January 16, 2016

India: Questions on the Technologies of Fascism: Making the ‘Modi Effect’ (Santhosh S)

Economic and Political Weekly, Vol. 51, Issue No. 3, 16 Jan, 2016

Questions on the Technologies of Fascism: Making the ‘Modi Effect’

Santhosh S (santhoshs[at]aud.ac.in) teaches at the School of Culture and Creative Expressions, Ambedkar University, Delhi.

The phenomenal rise to power of Narendra Modi illustrates how his image—mediated by technology—was shaped and reshaped. Some facets of Modi’s fashioned persona are scrutinised in the article. The internet, particularly the social media, which was expected to revitalise the public sphere to bring about a new civic culture, has instead allowed for the selective return of the “written word” in support of fascist ideology. The cyberspace, along with the mass media, has enabled the coming together of many virtual “participants” to hurl masculinist abuse and silence their opponents.

Since the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, political and social scientists, in general, have struggled to enumerate and explain the multiple factors that distinguish the present government led by Narendra Modi from any of the preceding ones. This article takes as its object of enquiry the primacy of technology and visuality in the maintenance of this regime of power. This involves undertaking a critical scrutiny of the construction of the iconic image of Narendra Modi, exploring its functional efficacy by means of setting it up in a mimetic relation with other images, analysing the role of oratory masculinity and the technological mediation behind the production of the cultic figure, and lastly, engaging with the role of social media in the production of an (enforced) consensus.

Technologies of Visuality

Historically, we know that technologies of visuality have contributed to the production of, what the influential British cultural theorist Paul Gilroy (2004: 147) termed, “the glamour of fascism.” The attractiveness of fascism, Gilroy noted, was not reversed with the defeat of Hitler’s Nazism and their allies. On the contrary, he observed, “[t]races of the Nazis are omnipresent, and fleeting images of them supply flimsy moral markers in a harsh world that often appears to be devoid of political ethics” (Gilroy 2004: 147). It is keeping this broader relationship between technology, visuality, and fascism in mind that I begin with what has been a useful entry point for many analysts—the specific characteristics of the 2014 Lok Sabha elections campaign. As has been widely acknowledged, it was one of the most intensely televised elections in Indian political history. It also marked the crucial role played by social media in the consolidation of opinions in favour of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its allies (collectively the National Democratic Alliance or NDA). Excessive media coverage of stories of ethical degradation (of politics and governance) in the form of exposing large-scale corruption scams and the branding of “political classes” in general as “morally degenerate” during the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime contributed significantly to the emergence of Modi as a decisive figure in the national political scape. This moral lacuna in turn paved the way for the resurgence of neo-fascism through the plank of developmentalism and decisionism (Pandian 2004).

Visual Regime of Fascism

Against this backdrop, it becomes critical to analyse various strategies that have been used for the construction of the iconic image of Modi (with their selective associations and dissociations with other images and signs). The analysis that follows can be thought of as an attempt at tracing the technologies of visuality that operate in/through the politics of fascism. In order to unfold this story, we have to locate the construction of the image of Modi through the evocation of him as: (i) “supernaturally capable” and (ii) a highly disciplined ruler with a very distinctive fashion sensibility.

We know that fascism represents a specific form of brutal power “constituted with a heavy, transgressive and erotic charge” (Gilroy 2004: 147). This, in other words, indicates the affective dimension of political life. But this construction in the case of Modi has not been an easy task, given his alleged involvement in orchestrating the genocide against the Muslim community in Gujarat in 2002, which would have to be partially buried in order to cultivate his after/alter-image. The latter was to some extent achieved, as was evident when, even the many “liberal-minded” public figures and voters who supported Modi in the 2014 elections argued that despite his controversial past, Modi was keen to distance himself from past “accusations” as well as the “fanatic” elements within his party or his larger parivar.

