What the Time Article Misses About Modi Government
Taseer may dislike Modi on a few counts, but isn't enamoured of Rahul Gandhi either...
It is three days now since Time magazine published a cover story on Prime Minister Narendra Modi, calling him divider-in-chief. Indian media outlets and commentators have responded to this characterization immediately. Modi supporters have flooded the internet and social media with outrage. Those ambivalent to Modi until recently have now started to publicly air their skepticism and Modi’s critics are delighted that a globally influential platform has emphatically condemned Modi’s politics. How are we to interpret this development? It will be silly to claim that it will have any bearing on the outcome of the general election in India. But it offers an insight into how a section of the anglicized Indian elite had in 2014 invested in Modi and has since lost confidence in him.
It is best to begin with a summary of that piece in Time. It is written by Aatish Taseer, a 39-year-old journalist writer born to deceased Pakistani politician and businessman Salman Taseer and senior Indian journalist Tavleen Singh. Following his parents’ separation, he lived with his mother in Delhi among the anglicized elite and later went to Oxford University and Columbia University, for higher studies, before taking to full-time writing. He has so far published six books of fiction and non-fiction, including a translation of Manto’s stories. He writes regularly for respectable international publications, such as Granta or the New York Times. He had covered the general election of 2014 in India for the newsmagazine Open.
Taseer’s essay argues that Prime Minister Modi has over the last five years presided over a reign of terror against India’s Muslims and Dalits. The political atmosphere under his watch has since worsened so much that Modi himself cannot anymore control this violence. For, all basic norms of civility have broken down. Under Modi’s regime, all kinds of minorities including women and liberals, apart from Muslims, Christians and Dalits, have come under increasing attack and the political leadership has responded with total silence to these atrocities. Moreover, Modi has created an intellectually stifling climate, in which baseless invocations of ancient Indian accomplishments pass for actual achievement and able intellectuals are either dismissed or passed over for mediocre loyalists. At the point, Taseer dutifully recalls Nehru, who had championed scientific temper and stood against all kinds of magic and obscurantism. He also notes that Modi has launched a vicious climate of anti-intellectualism by attacking dissident institutions and intellectuals and packing leading research and teaching institutions, such as Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi, with loyalists but incompetent recruits. The country is overrun with chauvinists who feel threatened by the dominance of the anglicized elite and call them names, but are themselves not qualified to replace them in any constructive way. Modi’s India appears like a place where the existing order has been wiped out, but without any credible alternative coming in its place. Yet, Taseer is not certain that Modi will be voted out, presumably because the opposition, led by Rahul Gandhi of the Congress, is weak and lacking in unity. He dismisses Rahul Gandhi as an ‘unteachable mediocrity’.
Taseer spends so much energy cataloguing Modi’s failures during the last five years and, yet, he focuses primarily on a particular aspect of Modi’s failure -- his silence against attacks on Muslims, Dalits and liberals. He spares only a sentence or two for Modi’s colossal failure in the domains of economy and public policy. The misadventure of demonetization, for instance, is mentioned just in passing. This is mighty surprising in view of the fact that Taseer himself was confident five years ago that Modi spoke most eloquently to the changing material aspirations of the average Indian voter. In a series of essays penned for the Indian newsmagazine Open covering the general elections of 2014, he wrote that the average Indian voter had undergone a change in mindset following a process of what he called middle classification. This voter no longer looked emaciated or helpless, looking up to the leaders for subsidized basic necessities, but the gentrifying symbols of malls, television, mobile phones and roads now governed her aspirations. These voters were fed up with the perpetual hypocrisy of the anglicized leaders, with their feudal mindset, who specialized only in making pious promises, on the one hand, and securing the prospects of the narrow circle of their immediate family and friends, on the other.
