Sunday, May 28, 2006

Why give Aamir Modi's pedestal? (May 28, 2006)

By Swapan Dasgupta

Since the 1990s, celebrities and activists associated with the Narmada Bachao Andolan have converted self-righteous abusiveness into a fine art. Last week, to take a random but not atypical example, the voice of writer-NBA activist Arundhati Roy was heard across the airwaves telling indulgent Americans that “There is no real democracy in India”. The grim reality of mass murders of the poor and the inspiring insurrection of the Maoists who are gaining control of district after district are not widely known because the “Indian mainstream (is) so servile” and beguiled by neo-liberal fantasies.

To be fair, Aamir Khan should not be equated with the indignant Booker Prize winner. Roy has an admirable way with words and has a definite political agenda. Aamir, on the other hand, is neither a Javed Akhtar nor is he as conceptually endowed as Roy. He is an attractive Bollywood star who has decided that it pays to combine a disarming smile with a loose public agenda. Yet, it is important to remember that Aamir cannot be equated with either a Shabana Azmi or Shatrughan Sinha—articulate representatives of the Left and Right. A man who endorses Coca Cola and simultaneously sups with Medha Patkar, a Luddite if there was one, is either remarkably versatile or just plain confused.

Maybe it is unfair to be so dismissive. What seems to drive Aamir is a profound hatred of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. As someone influenced by his environment, he is merely mirroring a fashionable demonology—so fashionable that it led to the much-despised Bush Administration denying Modi a visa to visit the US. For the fashionably bigoted—and they are particularly preponderant in the “slavish” Indian media—the programmes of the Gujarat Government like bringing water to the parched citizens of Kutch and widening the roads of congested Vadodara, reek of fascism. I have even heard a demented secularist likening the urban renewal programme of Vadodara to Hitler’s construction of the Autobahn!

When it comes to Modi, anything goes. Modi may be the Gujarati icon and the man the Indian Right awaits, but you can’t be a Modi admirer and be thin-skinned at the same time. That he defied treacherous wisdom and won Gujarat in 2002 was bad enough. The fashionable hatred for Modi has grown exponentially with his success in exposing the hollowness of the NBA campaign.

There was a time when an I-love-Modi pronouncement was an invitation for a fatwa of social ostracism. Today, the circle of Modi baiters is shrinking rapidly, and soon it will be confined to professional ambulance chasers, English TV anchors and friends of jihadis. It was revealing that when good sense compelled the Prime Minister to disregard the partisan advice of Saifuddin Soz on the rehabilitation issue, Medha Patkar’s counter-offensive was to question Modi’s secular credentials. Devoid of a worthwhile political plank, Modi’s detractors have fallen back on the resurrection of Muslim angst.

Maybe Aamir’s posturings on the “victims” of Sardar Sarovar dam and the displaced of Vadodara aren’t so evolved. In any case, they have absolutely nothing to do with Fanaa, a run-of-the-mill Bollywood film with the usual spiel about a terrorist with a golden heart. Amit Thakkar, the alleged mastermind of the unofficial ban on Fanaa in Gujarat, has every right to be outraged by Aamir’s views but to call for an apology is absolutely preposterous. Aamir’s right to be ignorant and offensive is sacrosanct, as is Thakkar’s right to not buy a ticket for Fanaa. But a “ban”, which helped Aamir gloss over a trade dispute with multiplex owners, puts the BJP in Gujarat on par with the narrow-minded regimes in Nagaland, Punjab and Goa that have banned The Da Vinci Code.

It certainly does no good to the image of the Gujarat Chief Minister. Predictably, he is being blamed for the puerile misadventures of the BJP’s youth wing. By putting Aamir on par with the Chief Minister, you are actually knocking Modi off his pedestal.

(Published in Sunday Pioneer, May 28, 2006)


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