Around the time that Mohammed Akhlaq was lynched by a Hinduism-defaming mob in Dadri, Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s voice broke in distant California as he recalled the sacrifices made by his mother in raising him. What of Ashgari Akhlaq’s emotions as her son was killed in the family home? An Englishman’s home may be a castle, but a Mussalman’s home is for lynching in the India of the 21st century?
Mera Bharat mahan? I think not. It took Modi ten days to refer to the lynching publicly, only to deliver a homily about how Hindus and Muslims should join forces to fight poverty and not each other. Still later, he called the incident “sad and unwarranted”.
Really, Mr Prime Minister, was that the best you could do? No condemnation, no abhorrence of what had been done in the name of religion – your religion – no words of sympathy and condolence to the family members consumed by grief beyond imagination?
There are leaders and there are politicians. The Indian neta is a politician and Modi is rapidly falling from the pedestal of inspirational leader to transactional neta. Leadership consists of the elusive ability to make others connect with you emotionally and intellectually so they embrace a common, uplifting vision that transcends their immediate self-interest.
When he raised the shameful spectre of rapes, asked parents to take responsibility for the behaviour of sons as well as ensuring the safety of daughters and attacked sex-selective abortion; when he elevated cleanliness, sanitation, adequate toilet facilities for schoolgirls; when he introduced public squalor into high public discourse; and when he challenged the dominant culture of chalta hai that was drilled into my generation, Modi was operating in leadership mode.
But when he goes silent in the face of murder and communal provocation – provocation his own party leaders are indulging in – he demonstrated an abdication of leadership.
Just another neta
Cursed by a surfeit of politicians, India has been thirsting for a leader and millions believed they had found one in Modi. His capacity for soaring rhetoric and an inspiring vision for a better future was all about the audacity of hope. Today, however, Modi is looking increasingly like his friend ‘Barack’, whose hope and vision lie scattered amidst the debris of a disappointing domestic and foreign policy agenda.
With each passing month, disillusionment sets in and hopes for achhe din dim. A neta will do what is politically expedient; a leader what is right, setting standards, explaining why they matter, cajoling and coaxing the people to meet them in their personal behaviour. A neta will hug the famous and powerful foreigners; a leader would have embraced Akhlaq’s traumatised a 75-year mother and 22-year son in a very public show of solidarity, connect with their loss and ensure the full apparatus of the state is committed to delivering the perpetrators to speedy justice. And also used the moment to remind people that law and order is a state responsibility.
History is full of examples of how ultra-nationalists have been the most anti-national in terms of the consequences of their actions. Look at the way they destroyed Germany and Japan in the Second World War or Serbia in the 1990s. The BJP must choose between the cultural and economic nationalists who will keep India poor and turn it into a Hindu Pakistan, and the aspirations of its young, who want India to emerge as a prosperous, confident – and united – nation.
The obscurantists’ only vision is that of a reality-distorting rear view mirror; the aspirational youth clamour for a vibrant, modern India of opportunities to be seized and talent and enterprise to be rewarded. What is Modi’s idea of India? A Hindu Pakistan consumed by fanatic extremists, trapped in the prison of yesterday’s glory, with ancient Hindu texts replacing modern science and technology in the classrooms? Or one that puts in place policies to achieve and maintain greatness today and tomorrow?
The apprehensions of those who fear the BJP as the Trojan horse of Hindu fascism are fuelled by the hatred many BJP leaders have of Muslims. If he should pursue a sectarian Hindutva agenda, Modi will rapidly lose the goodwill of the people and run up against mounting institutional points of resistance. His long silence and continuing reticence on Dadri followed equally taciturn non-responses to fanatics who decry love jihad, encourage ghar wapsi and in myriad other ways demean the rich religion in whose name they commit these despicable acts.
Last year, voters repudiated the decade-long Congress record of governmental drift, policy paralysis, maha-scams, stalled economic prospects and worsening human development indicators. They rejected the stale, populist and patronising politics of a corrupt Congress coterie around a cocooned first family. Modi won by convincing voters that India deserves and can do better with decisive political leadership and firm policy direction. His catchy and effective slogan was “MG2”: minimum government, maximum governance. It was the hopes raised by his development slogans and not any sudden surge in Hindu religious sentiment that carried Modi to power in New Delhi, yet Modi has unwisely allowed Hindu zealots to distract attention, sap the country’s energy and subvert MG2 into minimum governance, maximum goondagardi.
Silence is not golden
By the end of ten years, Manmohan Singh was widely ridiculed as weak and ineffectual, failing to stand up against old-style socialists and interventionists in Congress. Ignoring mounting evidence of rampant corruption in cabinet, MMS operated largely in silent mode.
When faced with danger, we react in a fight-or-flight mode. Under Modi, the MMS silent mode has given way to both flight (frequent foreign travel) and fight (endless campaigns in state elections). What the people want is evidence of Modi operating in governance mode for the whole country. India has too many states for the PM to be distracted by being involved in them. And his non-involvement will rob the outcomes of state elections of much national significance: let them be fought on state issues.
Mukund Padmanabhan describes India as ‘The Republic of Hurt Sentiments’. In The Intolerant Indian, Gautam Adhikari contends that extremist religious ideologies and the violent politics of forces on the right and left alike have overshadowed the idea of a liberal, tolerant society on which modern India was established. Taslima Nasreen, hounded out of Sonar Bangla by Islamists, was forced to flee Kolkata because some local Muslims objected to her presence. M.F. Husain was exiled overseas by Hindu fundamentalists who took violent objection to his art depicting Hindu goddesses.
In the church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai, when drops of water began to drip from the feet of a statue of Jesus, a rationalist established that a blocked drain was producing a dirty puddle which through capillary action was propelling the water to drip on the statue. Three police stations received complaints against him for inciting religious hatred and he was arrested and charged, ensnaring him in the nightmare of the Indian judicial process.
Thus the trend to growing intolerance predates Modi and includes Congress’s criminal culpability in the 1984 riots in which thousands of Sikhs were massacred in Delhi. But Modi’s propensity to silence as PM is interpreted as a licence to strip Muslims of dignity, kill dissenting writers and scholars and impose Hindu dietary choices on all. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead-end of religious extremism as Pakistan, Modi must act boldly and decisively to defend Muslims under attack anywhere in India and punish vigilante thugs. India has no future other than as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.
Ramesh Thakur is professor in the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University