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Why Liberals Must Fight The Urge To Demonise Modi

09/10/2015 8:16 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:25 AM IST
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Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi speaks during a visit to Google headquarters Sunday, Sept. 27, 2015, in Mountain View , Calif. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Narendra Modi is a tricky case for us Liberals to handle. At heart, we believe in the sanctity of the individual: we believe that the individual is to be recognised only by her actions, and not by her religion. Not by his caste, or his gender, or his sexual orientation. We Liberals do not divide the nation, or the world, into "us" and "them".

As true practitioners of critical thinking, we do not believe in "guilt by association", that essentially tribal practice of blaming a whole community for an individual's actions. Thus, we refrain from unthought-out phrases like "Islamic terror", knowing that the sins of a handful of bigots (al-Qaeda, ISIS, Taliban and so on), carried out in the name of Islam, cannot be imputed to the more than one billion peaceful followers of that religion. And, tempting as it is for us to throw out phrases like "Hindu terror" to gain ground in the battlefield of ideas, we know that that is wrong: by sheer symmetry, the sins of a handful of bigots (Bajrang Dal, Ram Sene, Sanatana Sanstha and so on), carried out in the name of Hinduism, cannot be imputed to the more than one billion peaceful followers of that religion.

"[O]ther than a studied and eminently objectionable silence on atrocities towards minorities, Modi the Prime Minister betrays no trace of his cultural leanings or institutionalised hatreds..."

An ardent RSS member, Modi is a "cultural nationalist" at heart. This is RSS-speak for a Hindu vision of India, in which Muslims (and followers of all other religions) are second-class citizens, treated patronisingly at best. Such a vision rejects much that is modern, and projects an idealised version of ancient Vedic society as the model for today's society. As a cultural nationalist, Modi has to believe in a good deal of this vision.

Today's RSS controls the discourse of the country because its political wing, the BJP, is in power. It is no wonder then that the goon squads who divide the world into Hindus and "others" are running rampant, being indicted in murders of rationalists, and suspected of silencing free-thinkers. It is not surprising that cultural institutions are being cleansed of the old guard and BJP and RSS ideologues are being put in charge. It is no wonder that we had the latest horrific killing of a Muslim man in Dadri, suspected of killing a cow. It is no wonder too that large sections of the affluent middle class unthinkingly parrot a poisonous anti-Muslim ideology today. Modi has to be aware of this, and has to take responsibility for this.

And then there is that none-too-small matter of the Gujarat riots of 2002. Although cleared by special tribunals of complicity, nonetheless, he is believed by many to have been involved. This cloud hangs heavy over Modi (who soon after the riots used the term "Hum paanch, humare pachchees"-- we five, ours are twenty-five -- to describe the Muslim population growth), and will not go away.

Yet, other than a studied and eminently objectionable silence on atrocities towards minorities, Modi the Prime Minister betrays no trace of his cultural leanings or institutionalised hatreds, and projects a statesman-like demeanour focused only on development. He steadfastly speaks only of economics, of the uplift of the poor, of education for the girl child, for a clean India. He has made several trips to world powers to strengthen economic ties, and has initiated several systemic reforms---all debatable but apparently sincere.

"[I]f the Liberal is to ultimately prevail, he can only do so by being true to his innermost values, and not to his outermost emotions."

To the true Liberal, this is indeed a tricky situation. The Modi of the past is an easy figure to pin blame on for narrow-mindedness and hate-mongering. It is easy to be cynical, and dismiss the new Modi as merely a ploy; it is tempting, in the battlefield of ideas, to continue to pin blame on him. Yet, the true Liberal needs to be intellectually honest. The true Liberal, in her humanism, believes in changes of heart. In seeing the light. In starting afresh. Perhaps the new Modi recognises that the role of a prime minister of a nation of over a billion is very different from that of a small town pracharak, very different even from that of a chief minister of a state? Perhaps the new Modi recognises, from his new high seat over the Indian polity, that communal divisions only destroy society? And perhaps, his silence on atrocities is only due to political compulsions?

Perhaps, just perhaps.

Modi thus represents an inner battle for the Liberal. She needs to be true to her values: her belief in redemption, in humanity and in love -- importantly in love, the antithesis of hate -- and learn to give the new Modi the benefit of doubt. That is tough. Indeed, for over a decade, Modi has been the poster-boy for mean-minded intolerance and communal disharmony. But if the Liberal is to ultimately prevail, he can only do so by being true to his innermost values, and not to his outermost emotions.

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