Book Excerpt: Why Shashi Tharoor thinks Narendra Modi is a paradoxical PM

ByShashi Tharoor
Oct 25, 2018 11:41 PM IST

Extracts from different chapters of the Congress leader’s new book, in which he argues that the PM is caught between liberal objectives and illiberal forces.

The very first time I met Narendra Modi, it was entirely by accident…

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor presents to Prime Minister Narendra Modi a copy of his book titled ‘An Era of Darkness : The British Empire in India’ in New Delhi on November 16, 2016.(PTI File Photo)
Congress MP Shashi Tharoor presents to Prime Minister Narendra Modi a copy of his book titled ‘An Era of Darkness : The British Empire in India’ in New Delhi on November 16, 2016.(PTI File Photo)

Unexpectedly, he greeted me by name; he knew who I was. Taken aback, I reciprocated. But I am not one to leave well enough alone. I might not have sought a meeting with him, given his reputation, but now that I was with the man himself, I decided to question him.

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The lunch soon became a dialogue between Mr. Modi and myself, with the others too polite to chip in. Regrettably, I did not write any notes that day of our conversation, and many of the details are now lost in the mists of memory. But one part of the exchange stays vividly in my mind.

I had asked him about the 2002 riots and his role in them, and he had replied predictably that he had done all he could, and called in the army when the police proved inadequate. I then switched to the present: what about the lingering effects on the Muslims of his state? I had heard dismaying reports of their being marginalized and ghettoized. How were they faring?

‘Let me tell you a story,’ Mr. Modi replied, looking me straight in the eye. ‘The same question you are asking me, I was asked by some very important people from Delhi. Some committee appointed by the central government had come to see me. [I surmised this was the Sachar Commission, which had been tasked by the UPA government to prepare a detailed report on the condition of Indian Muslims.] So I received them in my office, and they said to me, “We hear you have done nothing for Muslims in Gujarat.”’

‘You have done nothing for Muslim in Gujarat,’ he repeated for emphasis. ‘I replied, “Sit down, and please write this,”’ Narendra Modi’s eye glinted behind his glasses. ‘They all took out their notebooks and pens. And I told them, “You are right. I have done nothing for Muslims in Gujarat.” They all started writing this in their notebooks. Then I added, “Write this also: I have done nothing for Hindus in Gujarat either.”’ He paused for dramatic effect. ‘“I have done nothing for Muslims or Hindus. I have only worked for Gujaratis.”’It was highly effective, as was much else that he said that day. He was in Chennai to address non-resident Indian delegates about the investment opportunities available in his state. It was clear he knew how to impress an audience, even if, at our lunch, it was just an audience of five.

No sex, please, we’re Indian

In a manner worthy of a regressive society, where women are objectified, their sexuality constrained and the sex lives of their citizens policed, the BJP’s leading lights, rather than sorting out the myriad problems afflicting the nation, have decided to occupy themselves by policing the moral standards of the country’s youth…

So this is what a once-free society has been reduced to: multiple police squads, each consisting of a sub-inspector and two constables, patrolling Uttar Pradesh’s university campuses, college yards, cinema theatres, parks and other public places, looking for ‘Romeos’. The term seems to be loosely defined, entitling the cops to stop and question any young couple. While it may have once been intended to curb harassment by louts loafing in public places to ‘eve-tease’ unwary women, the sheer numbers reported confirm that the harassment is now coming mainly from the authorities and not from their targets…

The anti-Romeo squads are merely the latest sign of the continuing assault on any cultural practice deemed to be insufficiently Hindu by the self-appointed guardians of Indian culture…

The nativists argue that Valentine’s Day is an imported celebration, which it is (but so is Christmas, or Eid–ul-Nabi, or International Women’s Day, for that matter, and they don’t have the nerve to attack those). They also argue that it is un-Indian because it celebrates romantic love, and there they’re completely wrong. Historians tell us that there was a well-established Hindu tradition of adoration for Kamadeva, the god of love, which was only abandoned after the Muslim invasions in medieval times…

In fact, what young people today call ‘PDA’ or ‘public display of affection’ was widely prevalent in ancient India. As late as the eleventh century, Hindu sexual freedoms were commented upon by shocked travellers from the Muslim world. Today’s young celebrants of Valentine’s Day are actually upholding India’s ancient pre-Muslim culture, albeit in a much milder form than is on display, for instance, in Khajuraho.

The push for Hindi

The arrival of Modi on the national scene has seen his government pushing Hindi with more enthusiasm than judgement. I got caught up in the undertow of the new zeal for Hindi when in reply to a question on Twitter, in all innocence, I asserted that Hindi was not our natural language. I was accused of being anti-national, of being a slave to a foreign language — as if the British had excreted their language on us as pigeons might spatter us with their dropping. Unfortunately for them, I was right: the Constitution of India provides for no ‘national language’. But being wrong rarely bothers a troll…

When Hindi speakers emotionally decry the use of an alien language imposed on the country by British colonialists and demand that Hindi be used because it speaks for ‘the soul of India’, or when they declare that ‘Hindi is our mother, English is a stranger’, they are missing the point twice over.

