures and transformed them.

Through all this, Modi stands alert and modest. Modi is only a vehicle of a dream, an act of majoritarian thinking. What is fascinating is that Ram Rajya is seen as a twin of development. It is a mix of theocracy and technocracy that covers the everyday flaws of governance.

One does not need UN sustainability readings to praise the regime. These are mere addenda to the approval of the gods. Such a discourse has to be examined for its silences.

Also read: Opposition sees PM Modi for politicising Ram Temple

Ram Rajya and democracy

The first casualty is democracy — now anarchic and imperfect — before the governance of the gods.

An idea of direct democracy, human and open, has to challenge Ram Rajya as a legislative act. An Incomplete Utopia has to be confronted by human frailties.

Inventing the Ram Rajya can only be met by reinventing democracy, not as an electoral rule game but as a dialogic drama. We have to challenge the monolithic and the monolingual by recreating a space for pluralism.

Sadly, Ram as an icon has changed. He is no longer the Ram of memory: A Ram humanised in the company of Sita and Hanuman. One needs a gift of the 300 Ramayanas, the varied possibility of myth, rather than recourse to canned unilinear history.

We have to look at governance as a metaphor beyond Machiavelli’s standard tenses. We Indians were cleverer when we looked at governance through Birbal or Tenali Raman. Today, we define power as a perpetual-motion machine, forgetting that the modesty of power is a gift of democracy.

We need to dream differently and realize that the RSS Ram Rajya hides the dullness of governance and the absence of ideas. A Sufi idea of development or something from the Bhakti movement would be more welcome.

The idea of opposition and dissent have to become more critical terms instead of being dubbed as “anti-national”.

Given human frailty, pluralism is the only guarantee against authoritarianism. This demands another genre of thought and writing, which Polish and Hungarian dissenters perfected during the age of Communism.

One thinks of the example of Ryszard Kapuściński. He perfected a metaphorical style. He wrote a book on Haile Selassie, the Emperor. The book was actually a critique of the Polish Communist party.

One needs a similar set of metaphors to challenge the emerging authoritarianism of Indian politics.

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The all-purpose star

In fact, one has to see Modi as an artificial construct. His image is no longer that of a person — human and open. Modi is now a collection of agendas, with every shift in policy marking a new challenge to minorities.

Modi looks increasingly robotic; he is virtually a creation out of Tussauds. The human in him is now artificial. He is now an all-purpose star, playing everything from chaiwala to Millennial Prophet.

Yet, one senses the unreal in him. The spirit of the dialogistic is dead. It is a pity that the Opposition has no sense of this. It is busy carping at little flaws while Modi creates a discourse of authoritarianism. No one — not even the Rahul Yatra — asks these big questions.

Modi is a B-team player playing C division, content with his performance. The Opposition has to learn to be more inventive and assertive about its achievements. Only by redefining politics can we make a return to democracy.

What can the Opposition do? We have to invent a new kind of civil society that is inventive in its ideas of governance and democracy and its ideas of religion and faith. We need a new carnival of ideas that challenges the hegemony and the hierarchy of current institutions.

Both democracy and Hinduism are playful. And we need that playfulness to challenge the emerging authoritarianism of monolingual politics and monolithic religion.

This is the democracies’ period of exile. We have to challenge the current Ram Rajya with a more playful Ram — open, vulnerable, and full of laughter. We need new creation myths to rework such a controversy’s narratives fruitfully.

There is a veneer of patriarchy in the regime’s sense of governance. The new Ram conveys a sense of patriarchy, and our regime plays at being a global patriarchy, imitating Trump and Putin. We stand between a sugar-coated patriarchy and a brutal governance.

We must realise that this new Ram Rajya belongs to the post-truth society rather than to the holiness of religion. Such a critique needs courage.

The South has to create a theatre of counterpoints to challenge this monolithic narrative. It has to redeem the power of storytelling.

India has created a new genre of surreal stories between religion and politics. Hinduism has to be open to new myths to revive democracy and faith. What we are witnessing now is a sugar-coated nightmare: deceptive, disastrous, and deadly.

(Shiv Visvanathan is Director, Center for Knowledge Systems at Jindal University. He is the author of four books, including Carnival for Science and Organizing for Science. Views expressed are personal.)