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Monday, August 15, 2022

Thus spake Modi

Now he must outmanoeuvre the politics of resentment and zealotry in his parivar.

Written by Pratap Bhanu Mehta
Updated: February 19, 2015 11:04:13 pm
Narendra Modi, RSS, Sangh Parivar, Christian community,  Church vandalism, church attacks, Delhi church attack, ghar wapsi, religious conversion, religious intolerance, PM Narendra Modi and Cardinal George Alencherry during a function to celebrate the elevation to sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia in New Delhi on Tuesday. (Source: PTI Photo)

The prime minister’s emphatic reminder at the celebration of two Christian saints that no one should be targeted for being who they are should allay fears that the normative standards of Indian politics have turned rightwards. The public articulation of norms is not everything. They have to be expressed in institutional action. In a polity tempted to argue for the sake of arguing, it is always possible to decode this or that ambiguity. And it is easy to speculate on the motives behind the speech: the Delhi defeat, the Obama effect, the parliamentary imperative. But the speech was a powerful expression of the idea that the normative self image of Indian democracy cannot be pushed around beyond a point.

At one level, it was, in a nicely clichéd way, the quintessential Indian secularism moment: the canonisation of Christian saints being celebrated in a sarkari building called Vigyan Bhawan by a prime minister whose ideological pedigree many still find ambiguous. In some ways, as Ashis Nandy pointed out many years ago, the triumph of secularism in India is more about the ability to live with contradiction, ambiguity and messy accommodation than the triumph of first principles. This is the quality that allows the feedback loops of a democracy to recoil after conflict. It also makes it hard for those who think in rigid ideological or social categories to understand how quickly politics moves.

The speech did not equivocate with “ifs and buts”. Many of Narendra Modi’s supporters, and apparently even Delhi Police, had taken the lawyerly approach to attacks on churches in Delhi — these were just robberies, endemic to religious institutions at large. While this may be true in some cases, it did not fit the whole story. The pattern, placed in a larger context of ideological baiting, was enough to cause unease. Some of Modi’s core supporters are miffed that the prime minister sought to assuage these anxieties rather than argue his way out of them. In this sense, the speech was significant.

The speech acknowledged that, in the final analysis, India’s strength would rest on the power of its example as a free and pluralistic society. If that goes, not only will social conflicts become unmanageable, but any pretensions to great-power status will always labour under debilitating shadows. India will have to act in ways more consistent with its identity and its aspirations to craft a unique and morally ambitious constitutional culture.

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But this realisation needs to be extended in deeper and subtler ways. The government’s stance in the case of Greenpeace activist Priya Pillai is disconcerting. The reputation that India prevented an activist from speaking and travelling, no matter how misguided that activist might be, will damage it, both internally and externally. Just as there cannot be any equivocation on toleration, there cannot be any equivocation on rights. The government’s law machinery is frankly an embarrassment on this issue. Making travel contingent on someone’s views displays legal ignorance of the highest order. One institutional story waiting to be written is on the decimation of the office of the attorney general under successive governments. Instead of defending high constitutional values, they have often acted like henchmen for the government’s perfidies. If officials genuinely want to support the prime minister, they would be better off pointing out what will embarrass the government rather than fighting every low fight on its behalf.

The third encouraging thing about Modi’s speech was that he does respond to criticism. Contrary to what most of his defenders think, most Indians want the prime minister to succeed. Is there any Indian in their right mind who wishes another five years of a government that does not do justice to India’s potential? India has delayed fulfilling its potential far too long. The purpose of criticism is not to pull down, it is to goad the government into the right kind of action.

Modi is saddled with a supporting cast whose politics of resentment and zealotry can derail his political prospects. The task of outmanoeuvring it will require artful politics. There are three different contingents in this story. There is a large group of MPs, particularly from UP, whose politics is a throwback to the Ram Janmabhoomi days. They have ridden a Modi wave without being softened by the rough and tumble of politics. The interesting question is whether they can be socialised in the same trajectory as the early leaders of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — those we think of as the respectable faces of the BJP now were yesterday’s zealots.


The second contingent is the RSS. It is a lot less monolithic than it used to be. And it is marked by two kinds of tensions. One is potentially a generational conflict and cultural churning within the RSS. A lot of the new recruits to it have wider social and economic ambitions that make commitment to an old-fashioned, narrow view of the world more complicated. This is reflected in the debate over Section 377, an item that should be central to any toleration agenda. The second conflict is over political realities. No party can win if it panders only to its base — and the secure non-transferable base of each party is probably also smaller. In local contexts, polarisation may work at the margins. But we live in a politics where it is hard to control context. A local polarisation may produce adverse national political consequences. The RSS cannot remain immune to these realities.

The third contingent is ordinary BJP politicians who are not zealots but who equivocate depending on where the wind is blowing. The disquieting aspect of the embarrassment the BJP suffered during the last Parliament session was not the RSS getting assertive. That was expected. The big fear in some sections of the RSS is that the price of Modi’s success may be its greater irrelevance. It was more that otherwise sensible ministers had started wading into the choppy waters of declaring religious texts as national texts and so forth. In short, Modi has marginalised so many politicians in his party that they will covertly scour for opportunities to try and make themselves relevant. Handling these three groups will be a long haul.

But if the prime minister’s speech is a good start, he now needs to attend to the other challenge that has eluded his grasp so far: how to build a state that can make him more than a string of speeches. Modi’s speech seemed to be saying to his supporters: instead of expending your energies on debilitating battles, find ways of drawing everyone into a narrative of progress.


The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express

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First published on: 19-02-2015 at 10:50:47 pm
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