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India: Looking back, 2019: When Narendra Modi’s apologists discovered he wasn’t who they thought he was

Thursday 9 January 2020, by siawi3


Looking back, 2019: When Narendra Modi’s apologists discovered he wasn’t who they thought he was

By Vrinda Gopinath

Dec 31, 2019

Perhaps the end of the decade, most significantly the latter half, which was scorched by the fierce battle between Vintage Left and the Raw Right, will be marked by the complete about-turn of a clutch of cohorts and apologists of Prime Minister Narendra Modi who have latently discovered his fascist and despotic tendencies, supremacist Hindutva ideology, his outmoded ideas for an economic revival, or whatever else they accuse him of today.

They range from a dappled gang of newspaper and television pundits, columnists, writers and academics, who championed Modi’s slickly crafted mantra of being bold, decisive, and dedicated; who would take on the venal, feudal, corrupt and entitled Congress party and its dynastic regional allies. The support of this section of the commentariat to Modi in the run-up to his first election in 2014 was adamant and relentless, irrespective of all the menacing and foreboding signs looming over Modi they so decry today.

Shouldn’t they have been rigorous and scrupulous in punching Modi’s canny brand of grandiosity and balderdash – most Raw Rightwingers stick to politics and culture – rather than lamely claim today, in hindsight, that it was a colossal judgement of error?

My year-end pick: it’s journalist and writer Aatish Taseer who personalises the faddish inclination of the Raw Right.

Taseer can take refuge in the legacy the Modi government has lavished on him – the bravura of unreachable notoriety.

In the rebellion that has exploded all over the country against the Citizens Amendment Act and the National Register of Citizens led by students and an affronted public, Taseer was the first striking case who was made hostage to the misapplication of an older citizenship law, which was followed by the blatantly skewed and religion-based CAA that is designed to disenfranchise and exile Muslims who cannot prove their domicile status in the country.

In Taseer’s case, the Modi government revoked his Overseas Citizen of India card (he lives in New York and holds a British passport) on the flimsy and unwarranted grounds that he had hidden the identity of his father, the late Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, despite the fact his mother, columnist Tavleen Singh, yet another Raw Rightwinger, had brought him up as his sole guardian. The law mandates that OCI cannot be conferred on a person either of whose parents is from Pakistan or Bangladesh.

It now means that Taseer will have to apply for a visa to enter the country he grew up in and where his closest family lives, with no guarantees that he will get the permit. The Modi government was accused of vengefulness, which it has denied: it was accused of retaliating against Taseer for writing a cover story in Time magazine calling the Indian prime minister The Divider in Chief.

Taseer’s new status as a non-Indian citizen yet again reveals the deadly saga of an authoritarian Modi regime, brutal in its retaliation to criticism and dissent from students, political leaders, minority groups, independent media, human rights lawyers and groups; scorching in its reprisals of dissent and resistance through the heavy hand of the state. The Modi regime’s five and a half years have been littered with mob lynchings of Muslims and Dalits, smashing of student movements from JNU to BHU; a climbing rate of hate crimes and attacks, the locking down of whole states, from Kashmir to Assam, and police brutality against protestors in BJP-ruled states.

It spurred both Indian and global media to switch the floodlights on the Modi regime’s drift from democracy to lurking despotism that was breeding fear, uncertainty and stupor. Taseer was also championed by a galaxy of international writers and artists, when PEN International, a global organisation that fights for writers’ freedoms, wrote to Modi condemning the revocation of his OCI card. PEN’s signatories included Salman Rushdie, Johnathan Franzen, Nobel laureates JM Coetzee and Orhan Pamuk, among its 260 members. Major newspapers splashed searing editorials and op-eds about Modi’s command and authority, some written by Taseer – he saw himself as a writer in exile.

But the freakish truth is that Taseer, as a journalist and writer, was complicit like many of his colleagues in ushering in the “fascist and authoritarian Modi regime” they now denounce so vehemently. In the 2014 general election, which swept Modi to power on a tsunami of people’s rage, expectations and hope, it was this commenteriat that championed the New Leader to get him a decisive and spectacular victory.

The media’s duty, as any cub reporter knows, is to be accurate, authentic and rigorous; to inform, reflect and shape the future.

The red flags zoomed up as soon as Modi was sworn in as the BJP’s first absolute prime minister (Modi gave the BJP an absolute majority).

In the new political gig, the licentious reporting saw a cannibalisation of news and journalists, and old grouses renewed – several star anchors were tossed out by Modi-friendly television moguls for previous offences, despite their eager enthusiasm to be embraced in the run-up to the election. Many celebrity economic opinionators also soon changed their stance, horrified that Modi was not doing their bidding, from economic reforms to liberalising markets to unfettered industrial growth.

But it was the stunning silence on the lurking threat of authoritarianism and absolutism that marked Modi’s rule in Gujarat from 2001 to 2014 that was truly staggering. Wasn’t Modi the elected leader who singularly made Gujarat less democratic in the first two decades of the new century? Did Modi not run election campaigns and an administration marked by discrimination, exclusion of communities, fear and terror of communal polarisation?

