Nothing helps Narendra Modi more than making him out to be a victim. This truth evaded the ivory panelled minds of a group of University of Pennsylvania academics when they called for him to be banned from speaking, via videophone, at a Wharton Business School Forum.
Commentary in India has been running in Modi’s favour, I would guess, by a ratio of nine to one. The commonest argument in defence of Modi has been the Voltairean one. “I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (mind you, Voltaire never actually said that, but the sentiment is right).
In the eyes of many, Modi is not beyond repro-ach. He is, at a minimum, thought to be complicit in the passive acceptance of the anti-Muslim pogroms that blighted the reputation of Gujarat and his government in 2002. The Supreme Court has hinted as such by criticising his unwillingness to go after suspected participants in the carnage while being over-eager to gag whistleblowers and witnesses for the prosecution.
Here’s a question for those of you who feel the right place for Modi is a locked black box on the dark side of the moon: why is he going from political strength to political strength? The answer is legitimacy. Where does this legitimacy arise from? From the Gujarati voter and, possibly one day, the Indian voter.
By winning three state elections in a row in a country where winning one is a half-miracle, Modi has provided himself the best possible defence against criticism. In a democracy, the thickest armour is that made of layers of ballot papers.
Those on the far left and far right won’t agree. In their world view, adherence to an ideological straitjacket is what confers legitimacy. Hence the strange sight of RSS and communist intellectuals both mouthing off against Modi: he declines to wear their straitjackets. But among the babbling majority, in a democracy, and in a civil society, legitimacy is accepted as coming from below not from above.
It was noticeable that the petition against Modi’s participation at the Wharton India Economic Forum avoided dwelling on his electoral successes.
Instead it focused on the US visa ban (which could almost be a roll of honour given that others facing the same predicament include the widow of Salvador Allende, misogynist singer Boy George and more communists than one can name), Human Rights Watch (which has a problem with the CMs of Kashmir, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu and most of the Northeas-tern states as well), and the Supreme Court of India (which has cited Modi for being unhelpful but has yet to pin a blood charge on him directly).
If the electorate is the source of his legitimacy, the proper way to undermine Modi is to make him suspect in the eyes of the public. A criminal case would be perfect, but the evidence is lacking. There have been some attempts at dissecting Gujarat’s economic record that has been impressive on growth but poor on inclusion.
What is not helpful is what happe-ned at Wharton. A crude attempt at censoring Modi in a public forum only helps to make him look like the one besieged, the underdog under attack from an armchair elite and, finally, helps him redefine himself not as a pariah politician but as the representation of Indian nationalism.
No self-respecting liberal can support censorship, even when it comes to a person who one despises, the idea of using illiberal means to constrain him or her sticks in one’s craw.
The only hope to expose such a person is to make him a lesser mortal among the masses. Allowing Modi to speak freely, act openly and face a jury of his peers on a public podium is among the best ways to let him expose himself. Dwight D Eisenhower used a similar tactic with the anti-communist demagogue, Joe McCarthy: he let the senator trip himself up by letting him speak his mind.
The Wharton India Economic Forum, otherwise evolving as one of the best international meeting places to discuss India’s business prospects, is possibly fatally damaged. It will be in for a tough time if Modi is successful in moving on to the national political stage.
The lesson, however, is that the strength of a public fora or a university is the power of ideas, arguments, fact versus fiction. The power of a politician lies in the support he garners on the ground from common people.
If you want to use the former to take on the latter, then your targets are the people who can be reached through a series of intermediaries: the press, Facebook and screaming TV anchors. Any attempt to short circuit that process doesn’t work.
Ostracisation is a social tool, not an intellectual one. Using it against an elected politician makes about as little sense as urging tens of thousands farm labourers to critique a Harvard professor’s scholarly treatise by yelling loudly. Modi won this round and without even wanting to.