Reading the “writing on the wall” with the “back to the wall”: Three responses to Modi evaluated

By Umang Kumar,

It seems that Narendra Modi’s election bid as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate and some indications that the NDA might be a major player in the 2014 elections have caused considerable confusion and bewilderment, especially among some of the so-called opinion makers. The three responses considered here seem hasty efforts at second-guessing future scenarios of a Modi-rule, and offering the readers mellow, benign and one could argue, even misleading conclusions.

Poster Courtesy: Harsh Kapoor
Poster Courtesy: Harsh Kapoor

Consider first Outlook magazine editor Vinod Mehta’s piece of Mar 19 titled “Should we give Narendra Modi a chance.” Mehta begins by offering a disclaimer that he is, perforce, “read[ing] the writing on the wall.” This in addition to his prefacing his piece with the “I write this piece with trepidation” bit, seems to be his way of thinking out loud in the hope of allaying his own worries, of clearing his throat before making the difficult argument.

For him, the “what-if” scenario of Narendra Modi as the country’s PM is pretty much the “writing on the wall,” staring at him (and he seems to assume the country) with inevitability-  it is a done deal.

This seems like a jittery, nervous anticipation of a supposed inevitability, of the kind you see in comedies accompanied by biting of the fingernails and sheepish laughter.

This inevitability causes Mehta to make a couple of moves in the heroic effort to come off as merely responding to the times or reading writing on walls as a matter of course.

The first move is linguistic and semantic – it has do with the choice of his words to soften the enormity of the realization he has arrived at and he is about to share – in pursuit of a duty to forewarn and prepare those he considers are still not reading the writing on the wall.

He wonders aloud, as announced in the title of his piece whether we should “give Modi a chance.” This seems to be an innocent, harmless – almost casual and congenial – opening move, especially if you can imagine the following Hindi dialog he might be hinting towards: “Ek chance de den Modi ko?” Is he really not aware of the import and weight of the word “chance” in this case? Is prime-minister-ship some sort of temp job with a 30-day probation-period to which you can give people “chances?” Does he not foresee the consequences that attach to such a vouchsafing of a “chance?”

Mehta defines this “we” he is in dialog with about giving Modi a chance: “Narendra Modi’s detractors, among whom I count myself,” he tells us helpfully. But, are the survivors of the Gujarat 2002 violence “detractors?” Their kin? Is he including many more like them who probably might have more visceral reactions to Mehta’s proposal than merely seeming to be “detractors”?

Similarly, his characterization as “misgivings” of what might otherwise be identified as  “strong apprehension,” “objection,” or even downright “opposition”  to the idea of  Modi in a premier spot in the country is a finely crafted move to attenuate what Modi might really represent in the minds of many people.

Mehta also seems to discern a “request” from Modi in his electoral bid – “So, what should we do with Modi’s request?” he asks towards the end. This again seems to be a naïve formulation – do Indian politicians (or politicians anywhere) really make requests to people to elect them? Their “request,” as embodied/represented by the gesture of going about with folded hands during elections is universally mocked in India. Or to hear it put more graphically, as a survivor of urban displacement told me in Ahmedabad, “Election ke time main to voh log keechad main bhi chale aate hain haath jode hue.”

This is not your average, humble, polite request – in many ways it is only a ritual act, a stand-in for a declamation of a move towards power – we are merely pesky, possibly unavoidable impediments they have to take cognizance of once in five years. Doesn’t Mehta see the massive cavalcade of grand claims, grander promises, rhetoric, denouncements – and of course money-power that is hovering behind each such instance of a request?

Mehta’s second move is in his laying out and then dealing with the same “misgivings,” all on his terms. His list of the misgivings, the first of which is about Modi being a polarizing figure and the possibility of him turning India into a totalitarian state, among other such speculation, is almost a sterile effort in enumeration – Mehta is not trying to evoke any impending cause of concern, it seems, but just listing being “polarizing” as a quirk of Modi’s.

The second “misgiving” he lists – mark, second –  that of  Modi’s “perception amongst and threat to the minorities,” is immediately followed by a “flip side” argument to it – as if to shush that “misgiving” by his words that follow. Lets look at it this way, Mehta seems to say – it isn’t all doom and gloom as it is made out to be; Modi has not overtly played the Hindutva card during this campaign, or in his words,  “Ever since he was declared PM-designate, Modi has been treading with caution, avoiding baiting Muslims or Pakistan. Instead, he has stuck to his jobs/development theme, resisting even in places like Ayodhya and Varanasi, the communal card.”