Modi’s grip on the Gujarat government was legendarily autocratic, he had a single chain of command that led to him and his band of loyalist ministers and officers. The state police was pliant as many former policemen have testified in court and at administrative tribunals; and a judiciary that was so suspect that a horrified Supreme Court ordered the transfer of many cases relating to Modi and his cohorts out of Gujarat. And of course, creating an atmosphere where the media was forced to take a partisan stand, where you were either with Modi or against him.

Taseer says he changed his stance on Modi a year after he became prime minister, dismayed by Modi’s initial silence on the lynching of Mohammed Akhlaq in Dadri village near Delhi in 2015, and then on he justly took the Modi government to account. He has been at pains to explain to interviewers, after the stripping of his OCI status, his endorsement of Modi was “a colossal judgement of error” on his part; and this has been his constant rebuttal to the mandatory question that is always asked of him.

But did he not construct Modi as a modernising reformer. In his essays he exhorted the reader to move past their prejudices of the Development Man, that if a man like Modi with his background (whatever that means) is talking about an arc of growth, he should be allowed it; that in a country like India it was time to go beyond communalism, Gujarat riots of 2002, Ayodhya temple, and Hindu Rashtra, as his dispatches from Benaras show, and listen to the people who wanted Modi’s mantra of vikas, or reform. Modi, Taseer wrote in 2014, endowed the crowd’s restlessness with a kind of nobility, even as he gushed at “Modi’s belief in the vast crowd’s ability to empower was absolute.”

It was an extremely bad time in politics and the government had to change, he wrote. It was the inevitability of Modi at the time, he says even today.

Er…isn’t it what democracy and electoral politics are all about? But can the media become a consort of ushering governments in?

These were the cheerleading brigade of journalists who didn’t want to get into the binary of secular-communal politics, of demonising Modi as a polarising leader. After all, Modi was running his campaign as a Development Man, they wrote, a leader who was poised to smash the Entitled Class of upper caste, upper class, Oxbridge clique (desperately cliched) who sneered and loathed the Other India, of sweaty bodies and ogre religious beliefs (even more cliched), and a leader who promised to take the country to sky-high economic success.

But the deception was so transparent and obvious that only those who wanted to be seduced or tempted by the Modi mantra could ignore the signs that were all over the place, in the run-up to Modi’s first election.

If the splashy, extravagant, multi-thousand crore campaign did not raise suspicions of an industry-corporate-political collusion, the Modi campaign was littered with many ominous signs. Through the campaign Modi kept sending furtive but covert signs to the faithful that he was still their Hriday Samrat, leading them to Hindutva Heaven.

In Modi’s first election rally in Uttar Pradesh, in Kanpur in October 2013, barely a month after the murderous Muzaffarnagar riots had quietened down, Modi talked about development but allowed BJP leaders to raise the communal call, from Kalyan Singh, former UP chief minister, who brought up Modi’s famous “action-reaction” theory when Singh also added, “Only dead bodies don’t react.”

In November, at Modi’s Agra rally, two BJP legislators who were accused of blazing the riots, Sangeet Som and Suresh Rana, were feted and hailed as Hindu protectors.

In February 2014, at a Meerut rally, two months before the general election, Modi shared the dais with Som and talked about the threat to “maa-beti ki izzat”(the honour of mothers and daughters), referring to the “love jihad” trop fanned by the RSS and its affiliates that had triggered the Muzaffarnagar riots.

Meanwhile, Modi’s most trusted lieutenant and now all-powerful home minister Amit Shah’s communal utterances even as late as April 2014 were despicable and illegal. In Muzaffarnagar and in neighbouring constituencies, Shah referred to it as an election of “honour and revenge” and thundered that a man could sleep hungry but not humiliated. “Vote Modi and take revenge,” he said.

Shah had earlier been arrested in the matter of the extrajudicial killing of a small-time criminal, Sohrabuddin Sheikh, and his accomplices, apart from his alleged role in several other fake encounters by the Gujarat police, and had been asked by the Supreme Court to leave the state so as to not influence witnesses.

In November 2013, Shah had been exposed through a sting as having ordered snoppoing on a young woman architect. Phone records showed him ordering state officials to track the woman’s movements at the behest of “Saheb”.

So, even as Modi stuck to the development mantra, the Sangh Parivar ran a vitriolic campaign of revenge and honour in Uttar Pradesh. How did the Raw Right ignore it? That Modi was denied a US visa for 10 years for his alleged complicity in the 2002 Gujarat riots and that Britain only lifted its diplomatic boycott in 2012?

How does the Raw Right feel today when young people a generation younger than Taseer are teargassed in libraries and on campuses, their skulls broken open and their hands broken, and blinded by exploding guns, when all they are protesting about are freedom and saving the constitution?

In this festive week, it must be a big cross to bear.