The year 2015 had more than its fair share of tumult and chaos in many parts of the world and India was no exception. Political fortunes swung like a pendulum. The invincible overlord of 2014 was stung by a newbie upstart in Delhi and bulldozed in Bihar. The mantra ‘Modi is BJP and BJP is Modi’ seemed less convincing as the BJP lost a string of local council elections, most painfully in the PM’s home state of Gujarat. The Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS) shed its pretence of being a backseat driver and openly influenced BJP policies. Buoyed by the government’s apparent acquiescence in the RSS Hindu Rashtra agenda, Hindutva hotheads, including BJP ministers, felt emboldened to openly promote their divisive agenda, causing eminent intellectuals, artists and writers to return their national awards. Rahul Gandhi went on a secretive sabbatical and found his mojo – or so it seemed. All in all, there was plenty of fodder for eager news anchors. Here are some of the highlights.
Waxing and Waning of Modi Wave
Every commodity has a shelf life; and that includes our PM Narendra Modi. When Modi burst upon the national scene in 2013, his awe-inspiring oratory mesmerized an entire nation. His flamboyance, folksy wisdom and constant refrain of “happy days will soon be here” was so compelling that an entire population lapped up his promises, no matter how tall or improbable. Here was the long awaited Messiah who would lead the nation out of stagnation and corruption into a new dawn. The people could deny him nothing and handed him state after state, until he seemed to be well on his way to become the uncrowned emperor of India.
Then Delhi happened and the train stopped. How did the Modi wave lose its magic? How did the wave suddenly collapse? The answer lies in over-selling your limited bill of goods. When you make essentially the same speech time after time, with the same hand gestures, the same sarcastic barbs at your opponents; and the continuing self-aggrandizement such as Rs.10 lacs suits and embracing the President of the USA as a jigari dost, the humble chai-wallah and one time reformer stands revealed for what he has become. Moreover, when he callously disregards party elders who have devoted their whole lives to the BJP and replaces them with his chosen henchmen, the people begin to realize that he is not quite the benevolent godfather he makes himself out to be.
So do you think Modi has learnt his lesson? I doubt it. A leopard does not change his spots. When power and privilege comes to one not born to it, it is a heady brew that cannot be easily discarded.
2015 kicked off with the countdown to the Delhi Assembly elections. The BJP, revved up after its string of victories in 2014, regarded the poll as a mere formality. After all, its trump card Narendra Modi was alive and kicking and in tremendous form. He stormed the capital, confident that his flashy oratory, elaborate hand flourishes and humour would carry the day. The RSS with its impressive organization ensured that the crowds at his election rallies numbered in the thousands; and the adoring chants of “Modi, Modi” convinced the BJP that it was all over, bar the shouting. Then came the mufflered Arvind Kejriwal, as un-chief ministerial as one can get. He coughed, he grimaced and he swept the polls.
The spectacular Aam Aadmi Party’s (AAP) victory in the Delhi assembly election marked a watershed moment in the current political scenario. I suspect that many BJP leaders, particularly the veterans, were secretly delighted with the election result. They had probably been seething for having to feign obeisance to the overbearing arrogance of the Narendra Modi-Amit Shah duo, particularly the latter. Here was a regional upstart who was thrust into the top position in the party merely because he is a close confidante of the all-powerful PM. They had hitherto been forced to shower praises because Shah delivered a string of BJP victories in state elections. Perhaps, they will now feel emboldened to speak their minds; and a semblance of democracy will return to “the party with a difference”.
Rahul baba’s Vacation
A lot of criticism was levelled at Rahul Gandhi for taking off on a secretive sabbatical. He was accused of abandoning his post and running away like a coward. However, I felt it was a wise move by the Congress heir-apparent. The best thing the Congress and its leaders could have done was to lie low for a few months, genuinely introspect and come out with an effective strategy to counter the BJP. After all, the aura of invincibility that had surrounded Modi was already starting to lose its sheen without any outside help. This may have been one instance where silence was indeed golden. Unfortunately the dawning of common sense and political acumen proved to be short lived. Rahul may have transformed himself, but his political saviness is still in its infant stage. Offence may be the best form of defence, but when you lambast the BJP on every single issue, it becomes monotonous and counter-productive.
Saffronization Creeping Up
In his column in the March 16 edition of Indian Express, Julio Ribeiro joined a growing group of rational and intelligent personalities who had been lamenting the creeping saffronization taking place in our secular and tolerant country over the past few months. It is poignant and deeply distressing that a thorough gentleman who has served India with great distinction for most of his adult life is being made to feel like a “stranger in his own country”. Ribeiro is right when he concludes that the “systemic targeting” of those who do not belong to the majority community has begun only after the BJP government of Narendra Modi came to power.
