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Who’s Afraid Of President Modi?
There are voices that say the top job comes with its own checks and balances, but every sector is fearful now
“Gujarat does not recognise minorities, has never availed of grants for minority welfare and has not even set up a minority commission although it is a constitutional position.”
Former CPI(M) MP
“Modi’s inexperience and lack of exposure to foreign policy is the biggest challenge. A tough leader does not mean flexing one’s muscles.”
senior research fellow, CPR
“I fear that Modi’s labour reforms may lead to a discard of welfare legislation, more hire-and-fire policies.”
president, Confederation of Central Govt Employees
“Gujarat has not been a good model for social movements or voluntary organisations...their space is restricted.”
“There is no clarity on how the BJP will tackle the problems in agriculture.”
—Prof ?Sudhir Panwar
“Gujarat’s rank in education is declining among the top 20 states.”
“Modi will do nothing, he is fundamentally image-conscious. But he will rob the media of excessive flab.”
Think of any quality required in a leader and ‘President’ Modi appears to have it. He’s the panacea for all our ills, an answer to India’s search for a strong, decisive leader. He is visionary; a hard taskmaster; a strict disciplinarian, and an idealist who hasn’t lost the ability to dream. He is diligent, decisive and has a sense of purpose. Of course, he has rich insight into human psychology and great strength of character. Beyond that mythical chest, he is endowed with exceptional organisational abilities. His heart bleeds for the country. He is a poet and patriot.
Who could possibly be afraid of such a man?
Yet, one senses the discomfort (and fear) in a growing number of people about Modi the man—his past, his methods, and what he represents. Worryingly for a democracy, many of these people want to remain anonymous. A few continue to speak out, regardless. A renowned sociologist, still fighting a case of sedition in Gujarat, recently turned down a request to speak on Modi at the Indian Habitat Centre in New Delhi. His lawyers, he informed the organisers, had advised him to keep his views to himself. One increasingly sees this reluctance to speak out. People cite the example of Medha Patkar, who was hounded for her stand on the Narmada till she compromised. Teesta Setalvad, the human rights activist, could get arrested any day, they point out as justification for exercising abundant caution.
Coming from a politician who used public money to build and project himself, the pledges seem sinister.
Even Modi’s soft-focus assurances don’t cut any ice. Megalomania is defined as an obsession with power and grandeur. The Hindi language has an even better word for it, atmamugdh or someone who is captivated by himself. The word sprang to life as Modi this week took three solemn pledges. “I will never be found wanting in hard work. I will not do anything with bad intent. I will not do anything for myself,” he solemnly asserted at the function to release the BJP’s poll manifesto. Coming from a politician who has single-mindedly used public and private money to build and project himself, the pledges took a sinister edge. And if these words were meant to reassure, they did not quite manage it.
Why did he have to state the obvious?
The fear of Modi is often accentuated by the language that he uses. Take his spin on ‘Jai Jawan-Jai Kisan’, coined way back in 1965 by the then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri. Modi told a rally that the UPA had turned this slogan into ‘Mar Jawan-Mar Kisan’ (Death to the soldier-death to the farmer)—crass words that appeal to baser instincts. Similarly, his jibe that “Sabka (Samajwadi Party, BSP and Congress) vinash tai hai (The destruction of all three parties is predetermined)” is the kind of language this country associates with minor politicians, not leaders of any stature. His completely unwarranted attack on defence minister A.K. Antony and AAP’s Arvind Kejriwal as Pakistani agents did little to enhance his stock among the non-believers.
“Modi’s orchestrated campaign on social media is unnecessarily shrill and provocative. It is worrying.”
However, there is no dearth of people who believe these fears are misplaced. A former chief executive of a large public sector undertaking believes Modi will turn out to be an outstanding leader. Not associated with the BJP, he told Outlook that he is impressed with Modi’s ability to seize opportunities. “I am confident he knows where the votes are. He may humour his corporate backers for some time but he won’t think twice before dumping them, if necessary,” he felt. Several Modi admirers believe power will exercise a moderating influence on him. There are enough checks and balances in the system, they argue, to restrain anyone who crosses the line.
Those who do not buy this argument point out that if there is one striking feature of Modi’s governance in Gujarat, it is his complete defiance of constitutional provisions. Can he afford to take a different position in the rest of the country, say on the issue of welfare schemes for minorities, they wonder. Even biographer Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, who describes Modi as the ‘best service provider’ he has come across, says he is in total disagreement with Modi’s concept of Indian nationhood, of one nation-one land-one people-one culture. Modi, he recalls, told him that he had no problem with people following different religions. But the minority communities, he told the biographer, needed to accept majoritarian icons, views and ways of life.
Activists and liberals are frightened of the cult of intolerance and violence that they have witnessed in Gujarat. “Some of the finest Gujarati writers believe that Muslim youth loitered outside women’s colleges, took Hindu girls for a ride and left them after having a good time,” recalls one activist who has visited Gujarat many times. Another activist remembers how they were assaulted merely because they had the temerity to take out a procession with a banner opposing Modi and silently distributing roses to people. A third recalled an NDTV programme in Ahmedabad before an invited audience, which turned into a lynchmob and from where retired police officer R.B. Sreekumar and activist Shabnam Hashmi had to be rescued with some difficulty. They fear a repetition of such ugly incidents. In campuses, the ABVP will acquire extra muscle and it would be difficult to restrain them, says a teacher in Delhi University, where a professor was manhandled this month by a student for allegedly passing a disparaging comment about the BJP leader.
“Why is the manifesto talking of revising an N-doctrine which was evolved by Vajpayee, followed by the UPA?”
