By Swapan Dasgupta
Last week, I met a German writer who is studying the Indian general election. During the course of an enjoyable conversation, he expressed his deep unease at the casual way in which his liberal friends in India bandied expressions such as “fascism” and “Holocaust”. Hitler, he explained to me, was one of the most extraordinary aberrations in human history. It was extremely unlikely that such a phenomenon would recur, and certainly not in the 21st century.
Tragically, those who are urging a measure of intellectual restraint are in danger of being overwhelmed by the din created by a small but extremely well-connected minusculity. For them, the India of today is a mirror image of inter-War Europe.
Although he is too nuanced to fall for such claptrap, even my friend historian Ram Guha appears to have caught the bug somewhere. After a walking tour of North Kolkata—the old ‘black town’—a few days before Narendra Modi’s hugely successful rally in the city, he tweeted his appreciation of “Hindu/ Muslim/ Jain/ Christian influences, across the centuries, buried and alive”. The only “jarring note” he detected, “was that there were large photos of The Leader on every post, building, tree and turn, obscuring the stories of the past.”
The choice of the term “The Leader” was revealing. Although Guha doesn’t fall for the Modi equals Hitler slogan (he believes the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate is more akin to Venezuelan leader Hugo Chavez), he fuels the liberal elite argument that the rise of Modi signals a drift towards authoritarian politics.
Curiously, such an argument was used in 1921by Rabindranath Tagore to express his misgivings over the mass adulation of “Gandhi Maharaj.” The poet, an extremely sensitive individual, detected “in the atmosphere of the country…a spirit of persecution, which is not that of armed force, but something still more alarming because it is invisible…What I heard on every side was that reason and culture…must be closured. It was only necessary to cling to an unquestioning obedience. Obedience to whom? To some mantra, some unreasoned creed.” Tagore, needless to say, horribly misread the mood of the country and the appeal of Gandhi. He later made amends by anointing the man from Gujarat the Mahatma.
Nor was Tagore the only one who detected the Mahatma’s contribution to the intellectual truncation of India. In Verdict on India, a now-forgotten book that was enormously influential when it was first published in 1944, the popular British writer and journalist Beverly Nichols saw in Gandhi, Congress and Hinduism the living incarnations of evil. Taunting the “warm-hearted Western liberals” who were bowled over by India’s freedom movement, he asserted that “Congress is the only 100 per cent, full blooded, uncompromising example of undiluted Fascism in the modern world.”
Compare this with a recent article by Professor Martha Nussbaum, a colleague of Wendy Doniger at the University of Chicago in Indian Express. Arguing that Penguin was guilty of “cowardly capitulation” for compromising on an “eminently winnable” case, she went on to claim: “Fear of violence has won; the conglomerate caves before a vague (or perhaps not-so-vague) threat. Such things have, deplorably, happened before. This time, however, there is the prospect that the RSS will soon have the power to suppress all the books it doesn’t like.” Her message is clear and unequivocal: elect Modi and India will enter an era of book bans and persecution of dissenters.
This is a theme that is resonating in the liberal enclaves. Former Governor Gopal Gandhi drove home the point with a uncharacteristic measure of intemperate rhetorical flourish in an article on the Doniger kerfuffle: “(C)ommunal rhetoric has turned ‘positive’—forget all the others, they do not count. India is Hindu, we are Hindu, we are India. And now we have a leader of leaders who is what we are: Hindu, Hindu Indian…To the jargon of ‘Bharat Mata in danger’ is now added a fatherland vocabulary, where a leader is being fantasized in the shape of all that Nehru was not, his Congress successors have not, and never can be.”
I do not begrudge either Nussbaum or Gopal Gandhi their political preference. I cannot but sympathise with their horrible disappointment that the alternative leader with a five-day stubble whose face stares at us from billboards is increasingly becoming an object of mockery. However, it is extremely galling that through their espousal of Enlightenment values they are trying to forcibly inject into an election campaign issues that Modi has ignored. A man who is forever going on about how development unites, how tourism brings people together and how connectivity enhances national unity is being charged with imaginary offences.
The problem, it seems to me, stems from wilful misreading. When Modi was catapulted to the national stage, his detractors gleefully expected him to raise the communal temperature, engage in Muslim-bashing and threaten Pakistan with nuclear annihilation. He has let down the critics who came with a pre-determined script aimed at scaring minorities. Modi has not deviated from his central theme: that India has not lived up to its potential and that the future lies in economic development for every Indian. He has not lived up to the liberal caricature of what he represents.
For an entrenched elite accustomed to defining what is ‘respectable’, Modi is a threat because he is not from their charmed circle. Modi’s intellectual critics don’t fear for India’s democracy because it is democracy that has heralded a viable non-dynastic alternative; they fear their own irrelevance.