However, a close scrutiny shows a much more complex picture. Surely, there has been a concerted effort to distance his image from past deeds. But this should not be misunderstood as the making of a new-image. In fact, I argue, the new icon has also been produced through the refashioning of the past (or by retaining the evocative potential of it) rather than distancing from it. This strategy of double-bind is crucial in the efficacy of the iconic image of Modi which catered both to an existing mass base, as well as a new constituency of potential followers who were seduced into the dream world of developmentalism and decisionism.

Twinning Effect

Let us look at the image of Modi and his “close-aide” and current BJP President, Amit Shah. The latter’s proximity to Modi is generally understood as a marker of parochial loyalty and the personal bond that both have shared over a long period of time. More than these obvious narratives, the fact that when taken together, they are perceived as a compact political powerhouse, is a result of their images being carefully crafted—one that is based on the power of the interrelationship between mimesis and alterity.

Semiotically, I would argue, Shah represents the past-Modi in present and future tense. As mentioned before, what Modi retains from the past within his present image is a distant alter-image, but also a distinctive resemblance. In that sense, one may observe that Modi is more true to himself in the image of Shah. And anything that the new image of Modi is unable to utter is now performed through the “non-crafted” image of Shah (and many others).1 Further, like the signature Modi masks which are a stand-in for him among his followers, the new image of Modi is itself constructed through the masking of immediate/affective history. And the experiential lacuna created by this masking is filled with the evocation of the history of a golden past. For instance, the recent invocation of the grand wisdom of ancient India (from aeroplane to plastic surgery) by both Modi and his cabinet colleagues illustrates on the one hand the larger cultural agenda of the Parivar. However, on the other hand, these attempts can also be understood as clever deployments in order to alienate oneself from the immediate/contemporary history. The liberal belief is that these selective invocations of the past exemplify the irrational attitude/side of the ideology of the Parivar. Instead, one might read them as extremely rational deployments, wherein it is precisely the functional ignorance and unverifiability of these claims that constitute their strength.

It is in this sense that Shah is the reminder of the possibilities of the revisitation of the “brutal past” in the present and the future. Not only this, he is also an assurance to the core constituency of the foot soldiers that the “real” Modi can return to his “original” self. This deployment of the pair of Modi–Shah image is a clever mechanism based on the power of mimesis. Mimesis is not used here to denote “imitation” but is understood more in terms of a “living family of concepts” (similar to Wittgenstein’s definition of “family resemblance”). The mimetic faculty carries out its suturing of these images whereby the copy is granted the character and power of the original; and representation, the power of the represented, and vice versa (Taussig 1993).

Misogyny and the Mother

Similarly, it is important to analyse some of the ways through which Modi maintains his cultic image of the “virile” man without completely exposing his misogynistic traits. There is no dearth of instances to illustrate the latter. For example, there is the case of his estranged wife, his alleged role in spying on a woman (à la Snoopgate), and many more which are widely described as proof of his gender trust deficit. In 2015, Modi caused outrage when he praised Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina’s tough stance on terrorism as a significant achievement of hers, “despite being a woman.” Such slippages or traits are, I argue, ably concealed through the production of images of a strong and demonstrative attachment to his mother.

We know that the mother as a metaphor has long lineages within all forms of nationalistic politics in India. The evocation of “Mother India” and the construction of images of “Bharat Mata” during the freedom struggle were central in mobilising people against the colonisers. The appropriation of the image of Bharat Mata to date in different forms by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and its allied organisations also need to be noted here. These genealogies are central in examining the implication of Modi’s evocation of this metaphor (immediately following the 2014 elections) through the declaration of his party (BJP) as the mother, and his duty to serve the party-mother, thereby, also Bharat Mata. This illustrates the currency of this image and the symbolic potential it had accumulated in the social psyche. Interestingly, from the beginning itself (for instance, Abanindranath Tagore’s painting of Bharat Mata), the image of the mother-nation has been represented largely through the desexualised figurine of a chaste woman. And Modi, as we can see, has capitalised on the symbolic potential of the image of this “mother-figurine” by evoking a detached attachment towards his own aged mother.

