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Of men and beasts: Political masculinities

By Philip Vinod Peacock, Ashley Tellis* 

My newsfeed on Facebook and other forms of social media has been flooded with pictures and videos exhibiting Rahul Gandhi’s physical prowess. Swimming in the ocean, his chiselled abs are visible through a black shirt and videos of him doing push ups effortlessly are trending. These images are framed in the larger narrative context of the Congress trying every possible (pathetic) way to make him appear like a worthy rival of Modi. A ‘people’s person’, Gandhi is always photo-oped in the midst of common people, fisherfolk and college students in this present situation.
The intentionality behind constructing a narrative that is as good as if not better than Narendra Modi is more than amply evident. The six pack versus the fifty-six-inch chest, the push ups as opposed to yoga, the ‘people’s person’ as against the monk who reflects in solitude. Yet as both parties attempt to control the political space as well as the larger narrative, it is also clear that both ultimately draw from the same well of masculine tropes, a macho masculinity.
This leads us to consider the larger sphere of politics in India and perhaps even the South Asian subcontinent, encapsulating India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. While we are led to believe that there is an opposition, in the case of India framed as the binary between the BJP and the Congress, this is actually a false proposition. Frankly salvation, humanisation, or even a recognition of human dignity will not come from either.
The spectre that haunts India is an ancient, many-headed beast. Its heads are misogyny, patriarchy, caste, communalism and inequality. This is a beast that has been recently fed on the heady concoction of hypernationalism and crony capitalism and has been made to drink from pools of hatred. It is a fearsome beast made all the more frightening by the fact that the beast is us. There is no way we can separate ourselves from it. We are the beast, and it feeds on us. Even a casual audit of how we treat the poor and dispossessed in this country would reveal our ugly faces, a truly grotesque spectre.
Past regimes have made attempts to cage the beast by various means, yet they have also let loose the beast when it has served their own interests. The riots of 1984 are an example of this, Bhagalpur, Shah Bano, Ayodhya, Kandhamal – the list is endless. When the beast has satiated itself, it lopes back to its cage one more time.
The difference now is that the beast is let loose more often than it is in its cage. It is almost as though the cage has been forgotten, the zoo has turned into a safari and the poor, minorities, indigenous people, Dalits, women and sexual minorities are its prey.
The point is not to cage the beast once more but to forever kill it. But this cannot be done, not least because it means killing ourselves. What might be done, following Freud, is to keep it under control. Freud is often thought of as a writer only on sex but actually he wrote much more, and much more powerfully, on violence, from Mass Psychology (which warned against the impending doom of World War II by analysing the detritus of World War I) to the historical origins of violence in Totem and Taboo. But we have learnt nothing from Freud and stick to banal caricatures of him as a sex-obsessed guru.
Yet sex is at the heart of this kind of political masculinity that both Gandhi and Modi represent. Gandhi is the modern, gym-going, Speedo-wearing gay icon who tries swimming in the ocean to show he is as much a man of nature as Modi with his yoga, peacocks (no pun intended) and desi gay icon appeal.
Both are masculinities based on poisonous notions of the male self. Sexual abnegation (both men are not really married (one is a modern bachelor, the other a semen-retention akhara type); the misogynist abjuring of women (poor Mrs. Modi did not even exist for the longest time and Gandhi, cowed down by his mother and sister, shows no sign of any other woman in his life) and the clever sublimation of sexual energies into vicious forms of politics (Gandhi pretends to be the modern, secular Congress leader but we all know what violence against minorities the Congress is capable of; Modi pretends to be the contemplative guru who kills Muslims purely for fun and destroys any other minorities that come in the way of his ‘development’ plans).
But both these forms of masculinity are also in us, the middle classes of India, and also really in most Indians, across class and caste. They take on certain forms: the sexual governance of women (killing them if they dare marry outside caste or show any sexual expression at all); caste governance (killing Dalits for similar transgressions, mainly done by OBC castes); class rapaciousness (nothing, just nothing, can come in the way of our making money) are just three of these forms.
Till we realise that the beasts are in us, the beasts are us, nothing is going to change.
In the meantime, let’s admit that the radical feminists of the 60s were right: we are a homosexual society. Men only dig each other, they compete only with each other, they want only each other. Let’s remember that while we salivate over Rahul Gandhi’s abs.
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Philip Vinod Peacock is Executive Secretary of Justice and Witness of the WCRC and is based in Hannover, Germany; Ashley Tellis is an LGBH activist based out of Hyderabad

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