This Article is From Dec 16, 2017

In Response To Pratap Bhanu Mehta's Assessment Of Modi

Here are some thoughts about a recent column by Pratap Bhanu Mehta.

Mehta's piece, 'Power and Insecurity' (Indian Express), is spot on. He excoriates the Prime Minister's Gujarat campaign as "dripping in communal innuendo", and says the PM "now wants to shed whatever last veneer of deniability was left and claim full-throated responsibility for spreading this poison." He talks about "the diminution of the moral stature of the office" and that "the politics of hope have been replaced entirely by the politics of fear". He says that "A combination of great power and a deep sense of insecurity does not bode well" and that Mr Modi, "instead of navigating constitutional values, ordinary decencies of discourse and civility, to safe harbour, is now bent on creating new storms...In shoring his power through conflict he is taking India down the road to ruin."

Every word is true. But these words come out of some assumptions which we must learn from, if we are to reverse and pre-empt majoritarianism.

First, we seem to assume that high office has a salutary effect on those who hold it. Prime Minister Modi and President Trump in the US are excellent examples of the fact that the office does not make the person - the person reshapes the office. How did a snarlingly communal, pseudo-nationalistic, anti-intellectual, misogynistic, Hindu chauvinist party like the BJP get a crack at reshaping the country in its own image, so that Indian democracy is in what feels like a death spiral?

In part, because it does reflect a large section of society, but also because many, whose job it is to speak truth to power, failed to do so. Many people told themselves that Mr Modi wouldn't dare to be himself once he was Prime Minister; that treating him like a Prime Minister would make him prime ministerial material. You cannot downplay inconvenient truths and just hope that things will work out.

Second, we falsely invest position with moral authority. Power does not come pre-loaded with morality-it is only power. The people who wield it determine its stature. Yes, Mr Modi has demeaned the office, but then he has a long track record of personal attack. Yes, he dripped communal innuendo, but he's done that in every election. Yes, he uses the politics of fear, but fear and hate are the wellspring of Hindutva. Yes, he is insecure, as is every person with a lot to lose, and every pride-hungry Hindutvavadi. No, he isn't into constitutional values, and neither is the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh where he was politically raised. All of this was very well known and well demonstrated by the time he came to campaign for the 2014 general election.

Third, deniability is a political strategy that rests on the credibility of the denier. Denial does not make things go away. Fig leaves merely hide what everyone knows is there. We have always been a conservative society hostile enough to minorities, gender justice, and individual rights that maintaining constitutional  principles is an uphill battle. It seems to me that Mr Modi first threw off the fig leaf in 2002. Since 2014, the BJP, backed by a brute majority and with RSS loyalists seeded in every institution, imposing food bans, encouraging religious bullying, and subverting individual rights, has been its truest self. This isn't new.

Fourth, we assume that this government was sworn in to protect the constitution, but anyone who didn't see this as the wolf entering in sheep's clothing is deluded. It is committed to a religious Hindu chauvinist state with a defined social structure, not to India's Western-inspired, pluralistic, individual rights-based constitution.

How can we say this? Because that's the definition of Hindutva. Please, good people, read V Savarkar and MS Golwalkar. The latter's "Bunch of Thoughts" is filled with prettily phrased hate that will enable you to draw a straight line from the RSS's revered 'Guruji' to what we're seeing now: forced citizen subjugation via things like Aadhaar and vigilantism; the nexus between power and godmen; the domino-like capitulation of institutions; the trampling of rights; and minority and gender intimidation through violence.

It is a mistake to respect and submit to office and institution solely on the assumption that they must surely deserve it. Office and institution are only as good as the people who occupy them, and they do not inherit respect; they must constantly earn it. Vigilance and straight talk will make us a better country.

I'll leave you with a useful cliche: You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. If you can't or won't relate to that very Western idiom, just think of the story about the Brahman and the snake.

(Mitali Saran is a freelance writer and columnist based in New Delhi.)

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