The force field around the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, is reshaping public discourse in unfortunate ways. Some turbulence was only to be expected. But instead of a vigorous clash of ideas, instead of critique and engagement, what we are witnessing is competitive illiberalism, a refusal to hear the other side, and a desire to smooth over the real contentions of politics.
On one hand, publishing houses have fallen over themselves to facilitate all kinds of books on Modi, from comic books embellishing his legend to poetry written by him to hagiographic accounts of his work in Gujarat. A senior publishing professional has quit Aleph in seeming protest of this Modi turn, and the surrender to right-wing intolerance exemplified by the company decision to “review” Wendy Doniger’s The Hindus: An Alternative History.
At the other end of the spectrum, a small radical press called Navayana has frozen the publication of a Tamil novel, Aazhi Soozh Ulagu, by Sahitya Akademi award winner Joe D’Cruz, a book it had so far admired and committed to bringing to a wider audience. This happened after the publisher and translator became aware of D’Cruz’s support for Modi.
This “not-in-my-name” stance may be a publisher’s prerogative, particularly for those who fashion themselves as radical alternatives. But it is a troubling moment when a book is scrapped not because of its substance, its literary merit or even its politics, but because of its author’s opinion on a single politician. Instead of allowing this book to exist, and countering the author’s views with a persuasive argument of their own, the publishers have chosen to silence it.
Just as Modi has this larger-than-life aura for his supporters, he also seems to have assumed inordinate significance for those who reject him, who think that shutting him out and expressing indignation about his presence is a sufficient political position. The role of an alternative publishing house is to bring out good, thought-provoking writing, not to make sure its writers are rubbed clean of “embarrassing” political views.
It reveals its own shrunken concept of political activism by reacting so viscerally, in ways that end up impairing the quality of intellectual life. Instead of expressing a dedicated opposition to communalism or autocratic governance, too many intellectuals have limited their engagement to this kind of gesture, to what amounts to sticking pins into a voodoo doll.
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