And so Modi’s running a very careful campaign, where, according to Mehta, Modi has not played the communal card, should be evidence to assure the minorities – and everyone else – that somehow Modi is no longer – and no longer likely – to be a threat to minorities (forget for a moment the fact that Mehta’s publication itself has run reports how the RSS is putting its might behind Modi’s campaign, as some kind of do-or-die effort).

Mehta’s assertion that Modi has not overtly played the communal card even in, say, Varanasi surely stems from a refusal to see the context of each such appearance of his. “Main Somnath ki dharti se aaya hoon (I have come from the land of Somnath),” he says at the beginning of his Varanasi address (the Vijay Shankhnaad rally, while an image of Shiva looks on from the backdrop). Shall we assume no political and historical valence to the Somnath reference and framing? Take another instance – in his address in Guwahati he refers to Assam as “Ma Kamakhya ki dharti  (The abode of Mother/goddess Kamakhya)” And this has been his exhortation to vote on his party’s election symbol: “Kamal to Lakshmi ji ka aasan hai…(The lotus is goddess Lakshmi’s seat).

Various arguments can be made as to what constitutes communal language and references and why references to religious symbols need not be infallible indicators of anyone’s views on secularism. Yet, conscious choices of language and symbols cannot be ignored especially where the memories of a well-orchestrated riot are still fresh, where not too long ago the BJP used rath yatras and mandir-masjid as their vocabulary to articulate their positions and views.

What could compel this sort of an intellectual capitulation, veiled as a facing up to an “inevitability” and a coming-to-terms with “reality?” How, when several articles show that true justice has not been done in Gujarat, should one suddenly erase the foundational issues of communalism that Modi and his administration stands accused of? How else does one read even the stray references mentioned above? By giving all of them a wide berth? By standing back in a sort of stupefied admiration by giving Modi and his team back-handed compliments, as Ashutosh Varshney seems compelled to do in his piece in the Indian Express of Mar 27, “Modi the Moderate.”

Varshney too seems utterly baffled by Modi’s good behavior and inexplicable overtures to Muslims and his nod to caste-politics (the Ezhavas in Kerala, for instance). He wonders if these are “ideological departures” and if Modi has undergone an “ideological transformation.” How could Varshney have been so knocked over by Modi’s rhetoric when the average Indian voter knows how politicians change colors come election time? And in the case of Modi, one cannot ignore the great amount of PR effort that has gone into making or redoing his image by hiring professional firms. So should one be so quick to ascribe a change of heart to him – and the parivar behind him?

Varshney concedes towards the end of his piece that, “It [campaigning] pushes politicians away from ideological purity, heading them towards strategies aimed at the largest possible coalitions.” However, the “absence of” and “presence of” references in Modi’s campaigning that seemed to have provoked Varshney’s curiosity – an absence of harping on Hindutva, the presence of overt reaching out to caste-politics, the presence of the support for Haj subsidy, for instance – do not necessarily mean a deviation from ideological purity.

Not just relying on Ram Madhav’s follow-up on Varshney – “Savarkar had always maintained that he didn’t differentiate between Hindus and Muslims,” and  “All his life, Savarkar fought against caste-based inequalities and untouchability” – one can equally argue that not having harped on, say, Hindu nationalism does not mean that he has given up on it. In face he is supposed to have identified himself as a Hindu nationalist not that far back in a July 2013 interview to Reuters. But that is a simplistic reading of his response and not a clinching argument by any measure.

What is to be contested is the “absence of” category of Hindu nationalism that seems to unsettle Varshney. Not mentioning of “Hindu rashtra” is not equivalent to a denunciation or a jettisoning of that idea. If he were ideologically transformed is there an affirmation of the idea of a plural, diverse Indian nation in his utterances that we can draw solace from? And as to Modi’s reaching out to the backward castes and Dalits, should we not look at his government’s record with regard to Dalits as recorded by various activists of Gujarat, including Dalits themselves?  Also, let us remember that Gujarat, which is one of the states which has an anti-conversion law, employed it to probe the conversion of Dalits to Buddhism in Gujarat last year. Did Modi make a statement supporting the religious choice of the Dalits then?

