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Cringing and fuddled at 71

August 27, 2018

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NARENDRA Modi always makes a splash when he speaks to the nation from the ramparts of the 17th-century Mughal Red Fort on India’s independence day. His outfits are chosen with care and appear to make sartorially political statements that the media never fails to note whatever else they might miss.

His speeches are long and signify the audacity of fiction over fact since many of the government’s ‘achievements’ are invariably exposed as flights of fancy by data journalists and fact-checking websites that have sprung up as a response to the BJP regime’s propensity to make tall claims at every turn. This year Modi wore a flowing saffron turban, which to some analysts signalled his readiness for the 2019 general elections just nine months away along with his frequent references to being impatient and restless to change India on numerous fronts. The prime minister has in the past spoken of creating a ‘new India’, a project which he promises will be completed by 2022 when India marks the 75th anniversary of independence.

The toxic politics and coarse discourse of the Modi regime has held up a mirror to Indians.

What is the ‘new India’ for which Modi has been laying the groundwork over the past four years? Clearly, the project is not unduly focused on the economy since his sorties on this front have been haphazard and anarchic. And he is also aware that his team will be unable to outdo the Congress government’s sterling performance. Updated figures of GDP growth show that the Manmohan Singh government averaged eight per cent during its two terms, clocking a historic rate of 10.08pc in 2006-07, the highest since the economic liberalisation of 1991. The series data on GDP rates have been kept back for long since it undermines the basis on which it stormed to power in 2014.

Such manoeuvres are symptomatic of the BJP’s politics. On matters of vital concern, such as huge arms deals, there is secrecy and a fudging of facts, while on issues that are integral to its ideology, however trivial, it whips up a national frenzy, stoking anger and righteousness in equal measure. Currently, patriotic India is boiling over with indignation because cricketer-turned-politician Navjot Singh Sidhu hugged Pakistan’s army chief Gen Qamar Bajwa when they met at Imran Khan’s oath-taking ceremony, a small example of the collective cretinism of a nation with little confidence in itself or its civilisational values, overwhelmed as it is by a loutish Hindu majoritarianism and hyper-nationalism that’s the leitmotif of the times.

The core of the new India project is to erase the idea of India fashioned by Jawaharlal Nehru — of a nation that was intended to be plural, secular and inclusive. But for the BJP and its mothership, the RSS, this was a concept borrowed from the West and ill suited to the ethos of Hindu India. As part of its revisionist programme, history has been upended and facts distorted as brazenly as they can be to suit the new narrative. Battles that were once lost in history are now being recast as victories since the new narrative does not brook Hindu kings being vanquished by Muslim emperors. Even post-Independence history is open to distortion, usually during abrasive election campaigns, when the party’s electoral victory is at stake. In the Republic of Lies that India has become no fact is too sacred, not even the life and times of India’s military heroes, if a little change of fact and date can yield. The nation is left cringing as fabrications become as common as they are dangerous.

The new India of Modi’s making cares little for science or the scientific temperament, a quality much prized by Nehru and vital to his nation-building enterprise. India is possibly the only one country to have a constitution that calls on every citizen “to develop the scientific temper, humanism and the spirit of inquiry and reform” as a fundamental duty. Today, children and adults alike are a fuddled lot as those holding high office blithely deride foundational scientific principles. Ministers routinely denigrate the theories of Charles Darwin and Isaac Newton, while the prime minister himself dismisses climate change, in a special telecast for children, as nothing more than the perception of people as they grow older. Flat-earthers may abound the world over but nowhere else have they presided over the destiny of 1.3 billion people and of a nation with an enviable scientific heritage.

Instead of banking on technology for the future, religion and social engineering are what the Hindutva lobby is betting on as it strengthens its hold on the country. One of its pet projects is to end the deep caste divisions in Hindu society and bring all Hindus on one platform. It is also doing its best to Hinduise Muslims through the Muslim Rashtriya Manch, an RSS special-purpose vehicle that appears to have had some success in wooing politically ambitious Muslims. But Walter Anderson, the US academic who has been studying the RSS for over 40 years, believes that the coming challenge for the saffron party is likely to be the battle between Hindutva and Hinduism, a valid analysis given the unrest among the major backward castes and the Dalits across India.

At 71, India is on a dangerous cusp, unsure of what its values should be as the coarse political discourse and violent majoritarianism favoured by the BJP undermines old ways of thinking. Is Modi to blame for the increasing polarisation and moral bankruptcy of Indian society or do most Hindus have a hidden streak of bigotry? Indians harbour cherished myths about themselves however delusional or in conflict with reality these are: of being a peaceable people, committed to non-violence, welcoming and tolerant of others and their religious beliefs, and above all, swearing by the ancient philosophy of ‘vasudeva kutumbakum’ (the world is one family).

Ironically, at 71, India is deeply conflicted on who its own family is. As a long pending tortuous citizenship verification exercise in the border state of Assam comes to a close, four million people who have lived there for decades are finding themselves disenfranchised. These are mostly Muslims but also include a few hundred thousand Hindu, tribal and scheduled caste people. Instead of trying to assuage people’s fears, BJP leaders are stirring the pot further by demanding similar exercises in other states.

A mirror has been held up to Indians and the reflection is unsettling if not terrifying. Can they face it?

The writer is a journalist.

Published in Dawn, August 27th, 2018