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Hearing the silence

Modi has not fully addressed anxieties on minority rights, freedom of expression.

Written by Ashutosh Varshney | Updated: April 14, 2014 12:37 pm

Modi has not fully addressed anxieties on minority rights, freedom of expression.

The extraordinary rise of Narendra Modi calls for historical and comparative reflection. We need to pause and ask what yardsticks one should deploy to assess his candidacy to lead the nation.

Since India is democratic, one should turn to a question that observers of democracy inescapably ask: how should one judge the democratic credentials of a leader, a party, a campaign?

After more than a century of intellectual deliberation, three core principles of democratic judgement have emerged: popular will, minority rights and freedom of expression. Economics and national security, hugely important, cannot be wished away and many voters might view them as decisive. But for democratic theory, economics and national security are instrumental, not constitutive. Just as an economy is judged primarily economically, a democracy is assessed mostly politically. At its heart, democracy is a political system, not an economic or national security construct.

The first principle — popular will — is best expressed in voting. In modern polities, voting is the only way to establish claims to rule. By this principle, Modi has a legitimate democratic right to rule if the NDA wins on May 16.

But vote is only one dimension of democratic judgements. After all, voting can easily produce majoritarianism, recognised as a danger to democracy since World War II. The background of this development is well known, but worth noting in brief. A plurality of votes brought Adolf Hitler to power in Germany in 1933, which he used as a licence to mount the worst persecution of minorities the world has ever seen. The Jewish minority was brutally attacked, interned and killed. Since then, the intellectual community has systematically delinked the idea of democracy from the idea of majoritarianism, and put minority safeguards in place.

Although the world has not witnessed anything like the Jewish genocide since World War II, substantial dangers remain. Consider Sri Lanka, where elections have regularly taken place since the 1950s. But after the late 1950s, democracy came to be associated with Sinhala majoritarianism. The Tamil minority was increasingly marginalised. In the early 1980s, a nasty civil war broke out, lasting nearly two and half decades.

Is Modi committed to minority rights? Comparisons with fascism, often made, are too facile. India simply does not have the conditions of 1930s Germany. But will he take India towards a Sri Lankan-style majoritarianism? This is a more relevant question.

Ground-level reports suggest deepening Muslim anxiety about the prospects of Modi coming to power. Modi can rightly argue that his campaign, by and large, has been devoid of anti-Muslim rhetoric. He can also claim that in the BJP’s election manifesto, Hindu nationalist themes are weak and marginal. The 42-page manifesto has only one page on “cultural heritage”, in addition to a couple of Hindu nationalist references here and there. Governance and development constitute the main thrust.

At no point in the history of the BJP, or the earlier Jan Sangh, has the party promised so much to the Muslims. “It is unfortunate,” says the manifesto, “that even after several decades of independence… the Muslim community continues to be stymied in poverty. Modern India must be a nation of equal opportunity. India cannot progress if any segment of Indians is left behind.” The manifesto then lays out the party’s new Muslim agenda: “strengthen and modernise minority educational systems and institutions”; “augment their traditional artisanship and entrepreneurial skills”; “empower Waqf boards”; a “permanent interfaith consultative mechanism to promote harmony”; “maintenance and restoration of heritage sites”; and the “preservation and promotion of Urdu”.

Anyone who has read the early texts of Hindu nationalism by V.D. Savarkar or M.S. Golwalkar would call these moves a sign of ideological moderation. Indeed, the RSS is likely to view such ideological departures as threatening. Following the logic of Indian politics that requires building bridges across India’s diversities, Modi’s desire for power appears to be pushing him towards inclusion. He seems to have concluded that ideological purity cannot bring him to power.

So where is the problem? Social science research gives us some clues. When anxiety-ridden individuals are given a choice between therapy A, which has a 70per cent chance of success, and therapy B, which has 30 per cent chance of failure, they tend not to pick the latter, even though both therapies are substantively the same. By definition, a 70 per cent chance of success means a 30 per cent chance of failure.

A deeply anxious Muslim community does not yet find Modi’s conciliatory gestures credible. Muslims are as or more likely to note or be told about the admittedly small section of the manifesto that talks about the Ram temple in Ayodhya, though “within the framework of the Constitution”; a uniform civil code, though on grounds of “gender equality”; abrogation of Article 370, though after discussion with “all stakeholders”; and India as “a natural home for persecuted Hindus”, as though non-Hindu Indians, if persecuted in Malaysia, might not be deserving of refuge. Most of these Hindu nationalist tropes used to come without qualification earlier. Modi may, therefore, say that these are minor gestures towards Hindu nationalism and the concessions to Muslims are truly unprecedented.

Is this enough? Anxiety does not seek rational solutions; it looks for believable magnanimity. Inevitably, the key question is: what will bury the ghosts of the 2002 Gujarat riots that so disproportionately hurt the Muslims? He has not been found legally culpable, but political responsibility is another matter. The fact that the 1984 Sikh riots took place when the Congress ruled Delhi also does not justify the horrors of Gujarat 2002. Both are deplorable. An expression of contrition would have repaired Modi’s relationship with Muslims more effectively than these campaign moves. His silence on Muzaffarnagar is also hardly reassuring.

Another side of this question is worthy of note. A deepening anxiety may drive India’s Muslims towards strategic voting — that is, vote for anyone who can defeat the BJP in a given constituency, regardless of whether the candidate is likeable.

On the constituency-wise distribution of Muslims, statistical exactitude is virtually impossible, but it is widely believed that in 70-80 parliamentary seats, Muslims constitute 20 per cent or more of the electorate, and in another 120-130 seats, nearly 10-20 per cent. These are pre-2009 estimates. Constituencies were redrawn in 2009 and the exact numbers are likely to differ. But no election specialist argues that the overall distribution is significantly different. If Muslims vote en bloc, there is still a chance that they can frustrate Modi’s ascent to power.

A second anxiety concerns Modi’s commitment to freedom of expression. This problem has two dimensions: his own record, and that of his foot soldiers. Modi was among the first to ban Joseph Lelyveld’s book on Mahatma Gandhi, Great Soul. He has been silent on the re-criminalisation of homosexuality by Indian courts, a decision opposed by some other leading political parties on grounds of freedom of expression.

More troubling is the behaviour of Modi’s foot soldiers. They have been strident in intimidation. They have sought forcibly to silence dissenting artists and intellectuals in Gujarat and elsewhere. On social media they issue threats to Modi’s critics. In Uttar Pradesh, they have brought back anti-Muslim campaign tropes. We have no evidence that Modi has disapproved of such conduct.

Will Modi’s rise to power lead to intimidation and punishment of critics and to restrictions on free speech? Will Modi respond to the twin anxieties?

If not, he could of course still win and come to power, but he might preside over a polarised India, which could make governance, his principal promise to the nation, quite difficult. Polarisation is neither good for India, nor for Modi’s project of India’s transformation.

The writer, director of the India Initiative, Brown University and author, most recently, of ‘Battles Half Won: India’s Improbable Democracy’, is contributing editor of ‘The Indian Express

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