Yet another attempt to grapple with this “reality” ends up placing predictable trust in “India’s democratic institutions” instead of carefully analyzing what such a reality can entail.  Ramchandra Guha in his article in the Telegraph of 22 March 2014, “The fear of fascism – India’s democratic institutions are too strong to let the fascists win,” momentarily seems to entertain the idea, at least on a theoretical level, that Modi might have renounced his “Hindu chauvinism” (He refuses to acknowledge the existence of the term “Hindu nationalism” as applicable to Modi (or anyone) completely ignoring the robust  writing and scholarship on that very issue). He does not care to come to any conclusions on that but mercifully seems to feel that he might not have.

Instead of grappling with the possibility of Modi’s coming to power, which even Mehta does as recounted above, however clumsily, Guha just seems to juggle questions like hot potatoes, eventually dropping all of them – he provides no analytical insight!

Instead, he hastily brushes aside all likely apprehensions in a huff at the end, assuring us that “to worry about the return of the Emergency or an era of ‘fascism’ is to succumb to a premature and unfortunate alarmism…Indian democracy, not to speak of India itself, will survive.” Of course, Guha in his supreme self-assurance forgets that the devil lies in the details. He must know as well as anybody else that imposition of an official Emergency is not the only way democracy and democratic institutions are subverted.

In fact,  they are flagrantly violated in front of the people’s eyes, every waking day. Environmental clearances are summarily passed, laws curtailing religious freedom introduced, members of certain communities targeted on simple pretexts, favors bestowed, contracts awarded, and a riot here-and-there engineered…the list of possibilities is endless. And all done with the political class gleefully saying, “Look Ma, no Emergency.” So, while there may be no discernible prospect of an imposition of a recognizable fascism, one cannot just leave it at that, especially if the parivar is working over-time.

If and when Modi does come to power, all detractors and stronger-than-detractors will find their ways to face that reality on their own terms, in their own ways. No amount of defensive intellectual posturing and superficial assurances now can put them in the right frame of mind or help them deal with that eventuality.

Whether Modi will act as Jumman Sheikh, the member of the panchayat who rises above personal animosity and prejudices in Premchand’s Panch Parmeshwar and does the right thing, is anybody’s guess. But trying to second guess his future actions based on superficial reading of his public utterances and stances in the electoral season – given the stakes for him – or by re-evaluating the anxieties he brings with him is uncalled for and an act of intellectual compromise. It is only from his actions if and when he attains to any seat of power that we might be able to judge whether there is any ideological shift that has occurred in him.

Also, the strength of India which will enable it to survive might not necessarily come only from the democratic institutions Guha places such faith in – it will come from people of the country, those who cherish the diversity and plurality of the country in its truest and richest sense.

Umang Kumar is an activist and scholar based in Boston USA.

  • Prasad Chacko

    Really good piece. I was feeling quite uncomfortable with the highly ‘compromised’ pieces like the Varshney one. Umang has put this in perspective and helped us articulate the discomfort in clearer terms.
    One thing that we need to understand is that the Gujarat genocide perfected the techniques of repeating it anywhere in the country. The potential of violence to polarize and engineer votes in desired direction has been established now. that We saw this happening in Kandhamal, in Mangalore and now in Muzaffarnagar. As we see genocide or genocidal violence needs to be perpetrated in a localized manner; and the message goes across. The vicarious militant ‘pride’ (as they call it), which actually is the ‘barbaric’ ‘macho’ power that mobs are made to feel through killing, arson and sexual crimes is key to this polarization.
    Once such violence is locally unleashed,leaders like Modi only need to recall the memories through coded references – be it ‘the land of Somnath’or the puppy remark, or just the visual impact of the ‘museum’ of their ‘victory’ personified by the still existing 2002 refugee colonies in Gujarat and more recently of Muzaffarnagar.Ever since the 2002 elections Modi has only had to make coded references, and his rank and file pick it up with relish. This has been the most dangerous aspect of Modi’s (Sangh Parivar’s) politics; it has the potential to sabotage all our constitutional values without having to do it with parliamentary majority.
    So Umang is absolutely right. We cannot rest complacently thinking that the democratic institutions and the complexity of our political economy would force Modi to become ‘moderate’. Eternal vigilance is the price of freedom….and let us pay that….
    Prasad Chacko