First, because no Tamil or Bengali will accept that Hindi is the language of his soul or has anything to do with his mother — it is as alien to him as English is. And second, because injecting anti-English xenophobia into the argument is utterly irrelevant to the issue at stake for those who object to the idea of a national language…

Ideally, of course, every central government document, tax form or tweet should be in every one of India’s languages. Since that is not possible in practice — because we would have to do everything in twenty-three versions — we have chosen to have two official languages, English and Hindi. State governments complement these by producing official material in the language of their states. That leaves everyone more or less happy.

Since the BJP came to power, however, they have not been content to let sleeping dogmas lie. The move to push Hindi has required governmental file notations to be written in that language, even where that undermines comprehension, accuracy and therefore efficiency…

Language is a vehicle, not a destination. In government, it is a means, not an end. The Hindi-wallahs fail to appreciate that, since promoting Hindi, for them, is an end in itself.

This is what sustains the government’s futile efforts to make Hindi a seventh official language of the United Nations. PM Modi’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj dramatically declared that her government was willing to spend hundreds of crores of rupees to achieve this objective…

Six languages have been made official languages at the United Nations because a number of countries speak them. Arabic does not have more speakers than Hindi, but Arabic is spoken as an official language by twenty-two countries, whereas Hindi is only used as an official language by one country, India. When I questioned her in Parliament, Ms Swaraj claimed disingenuously that Hindi is spoken in Mauritius, Fiji, Surinam, Trinidad and Tobago, and Ghana. But she failed to acknowledge that it is not the official language of any of these countries, and therefore not a means of official communication with any of them.

Indian diplomats using Hindi at the UN would, in other words, be speaking to themselves and to the Hindi –speaking portion of their domestic audience. This narrow, essentially political objective, does not justify expending vast sums of taxpayers’ money.

The attack on institutions

Mahatma Gandhi once said: ‘The truest test of a democracy is in the ability of anyone to act as he likes, so long as he does not injure the life or property of anyone else’. In order for this to happen, every institution that upholds a healthy and vibrant democracy needs to be fostered and cared for by the government of the day. The independence of these institutions needs to be protected so they are able to dispense neutral decisions in the interest of every citizen of India. A list of such institutions would include the judiciary, headed by the Supreme Court; the Election Commission, which organizes, conducts and rules on the country’s general and state elections; the Reserve Bank of India, the nation’s central bank; the armed forces; the national exam-conducting bodies that test tens of millions of schoolchildren every year in highly competitive examinations that could make or break their futures; the investigative agencies (notably the Central Bureau of Investigation, India’s equivalent of the FBI); the elected legislatures; and the free press. Every one of these priceless institutions has come under threat in the last four years, as an assertive Hindu — chauvinist BJP government moves to consolidate its power in the world’s largest democracy.

North vs South

It is not often that a seemingly technical issue points towards a potentially grave challenge for the survival of our nation itself, but that is exactly what happened in early 2018 when a letter sent to ten chief ministers and the prime minister by DMK leader M.K. Stalin, questioning the ‘ill-conceived’ terms of reference of the Fifteenth Finance Commission , revealed how a thoughtless decision by the Modi government had opened a Pandora’s box with incalculable consequences for the country.

The Finance Commission is one of the less well-known institutions of our governing system. It is appointed every five years to review and decide how the country’s revenue from taxation will be apportioned between the states. The Finance Commission uses various criteria to determine this, including each state’s percentage of the national population. But for more than four decades, it has based itself on population figures from the 1971 census.

That may seem odd, since we have had four censuses since 1971 and new numbers have been available to successive Finance Commissions. But the reason for this is very simple, and it was made explicit in relation to a far more vital issue — that of political representation in our Parliament. In 1976, the omnibus 42nd Amendment to the Constitution decided to freeze the allocation of Lok Sabha seats to our states for twenty-five years to encourage population control, by assuring states that success in limiting population would not lose them Lok Sabha seats. In 2001, the NDA government of Prime Minister Vajpayee extended this arrangement for another twenty-five years; its proposal, which became the 91st Amendment, was unanimously adopted by all parties in both Houses of Parliament.

