DOES THE FRINGE set the aesthetics of power—or of the anxieties of powerlessness? Has the street theatre of vulgarism become more than a diversion from the larger national performances? Has the noise from the margins come to make the message from the lofty heights inaudible? Is the conversation being replaced by the commandments of madmen? The din does not convey the change we have chosen; it does not generate worthy rejoinders either. Caught between the culturally rearmed and the permanently offended, politics is a clash of pathologies. Don’t dismiss it as a freakshow from the periphery.
It involves the change some of us are celebrating, some of us are struggling to cope with, and some of us are hating having to live with. And then, that is the story nations can’t escape when the transition from discredited certainties of the past to an unsettling present tests our idea of the nation itself. India is at that point on its journey as a nation. And it is still swayed by the question Who Are We?—or Who Should We Be? Identity has not ceased to be an argument.
In the argument that dominates, and makes some angry and alienated, India’s national character has a pronounced religious adjective. It should have been a natural process, more organic than orchestrated; it should have happened without tutorials from the political class. In the West, Christendom may not be the word that will pass the culture test of wokedom, but the religious content of its identities or civilisational literature is hardly a dispute, and if it is, it’s too arcane to get much traction. It should not have been a different story here.
India is one of those countries where the natural impulses of religion have started restructuring the political text very late, after overcoming the indoctrination of its formative years. The project of nation-building had abhorred the temptations of religion, the primordial corrosive of national character. Official sanctimonies on secularism had restrained religion as a personal affair, and it was a fallacy bound to unravel, for the personal, or the private, is what refines one’s public choices.
The political transition of 2014 set the momentum for a cultural shift, and the Nation Regained had become the motif of the new India. Its religious content is what stirs politics today, and on the fringes, it has become a kitschy exhibition of strength. The sense of cultural entitlement animates the raw edge of the base, and it makes ‘my god versus your god’ a competition in bad taste. It’s where caricaturing passes off as scholarship.
It goes against the very nature of their faith, which is incompatible with cultural paranoia. Identity is aggression only when the political and the religious are one, when the god is an invocation of fear, and when the enemy is an existential necessity. That is why the Caliphate is still an imperium of Islam’s delirious minds, and the struggle for it is built on the rite of blood.
And that is why the slogans of beheading in Hyderabad were pure horror. Even though the punished was an effigy, the very act as a public performance, mostly by teenagers, tells a story India can live without. The politically shared sentiment behind the horrifying slogans has brought a slice of the Islamic State to the streets of Hyderabad.
For the effigy-slayers and their spiritual guides, the political is purely religious, and the multiplicity of enemies alone keeps their struggle alive. Their struggle is made easier by the rightwing fringe. It has supplied wilful enemies.
Its rage can diminish the change India is experiencing in its political as well as cultural life, and by showing the same paranoia that characterises the effigy-slayers of Hyderabad, it diminishes the religious content of the change too. The fringe can mar the mainstream, and eventually, the one who personifies the change. What he has achieved in eight years as the redeemer of an India steeped in a million cultural inhibitions is irreversible. He is still larger than the system his personality alone sustains; and the dignity he imparts is not matched by those who thrive in his sheltering shadow. The politics of empowerment played out by the fringe provides the dissonance in his telling of the Indian story.
The rage of the lumpen, even Marxists who own the term will tell us, is inevitable in the power struggle of the classes. Marxists may have lost the classes, but lumpenisation is one jargon that refuses to fade away, maybe because the struggle goes on even after the demise of ideologies. In India, lumpens seem to have come to the defence of gods who have never required warriors. Mortals are the losers in the struggle.