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Friday, October 24, 2014

PICKY WITH HIS SYMBOLS - Modi’s critics must find a new stick to beat him with

By Swapan Dasgupta

In many ways the aftermath of the elections in Maharashtra and Haryana was a case of the dog that didn’t bark. Imagine, for the sake of argument, that the assembly elections in the two states had been held at the beginning of the year, before the general elections. The favourable outcome for the Bharatiya Janata Party would have witnessed a frenetic round of breast-beating. Concerned notables would have been eloquent in expressing their dismay at the communalization of Indian politics and the consequent marginalization of the so-called secular parties. Tears would have been shed over the apparent decimation of the Idea of India. Analysts would, in particular, have been disturbed by the fact that even the internal schisms of the ‘Hindu Right’ hadn’t prevented the Bharatiya Janata Party and the Shiv Sena — both pro-Hindutva parties — from occupying first and second place and securing a combined total of 48.5 per cent of the popular vote in Maharashtra, India’s second largest state after Uttar Pradesh.

Instead, what we witnessed were run-of-the-mill discussions in the TV studios, some quiet gloating of the anti-Narendra-Modi media that an outright majority eluded the BJP in Maharashtra and some genuine anguish over the uninterrupted decline of the Congress. What was significantly missing was the hoary secular-communal discourse that had dominated the airwaves only a few months earlier.

Indeed, even the feeblest attempts to invoke the threats to an earlier secular consensus were punctured by the alacrity with which Sharad Pawar’s Nationalist Congress Party offered unconditional support to the BJP, even before all the results were in. Maybe the offer was akin to an anticipatory bail application, but what was significant was that the apparent communal credentials of the BJP weren’t a deterrent. The secular cause was further muddied when the NCP let it be known that the Congress had mooted a proposal for the erstwhile United Progressive Alliance partners to support a minority Shiv Sena government from the outside.

Conventional alarmist wisdom had deemed that the victory of the BJP in May 2014 and the installation of Modi as prime minister would have a devastating effect on the ‘secular fabric’ of India. Going by this caricatured perception, there would be a thrust towards making India culturally monochromatic. The merchants of fear deemed that there would be a drive towards making Hindi-speaking obligatory and vegetarianism compulsory. By implication it was suggested that all minorities would be under threat and that Muslims would become increasingly beleaguered and hemmed into ghettos.

I am not exaggerating. You just have to read the petitions expressing fears of a Modi rajsigned by worried Guardian and New York Times-reading Indians resident overseas that surfaced just prior to the voting in the general elections to realize that some people had psyched themselves into believing that a Modi sarkar equalled Indian fascism.

It is not that the immediate aftermath of the election didn’t witness any inter-community tension. Western Uttar Pradesh, which is fast becoming a communal tinderbox, witnessed communal riots of middling and low intensity. There was a lot of fuss over alleged love jihad campaigns involving Muslim boys ensnaring Hindu girls into relationships and subsequent conversions to Islam. Some BJP hotheads, looking for shortcuts to popularity, even chose to persuade national leaders into making love jihad the main subject of street politics in Uttar Pradesh. In Gujarat, after more than a decade of peace, Vadodara witnessed Hindu-Muslim clashes during Navratri, courtesy some inflammatory messages circulated over WhatsApp. And, in Srinagar, there was the unseemly sight of a group of habitual protesters flashing the flag of the notorious ISIS of Iraq and Syria.

The most serious incidents that have the potential of creating new and dangerous sectarian complications have occurred in West Bengal. Ostensibly, the bomb factory in Bardhaman that was unearthed after a series of accidental blasts centre on a threat to national security and relations with neighbouring Bangladesh. However, the wilful underplaying of the threat posed by Islamist extremists targeting the Awami League government and the suggestion that Bangladeshi networks were involved in money laundering operations in West Bengal have put the state government in the dock. The belligerent defensiveness of the chief minister, Mamata Banerjee, and her cynical relationship with an extremist fringe have, in effect, contributed to an already growing communal divide in the state. However, the factors that have contributed to the new schisms are located within the state and the wider neighbourhood. There is no suggestion that the Modi government has played a divisive role.

The larger theme that emerges five months after Modi assumed charge in Delhi is that the priorities of both the government and the populace are not on issues of identity. Since becoming prime minister, Modi has undertaken many new and extremely ambitious programmes. The rationale behind the initiatives is the larger economic regeneration of India and improving the quality of life of its people. Whether it is the ‘Make in India’ initiative, the Ganga cleaning programme and the Swachh Bharat crusade, the appeal cuts across regional, caste and religious divides. This is in synch with the BJP’s attempt to create a new support base that is based on aspiration, energy and a negation of old-style vote-bank politics. 

It is true that most of these initiatives still have a long way to go. To that extent, the huge surge in BJP support is based on an endorsement of the direction of governance and leadership style rather than a verdict on performance. Yet, the mere fact that existing political alignments were dramatically altered in an assembly election, where local factors and identity matter far more than they do in Lok Sabha elections, suggest a yearning for what appears to be purposeful governance and clear decision-making.

