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All resemblances are not coincidental

The eerie similarity between Sanjay Gandhi and Narendra Modi’s visions of order

Written by Shiv Visvanathan |
March 19, 2009 12:49:15 am

Violence has always mystified me. It seems utterly inventive and yet on reflection one sees patterns,connections that one didn’t see at first. Consider the politics of violence and how it unites Congress and BJP. At first sight,the idea seems a bit ludicrous. But consider two leaders as exemplars and paradigms of violence. For the Congress,violence as excess was represented by Sanjay Gandhi. Sanjay represents the deinstitutionalised style so prevalent today. He represents the tiredness with politics,the hostility and indifference to the poor that marks our development. He represents the sense of our city as a visual spectacle that is intolerant of the anarchy of the informal economy. Sanjay represented the inventiveness of evil banalised through management and development. His vision of the city encompassed the small car we call the Maruti today. Evil in fact always creates a populist set of semi-private goods. Hitler after all created the first vision of the Volkswagen and people forget that Fanta was a drink manufactured in the Nazi era. Hitler also created the people’s radio. The technological artifact always provided the gloss for evil,which people mistook as progress. Once one accepted the idea of progress,development,they soon became legitimations for violence. All the violence of the Emergency took place in the name of development,planning and progress. Every tyrant had his willing executioners.  

The reader might wonder whether this long prelude on an almost forgotten politician is excessive. What I would like to argue is that Sanjay lives with us mutated as Narendra Modi. Let me outline this comparison. Both attempted to create a notion of politics around a model of ideal citizenship. Both directed violence against those reluctant to adhere to this model of citizenship. For Sanjay,it was the poor; for Modi,the Muslims. Both used violence as plan,or riots as real estate operation to cleanse the city. Both were great advocates of privatisation. In fact,what Sanjay began was a task that Modi completed. In the politics of mirroring,the Nano completes what his primitive idea of Maruti began.  The SEZ as empty of history,politics,offering only technology was a vision both adhered to. 

There was a frugal Arya Samaji style to both,an ersatz asceticism,a toughness parading as urgency. Both are contemptuous of politics as a slow decision-making process. Sanjay Gandhi created politics as speeded-up time and this vision found its most efficient disciple in Modi. Both had a contempt for party politics. Sanjay operated through supine cronyism,Modi operates through a spineless bureaucracy. Both were subjects of commissions of enquiry — Sanjay,a subject of the Shah Commission,Modi the alleged case study of the Nanavati Commission. Even the integrity of Justice Shah didn’t prevent the report from going the way of the Nanavati Commission. In fact,in the twinning of the two one sees not just similarity and continuity,but the real thread of Indian politics. 

If one reads them without blinders,one realises they are two chapters in the history of liberalisation and globalisation. Sanjay inaugurated the privatisation of the state to which Modi added the corporatisation of the state. For both,concepts and ideology were secondary,mere footnotes to the logic of power. Modi is just a later version of Sanjay,a leader with a PRO. Both knew how to cater to middle class vulnerabilities. In Sanjay’s time order came when trains ran on time and clerks reached office before time. For Modi,the disciplined body of the middle class now reacted to words like security and toughness. Both realised that evil,fascism,tyranny becomes possible if one can play on the insecurities of the middle class.

Both saw themselves as crime fighters. Without smashing the Muslims gangs which ran crime in Gujarat,the 2002 riots would not have been so easy. Sanjay as crime fighter suppressed petty crime and small dissent to create a picture of order. As wizards of planned violence,they know how to make the victim guilty and argue that violence was necessary or historically inevitable. In Indian politics,the poor and the Muslim always invite violence on themselves by being refractory to progress or the modernising rituals of citizenship. For both,citizenship isn’t a right but a mode of discipline. Only a “disciplined” citizen has access to rights. 

There is another similarity that few bother to think about today. Both Sanjay and Modi had visions of the great city. Sanjay did it in terms of the discourses of the day which emphasised beautification and urban cleansing. Modi creates the futuristic city around privatised ports,science cities,the SEZ. Both used violence to create futuristic spaces emptied of dissent,ethnicity,and unionism. Sanjay’s vision of Delhi was still one of demolition,Modi’s vision of the city,an antidote to the anarchy of Ahmedabad,will be a revitalised Gandhinagar built on Chinese lines,a scale of urbanism which is futuristic,hitherto unimagined in India. 

Both were open to technology,science,innovation. Both saw these as substitutes for politics and democracy. Yet one must realise that Sanjay is a period piece next to Modi. Sanjay Gandhi was still an unwilling relic of the socialist period,where the information revolution was a distant speck. He anticipated globalisation but Modi enacted out its possibilities using the diaspora as a mirror of legitimation. One often asks why the Congress in Gujarat is silent about riot victims or development? Why is there a sense of the twining of these parties,both built around the middle class as an abstract imagination? In an unconscious sense,these politicians understand the secret siblinghood of Modi and Sanjay — the twinning of their political unconscious. They are two parts of a political script whose logic operates independent of ideology or institutions. These men are two exemplars,two narratives in the logic of politics as populist tyranny. The power of politics today lies in the fact that as BJP and Congress confront each other,the Sanjay in one recognises the Modi in the other. 

The writer is an Ahmedabad-based social scientist

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