Tech and ‘Oratory Masculinity’

We can also see that Modi’s political capital itself heavily depends on his “oratory masculinity” (at least in the Gujarati and Hindi linguistic spheres). His progression from regional to a “national leader” coincided with the reduction of print culture as a source of connectedness, and the subsequent revaluation of speech as a medium for the acquisition of common consciousness. If we look at the way in which Modi emerged as the satrap of Gujarati asmita (pride), it was the speeches and rallies that took precedence over the power of the written word from the very beginning. And in these heavily orchestrated events, the body and personality of him have not been the only focal point. Rather, the theatricality of these political events produces a sensory-scape where ordinary viewers both discover and dissolve themselves in the rapturous, ecstatic unity of the many.

It is critical to bear in mind the affective dimensions of these contemporary political programmes and processes. In this regard, we need to take into account at the least three forms of the production of sensory or affective unity through technological mediation—radio unity, television unity, and cyber unity. Historically, “radio unity”2 was fundamental to Hitler’s initial emergence as the leader/author of a “single audience.” The underlying idea of this initiative was that hearing as a sense could not be as easily shut down or closed off.3 It may not be mere historical coincidence that one of the earliest and significant moves initiated by the office of the Prime Minister was to begin the radio programme Mann ki Baat in October 2014 where Modi addresses his subjects in “homogenous time.”

Similarly, film or television has also produced new ways of establishing the all-powerful leadership in novel ways. Initially, contrary to his public address at mass rallies, Modi’s performance in the television studio spaces had been far from impressive.4 However, his election managers surpassed this insufficiency by means of a “media-coup.” In the words of senior television journalist Sandeep Bhushan, “[a]s reporters took a backseat, it was anchors all the way as studio shows with familiar faces migrated to the Ganga Ghat in Patna and the Dashashwamedha Ghat in Varanasi, among other places” (2014). Even after being elected Prime Minister of India, Modi’s official speeches at various venues (mostly on foreign soil) have repeatedly come under severe ridicule by his opponents. And unlike his public speeches where he displayed his oratory masculinity, he seemed to have lost his “fluency” (mostly in English) in the official speeches. But we will note that in each of these instances, he has attempted to retrieve his oratory masculinity by addressing public rallies organised under various banners.5

Stylistic Dimension of Fascism

The 2014 elections and the role of the media in ensuring Modi’s victory also illustrate the fact that in our so-called “post-ideological era,” it is almost impossible to distinguish between politics and style. Gilroy (2004: 148–49) has prophetically observed that

fascist political culture remains somehow still pending, partly because of a continuing stylistic appeal...affiliations to it have to be approached as rewarding and pleasurable experiences for adherents, devotees, and, more recently, mimics.

This means that the difficult task of analysing the pleasure and passion of fascism cannot be accomplished unless we focus on the important technological innovations in the field of visual culture. These were central to the rise of fascist movements and still help us to define the nature of their particular allure. And it is crucial for us to analyse the importance of the rise of digitally mediated information technologies and their claims of democratising knowledge dissemination.

For instance, in his clever critique and exposition of the fascist modernisms of Ernst Jünger and Leni Riefenstahl, literary scholar Russell A Berman identifies elements of a distinctive approach to aesthetics in their work. In particular, he describes their common commitment to a “displacement of verbal by visual representation” in which “the power of the image renders scripture obsolete” (Gilroy 2004: 155–56). Berman suggests that this feature is one of the most important keys to what is specific in the way that fascism addresses its celebrants—turning spectators into participants. With the rise of social media websites, a new sensorial experience is produced and heightened by the spectral unity of the aural, visual and the written. It is not to argue that there is an equilibrium of the senses in this form of unity. On the contrary, like many scholars have noted, the distinctive qualities of fascist political style, particularly its enthusiastic and strategic employment of communicative technologies and cultures, has long been associated with the enhanced power of visuality. My suggestion is that the so-called social media exemplifies the apotheosis of this visuality.

