For four years in a row, the most Googled person in India has been Sunny Leone. Who? The daughter of Indian
immigrants to Canada, Leone was a successful American porn star before returning to India to launch a movie career in Bollywood where even kissing on screen is taboo. While Prime Minister Narendra Modi might win elections, he loses to Leone in Google searches. In 2014, the year Modi was elected in a landslide that effectively decimated the secular-socialist Congress Party that had dominated the country until then, he was second to Leone. And in 2015 he was a pathetic 10th.
India is a puritanical society and Modi comes from a particularly retrograde brand of Hindutva or Hindu nationalism that wants desperately to stop India's drift toward the over-sexualized West and restore traditional standards of sexual modesty. Hindutva hotheads go around thrashing or forcibly marrying couples just for hanging out on Valentine's Day because romance before marriage, as far as they are concerned, is Western debauchery. Modi's health minister even considers sex education in schools an invitation to licentiousness and wants to replace it with mandatory yoga classes. So the question many ask is: What is Leone doing in Modi's India?
However, to really understand India, the emerging nation, the better question might be: What is Modi doing in Leone's India?
The superficial explanation for the simultaneous rise of Modi and Leone is that India is a "land of contradictions": extreme poverty coexists with extreme wealth; extreme pacifism with extreme violence; extreme veneration of women with extreme disrespect. Hence, Modi, who seems never to have had sex with anyone (he left his wife without consummating his marriage and took a vow of celibacy that his acolytes have played to the hilt with Indian voters), and Leone, who has made a career out of having sex on screen with everyone (men, women, and inanimate objects) are just another one of those Indian dualities. Modi appeals to the chastity-worshipping side of India and Leone the Kama Sutra-practicing side. They are India's yin and yang.
But this explanation misses the tectonic shifts reshaping India's cultural landscape,.
All prudish societies typically have an underside that serves as a safety valve for pent up sexual tensions. But Leone is not merely the cyber equivalent of the red light districts of Victorian England—a taboo that libidinous Indian men secretly enjoy via a computer and an inter-net connection. To be sure, Indian men partake in their share of pornography—and more. (According to Google trends, six of the world's top 10 cities for pornography downloads are in India.) However, Leone's appeal is not limited to them.
Her Indian movies, steamy B-grade blockbusters that push the limits of Bollywood (which itself pushes the limits of Indian prudery), are household favorites. Their song-and-dance routines are played at virtually every Indian wedding. In fact, Leone notes, she is "embraced with open arms" at private Indian events. Even wives and sisters eagerly pose with her for pictures. This is in sharp contrast to the Indian-Canadian community in her hometown of Sarnia, Ontario, which has ostracized Leone.
All of this would be less remarkable if Leone made some attempt to hide her past or at least apologize for it. But she's doesn't. To the contrary, in her debut appearance on India's Bigg Boss, a popular reality-TV show, Leone, in a carefully orchestrated marketing move that would simultaneously inoculate her from her past while adding to her intrigue, told the entire country that she was an "adult film entertainer" in America. What's more, instead of playing victim by making up a sob story about being forced into a tawdry career by economic necessity or family need, she nonchalantly asserted that this was her "choice"—meaning that of all her options for making a living, she chose monetizing her body. "I am good at turning a quarter into a dollar," she says.
Such brazen candor, one would think, would get Leone hounded out of India by Modi's Hindutva comrades—or at least trigger massive public protests. But except for a forlorn obscenity lawsuit or two "for destroying Indian culture," there hasn't been any major organized anti-Leone backlash. The shrillest condemnations, interestingly, have come from the leader of the Communist Party of India against condom ads featuring Leone. He slammed these ads because they would encourage rape (not family planning like the government has been trying to do) by depicting a voluptuous Leone, bursting with desire, whispering how she liked to do it again and again.
One reason why Leone has managed to make inroads into respectable Indian company is her personality: She may be unapologetic about her sexual past, but she is not a rebel trying to shake India out of its primitive sexual notions. She combines her sexuality not with an in-your-face aggressiveness but a sweet vulnerability. She wants to seduce India not show her the middle finger. She is more Marilyn Monroe, less Madonna.
All of that makes Leone easier to take, but the real reason why she has become such a phenom is not her personal charm but her personal story.
India has the world's largest youth population whose urbanized, forward-looking values are producing a quiet clash of internal civilizations with the traditional worldview of their elders. If Bollywood movies such as the latest blockbuster Tamasha are any indication, Indian youth desperately want more personal freedom to control their destiny, live where they want, do the work they enjoy, explore their sexuality, and find their own life partners. But the twin obstacles to these aspirations are India's stultifying conventions and a moribund economy. Leone shows them a way out of the first just as Modi promises them a way out of the second.
What's instructive to the Indian youth about Leone's story is not the choices that she made but that she was able to make them. She was born in a traditional Sikh family that named her Karenjit Kaur Vohra, a plaintive assertion of their roots. Yet she was able to jettison her name and the identity it signified and radically remake herself. Her choices might not be their choices (and one wonders if, for all her bravado, Leone might herself one day grow to regret them given the huge personal price that she will pay in precluding any possibility of a normal family life with kids—not to mention the pain she caused her late parents). But that she could author her own destiny (despite her meager acting talent) expands the realm of what's possible beyond anything that young Indians, still confined by the strictures of caste, class, and convention, could ever imagine.
This is all terribly heady and empowering stuff and it is hardly a coincidence that Leone's ardent defenders in India are not just men—but also women. Indian magazines are replete with articles praising Leone for her business savvy, becoming "financially independent" at a young age. (Predictably, feminists accuse her of contributing to patriarchy's objectification of women. Still, such criticism is far more muted than one would have expected.)
But of course young people realize that their aspirations require a material foundation—the reason they flocked to Modi. It is not his Hindu nationalist side they were drawn to—which is why he shrewdly muted it—but his promise to deliver economic growth and make India another Asian tiger through a sweeping program of liberalization including eliminating red tape, tax reform, and throwing open the door to foreign investment.
Regardless of whether he succeeds or fails—and so far his economic performance has been ho-hum and his revanchist agenda disturbing—Modi and Leone are two sides of the same coin.
To understand aspirational India, Modi has to be viewed through Leone's lens.
A version of this column originally appeared in The Week.