“Something is rotten in the state of democracy,” wrote Pankaj Mishra in the New York Times soon after the election of Donald Trump as President. He continues:
“The stink became unmistakable in India in May 2014, when Narendra Modi, a member of an alt right Hindu organization inspired by fascists and Nazis, was elected Prime Minister. Like Donald Trump, Mr. Modi rose to power demonizing ethnic-religious minorities, immigrants and the establishment media, and boasting about the size of a body part.”
A powerful indictment of democracy in the age of Trump, Putin, Erdogan, Brexit and Modi (examples mentioned by Mishra) indeed. Powerful, and in the light of the open and palpable displays of ugliness we have seen before and soon after the elections, seemingly relevant to the present too.
But then, is it entirely true?
Did Modi really rise to power “like Donald Trump,” demonizing minorities and immigrants, and most pointedly, “boasting about the size of a body part”?
Before we explore this question, let us recall that around the same time that the New York Times published this lengthy op-ed by Mishra (replete with an illustration of a “Make India Great Again” baseball cap in the three colors of the Indian flag), its publisher wrote a letter to its readers vowing to rededicate itself to honesty, among other things. Let us also recall that the criticism that presumably led to this introspection came not simply from Mr. Trump’s supporters, but from people sympathetic to the Times too.
We discussed Pankaj Mishra’s op-ed in my Introduction to Media Studies class this week. His arguments were seemingly persuasive. Dangerous and promiscuous demagogues who hated minorities and immigrants and loved wealth and power were subverting democracy. The worst of them all, judging by Mishra’s focus, was Modi, the “Hindu supremacist” that Trump admired. Mishra’s claims: Modi “supervised” the mass killing and rapes of Muslim women (“accused,” Mishra adds without admitting that Modi was also exonerated, and vindicated by a massive mandate); he belonged to an “alt-right” organization that admires Hitler (not one drop of evidence of this after the 1940s, as far as we know, but Mishra omits that); Modi is a managerial-technocrat harking after greedy spoils from globalization (Mein Kampf is a bestseller in India, Mishra adds here, without mentioning that the book that best explains Modi’s vision is not Hitler’s memoir but Deen Dayal Upadhyaya’s very Gandhian manifesto called Integral Humanism); and of course, like Trump, he boasted about a body part.
I asked my students to take a guess and write down what body part Modi might have boasted about. Most responses, given the misogynistic (“locker room”) climate of Trump’s campaign, had to do with the male organ. It was not surprising. If I had not been paying attention to what Modi has been saying these last few years, I might have just bought that old stereotype too. It fits our image of the demagogue, the dictator who hijacks democracy. It comes from a very miserable place in the cultural soul of the world though; the myth of the man of color as a sexual danger. It is racist, misanthropic, and in this case, of course, untrue. The only “body part” associated with Modi is a popular media meme about a “56 inch chest.” It is not even clear if he really said it about himself as a boast. But it was a widespread meme in Indian media (which was never kind to him at all, unlike what Mishra thinks), and certainly not what it was set up to seem like in the august pages of the honest New York Times.
It was, to put it simply, a cheap shot.
What else did Mishra obfuscate? For one thing, Modi’s campaign speeches did not include attacks on Muslims or any minority community for that matter. He declined some of the old symbols of secular political campaigning in India as mere appeasement (such as putting a skull cap on his head) but he did not promise to disenfranchise Muslims— or even promote Hindu issues exclusively. He promised better government, and he told persuasive stories rooted in a popular, civilizational sensibility familiar to most Indians (except those stuck in some small isolated bubbles in Anglophone media and academia perhaps). And as for Mishra’s allegation that Modi was “anti-immigrant” like Trump, I only had to ask my students the obvious commonsense question: who are the immigrants to India? How is a minor reference in Indian politics to border concerns with Bangladesh even remotely comparable to the sort of talk about mass deportations and bans that we have heard so much about in the American elections?
Mishra is out to demonize. It gets more apparent now by what is said and not said. I then asked my students to guess, on the basis of Mishra’s obviously self-assured pro-poor, pro-minority, and anti-elitist positions, what they guessed about Modi’s social and economic status and background. Trump was rich and white, and Modi, being “like Trump” had to be rich and upper caste Hindu, or so it seemed. Of course, Mishra never mentions that Modi belongs to an “OBC” or “Other Backward Caste” (in legal, not cultural terms), and does not come from privilege at all. Interestingly, when Mishra does toss in a reference to Modi’s family and its non-elite background he dilutes it deliberately, and some might say, in a way that benefits a PR operative rather than a balanced commentator: he writes that Modi “claimed to be the son of a modest tea-vendor” (emphasis added).
Imagine how odd it would be if a respected columnist wrote about Hillary Clinton not that “she was a woman” but that she “claimed to be a woman.” It is disrespectful to the person, and to the constituency they represent.
The obfuscation of Modi’s class and caste backgrounds goes further. Mishra briefly acknowledges that the rise of what he calls demagogues might be a response to corrupt elites, but fails to state one simple fact to establish the reality of the Indian context, and where Modi stood in it: the dynastic rule of the Congress party for nearly every decade since Independence. An honest commentary might have presented the facts of Congress rule, and the five generation sprawl of Nehru-Indira-Rajiv-Sonia-Rahul which looms over every Indian mind as the alternative to consider Modi with, favorably or otherwise. Instead, Mishra evades any criticism of the Congress or the Sonia-Rahul moment which was relevant to Modi’s rise (and made up more of his campaign frankly than any anti-minority or anti-immigrant rhetoric).
If Mishra wished to offer an honest account of the rise of Modi and Trump, he would have at least acknowledged the facts about their differences, rather than desperately try to force-fit them into some unfounded grand theory about greedy and debauched demagogues rising to power around the world (and how does Mishra even use the very current and very American phrase “alt right” for Modi and the RSS which was born nearly a century ago during the Indian anti-colonial struggle)? Given the continuing evasion of reality by Mishra and the New York Times, it is no surprise at all that media credibility is turning into an election campaign issue year after year. Modi broke the mirror that the Indian media pushed upon its people, and as disagreeable as some of the ways he did it are, Trump has done the same thing in the United States too. Whether we choose to support or criticize Modi and Trump, those of us who write in the media ought to refrain from bending the truth to conform to our shaky theories. Journalism is not meant to be propaganda.
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