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April 11, 2014

Modi’s media apologists

April 11, 2014

When Indira Gandhi imposed the Emergency in 1975, the vast majority of Indian intellectuals and media commentators refused to support her. Most newspapers carried sharply critical comments and truthful accounts of the excesses perpetrated in the name of defending India against contrived threats – until censorship was imposed, and often by defying it.
Many critics were arrested or sacked for this. Except the Congress and the Communist Party of India (which later recanted), no party or civil society organisation backed the suspension of fundamental rights.
In contrast to this stands the near-euphoric reception being accorded by much of India’s media to the emerging right-wing threat from the Bharatiya Janata Party’s prime ministerial-aspirant Narendra Modi, and worse, rationalisations for him by certain self-professed “liberal” academics and columnists, who had held him culpable for Gujarat’s 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom.
Today they are trimming their sails to the wind – and playing to the pro-Modi gallery. They see virtues in Modi, including signs of ‘moderation’. Last fortnight, one analyst lavished praise on Modi for not highlighting the BJP’s trademark ‘Trident’ Hindutva issues: building a Ram temple at Ayodhya, abrogation of Article 370 pertaining to Jammu and Kashmir, and imposition of a Uniform Civil Code.
With the BJP’s just-released 2014 election manifesto, these delusions should stand shattered. The three issues figure in it prominently just as they did in all its manifestos from 1996 to 2009 (barring 1999, when the BJP-led coalition issued a ‘National Agenda for Governance’, which for opportunistic reasons, omitted them.)
All the past manifestos repeatedly emphasised the three issues. They termed ‘Sanatana Dharma’ synonymous with ‘Indian nationalism’, declared that ‘Shri Ram lies at the core of Indian consciousness’, and equated ‘the Hindu worldview’ with ‘cultural nationalism’.
The new

manifesto is no different, despite minor changes like building a Ram temple ‘within the constitutional framework’, and a UCC with ‘gender equality’. Modi’s imprint is embossed all over it. It lifts entire sections from his recent ‘Vision’ document and his Gujarat 2012 Assembly election manifesto. As a daily says, it’s a manifesto “for, by and of Modi”.
The ‘Trident’ re-emphasis shows the BJP remains firmly in the vicious grip of Hindutva. Indeed, the RSS has tightened its hold on the BJP’s day-to-day working, organisational appointments and ticket distribution like never before. LK Advani wouldn’t have been compelled to stand from Gandhinagar instead of Bhopal had RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat not intervened.
The RSS is fully complicit in Modi’s plans to weed out all personnel and policies associated with the Vajpayee legacy, and build a primarily Sangh-based party around Modi. Advani has been utterly marginalised. Nothing illustrates this better than the Gujarat BJP’s posh new headquarters. This has rooms for various BJP national office-bearers and the state president, a media centre, meeting rooms, a huge auditorium, a 120-seat conference hall, a library, etc, but no room for Advani, the Gandhinagar MP!
As Modi purges the BJP of all Vajpayee-era influence, a frustrated Advani is left taking swipes at him about being a great “event manager” and an “able administrator”, who however doesn’t belong to Vajpayee’s class. But this doesn’t change the power equations.
As for those who see ‘moderation’ in Modi’s team, his right-hand man Amit Shah recently spewed communal venom and called for “revenge” at Shamli and Muzaffarnagar, the worst-affected areas in last September’s riots that left 60 people (mainly Muslims) dead and thousands homeless. One hopes the Election Commission will take exemplary punitive action against Shah.
Those who have softened their stand on Modi advance two other arguments. First, they point to internal “checks and balances” in the BJP, including the presence of Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, and Chhattisgarh chief ministers, and various elected committees. Modi has taken care not to antagonise them. The BJP, they claim, is more democratic than the dynasty-controlled Congress, and other parties centred around one or two leaders.
This view is partly true, but dangerously one-sided. While most parties other than the Communists don’t hold genuine internal elections regularly, and the Congress works more through nomination-from-above than election-from-below, they do some internal consultation. So does the BJP, but that doesn’t make it a ‘bottom-up’ party.
What makes the BJP truly different is RSS control of it. And the RSS is not an elected body. All its office-bearers from the sarsanghchalak downwards are nominated. It calls all the shots at the BJP’s apex. It’s the RSS that asked Advani to resign after his 2005 speech extolling Mohammed Ali Jinnah. It later sacked him as Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha too. BJP president Rajnath Singh owes his position to the RSS. Modi’s nomination as PM-candidate was cleared by the RSS.
Modi today needs BJP CMs and non-party regional leaders to win votes and build alliances, but he will treat them like dirt once they have served their purpose. Modi is incurably authoritarian and will brook no dissent – so long as the RSS is on board, and the BJP lists “Modi-mantra” as the topmost “core issue” on its website.
RSS control apart, elected BJP bodies like the 12-member parliamentary board and the 19-member central election committee are regularly bypassed when crucial decisions are made. This happened when Jaswant Singh was denied the Barmer seat. So much for the BJP’s ‘checks and balances’!
A second line of defence deployed by the Modi apologists compares him with “tough” (read, semi-autocratic) ultra-nationalistic leaders of some other countries, like Japan’s Shinzo Abe, Russia’s Vladimir Putin and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan. All these leaders are intolerant of dissent, and advocate cultural exceptionalism and a wish to avenge real or imagined past humiliation. They are all staunchly pro-Big Business. Their relative popularity in their ‘democratic’ home countries, the apologists hold, is a new regional/global trend to which Modi belongs. So there’s nothing particularly odious about him. If Abe represents ‘Asian nationalism’, so does Modi, who resents the west’s denial of a visa to him.
These comparisons are deeply uncomplimentary. Each of these leaders is an authoritarian right-wing hyper-nationalist, inclined to media censorship and suspicious of democratic institutions. The last two have sent their economies into a tailspin despite early growth and huge natural wealth. They are all domestically divisive.
Abe is no ‘Asian nationalist’, but a shameless apologist for Japan’s imperial past, which he wants to recreate by militarising Japan and confronting its neighbours, especially China, with territorial claims. He is post-war Japan’s most right-wing conservative leader – to be opposed, not extolled. Abe is also strongly pro-United States. Modi too is pro-US and will strengthen ‘strategic partnership’ and economic ties with it despite visa-related personal resentment.
Ukraine is a disaster for Putin’s foreign policy. This doesn’t justify blatant western intervention there. But by annexing 4.5 percent of Ukrainian territory, Putin has gutted his own plans of forming a Russia-led ‘Eurasian Union’ and sent Ukraine into the EU’s arms. Putin’s policies and corruption are causing a massive exodus of talented youth and capital flight.
The less said about Erdogan’s repression of peaceful protests, divisive ethnic impact, clampdown on the media, corruption, and the gathering economic crisis, the better. India will be hopefully spared the Japanese-Russian-Turkish experience – and Modi as prime minister.
The writer, a former newspaper editor, is a researcher and rights activist based in Delhi. Email: [email protected]

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