The reasoning behind this policy was clear: it was based on the sound principle that the reward for responsible stewardship of demography and human development by a state should not be the cause of its political disenfranchisement…

It was Mr Modi’s instruction to the Finance Commission to use the 2011 census figures now that caused Mr Stalin to erupt. He was not alone…

While the furore raised by the Finance Commission has died down due to some skilful bureaucratic compromises, the country should pay attention to the greater dangers. While the northern states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh had a decadal population growth rate over 20 per cent between 2001 and 2011, southern states like undivided Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, Kerala, Karnataka & Tamil Nadu grew at less than 16 per cent in the 2001-11 period. My own state of Kerala has the country’s lowest growth rate (4.9 per cent in 2001-11, and dropping, it is estimated, to negative growth by 2021). That is one-fifth of Bihar’s growth rate. Why should Kerala be punished for its impressive performance by losing seats in Parliament and thereby being forced to dilute its voice in national affairs?

The mirage of Achhe Din

As we know, the Modi government was elected in 2014 on a promise of ‘achhe din’ for the Indian people. As I have shown , although the core supporters of PM Modi’s Bharatiya Janata Party belonged to the Hindu right-wing, there is no doubt that what tipped it over the threshold of victory was an upbeat economic message of imminent growth and prosperity. CM Modi was portrayed as the dynamic CEO of his home state, Gujarat, who had presided over unprecedented growth and development and who would be able to do for India what he had done for Gujarat. A vote for the BJP, it was said, would be a vote for rapid and effective economic development. ‘Achhe din’ would soon follow.

It didn’t…

Mr Modi campaigned in 2014 on the insincere but attractive slogan that ‘government has no business to be in business’. But for four years he has continued the government’s role in every business it ought not to be in, from running hotels to making condoms. ‘Divestment’ consisted merely of selling part of the government’s share of some public sector companies to other public sector companies; thus the government — owned Oil and Natural Gas Corporation bought the government-owned Hindustan Petroleum Corporation, with Mr Modi crowing about disinvestment. And when the government finally attempted an important act of privatization — that of the loss-making state airline Air India — it hedged the sale offer with so many conditions, including the government’s retaining a 25 per cent stake, that not a single bidder came forward.

All of this, coupled with the sea of red ink listing bad loans at state-owned banks (now at a record breaking ~ 85,370 crore in 2017-18, with a dozen major bad-loan defaulters in the bankruptcy courts), has dented the investment climate in India…

Inevitably, the rupee has sunk to record lows. This is turn has hugely driven up the cost of India’s energy imports at the very time that global oil prices are increasing…

…Narendra Modi’s India is heading towards precisely the kind of crisis of economic confidence it was elected to resolve. With elections looming, it is under pressure to increase minimum support prices for farmers, finance the ambitious social welfare schemes it had announced with much fanfare, lower the hefty taxes it has been levying on petrol and diesel to balance its books and show some genuine progress on infrastructure. It hasn’t a clue about how to do any of this. Instead of the promised ‘good days’, India is facing plenty of bad ones.

The new India we seek

‘New India’ is the latest phrase our current prime minister has been trying to create a buzz around. During his address to the nation from the ramparts of the Red fort on the occasion of the anniversary of India’s 71st Independence Day in 2017, he is reported to have used the phrase ten times in one hour…

What is this ‘New India’ he is urging us to create? The prime minister speaks of an India free from the shackles of casteism and communal tension, an India that successfully solves its endemic problems of corruption, nepotism and terrorism, an India where every woman, and man and child would be given an empowered and dignified standard of living, thanks to a society that harnesses India’s entrepreneurial spirit to become an economic powerhouse. But, as usual, between the rhetoric and the reality there falls a great shadow. For all these statements and ideals (which one can find very little to disagree with), one is struck by the complete lack of any idea of how our country is going to achieve any of this. On the contrary, the road to New India appears littered with the wreckage of all that was good and noble about the old India.

Whether it is the ‘Achhe Din’ of 2014 or the ‘New India’ of the present, under the BJP government, these phrases appear to be mere subterfuge, a smokescreen for the real agenda of New India that this government has pursued since coming to power four years back. As a progressive Indian, I too want a New India. But not this kind of New India.

The New India I want is a country where you won’t get lynched for the food you eat, marginalized for the faith you hold dear, criminalized for the person you love and imprisoned for making use of fundamental rights guaranteed by our own Constitution. Instead, we must look forward to a New India that celebrates and welcomes pluralism, an idea vindicated by history itself.

To me, this New India must be fundamentally rooted in the idea of India that our founding fathers believed in. After all, as I’ve asked in a different context, if you don’t know where you are coming from, then how can you know where you are going?

The nebulous ‘Idea of India’ — though the phrase is Rabindranath Tagore’s — is, in some form or another, arguably as old as antiquity itself.

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru saw our country as an ‘ancient palimpsest’ on which successive rulers and subjects had inscribed their visions without erasing what had been asserted previously. We not only coexist, but thrive in our diversity which is our strength. Swami Vivekananda spoke of a Hinduism that not merely tolerates other faiths but accepts them as they are. This acceptance of difference has been key to our country’s survival, making ‘unity in diversity’ the most hallowed of independent India’s self-defining slogans.

India, as I have long argued, has always been more than the sum of its contradictions.

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