Prime Minister Narendra Modi is something of an enigma. He radiates energy. He is decisive. He is an expert in springing surprises. He does not dodge the non-stereotypical. Yet, there is every chance — going by what we have seen so far — that he may end up like all else before him. This prospect may not occur to the vast army of admirers and time-servers that surround him. But it is real all the same.
No other prime minister could think of Clean India campaign. And no other PM has dreamt up Fit India like Modi has done. Typical of him, he did not forget to connect, in his eloquent inaugural speech on the subject, fitness with valour (shaurya) of the martial kind. A person in high office needs to be understood not only by what he advocates, but also by what he holds back. That is precisely what is not being done in connection with Modi. There is a genuine fear that such a thing could sound heretical. Yet, there are times when heresy becomes more vital for truth than orthodoxy. The world has progressed more though heretics than through blind believers and sycophants.
Modi did speak of physical and martial bravery, which has its place in the life of a nation. He did not, however, speak about moral bravery, which is even more quintessentially human than the courage to wield the sword or exterminate enemies. Bravery of this sort has universally been held as the essence of the intelligentsia. Mere intelligence, even an astronomical amount of it, will not make a person or group of persons belong to the intelligentsia. The hallmark of the intelligentsia is moral courage. A country is better served by the intelligentsia of this kind than by the most advanced and well-trained army possible. The army may guard a country against external aggression, but it is irrelevant to the character and creative greatness of a people. This is not to argue that cowardice is a blessing. But we need to insist that bravery is a far wider concept, and that, if taken only in part, it could get distorted and prove counterproductive.
How can we create Fit India, the PM needs to ask, if we do not pay at least equal attention to developing an intellectual culture? Medical sciences aver that physical fitness is incomplete without mental and intellectual fitness. Mental unfitness is the main cause for tragic health conditions. We are familiar with the pathological conditions that come into being due to mental stress and intellectual trauma. We also know that lack of proper intellectual and imaginative development is the main reason why a society sinks into crime and corruption.
In the 1960s, Lyndon Baines Johnson, the 36th president of the USA, set for himself the task of re-inventing America as a “great society”. He meant well. But he was mistaken about what it involved. Greatness is an attribute of the human spirit, not of the physical, material dimensions of acquisitions and achievements. It did not take long for President Johnson’s dream to degenerate into the nightmare of a crime-ridden society, the convulsions of which continue to be felt in the mass shootings that are becoming frequent in that country. In its foreign policy, America continues with its muscle-flexing — even after the Vietnam fiasco and the Middle East tragedy.
For Modi to speak with clarity and consistency on Fit India in a holistic sense, he needs to clarify for himself his stand on freedom of thought and expression. Not even a high school student can miss the blatant contradiction between the fanfare about Fit India and the growing milieu of intolerance towards intellectual freedom and liberty of conscience. You cannot criminalise intellectuals as Urban Naxals or surround outstanding academics like Romila Thappar with the miasma of hostility and move an inch towards creating Fit India, unless fitness is assumed to be relevant to only the body. The monstrous mixture of a brave body and a cowardly mind is unlikely to be an asset to the New India that Modi believes he is destined to erect.
Underlying much of Modi’s advocacies is the assumption that human beings are mere bodies. This view entertains the naïve idea that human beings can be made to be brave or cowardly at will, depending on what is expedient to the state. Intellectual brilliance, for instance, is laudable if it limits itself to landing a module on the moon, or to devising ways and means for pushing the GDP higher without hurting the interests of the corporates and the socio-economic elite. But intellectual vigour as a means for enriching national character or as a catalyst in strengthening national character is un-welcome and anti-national. This is indefensible.
If courage or bravery is a value, we should be willing to welcome it in all its manifestations — physical, mental and spiritual. It is the spiritual dimension of courage that is most under-valued today. Spiritual courage involves the duty to speak truth to power and to resist agents and structures of injustice. It would raise, for example, the obvious and pressing questions: “Are the people of Kashmir too included in this vision for Fit India? If so, why are they kept in a state of seemingly interminable all-round disability?”
The willingness to ask such inconvenient questions — no less than organising public drills to boost physical fitness — should be deemed fundamental to creating Fit India. Only then would Modi’s agenda stand a reasonable chance of fulfillment, which I hope earnestly it does.
The writer is a Vedic scholar and social activist