Farm leaders are also uneasy. State president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union in Kurukshetra (Haryana), Gurnam Singh Chauduni, recalls that neither Congress nor the BJP has shown any interest in implementing the reforms package recommended by the National Farmers’ Commission in ’04. Chauduni, who has extended support to the AAP, expects no relief for the farm sector from Modi. Indeed, the anger is directed at both the national parties.
Displacement, migration and rural distress is a concern even in Gujarat. “Gujarat is not a good model for social movements or voluntary organisations, as their space is restricted. Imagine if that model is extended to the whole country,” says P.V. Rajagopal of Ekta Parishad. The uneasiness extends to labour leaders as well. President of the Confederation of Central Government Employees, N.N.K. Kutty, questions how neo- liberal policies could ever succeed in eradicating corruption. Would the BJP, once in power, ever take stringent action against wilful corporate defaulters of bank loans, let alone wage a war on black money, asks the general secretary of the All India Bank Employees’ Association, C.H. Venkatachalam.
The scepticism goes beyond land and labour. An educationist and member of a committee set up by the HRD ministry to look into quality education in schools is also apprehensive of the growing intolerance. He recalls a meeting in Delhi attended by a principal secretary to the Gujarat government. “Asked how glaring mistakes had crept into textbooks followed in the state and whether they were because of any undue haste, the IAS officer flared up and refused to speak on the issue,” he claimed. The officer apparently declared, “They are our children, they are our textbooks and the children are happy with them.” End of discussion.
“They are our children, they are our textbooks, and the children are happy with them.” End of discussion.
The experience of colleges and universities in Gujarat have been bad. Three-fourths of the teaching posts lie vacant and they have “encouraged the system of guest lecturers and teachers on contract,” claims the educationist. The grand manifesto plan of opening an IIT and an IIM in every state, he feels, is as foolhardy as the UPA’s plan of hurriedly launching 20 central universities. All of them are gasping but political parties are so cavalier with education that nobody really cares, he complains. “The per capita expenditure on education in Gujarat is low compared to both fast-growing economies as well as low-growing economies. In addition, as per the latest Pratham study, the quality of primary education has declined in Gujarat,” says Gujarat-based economist Indira Hirway.
Indeed, there is a debate on whether Modi would strengthen or weaken institutions. Would the judiciary be able to retain its independence is a key question. There is apprehension that a new regime might go after a few judges to set an example so that others are forced to fall in line. “I can say with confidence and responsibility that the judiciary at the highest level will be far more circumspect and restrained than it was with the UPA,” claims a senior Supreme Court lawyer, pointing to Modi’s refusal to appoint a Lokayukta in the state for nine long years and his frequent standoffs with the governor. He hastened to add though that if the judiciary is left alone, it could check any constitutional misadventure.
“Modi feels he doesn’t need the mainstream media. He just goes over their head to reach his audience.”
A senior editor told Outlook on condition of anonymity that he expects a far more sophisticated attack on the freedom of the press. Media owners are already crawling, he says, and with select journalists being placed in key positions, the media would be even more pliant. But Aakar Patel and Sheela Bhatt, senior journalists with intimate knowledge of both Gujarat and Modi, disagree. “Modi has realised that he does not need the mainstream media to reach the people,” says Patel, “instead he just goes over their head to reach his audience directly and he does it quite well”. Patel also points out how Modi has built a most formidable social media network, which has no parallel anywhere outside China.
Says former Forbes India editor Indrajit Gupta, “His orchestrated campaign on social media has been shrill, unnecessarily provocative and aggressive. It’s worrying.” Gupta is hoping against hope that “Modi develops the capacity to listen to different points of view”. Similarly, Aakar Patel too strikes a note of caution. “The Times of India’s Ahmedabad editor Bharat Desai and senior reporter Prashant Dayal,” he recalls, “were charged with sedition,” wryly adding that while ToI could be accused of many things, sedition was certainly not one of them. At one point, Modi felt frustrated enough to get the state government to publish its own newspaper and called it ‘Gujarat Satya Samachar’, he points out.
“We face no interference in Gujarat. Why should the media and a PM be friends? No one needs to be afraid of Modi.”
But not everyone in the media is concerned. National editor of Dainik Bhaskar, Kalpesh Yagnik, told Outlook his group faced no interference in Gujarat. And, moreover, he asks, “Why should the media and a PM be friendly?” Nobody but the corrupt, he adds, need be afraid of Modi. Sheela Bhatt, who has interacted closely with Modi, agrees. The media has nothing to fear, she held. “The media is indispensible in democracy...Modi can do nothing because he is fundamentally image-conscious,” she says.
There is concern that if there is indeed a regime change, some of the good policies of the UPA might get reversed. There is already some uneasiness on the BJP’s commitment to change the nuclear doctrine. “There’s no need to revise the nuclear doctrine which was evolved by Atal Behari Vajpayee during the NDA rule and which was accepted and followed by the UPA,” says Rajya Sabha member and former ambassador to Denmark H.K. Dua. The former editor, who was briefly prime minister Vajpayee’s press advisor, also feels the three contentious issues of Ram mandir, Uniform Civil Code and Article 370, dropped by Vajpayee in the 1999 manifesto, are best left alone. It is of no consolation that they figure towards the end of the BJP’s manifesto, he quipped.
As the Modi juggernaut rolls on, overwhelming sensibilities and taking over mindspace, a sheer statement of intent is enough to spark that primal emotion. Fear is in the air.
By Uttam Sengupta with Lola Nayar and Arindam Mukherjee