The Manchurian Candidate

Image by Winona Laisram

Narendra Modi and the RSS seem to have copied the playbook of the Chinese Communist Party. The similarities are uncanny.

Long before the May 2014 elections, it was clear that Narendra Modi was no liberal. He made no pretence of being one, but this did not stop many of his supporters from positing that Mr Modi’s election would lead to him pursuing economic – if not socially – liberal policies. Like their cousins on the left-liberal spectrum, they were making a common mistake.

Liberalism – economic, political, and social – in a modern state is about the architecture that empowers common citizens to pursue their freedom (or even their eccentricities). By definition it is about holding the state responsible, not empowering it further vis-à-vis citizens. By pursuing a developmental model that further empowered the state, the Left has ended up making common citizens entirely dependent on the state – or more accurately, on the officer with the file who has the power to say “nay” or “aye”. Mr Modi has offered nothing different, except for a centralisation of authority, and fewer gatekeepers. When Ratan Tata praised Mr Modi as the “good M” compared to Mamata Bannerjee as the “bad M” for giving him land for his Tata Nano factory, he was praising a state more efficient at being able to take and assign land – a state that could make sure there were no protests by people dispossessed as in West Bengal. Even the new Niti Aayog Chairman, a long-time Modi supporter, has spoken of the “extreme centralisation of administration in the chief minister’s office in Gujarat, which was at the core of improved governance.”

Economic liberalisation and a centralisation of the state are not natural partners, something that was apparent in the state of Gujarat when Mr Modi was Chief Minister, and is evident in the policies that he has pursued as Prime Minister. Between the empowerment of the citizen and the empowerment of the state, Mr Modi’s first priority, second priority, and third priority have always been the strengthening of the state. Witness the one key “masterstroke” of Mr Modi – the unilateral and bizarre move of demonetisation, an act of coercive and untrammelled state power that can only be compared to Sanjay Gandhi’s forced sterilisation programmes during the Emergency.

The question was never whether Mr Modi was going to be liberal or not, but what type of illiberal he would be. The greatest fear was that he would, in some form or manner, pursue policies reminiscent of the National Socialist German Workers Party – the Nazis – of Germany. These fears were not unfounded, not least because of how much Mr Modi has praised Golwalkar as a “‘Pujniya Shri Guruji,’ (guru worthy of worship)”. This was written in 2007, just a year after the RSS disassociated itself from Golwalkar’s pamphlet, “We, or our Nationhood Defined”, in which Golwalkar had praised the treatment of the Jews by Nazi Germany, and commented that India had much to learn about race pride from the Nazis. The book was published in 1939, just after Kristallnacht, but long before the full horror of the extermination camps was revealed. Golwalkar died in 1973, by which time the world was well aware of what had happened, and yet he never changed a word, or took back his praise.

But the Nazi regime was far away in time and space, and while Golwalkar might have been ‘inspired’ by such things, it is hard to see how an Indian leader, of whatever sort, would look to such events and seek to replicate them today. Moreover because these criticisms of Mr Modi came from, often enough, the Left, what was often ignored is that the Left has had no dearth of anti-liberals either. As Modi and the RSS have made their imprint on India deeper, what is often missed by his critics is how similar they have become to our great neighbour to the north – Xi Jinping and the Chinese Communist Party.

It is hard these days to understand how ‘Communist’ the Chinese Communist Party truly is. Large state owned enterprises are being sold, labour unrest is on the rise, and on the whole the state is very comfortable with large members of the key leadership being very rich – as long as this is not reported in the press. Rather than Communism with Chinese Characteristics, the current state is far more about State Capitalism with Chinese Characteristics. It is worth noting, though, what these characteristics are, and how closely they seem to replicate the current leadership in India.

A Wounded Civilisation

VS Naipaul coined the phrase “A wounded civilisation” for India, and it is something that the RSS has taken to its breast, but it is the CCP that has most operationalised humiliation. For the Chinese, the period 1839 to 1949, when foreign powers ruled the country and until the People’s Liberation Army finally won the war (against Chiang Kai-Shak’s Republic of China), is called the “Century of Humiliation”. The PLA’s victory is used by the CCP to legitimise two things – the distrust of foreigners, and as a tool to legitimise the Party as the only one that can restore the nation’s ‘dignity’. Even today, the leaders of China regularly bring up the topic to strengthen their standing.

This persistent feeling of insecurity today is used by China’s leadership and by its people to frame both China’s current national concerns and its future national aspirations. China is often portrayed as having suffered three kinds of loss during the Century of Humiliation: a loss of territory; a loss of control over its internal and external environment; and a loss of international standing and dignity. Each of these represents an injustice to be rectified.