Social media works effectively through “free” access to various kinds of information and the wider distribution of visuals in multiple formats. It produces the impression that the users have more control of the information they access, than in other forms of dissemination like print, radio or television. This particular aspect of a sense of ownership and the multiple-sensory experience of partaking in world affairs in real time (thereby virtually transgressing the boundaries of time and space) along with a sense of anonymity, makes social media one of the most powerful political tools today.

From the 1990s onwards, writers in the West have believed that networked computing would revitalise the public sphere and bring about a new civic culture. And even though the cyber public sphere is not devoid of the various constraints which afflict the bourgeois public sphere (such as conversational constraints, lack of parity in participation, etc), by virtue of the possibility of being a “virtual participant,” it has managed to convey a sense of participation, thereby creating the impression of the transgression of these constraints. In this indistinguishability of the real and/as virtual, most of the foot soldiers of Modi in social media platforms in particular, and in the cyberspace at large, experience a sense of empowerment and togetherness by the sharing of masculinist abuses against their opponents. This in turn establishes a cyber/virtual unity through what is in fact a form of “functional illiteracy.” And following this, one can argue that along with its democratic potential, cyberspace has also allowed for a selective return of the “written word” in the service of the fascist ideology.


1 Even though Shah is the quintessential figure of this semiosis, what one generally terms the “fringe” groups and individuals associated with the Sangh Parivar (such as the Sri Ram Sena, Mahesh Sharma, Uma Bharti, Pravin Togadia, etc) also contribute to the efficacy of this process. This is one of the major reasons behind Modi’s silence on the activities of these fringe elements. For instance, in the recently concluded American tour in September 2015, Modi proclaimed non-violence as the greatest religion. He however has refused to condemn or publicly distance himself from the violence unleashed by various Hindu extremist groups, like in the case of the murder of M M Kalaburgi (former Karnataka University Vice Chancellor), and the brutal lynching and killing of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri by a Hindu mob alleging that his family had consumed beef.

2 I draw upon the idea of radio unity from Gilroy who discusses it in the context of fascism. For more, see Gilroy (2004: 159).

3 The famous speech of Charlie Chaplin, transmitted through the public radio in his legendary movie The Great Dictator (1940) is a classic instance of a sort of countermove against this “radio unity” envisaged by Hitler.

4 The most well-known example was his infamous walkout within 5 minutes from Karan Thapar’s interview-based programme The Devil’s Advocate on the English news channel CNN-IBN, aired on 20 October 2007.

5 In most of his visits to the developed world, apart from official meetings and speeches, Modi has always addressed the widely attended public meetings organised by his NRI supporters in “fluent” Hindi. His speech at the Madison Square Garden in New York on 28 September 2014 is one such well-known instance.


Bhushan, Sandeep (2014): “How the Television News Industry Scripted the Indian Elections,” Caravan, 15 May, http://www.caravanmagazine.in/vantage/television-scripted, viewed on 16 October 2015.

Gilroy, Paul (2004): Between Camps: Nation, Cultures and the Allure of Race, London and New York: Routledge.

Jha, Prashant (2013): “Reporter Claims Modi’s ‘15,000’ Rescue Figure Came from BJP Itself,” Hindu, 28 June, http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/reporter-claims-modis-15000-rescue..., viewed on 16 October 2015.

Pandian, M S S (2004): “‘Decisionism’ and the Cult of Narendra Modi,” Economic & Political Weekly, Vol 39, No 25.

Soondas, Anand (2013): “Narendra Modi Lands in Uttarakhand, Flies Out with 15,000 Gujaratis,” Economic Times, 23 June, http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/politics-and-nation/narendra-mo..., viewed on 16 October 2015.

Taussig, Michael (1993): Mimesis and Alterity: A Particular History of the Senses, New York and London: Routledge.

Telegraph (2007): “Quizzed on Riots, Modi Walks Out,” 21 October, http://www.telegraphindia.com/1071021/asp/nation/story_8458254.asp, viewed on 16 October 2015.
- See more at: http://www.epw.in/journal/2016/3/commentary/questions-technologies-fascism.html