At the time, Taseer made light of Modi’s manifest disdain for Muslims, and waxed eloquent only on the perceived incompetence of Rahul Gandhi and the Congress. He called Rahul Gandhi a sepoy prince and a dwarf Bonsai and the Congress a party which did not allow competent politicians to grow by reserving top positions only to members of the Nehru-Gandhi family. This institutionalized tolerance of incompetence and mediocrity found expression, according to his analysis, in the choice of criminal elements and party hoppers as Congress candidates, such as the one fielded against Modi in Benaras in 2014. Arvind Kejriwal, the other challenger of Modi in Benaras in 2014, was dismissed as an anarchist who proposed to uproot the existing political mechanism without proposing a credible alternative in its place, and by protesting too strongly against big industry as a source of corruption and too little on the corruption of the state machinery. It is clear that Taseer had been investing heavily in a combination of Modi and big industry, and against that section of the anglicized liberals in India who had already been suspicious of Modi’s previous record of practising polarizing politics.
Taseer had his reasons, which he explained in those pieces. He had during the previous few years come to an understanding of what lay at the root of India’s shoddy, unplanned and hapahazard state. It lacked a historical sense. By historical sense he meant the enabling excitement that comes from a mastery of Sanskrit language and literature as a source of an enormously large body of knowledge and confidence from a living connection with India’s past. Quoting Elliot and Ananda Coomerswamy repeatedly, Taseer envisaged this living engagement with Sanskrit not merely as an academic exercise, but as something comparable to the engagement of the average European with the classical languages and literature that not merely offers extensive knowledge but a rootedness and a long and uninterrupted history. This confident history of continuity had been disrupted following a generation of English education since when the anglicized elite has reduced the status of Sanskrit to a useless and inferior commodity. He wrote of how Sarojini Naidu, presumably as a representative of this deracinated elite, had dismissed a proposal for recalling Commerswamy from America to preside over a programme for redesigning Indian academic curriculum to cultivate a living connection with India’s ancient past as impractical. The Indian education system, he regretted, has since produced only a sense of perpetual inferiority in the average student without sufficient access to English. This has now turned into a mortal anger with the dominance of the anglicized class. He does not write explicitly but it is reasonable to assume that he was hoping Modi with his manifest disdain for the anglicized elites might well inaugurate such a long-pending reform of the Indian education system.
He could not have been more naïve or mistaken. Modi had not distinguished himself with launching any innovative education reforms during his long tenure as Chief Minister of Gujarat. Neither did he publish anything on the question. Tasser could not have been entirely unaware of the tinderbox Modi had been sitting on. Even in 2014, he had dismissed men like Dinanath Batra who had called for obscurantist reforms in text books as little men without much credibility. He was clear, to be fair, that until seriously invested engagements with Sanskrit and India's past, such as pioneering research comparable in quality to those underway in Columbia University, for instance, were immediately set up, the large number of restless youth who held India’s past as an inviolable memento would sooner or latter explode into a chauvinist lynch mob ready to give or take offence in the name of religion and tradition.
While a literary vision like this looks elegant, it is flawed on several counts. While there is no doubt that the ancient Sanskrit language and literature is rich, it had at all times remained a preserve of the ruling elite and ignored the masses, who lived and spoke through their vernaculars. An engagement with Sanskrit, howsoever rich it may be, can be an empowering vehicle only for the rich. The poor and the vernaculars would enjoy an education which teaches their children mastery of the kind of English that Taseer himself inherited at birth and has since prospered in. Dalit intellectuals in particular have been making that point since decades, and Muslim intellectuals, if Taseer were to speak to them, would probably second them. Also, the middle classification of India since the early nineties has been researched and written on since at least the mid-nineties, and its rising aspirations have found electoral expression in earlier general elections too. Modi was not the Prime Ministerial candidate at the time. The same aspirations will continue to shape electoral outcomes in India even now, when Taseer himself admits that Modi no longer remains the most credible face. Finally, Taseer is entirely clueless in this piece about what the driving force of 2019 election is, or will be, since he has found no face or leader likeable enough to invest in. It betrays no immediate disincentive for Narendra Modi or Rahul Gandhi, both of whom have stayed the course, irrespective of who eventually wins. Yet, it betrays the desperation of the section of the anglicized class to which Taseer belongs: a class now more clueless than ever before. It continues to hate Rahul Gandhi and it now disapproves of Narendra Modi too, without offering any credible alternative, a vice that Taseer himself is never ready to tolerate.
(Anirban Bandyopadhyay teaches at Karnavati University in Gujarat. The views expressed are entirely his own.)