Modi’s modernity vs saffron orthodoxy
In her latest book, “The Struggle for Pakistan”, historian Ayesha Jalal writes, “at the root of Pakistan’s national identity crisis has been the unresolved debate on how to square the state’s self-proclaimed Islamic identity with the obligations of a modern nation-state”.
The same problem has begun to affect the reputation of the Narendra Modi-led government in view of its inability to square its ‘sabka saath, sabka vikas’ (development for all) agenda, which obviously includes minorities, with the tunnel vision of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) affiliates and their aggressive pro-Hindu outlook.
It is, however, not just the affiliates, who are at fault. Even the BJP seems unable to square the “obligations of a modern nation-state” with the predilections of the party’s orthodox elements, who pander to the supposed dietary choices of Hindus, prefer to live in a closed world by restricting access to the Internet and stop a dissenting activist from leaving India.
As the ban on the sale and consumption of beef in Maharashtra and Haryana shows, the customary latitude provided by a modern country to its citizens about what to eat is being circumscribed.
As of now, the restrictions remain confined to the two states run by the BJP. But the possibility that the central government may extend the fads of the BJP and its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), to the whole country is very much real.
That the task will be difficult in a multicultural milieu is evident from the holding of a beef-eating festival in Kerala, run by a coalition led by the Congress, immediately after the Maharashtra ban.
There are also signs that not everyone in the BJP approves of the ban. Goa Chief Minister Laxmikant Parsekar has said that regardless of what the Centre does, the ban will not be enforced in his state because beef is a part of the cuisine of minorities, who constitute nearly 40 per cent of the state’s population.
If Modi is really the “avatar of modernity and progress”, as the Congress MP Shashi Tharoor once called him, he has to guard against the preferences of those in the party and the saffron brotherhood that are not as broadminded as the Goa chief minister.
Members of the saffron establishment are, however, not only laying down what cannot be eaten but also what cannot be seen. As the online censorship of the documentary on Delhi rape victim showed, the Indian government’s actions are only one step away from the measures taken by repressive regimes in China and Iran.
What is more, the censoring was justified on the grounds that the documentary was a Western conspiracy to defame India. The paranoia was reminiscent of the “foreign hand” theory, which Indira Gandhi floated every time she was under pressure because of some unsavoury revelation about her party and government. The same attitude of fear and suspicion led to the deplaning of a Greenpeace activist, who was on her way to Britain to depose about human rights violations by a British mining company in India.
Just as the norms of pluralism were highlighted by Kerala’s beef-eating festival and the Goa chief minister’s dissenting note, it was the judiciary, which stepped in to lift the ban on the activist travelling abroad. But such rebuffs bring no credit to the Modi government. As an “avatar of modernity and progress”, the prime minister should be one step ahead of such reminders about personal liberties.
Even if the prime minister has succeeded in silencing some of the hotheads; who were targeting Muslims with their campaigns of ‘ghar wapsi’ (return to the Hindu faith) and ‘love jehad’ (warning against Muslim boys marrying Hindu girls), there are still areas of governance, where Modi’s intervention is needed.
Otherwise, if minorities come under threat, bullet trains and smart cities will become mere showpieces in common with the familiar adage of trains running on time in a fascist setup.
There is little doubt that compared to the BJP’s Jana Sangh past; it is now a far more moderate party than it ever was. Barring parliamentarians like Yogi Adityanath and Sakshi Maharaj, who have now apparently been told to cool their heels, the party almost always speaks the language of restraint and communal harmony.
It goes without saying that Modi is personally responsible for this seminal change. There is no one else in the party either with his dominant personality or political will to bring the organisation in line with his emphasis on economic growth.
Modi, in contrast, is more forthright - he wants a moratorium on sectarianism - and far from gentle in his articulation. But his job is still half-done, for saffron subsidiaries like the Vishwa Hindu Parishad and mavericks like Subramanian Swamy are still beyond his control. So are the vandals, who continue to target the churches.