Progressive Metaphors and Modern Channels:  What the Left Can Learn from Hindutva Pop Stars

Review of “H-Pop: The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars.” By Kunal Purohit

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Walter Benjamin– The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction

Hindutva Pop

It is no irony that Walter Benjamin met his death while fleeing the Nazis.

His famous tract on the aestheticization of politics suggests that fascism makes use of the artistic both as an opiate and a cudgel.  Scholars like Benjamin posit that the Nazis made the best use of art- from film to painting, from architecture to sculpture- to solidify their political hold on German society via the expression of culture.  Though their reign of terror was short-lived, it fundamentally altered the world, not only with tens of millions of dead but also the creation of fissures that defined – and shape politics even today.  The Nazi also offered something just as deadly as their own hate:  A playbook for mimicry. 

One cannot overstate the power of cultural production in abetting a political agenda.  No society is immune to this, though some are for whatever reasons more amenable to the power of suggestion contained in and purveyed by cultural artifacts.  We learned that from the Nazis, and we continue to live with it. 

Enter India dateline 2024.  A large, once-colonized country evinces a muscular majoritarianism complemented by increasing militarism, violent intolerance of dissent, and a clear path to fascism- with  a historical, cultural, and artistic artifice.  As such, Hindutva is not simply an ideology; it is in fact an all-encompassing cultural and psychic assault on anything that it is not, with the usual suspects prominent in the latter category- Muslims, Leftists, Dalits and Adivasis, and anyone who dares question the logic of the unitary leader and his unforgiving version of his religion.  Hindutva does not “use” cultural expression to pursue its goals, as though culture is something apart from it:  Hindutva and cultural expression have converged into a singularity. They are each other.

Author Kunal Purohit captures this essence in his book “H-Pop:  The Secretive World of Hindutva Pop Stars.”  The author follows the arc of three of these influencers as they spread their messages via social media, physical gatherings, audio recordings, and other technology-enabled means.  In each case, the messages get systematically and progressively more virulent and get amplified by the hundreds of millions of mobile media consumers in the country.  Purohit does a wonderful job in understanding both the “interiors” and the exterior effects of this “media-ization (forgive me)” of politics and while he doesn’t explicitly delve into the theoretical, brings Benjamin’s admonition to bear.  Of note is the importance of the BJP’s “IT Wing” and army of social media trolls who set the agenda with a monomania seen only in extreme regimes. 

H-Pop is an important book for a variety of reasons, not the least of which is to suggest that the remaining secular, progressive forces in India will not win hearts and minds by hyper-intellectualism, parsing of words, or invocation of India’s rich history of struggle, amity, and pluralism.  We should never repudiate the thinkers, freedom strugglers, activists, and everyday heroes of the past, but we must find a demotic metaphor and a channel to reach today’s people today.  Purohit’s book makes it clear that not all of those who cling to the BJP’s narrative and who sing hosannas for Narendra Modi are venomous bigots.  But the zeitgeist of the times, amplified by technologies, make both propaganda and the related fealty much easier.

2024 is an important year.  The efficient machines of cultural creation on the Right won’t be slowing down.  Can we create our own popular culture?  If not, well then, the die are cast.  

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Romi Mahajan

Romi Mahajan is an Author, Marketer, Investor, and Activist

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