In this moment of our greatest national satisfaction against Pakistan, we have paid that failing nation a flattering compliment: we have become a bit like it. We have become enamoured of the idea of intolerance and intimidation. And our liberals have abandoned their professed beliefs and practices. Instead, we have embraced illiberalism and its ugly demand for conformism.
Just think. A former home minister of India has been bumped off air by an English language news channel that all these years pretended to be a voice of liberalism, decency, debate and dissent. And who is this censored man? None other than P. Chidambaram. He is not some country bumpkin. He is a sophisticate with a competent familiarity with matters of national security. He is not — has never been — a subversive. If there is anyone — probably other than Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee — who is privy to the dark secrets of the Indian state, it is P. Chidambaram. As finance minister, thrice, he has been a cynosure of corporate India. Every business house sought – and perhaps got – access to him. Everyone, including the impresarios in the impugned media house, would give his left arm to be seen as whispering something in his ear. As finance minister, he probably helped “restructure” the outstanding debts of very many media houses.
Make no mistake. Chidambaram is not a softie. He is not a woolly-headed liberal. He is not a closet Naxalite. Not by yards. As home minister, he was once accused by a fellow-member of the cabinet committee on security of wanting to put in a place a “Gestapo.” This man and his views are now considered a threat to some notion of national security.
And, who has created this hysterical notion of national security? Surely not the Narendra Modi government. There is simply no evidence to suggest that the powers-that-be, in South Block or North Block, stepped in to ask NDTV to take the Chidambaram “drivel” off air. It must be presumed that the decision to censor the former home minister of India was made autonomously, in-house, presumably by some fiercely autonomous editors.
Perhaps, a simpler explanation can be that the channel and its lords and masters were caving in to the competition’s hysterical rave and rant in the wake of the “surgical strike.” May be, it lacked the requisite intellectual fortitude and self-belief to remain true to its professional habit of rhetorical moderation. May be, it thought that the national mood indeed had become ugly and that it must give in to the mob’s passions. There can be many other reasons. Castigating NDTV may be necessary, but not sufficient. It is, perhaps, not even about embedded journalism.
Beyond the personalities and the calculations at work in the NDTV-Chidambaram censorship affair, what we should indeed be mourning is the sudden death of liberalism. A few surgical strikes and, suddenly, all the self-proclaimed liberals walk out of the closet, proclaiming that their protestations and commitments to democratic dissent and dialogue were all a fake. And, they all show a zealous willingness to pray devoutly at the church of national security.
This can only be a matter of profound regret and sorrow. It may or may not be the “Modi Effect”, but there is no doubt that the Indian liberal, especially of the Nehruvian variety, is no longer sure of his convictions, attitudes and approvals and disapprovals which all these years were celebrated — even marketed — as minimum essentials of an “Argumentative Indian.” Suddenly, those very liberals seem to be demanding: “Shut up and salute.” Salute the army. Salute the general. Salute the commando. Salute the ex-colonel. Salute the demagogue who feigns to salute the jawan. Agree with every “news” or commentary that is being manufactured in the name of the “brave jawans.” Or, risk being clubbed to death as an anti-national, risk getting condemned as lacking in patriotism, as every bit deserving of a good old-fashioned lynching.
The unmasking of this liberal facade is as sobering as a bucket of ice cold water in the face on a wintery morning. As sobering as L.K. Advani’s famous indictment of the Indian media’s behaviour during the Emergency: “When asked to bend, it chose to crawl.” That was the time of an “authoritarian” Indira Gandhi. We have, since, often celebrated our evolution as a robust democracy and its noisy, quarrelsome media. Oh yes! Since then, we have also rewritten the book on the rites of censorship — and, capitulation. The job of intimidation has been sub-contracted out to the self-proclaimed liberals themselves.
To be fair, the Modi government has not asked the liberals to bend or crawl. It may have used — as all state governments try to do — its power of patronage and persuasion to reward and empower its own partisans. That is a bread-and-butter tactic available to any government. It has also used — and, quite legitimately so — its vast resources and reach to manufacture a discourse that is in sync with its ideological prejudices and political priorities. It can’t be faulted for doing a superb job.
Nor can the Modi government be double-faulted for reducing the September 29 “surgical strikes” across the Line of Control to an event management execrcise. Since it has publicly and politically owned the cross-border operations, and since the previous governments did not demonstrate this kind of audacity, it is entitled to do a bit of chest-thumping. To be sure, none of the previous governments had an utterly brazen Raksha Mantri such as Manohar Parrikar. Nor can the Modi government and the BJP be chastised for wanting to milk the “army” and the “surgical strike” for political and electoral gains. This has been the signature tune of this regime since May 2014.
It is not what the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah arrangement is doing that is surprising. What is a matter of dismay and disappointment is the liberals’ collective failure to understand, leave alone counter, the use of conflict and confrontation with Pakistan as a strategy to demonstrate leadership and competence and to mobilise popular sentiment for political purposes. The Modi crowd is not the first to invent this stratagem. Leaders — democrats, quasi-democrats, authoritarians — all over the world have used their soldiers’ valour and commitment to derive political and electoral mileage. The Narendra Modi-Manohar Parrikar crowd should be given credit for playing the game with exquisite cold-bloodedness.
The NDTV-Chidambaram affair is emblematic of a larger vulnerability: the wafer-thin precariousness of liberal India. In less than 20 months, the liberal voices, individuals and institutions have buckled at the knee. The penny has dropped just in time. The genuine liberal forces will now have to rework their strategies as they seek to resist the authoritarianism’s new hegemonic demands for conformism and obedience. Democratic India will not cave in that easily.
Harish Khare is the Editor-in-Chief of The Tribune, where this article originally appeared.