Those who judged (and still judge) by his inability to prevent the riots in Gujarat assuming horrible proportions believe that communal polarization is at the heart of Modi’s politics. They would attach huge importance, for example, to the prime minister not hosting an iftaar in Race Course, quite forgetting that he didn’t bother with a Diwali party either. Likewise, the fact that Modi didn’t roundly denounce some of the more extreme utterances of Yogi Adityanath, now the presiding swami of the Gorakhnath temple, has attracted unfavourable comment. But this strategic silence was offset by his most public repudiation of communal polarization: his call for a 10-year moratorium on divisive issues in his Independence Day speech from Red Fort.

The truth that many of Modi’s critics have been slow to grasp is that, unlike conventional politicians, the prime minister is very picky with his public symbolism. The usual Amar-Akbar-Antony symbolism preferred by Bollywood has given way to something that is less contrived and, more important, modern. Modi the prime minister has chosen to be markedly different from Modi the indefatigable election campaigner. The style is still evolving and it would be premature to attempt a rigid definition of the new style. All that can be said with a measure of certainty is that Modi is loath to woo India’s religious minorities on the basis of their faith. He will court Aamir Khan for his Swachh Bharat campaign not because he needs a token Muslim face but because the actor’s larger profile fits the role of a promoter of a social cause. Modi may not be a secularist in the same way as Jawaharlal Nehru was, but he is disinclined to practice either tokenism or religious politics.

The deafening silence surrounding the secular-communal divide is among the most positive consequences of last week’s assembly polls. Modi’s critics must find a new stick to beat him with. The old one has been blunted.

The Telegraph, october 24, 2014


Shivangni said...

So right, it quite hilarious to see like of Kumar Ketkar, hartosh Singh, even Barkha giving viled compliments to BJP.
I only heard BBC quoting Shabana Azmi as saying that mobocracy has replaced democracy. That I thought was in a very poor taste especially if you are talking to foreign press. But our local media either did not catch it or thought better of using it. Which is another positive sign

Avinash Dubey said...

Dear Dada,

Happy Diwali !

To be or not to be is a secular crusader’s carte blanche dilemma across the nation. What is more amusing is the way these crusaders trying to browbeat the current incumbents into falling in line. Modi had, has and will always innovate in his efforts to bring in fore the issues touching the lives of common man albeit in a more pragmatic, practical and result oriented manner. West Bengal in all probabilities might have been worked upon by the strategists as you bring this blog out. However, it remains to be seen how this jumbo nexus in this biggest eastern province is handled. It’s both a challenge and an opportunity to clean an arm of this nation.

The coming times are going to be a big surprise for the people “those who judge (and still judge)” the metaphor called Modi.

raviranjan said...

The so-called secular parties and secular heroes like Mani Sankara Ayyar are looking baffled but they cannot accept the fact that their now cliched criticism of BJP and Modi have been rejected by the people.

Anonymous said...

Now why would you sully an otherwise very refreshing article by mentioning Nehru and on top of that re-iterating Nehru's secular credentials!?
A man who established Haj subsidy committee while letting the particular group have private ownership through Waqf boards but frowned upon trust ownerships of Hindu temples is by no means a beacon of secularism.
And thank God Modi is not in the Nehruvian mould of secularism.
This is also one reason the populace put him in charge.

Anonymous said...

The fact is that every body is waiting for "achchhe din" some with hope some with enticipation and some even with cynicism and all includes Modi Bhaktas as well as pseudo-seculars and even to some extent Muslim Fundamentalists- ecomomic well being is the wish of every body! That is why "The deafening silence surrounding the secular-communal divide is among the most positive consequences of last week’s assembly polls. Modi’s critics must find a new stick to beat him with. The old one has been blunted."


There has never been a Prime Minister like Mr Modi.Ever since he took charge,every day we hear of a new idea or initiative emanating from him.During his first few months as the CM of Gujarat,carrying his own tiffin, he spent most of his time in Kutch and created world class infrastructure in record time for the earthquake affected.His decision to visit Siachen on Diwali was out of the box and enhanced the morale of not only those posted in snowbound Siachen at -40 degrees, but our entire armed forces.In their company, he feels proud and inspires them like a real Field Marshal.There is no politician today who can match him and his competence.
Wg Cdr Sharad Chaturvedi (retd)

Nachiketa said...

Nailed it on the head, as usual. Sometimes I think these people are just waiting for something bad to happen, so they can gleefully rub their hands and say, "I told you so".

truth_i_speak said...

This is great article indeed! I am from Maharashtra and pleased to see how communal voices of media....behaving. But if you observed...they had other plan in hand.... invoking regional pride of Marathi against Modi [Gujarati/outsider]. It had worked to some extend in Mumbai/Pune region, prevented bjp to cross 130+. but they failed to created larger impact!

Anonymous said...

quite a fascinating read again from swapan.This is a harsh reality that appeasemant had taked over the so called "idea of india" over the years and people were easily lured into it due to absensce of any credible oppsition.The uprising and elevation of the modi phenomena has certainly uprooted the vitrolic spread of this opportunistic seculirism and will coerce these beleaguarded parties to come forward with a new approach with the caviat that the ever vigilant modi would supress it even before it can see the light of the day.This assembly election and the aftermath of it has certainly brought this secular communal game out in the open and vindicated the grounds modi has stood on.

Anonymous said...


Subha said...

Given congress' history, especially of the 70s and 80s,when deafening silence of the secular-communal kind spells existential crisis for the party, the party men don't think twice about engineering riots.
We can expect more of the Trilokpuri kind in the near future from the party which is being increasingly marginalised by the voters across the country.