Here I would make a subtle distinction. During the previous BJP regime under Atal Bihari Vajpayee, we did not witness this kind of open communal venom being spewed by Hindu fundamentalists. No doubt some extremists owing allegiance to the RSS and their offshoots were present even then, but Vajpayee kept them in check. It is inexplicable that a strongman like Modi who exercises total control over his party members, cannot do the same. It leads one to the conclusion that he is either turning a blind eye or is content to let the hardliners expound their perverted version of Hindutva and proclaim a Hindu Rashtra. Some would argue that Modi has occasionally made strong statements against this practice. Agreed, but they have not been followed up with concrete actions and are not taken seriously by the venom-spewers.
Witness how BJP MP Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti made her trademark inflammatory statements in public only three days after Modi gave a speech in Parliament on how all religions must be treated with equal respect. It is also noteworthy that during the March reshuffle of the BJP’s top decision-making committee, while Smriti Irani and others were dropped, the Sadhvi and Yogi Adityanath retained their places. And it is not only the fanatics. The new Chief Minister of Haryana, a committed RSS sevak, not only banned cattle slaughter in his state, but wanted to make the penalty for violation equal to that of murdering a human being. Then there is the outrageously incompetent Chairman of the Censor Board, whose only qualification for the job seems to be that he is RSS man.
Beef It Up
In October, Manohar Lal Khattar, Chief Minister of Haryana, in a burst of benevolence, stated that Muslims will be permitted to continue living in India if they gave an undertaking to give up consuming beef. Honestly, the current crop of BJP leaders is in a class by itself. The “magnanimity” of Khattar is staggering, even by RSS standards. He will “allow” Muslims to stay in India, provided they give up eating beef. If they don’t, he will, presumably, ask them to go to Pakistan! What planet is the “honourable” gentleman living on? Since when do legal citizens of a sovereign nation need permission to live in their own country? It is no secret that Khattar was chosen for the top job mainly because he is a RSS stalwart. Is he now trying to repay the favour to his benefactors?
Take the beef ban in Maharashtra. All this sudden concern for aging and unproductive cattle, ghoshalyas and the virtues of cow urine is just a smokescreen. It is curious that this cattle champion, Devendra Fadnavis, Chief Minister of Maharashtra never brought up the issue when he was in the opposition. The reality is Fadnavis remains adamant despite stringent opposition and certain economic disadvantages, because he is following the RSS philosophy.
On the one hand, our benevolent Prime Minister gives speeches about the brotherhood of Hindus and Muslims; and here are his top lieutenants openly expressing their prejudice. The PM rarely utters any specific condemnation about the Hindutva propagators who continue to spew their venom and still occupy their ministerial posts. It makes one wonder that, while not questioning Modi’s genuine commitment to development and economic advancement, his ties to the RSS remain so strong that he cannot bring himself to go against the organization line. Something is happening to India’s secular ethos which is presently being glossed over by the euphoria over development and India’s new status on the global stage. Wherever this nation is heading towards, it is not a good place.
More eminent citizens like Ribeiro need to speak up. It will be a tragedy if we allow grand visions and promises of development and prosperity – many of them yet to be fulfilled – obscure the reality of what is taking place in this imperfect, but democratic and tolerant nation of ours, of which we are justly proud.
India’s Foreign Image
PM Narendra Modi intensified his foreign safaris with a gusto he seldom displays at home. The man abroad is a delight – especially to himself. It is now obvious that Modi revels in the adulation and attention he receives during his frequent and stage-managed state visits to foreign countries. His handlers somehow manage to gather a crowd of ecstatic non-resident Indians in almost every country he visits, who are guaranteed to give him a rock star welcome, complete with bells and whistles; and the PM can scarcely hide his glee. By now he has perfected eliciting hero worship into an art form.
Contrast his beaming visage at these venues to his grim and often bored expression on the rare occasions he appears in Parliament. As epitomized by the infamous suit and designer shawls, Modi has now shed any vestige of the “humble chai-wallah”. He fancies himself as a world statesman and is content to leave the mundane matter of governing the country to his underlings – subject to his approval, of course. The plebeian is dead; long live the king.
Nehru who? Indira who? If Narendra Modi has his way, this question will be asked by a majority of Indians, with a look of bewilderment. History is often rewritten by the conqueror. Since Modi believes he has indeed conquered the whole of India and is the monarch of all he surveys, he probably assumes it is his mission to eradicate the memory of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi from the collective consciousness of Indians. Could the intense antipathy towards the Congress stem from a slight sense of inferiority, because the RSS/BJP had no role to play in India’s freedom struggle, even though the RSS was founded in pre-independent India (1925)?
