“No one is questioning the patriotism of 125 crore Indians. Nor does anyone have to provide any evidence of their loyalty to the country.”
Thus spake Narendra Modi in the Rajya Sabha. Words of reason and wise counsel but coming rather later in the day. Even as the PM decided to play “Good Cop”, his colleague Rajnath Singh was telling the Lok Sabha that “A handful of people will not be allowed to blot India’s face” and it was the BJP and Narendra Modi who were the real victims of intolerance in Indian politics.
This good cop-bad cop balancing act is a familiar one. Two days ago Rajnath was himself playing the aggrieved good cop threatening to resign if it could be proved he had made remarks about Modi being the first real Hindu ruler of Delhi in 800 years. Now Modi strikes a conciliatory statesman note while others in the party adopt a more belligerent tone. Meenakshi Lekhi, for example, called those talking about intolerance “intellectual mercenaries” a more pithy way of saying what V K Singh had already said when he dubbed the intolerance debate “the unnecessary creation of very imaginative minds who are being paid with a lot of money”. But it is also clear that post-Bihar, the BJP, is striking a more conciliatory tone.
What is most is interesting however is the how the party is dressing up this change.
Minister of State for Parliamentary Affairs Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi has clarified that members have been asked to watch what they say.
“MPs were told to speak with understanding and decorum. There is a need to avoid controversy… At a time when the Prime Minister is pushing ahead with his development agenda, many people are unable to digest it and any misstep will allow anti-BJP forces to work it to their benefit. We should avoid making provocative statements.”
Translation: Kailash Vijayvargiya, Giriraj Singh, Yogi Adityanath, please think twice before shooting off your mouth. It affects our Acche Din development agenda (and the GST bill).
Rajnath Singh also told the Lok Sabha that the intolerance debate was “self-defeatist” and had the potential of giving India a bad name and scaring away foreign investors.
On one hand it is good news that the BJP has woken up to the fact that it was elected on the promise of development, not culture wars. On the other hand it needs to also understand that lynch mobs and #GoToPakistan trolling and the cold-blooded killing of rationalists are a taint on our society, not because they drive away investors or tourists, but because they are just wrong. Period. And yes, the Emergency was wrong too and the 1984 Sikh massacres were horrendous but they cannot be used for ideological cover in 2015. ‘The Emergency was worse’ is not a convincing argument.
There was so much demand for the PM to speak up all these weeks, not because it was affecting interest rates or FDI but because it was affecting the idea of India as a pluralist live-and-let-live secular nation. As Shashi Tharoor puts it “The Government must know you cannot promote ‘Make in India’ abroad while condoning the propagation of ‘Hate in India’ at home.”
However Tharoor too hammers his point home using the familiar arguments of global perception and India’s image in the eyes of the world. “We are shamed when foreign newspapers report daily about the mounting intolerance in the country,” writes Tharoor. What did 50 African leaders, every one of them a beef-eater, make of the Kerala House beef-inspection while they were visiting Delhi, he wonders. He talks about a Bangladeshi friend who said “Islamic fundamentalists in his country were having a field day attacking India as a place where it is safer to be cow than a Muslim.”
Tharoor clearly feels that if anything can resonate with the government, it’s highlighting the damage it is doing to “the government’s own agenda” rather than an appeal to any higher ideal. But we need to also understand that in the end it’s not about what African leaders think, or Bangladeshis thinks or even The New York Times thinks about India. It’s about what India itself thinks and the values it stands for. It’s about basic inalienable rights of life, liberty and freedom that all Indians should enjoy and whose infringement deserves condemnation instead of ominous silence and whataboutery.
Condemnation of these incidents should come, and come swiftly, because they are intrinsically wrong not because they affect votes, GDP, tourist dollars. Arun Jaitley had to express regret after he said “one small incident of rape in Delhi, advertised the world over, was enough to cost India billions of dollars in terms of global tourism”. To be fair, Jaitley was speaking at a state tourism ministers conference but it says something that politicians feel even the horror of a barbaric gang-rape has to be processed through a currency converter in order to underscore its gravity.
Before the 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Giriraj Singh created a national stir when he said Modi’s critics could go to Pakistan, now a familiar hashtag. At that time the VHP’s Pravin Togadia was stirring up his own hornets nest by saying Muslims should be prevented from buying houses in Hindu-dominated areas. Modi’s initial response came in a tweet which didn’t name anyone. “Petty statements by those claiming to be the BJP’s well-wishers are deviating the campaign from the issues of development & good governance.” When his minister Sadhvi Niranjan Jyoti landed in hot water with her haramzadon remark, the PM eventually roused himself and told MPs to “refrain from comments that gave a bad name to the government”. Again it was framed as a PR misstep, as if what was needed was simply an image makeover.
When the government worries about outrageous statements and illiberal incidents hurting the government’s image it shows itself as stuck in a worry about the packaging. What it should worry more about is what is inside that package.
Some things are just wrong, no ifs, buts or becauses needed.This is a question about the values of a nation, not just about the value of its GDP. It’s about the India the government wants to make which should matter more than the bottomline of any Make In India campaign.
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