The Indian leadership at the time of Independence shared many such ideas, but chose to frame the liberation of the country from colonial rule in more optimistic terms, a “tryst with destiny”, though not fully realised. The RSS and Mr Modi will have none of that. Today India is told that it has to make up for not just a century of humiliation, but a millennia, and history lessons are being written for that purpose.

The ideas of a loss of territory (Partition), a loss of control (weak state), and a loss of international standing and dignity (or as Mr Modi said, Indians used to be ashamed of being born in India before he assumed office) read precisely as if they came copy-pasted from a speech of a CCP leader.

A pervasive fear of outsider influence

The insecurity bred from a “century of humiliation” has meant that China, and the CCP, remain deeply suspicious of any “outside” influence. In 2013 a key internal communiqué, known as Document 9, “on the Current State of the Ideological Sphere” was released in the public sphere. Among the seven dangers the communiqué lists are “promoting constitutionalism and the rule of law”, promoting universal values, promoting civil society, “promoting the West’s idea of journalism, challenging China’s principle that the media and publishing system should be subject to Party discipline”, and most amusingly, “Questioning Reform and Opening and the socialist nature of socialism with Chinese characteristics.”

These are the ideological enemies and movements that the CCP has identified. They bear a striking resemblance (except for the last) to the enemies that the current Indian government and its proponents seem to see as their enemies. Swapan Dasgupta seemed to echo the main diktats of Document 9 when he condemned the “rootless cosmopolitanism” of the “Not in my name” protests. (Interestingly, “rootless cosmopolitanism” was a class anti-Semitic phrase used by Nazis, and – more often – in Stalin’s Soviet Union).

Narendra Modi Thought and slogan politics

One of the ways that the Chinese state has enforced “correct thought” is by ensconcing the ideas of key leaders as Thoughts that must be taught and learned. There has been Mao Tse Tung Thought, famously in Mao’s Red Book, there was Deng Xiaopeng Thought, and now as Xi Jinping consolidates his power, there is Xi Jinping Thought. A paramount leader delivering his thoughts on how a society should run. This is exactly what Mr Modi did in his first Independence Day speech, a homily on how society should run. Today this is exactly what we get in Mr Modi’s Mann ki Baat. With the exception of a few softball interviews, Mr Modi does not answer questions. Instead, with his preaching of “Narendra Modi Thought”, he mimics the leaders of the CCP in how they try and shape the thinking of the country.

While Mann ki Baat is a radio programme, there is also another aspect that bears a striking resemblance to the politics of the CCP. As David Shambaugh writes in China Goes Global: The Partial Power:

The Chinese government and CCP puts strong stock in slogans, known as kouhao… Kouhao are meant to simultaneously motivate the intended recipient audience and summarise the content of a specific policy. Although many governments and politicians use catchy slogans to describe policies, what I describe as ‘slogan politics’ and ‘slogan diplomacy’ are particularly used in communist-style political systems. Kouhao are not only supposed to convey policy and indoctrinate recipients, but the main purpose is to force uniformity of thought and language.

Think “Make in India”, “Swachch Bharat”, “StartUpIndia” and all the rest. Most of these slogans have had little impact in policy. The industrial base of India has not really expanded, we’re about as filthy as we used to be, and Raghav Bahl is accusing Mr Modi of pushing Indian startups into the arms of China. Nevertheless they are official policy, to be parroted and printed out on all available surface. Their point is not to change the country, but the people, precisely as in China.

The Aadhaar Lens

None of these moves, though, compares to the arguments that the government trotted out during Justice KS Puttaswamy vs Union of India, the case that gave us the “Right to Privacy.” In arguing that the state had inarguable rights to compulsorily demand the biometric information of citizens, the Advocate General basically defined the citizen as somebody that the State owns. This remains the core of the way that the government has continued to argue why it should make Aadhaar compulsory for each and every person, for each and every service. Given that the data made available with Aadhaar will allow the government to deploy metadata to monitor all Indian citizens, it looks increasingly like China’s Social Credit System. It is worth noting that no liberal democracy has such a system.

As the Lenin statue came down at the hands of vandals in Tripura, it is ironic that the cadre-based party, trying to turn the country into one that is ruled by one party in all states and provinces, looks more and more like the Communists it says it despises. And India, the pivot state of Asia, which was seen to be the democratic challenger to the closed Communist Chinese state, becomes nothing more than its poor copy.

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About the author

Omair Ahmad

Omair Ahmad is a journalist with a particular focus on the Himalayan region. His last book was on Bhutan.