It is ironic that the same Modi who holds the Congress in such obvious disdain, is now trying to co-opt the legacy of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel (a staunch Congressman who actually banned the RSS after the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi) as the BJP’s birthright. Perhaps the RSS/BJP fails to realize that it is the free India gained by Gandhiji, Nehru and other freedom fighters that allows them the freedom to openly propagate their views.
In November, Aamir Khan stirred a hornet’s nest. Apparently, the actor’s wife asked him if staying on in India remains the best option for the family. She was referring to the growing perception that India’s lauded reputation as a country where one could express one’s opinions freely, without fear of retribution, was under attack. Not surprisingly, newly minted “patriots” rose up in righteous outrage at the screen icon’s blasphemy. Prominent among them was the BJP’s born-again Bollywood standard bearer Anupam Kher. He took a sarcastic dig at Aamir’s “Incredible India” campaign, blissfully ignoring the reality that these ad-films are purely commercial endeavours where the actor mouths the lines scripted for him.
The real issue here is not whether Aamir Khan is right or wrong in his opinions. The genuine concern is that an atmosphere is being created in this country where scholars, artists, writers, actors and even scientists – who have shown no interest in politics or activism before – feel compelled to speak out. Surely, these individuals have done a lot of soul searching before they decided to go public. The sad part is that not a single senior BJP leader, including the PM, made any effort at reconciliation. The right thing to do would be to invite these “dissidents” over for a talk and dispel their fears. Instead they allowed the Hindutva fanatics to run wild and roam free. Dismissing the protesting intellectuals as anti-Indian and Congress stooges merely reinforces the impression that there is indeed growing intolerance in our fair land.
Raid and Disrupt
In December the “people’s champion” Arvind Kejriwal went ballistic. The CBI conducted an inquiry into the alleged financial impropriety of his principal secretary and Kejrival took it as a personal slight. Actually the raid seemed to follow a pattern – CBI raid on an Opposition leader and more pandemonium in Parliament. The CBI probably had sufficient cause to conduct the raid, but its timing was peculiar. The current parliament session was about to end in one week. So why couldn’t it wait?
Coupled with the raking up of the National Herald case against Sonia and Rahul Gandhi, it is almost as if the BJP is deliberately provoking the Opposition to disrupt the House and thereby, portray them in poor light. Some have even speculated that the BJP does not really want the GST (Goods and Services Tax) Bill to be passed – after all, economic liberalization is not RSS core philosophy – and blame the Opposition for its lapse. It is distressing, in fact, that all political parties seem to be more interested in scoring points off each other, showing scant regard for the nation and the people they have been elected to serve.
India-Pak Bhai Bhai
The year ended on a tragi-comic note. First, BJP general secretary Ram Madhav propounded his philosophy of “akhand Bharat”. Every time PM Modi takes a constructive and innovate step towards normalizing relations with Pakistan, some “patriot” from his own party says something stupid to muddy the waters. Modi’s impromptu meeting with Nawaz Sharif has probably generated a fair amount of goodwill in Pakistan. So naturally, Madhav has to open his mouth and mess it up. Madhav’s assertion that India and Pakisran will one day be united, provides welcome fodder to India-baiters in Pakistan, who will broadcast it as proof of India’s nefarious designs to swallow up their country. The weak caveat that India does not intend to achieve this by conquest, will be conveniently side-stepped.
Chhatrapati and Maharaj
Finally, the legislators of Maharashtra’s State Assembly had their knickers in a twist over a vital issue that could adversely affect Mumbai’s future. They had come upon the sudden realization that their icon, the great and glorious Shivaji has not been accorded the honour he deserves. Sure, the World Heritage railway terminus at Bori Bunder and Mumbai International Airport are named after the great man. However, the honorific “Maharaj” does not appear after his name, and that is a big problem! Seriously? This is the latest priority of our legislators who are wasting their time on it, while there are myriad of genuine hardships facing Mumbaikars which need attention. I would like to inform PWD Minister Chandrakant Patil that his contention “there is a growing demand to modify the names of CST and the international airport” exists only in his imagination. The citizens of Mumbai do not give a damn what these structures are called. They would be much more appreciative if the honourable Minister expended his energies in improving the deplorable infrastructure and pathetic civic conditions in the metropolis he is in charge of. But then, those mundane tasks don’t get your name in the paper. Jai Maharashtra!
Mr. Firoze Hirjikaka is a retired civil engineer, freelance writer and regular contributor to Freedom First. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org