Four years after it published an “exclusive” interview with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on his reform promises, Time magazine has published a cover story that may have taken the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) by surprise.
While the 2015 cover said “The world needs India to step up as a global power. One year in, can Prime Minister Narendra Modi deliver?”, the 2019 version, published two weeks before India finds out if Modi will return for a second term, is titled “India’s Divider in chief”.
The difference is stark.
Time had also featured Modi on its cover in 2012 with the question, “Modi means business but can he lead India”. At that time, he was the Gujarat chief minister who was beginning to make his PM ambitions clear.
The most recent cover story, written by Aatish Taseer, is a far cry from the hopeful tones of the earlier ones.
A few hours after Time’s latest cover was unveiled, “India’s Divider in Chief” began trending on Indian social media platforms as those for and against Modi either exulted or criticised the move.
The same year that Modi was last featured on the Time cover, he was included in its list of 100 Most influential People, with former US president Barack Obama writing a testimonial for him. Ironically, Obama called him “India’s reformer-in-chief”.
Taseer’s essay calls Modi “merely a politician who has failed to deliver, seeking re-election” and says he shudders to think of “what he might yet do to punish the world for his own failures” if he gets a second term.
As if to balance Taseer’s essay, Time has also published an article by Ian Bremmer that calls Modi India’s “best hope for economic reform”, even as it allows that he can “fairly be accused of fanning flames of hostility toward India’s Muslim population”. Inexplicably, Bremmer’s article does not mention the Modi government’s disastrous demonetisation gambit, the standoff between the government and RBI (which led to two central bank governor’s resigning during Modi’s term), jobs crisis and multiple other criticisms that can be levelled against it.
Time is not the first global news outlet to call out the communal damage wreaked in Modi’s regime. Two weeks ago, The Economist published a strongly worded editorial, which was headlined “Agent Orange”.
“Indians, who are in the midst of voting in a fresh election, would be better off with a different leader,” the piece said, while detailing how Modi has “cowed the press, showering bounty on flatterers while starving, controlling and bullying critics.”
While a single story in Time will not affect any votes in India, for Modi, who has taken pride in travelling abroad often to meet world leaders and is never shy of advertising his friendship with them, this would likely be a blow.
The Time piece will appear in the 20 May 2019 print issue of Time, just a day after the last phase of voting.
Here are the five major arguments that Taseer makes in his Time cover piece:
1. ‘Modi proved himself a friend of the mob’
Taseer says that India had a long history of politically instigated sectarian riots, most notably the anti-Sikh riots. Congress, though hardly blameless, Taseer says, was able to separate itself from the actions of the mob.
“Modi, by his deafening silences after more recent atrocities, such as the killing of more than 1,000 people, mostly Muslims, in his home state of Gujarat in 2002, proved himself a friend of the mob.”
2. ‘Atmosphere of poisonous religious nationalism’
Taseer says that not only has “Modi’s economic miracle failed to materialise, he has also helped create an atmosphere of poisonous religious nationalism in India”.
He referred to BJP’s candidate for Bangalore South Tejasvi Surya’s statement that “If you are not with Modi, then you are strengthening anti-India forces”. Taseer argues that the Muslims in India have been subjected to episode after violent episode, “in which Hindu mobs have carried out a series of public lynchings in the name of the holy cow”.
3. Modi’s record on women’s issues is ‘spotty’
On the one hand, Taseer says, Modi made opportunities for women and their safety a key election issue; on the other hand, “his attitude and that of his party men feels paternalistic”.
BJP chief Amit Shah, according to Taseer, “speaks of women as having the status of deities, ever the refuge of the religious chauvinist who is only too happy to revere women into silence”.
4. Leading ‘India down the road to a profound anti-intellectualism’
Referring to the appointment of Swaminathan Gurumurthy on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, Taseer says that it was Gurumurthy who, in a quest to deal with the menace of “black money,” is thought to have advised Modi to announce demonetisation, causing huge economic havoc from which the country is yet to recover.
He also mentions Modi’s statement in 2014 when he claimed that plastic surgery existed during the time of Ganesha. “We worship Lord Ganesha,” Modi had said while adding that “There must have been some plastic surgeon at that time who got an elephant’s head on the body of a human being and began the practice of plastic surgery.”
5. ‘India’s places of learning have been hollowed out’
Modi, Taseer says, has “presided over a continuous assault on the grove of academe, where the unqualified and semiliterate have been encouraged to build their shanties.”
Academia in India was dogmatically left-wing, he argues, but rather than change its politics, Modi attacked the idea of qualification itself. India’s places of learning have been hollowed out, the administration and professors chosen for their political ideology rather than basic levels of proficiency, he says in the cover issue.