“The Bhagwad Gita has been the sole source of India’s tradition of vaicharik swatantrata and sahishnuta”—freedom of expression and tolerance—Prime Minister Narendra Modi told a packed room of senior Bharatiya Janata Party leaders, at his residence, on 9 March this year. “It has guided our nation since the time of Mahabharata,” he continued, referring to Hindu mythological epic about a war. During this widely televised address, Modi released a collection of 21 new commentaries, published by Dharmarth Trust—a Jammu and Kashmir-based organisation that backs Hindu religious efforts.
Modi took long pauses among his enunciations, and ensured that his language was pock-marked with archaic Sanskrit terms and verbose Hindi. By mid-March, the prime minister was also sporting a flowing white beard, and the entire performance seemed to pull heavily from the depiction of sages that had become a hallmark of Hindi mythological television soap operas. The goal was self-evident. Modi’s image was undergoing a make-over, a volte-face from Modi the economic reformer, and Modi the firebrand nationalist, to one that defined him as a Brahminical philosopher.
A careful viewing of the remainder of the 9 March address, however, shows that this was not simply a philosophical or academic exercise. Modi’s speech often veered sharply into validations of the Atmanirbhar Bharat Abhiyan, or the “self-reliant” India mission. These were couched in references to the Gita and justified on its basis. In a previous essay for The Caravan, I argued that at the core of this policy is an attempt to privatise public resources such as coal and agriculture, and to deregulate banking through changes in the law.