Weeks after the Bharatiya Janata Party’s defeat in the Karnataka election, Narendra Modi’s popularity got a booster dose with his trips abroad. He was conferred with the highest civilian honours of Fiji and Papua New Guinea — the latter’s prime minister touched Modi’s feet to welcome him — the president of the United States of America, Joe Biden, reportedly asked him for an autograph, and the Australian prime minister, Anthony Albanese, called him a boss.
The developments were, expectedly, lapped up by the media and the domestic supporters as evidence of how Modi has brought India unprecedented global respect and recognition. This politics of recognition or samman has been crucial to the BJP’s politics since it came to power in 2014. It is also closely linked to its politics of humiliation or apman. In the recently-concluded Karnataka elections, there was the repeated evocation of the feeling of humiliation by the BJP — from Modi stating that the Congress insulted turmeric farmers by mocking him for promoting turmeric as an immunity booster to the BJP calling the Congress’s proposed ban on the Bajrang Dal an insult to Lord Hanuman.
From films to advertisements to statements by political leaders, a sense of apman and an attempt to replace it with pride or samman — be it through a new Parliament building, the G20 summit, or promoting ayurveda and yoga internationally — is a running theme in Hindu nationalist politics. With the Modi government set to complete nine years in power, the national elections approaching next year, and the Hindu nationalist ideology turning 100 years old, this politics of apman and samman needs unpacking.
In a column for The New York Times, the American political commentator, Thomas Friedman, said humiliation “is the most underestimated force in politics and international relations.” The scholars, Alexandra Homolar and Georg Löfflmann, have argued that while populism is associated with a display of toughness and masculinity, humiliation lies at its core. “In the affective universe that populist agents create, humiliation becomes a form of abreaction that reclaims dignity by defiantly celebrating failure,” they write. They argue that the politics of humiliation hinges on the simultaneous evocation of pride and belonging, on the one hand, and loss and alienation, on the other. Further, those involved in the politics of humiliation play a key role in creating and perpetuating the sense of humiliation-inducing crisis which they claim to address. In the Indian context, this explains why the ‘Hindu jaag raha hai’ narrative needs the ‘Hindu khatre mein hai’ narrative to survive. Since humiliation is predicated upon a feeling of self-loathing, the politics of humiliation succeeds by projecting this feeling upon an external entity. Populist leaders often own the insults heaped on them as evidence of their credibility to be the true representative of the humiliated people. That is why from neech to chowkidar, Modi and the BJP do not let any insult from opponents pass and, instead, constantly remind their supporters of them, making an insult to Modi feel like an insult to all Indians.
In the West, the politics of humiliation has been understood as stemming primarily from the crisis of modernity and its failure to fulfil its promise of a good life for everyone. Therefore, the narratives of humiliation are particularly resonant among the white working-class and non-university-educated people.
In India, the lack of dignity, cultural alienation, and an identity crisis that can often result from the soul-crushing gap between the hallucinatory promises of modernisation and its sombre realities have contributed to a deep feeling of humiliation. Not being able to get a job despite a college degree, being mocked for not speaking ‘correct’ English, or becoming faceless as a gig economy worker are sources of humiliation. As the oppressive structures of caste and patriarchy get challenged, as they should be, a sense of humiliation among previously privileged groups also creeps in.
This humiliation also has historical roots. The colonial discourse dismissed Hindu men as effeminate, incapable of defending their families or their country. This characterisation was not only presented as an explanation for why India experienced repeated ‘invasions’ but also as a justification for colonial rule. T.B. Macaulay, for instance, said, “During many ages he [Hindu man] has been trampled upon by men of bolder and more hardy breeds. Courage, independence, veracity, are qualities to which his constitution and his situation is equally unfavorable. [... He] would see his country overrun, His house laid in ashes, his children murdered or dishonoured, without having the spirit to strike one blow.”
The repeated feminisation of Hindu men gave rise to a masculinity crisis among sections of the Hindu population, which Hindu nationalism sought to address through its quest for a more masculinised Hinduism. For instance, in his appeal to Hindu men to save the motherland, M.S. Golwalkar would say: “Let us shake off the present-day emasculating notions and become real living men...” As argued by the scholar, Kate Sullivan de Estrada, the post-colonial, Western liberal discourse on India was simply a friendlier version of the colonial discourse. For instance, as late as in the mid-1950s, a survey of 200 prominent Americans showed that American men saw Indian men as weak, effeminate, and lacking in muscle and vigour.
Therefore, when BJP leaders speak of the humiliation of India in general and of Hindus in particular, they are mobilising something that is present in our intergenerational, postcolonial imagination. Their attempts to portray India as having achieved a place of glory under Modi are often mocked by the liberal elite. However, seen through the lens of the politics of apman, it becomes clear why creating this illusion of samman for Indians in the world is politically rewarding. As argued by Homolar and Löfflmann, the politics of humiliation “has traction because of the emotion-inducing repertoires used to tell a story rather than through any measurable or objective ‘truth’ contained in it.” Similarly, the politics of recognition or samman has traction not because of its objective truth but the emotion it induces. Political psychologists have argued that in politics, as in human life, it is misrecognition — rather than recognition — that is the norm. The promise for samman is then only an illusion, albeit a politically expedient one.
Sanya Dhingra is the author of an upcoming book on the history of ayurveda