Rise of intolerant India threatens PM Modi’s global image
Images of Sudheendra Kulkarni, his face and body blackened by the ink flung at him by protesters, are now being flashed all over the world. As the protest was over Kulkarni’s willingness to help a former Pakistan foreign minister launch a memoir, the message that has gone out is this: How can there ever be peace between Pakistan and India when there are extremist groups within India that are bitterly opposed to any contact — let alone the peace process — with Pakistan?
This tears a gaping hole in the Indian messaging — carefully caliberated over the years — that India wants peace but that the Pakistani regime is in the grip of extremists, fundamentalists and terrorists. What makes it worse is that, till recently, Kulkarni was a pillar of the BJP establishment. He was a senior member of the Vajpayee PMO and an adviser to LK Advani. Worse still, the people who doused him in ink were not extremists from some little-known fringe organisation.
The Shiv Sena is the BJP’s ally and a part of the Maharashtra government, the same government that is supposed to protect citizens against such attacks.
Every way you look at it, the Kulkarni-Kasuri incident is a disaster for India. It does not help that it comes on the heels of the Shiv Sena’s refusal to allow Pakistani singer, Ghulam Ali, to perform in Mumbai.
On that occasion, the chief minister of Maharashtra had promised security to Ali. But the organisers decided to abandon the concert anyway; one indication of the importance people attach to the state government’s guarantees. The general view was that even if the government had provided security, the Shiv Sena would still have been able to disrupt the performance and perhaps harm those who performed or attended.
The two incidents, on the heels of each other, in what was once India’s most liberal and cosmopolitan city, illustrate the dilemma that Narendra Modi now faces.
In the case of the Shiv Sena he can distance himself by arguing that he cannot be held responsible for everything an ally does.
But this position seems weaker when the violence, intolerance, and hatred emanate from closer home. The murders and attacks on liberal writers, the hysteria over beef, and the abuse of Muslims, that have dominated the headlines, all emerge from the Hindutva right wing, from members of the extended Sangh Parivar, from the BJP and even, from Modi’s own ministers.
The prime minister can claim, with some justification, that he does not condone such attacks or such statements. He can point to his own record at South Block and say that he has never said or done anything that could be construed as communal.
But his critics will ask the obvious questions. Does he not see that there is now a mood of Hindu triumphalism in which a Hindutva fringe believes that the BJP’s victory in the last general election gives them the right to reshape the idea of India to match their own bigoted vision? Does he not notice or mind when his avowed supporters ask people who believe in the old liberal idea of India to emigrate to Pakistan? Does he not worry when so many writers return their awards, resign from the Sahitya Akademi, and declare that they are distressed by the rising hatred and intolerance in India?
Modi has said nothing. But my guess is that he must be very worried.
Everything about Modi’s behaviour over the last few months suggests that, in his mind, he has made the transition from being a Hindutva icon to becoming a global statesman. He wants to be on first-name terms with world leaders as they welcome him to their capitals. He wants to be hailed as the man who made India relevant again after the disasters of UPA II.
So, he cannot be pleased by what is going on.
But he has a problem. There has been a three-step evolution in Modi’s image: From a dedicated Hindutvawallah to a development champion, and now, to a global statesman. Unfortunately, like some house of cards, each layer and image have been dependent on the one that came before. If he was not a Hindutva icon, then the Sangh would never have backed him as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. The Hindutva hard core is the basis of his support and therefore his rise to power. Alienate this hard core and the whole house of cards risks collapse.
This is why Modi has been so reluctant to speak out against the hatemongers till public pressure leaves him with no choice. For instance, he could have ended the beef hysteria if he had spoken up right after the Dadri incident. But he dilly-dallied and only issued a veiled condemnation after the president had spoken out.
But as the triumphalism swirls over India, and the hatred flows through our streets, Modi will have to re-examine that ambivalence. He has only just rid himself of the image that had clung to him after the Gujarat riots and only just been welcomed into the world’s capitals.
If India becomes a cauldron of intolerance, will Modi still be treated as a respected global statesman the next time he meets a world leader?
The answers are clear. Sooner or later, Modi will have to speak out for tolerance and act against those who spread hatred.
If not for India’s sake, then for his own.
(The views expressed are personal.)