Mortal fear of intellectuals

October 08, 2019

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The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.
The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

AMARTYA Sen’s interview in The New Yorker and Sudheendra Kulkarni’s debunking of Hindutva’s anti-Nehru chants on Kashmir, published on NDTV’s website last week, should help TV addicts see a more encouraging reality than what the idiot box gives them ad nauseam.

The fact that 49 intellectuals, including public-minded academics and filmmakers like Shyam Benegal and Aparna Sen were booked for sedition because they wrote a letter to Prime Minister Narendra Modi criticising lynch mobs, is one more pointer that the knowers of a truer reality scare the ruling establishment.

Take historian Romila Thapar, a towering academic in the global community of social scientists. By asking her to send them her CV to review her emerita status at JNU, Modi’s handpicked vice chancellor of the university she created from scratch, is tantamount to people tearing their hair in the absence of a cogent or intelligent point.

The unprecedented imprisonment of eight million Kashmiris, without a semblance of serious discussion, reflects a wilful establishment tuned in to its own monologue, averse to a normal conversation. These mishaps, plus the fact that Modi’s closest friends, from Israel to the Gulf rulers and his latest admirer in Washington D.C., are all struggling to keep their jobs — two of them desperately trying to evade criminal prosecution and a third one buying his way out of a similar fate — is further proof that the political constellations are on the move on a trajectory that India’s TV channels would prefer not to share with the hoi polloi.

The Hindutva leader is nowhere near as popular as the benighted Nazi leader, and is not likely to be anytime soon.

For precisely this reason, however, comparing Prime Minister Modi’s second election to Adolf Hitler’s inexorable rise, as many of his desperate opponents do, seems premature. The Hindutva leader is nowhere near as popular as the benighted Nazi leader, and is not likely to be anytime soon given the economic doldrums his policies have landed the country in. Business captains who anointed him as future prime minister when he was only a rabble-rousing chief minister of Gujarat — or perhaps for this reason only — must be kicking themselves.

Modi’s left and liberal critics — an incestuous lot when it comes to spreading real or imagined nightmares — are often affected by the craven TV channels that service the prime minister’s ego with daily lies. What could be more ironic? Business captains who financed Modi’s election are mostly the owners of channels his opponents are addicted to, as people often are to horror films that keep them awake all night. The resultant nightmares dogging far too many of them is woven in the script.

The channels are on cue creating an atmosphere of terror by eulogising acts of terror — acts that do not, unlike Germany of the 1930s, have popular support although some of them appear to be condoned or supported by state institutions. One channel applauded the other day a paramilitary woman officer for saying that an outspoken student leader’s chest should be pierced with the national flag.

It is a gory ploy, not different to Donald Trump’s desperate attempts to put the whistleblower who exposed him at serious risk. It is fascist repression at best, but way short of fascism in its terrifying popular avatar. Modi’s sudden slide in popularity is taking shape, despite the mainstream opposition parties going on a holiday when they were most required to resist repression.

Modi’s genuine critics may be a confused lot. Some have argued the elections were rigged via the electronic voting machines. The case against the EVMs was first built by Hindutva ideologues when the Congress party scored a second consecutive and surprising victory in 2009.

If Modi’s critics believe the elections were stolen, that itself is a big challenge to their fear that he is a genuinely popular leader. He has either stolen the election or he has won handsomely. If it is the latter, he is still way short of his Gandhi-Nehru bête noire’s aggregates. For if he has won with a proven majority without any technological help, he still struggles far behind Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi in their victory margins. Yet Indira and Rajiv were defeated too. And that is what should be important to bear in mind.

What did Prof Sen say to pour cold water on claims of Modi’s popularity? His interviewer, Isaac Chotiner, recalls how Sen had often criticised Modi’s sectarianism, noting how Modi had “taken a quantum jump in the wrong direction” on poverty and healthcare.

Asked if he saw Modi’s popularity as absolute, Sen differed, and said: “It’s not clear that is the case. India is a country of more than a billion people. Two hundred million of them are Muslim. Two hundred million of them are Dalit, or what used to be called untouchables. A hundred million are what used to be called scheduled tribes, and they get the worst deal in India, even worse than the Dalits. Then there is quite a large proportion of the Hindu population that is sceptical. Many of them have been shot. Many of them have been put in prison. In these circumstances, to say that a majority supports him would be difficult.”

Sen likens Modi’s Kashmir gambit to Margaret Thatcher’s Falklands moment after which the pseudo-nationalism she spawned faded and died an ignoble death.

As for Sudheendra Kulkarni, he has punched gaping holes in Hindutva’s propaganda on the Kashmir dispute. By putting together a range of credible sources close to Sardar Patel and Nehru, he has shown how Patel, not Nehru, was ready to forgo Kashmir in a trade-off with Pakistan. And Kulkarni has enviable credentials as a public intellectual, belonging not to the regular left or liberal schools, but as a former aide to Atal Bihari Vajpayee.

Modi’s pattern of targeting public intellectuals shows one thing very clearly. They truly frighten him, not like the soothsayer of Julius Caesar, but more like the hard-nosed economists, historians and other sensible citizens who can smell the unravelling of an order.

The writer is Dawn’s correspondent in Delhi.

Published in Dawn, October 8th, 2019