Thursday, April 01, 2010

Without balance (April 2, 2010)

The Congress’s hostility may add to Modi’s political standing

By Swapan Dasgupta

Indian jurisprudence is based on the presumption of innocence unless proved otherwise by law. In the case of the chief minister of Gujarat, a clutch of determined activists have turned the principle on its head. The starting point of the ‘liberal’ discourse on Gujarat is that the law is an ass and Narendra Modi is guilty of ‘genocide’, ‘mass murder’ and organizing an ‘anti-Muslim pogrom’ in 2002.

This epidemic of hyperbole would not have mattered had the abuses been confined to routine political sparring. Never mind C-grade politicians who love embellishments, even India’s intellectuals have a tradition of overstating their case — Lord Curzon once rued it as the Indian penchant for what the English called a ‘mare’s nest’. “Very often,” he noted bitterly, “a whole fabric of hypothesis is built out of nothing at all. Worthy people are extolled as heroes. Political opponents are branded as malefactors. Immoderate adjectives are flung about as though they had no significance. The writer no doubt did not mean to lie… As he writes in hyperbole, so he tends to think in hyperbole, and he ends by becoming blind to the truth.”

Curzon made that observation to the Calcutta University convocation in 1905. A hundred years later, we had the curious spectacle of one of India’s leading historians comparing the Communist Party of India (Marxist)’s high-handedness in Nandigram to the Jallianwala Bagh killings!

The ‘truth’ that Curzon felt Indians had scant respect for is, of course, a matter of perception. In statecraft, however, there is a wall that separates political rhetoric and the legal process. In the case of Modi, that distinction has been sought to be obliterated by shrill groupthink. Modi may well be politically culpable for the administration’s failure to prevent the retaliatory killings of Muslims after the Godhra outrage of February 2002 — and this was a subtext of the 2002 and 2007 Gujarat assembly elections — but this is different from the unproven assertion that he conspired with the killers.

It is important to distinguish between political failure and criminal conspiracy. The inability of his opponents to defeat Modi electorally on two separate occasions has prompted them to seek legal recourse, using moral indignation and media outrage as pressure points on the judicial system. Modi’s detractors failed to influence voting behaviour in Gujarat but they succeeded in creating a polarized environment and unilaterally pronounced him personally guilty of mass murder. Eight years after the riots and despite many of the cases going to the Supreme Court, there is no first information report or charge against Modi. The special investigation team which questioned the chief minister exhaustively last Saturday can, of course, recommend that Modi has a legal case to answer but till that happens and till a court pronounces him guilty, the chief minister is innocent. This fundamental principle of jurisprudence holds good for every citizen of India, however exalted or lofty.

On the other hand, it is entirely possible that the SIT may conclude that there is no evidence to link Modi to a criminal conspiracy. Will that satisfy the activists or his political opponents? The answer is well known. Those who persist in describing Modi as a ‘mass murderer’ will continue to do so regardless of what the SIT or the courts decide.

The unending abuse of Modi by those who see themselves as enlightened may well be political grandstanding. But through sheer persistence, and some official patronage that began with Atal Bihari Vajpayee and has continued with the United Progressive Alliance, they have distorted the discourse to ensure that everything in Gujarat, including its spectacular economic progress, is viewed through the prism of the 2002 riots. Some non-governmental organizations even invoked the 2002 riots to denounce the Tata decision to shift its Nano manufacturing unit from Singur to Gujarat.

Sanctimonious shrillness, it would seem, has overwhelmed civilized conversation. The incredibly petty blacklisting of Amitabh Bachchan, and even his son Abhishek, by the Congress is in line with this wave of hysteria and intolerance. The owners of the Congress have their personal reasons for shunning the Bachchan family — the inside story of the great Gandhi-Bachchan fallout remains a subject of salacious gossip. In the normal course, this feud should be of little concern to the great unwashed. Nor has it affected the fortunes of the two families: both are distinguished in their own spheres. However, when a family feud is cynically linked to the standards of activist-determined correctness, it becomes a source of worry. By charging the brand ambassador for Gujarat tourism with implicitly endorsing the 2002 killings, the Congress has signalled a ban on any association with Gujarat. Despite their personal misgivings, Congress chief ministers have rushed to oblige someone’s flight of whimsy.

Conversely, as the Republic Day awards showed, Modi-baiting has become the route to a Padma honour and a compensation for forfeiture of deposits in elections.

The issue is not Bachchan. The Congress has imposed sanctions on a Gujarat that is celebrating the golden jubilee of its statehood. Last week, an attempt was made by activists, with the backing of the Congress, to prevent the Chief Justice of India from sharing the dais with the chief minister. Thankfully it didn’t work and constitutional decorum was maintained but the message was unmistakable: any association with Modi’s Gujarat will incur the Centre’s displeasure. It was a message to the Ambanis, Tatas and Adanis too.

An integral part of India has been declared a rogue state for having the temerity to elect Modi. Bachchan has the standing and perhaps even the self-confidence to withstand official pressure. Given the hostile public reaction to the Congress’s churlishness, the controversy may even help him get back some of his sheen. But many lesser beings may wilt under the threat of official pressure. In the liberal discourse on Modi, there is no pretence of balance: the khap panchayat of liberalism has pronounced him guilty. The clamour is for the Indian courts to endorse the verdict; those who resist, risk abuse and accusations of bigotry.

For the indefatigable chief minister, there is a definite sunny side to the Congress’s targeting of Big B. By equating the promotion of Gujarat with the deification of Modi, the party has added weight to the chief minister’s attempt to become synonymous with his state. An assault on Bachchan is certain to be regarded as an attempt by the Congress to deflate Gujarat. The resulting outburst of regional pride is calculated to give Modi’s political standing a further fillip. In the past, he has cleverly translated the ‘secular’ indignation over the riots into an attack on the self-respect of Gujarat. The Bachchan episode may help the veteran marginally but it has given Modi a brush to paint his opponents as petty and spiteful.

For India, however, there is a heavy price to be paid for the Congress’s ham-handed overkill. Competitive politics has hitherto been governed by a set of club rules that the mainstream parties have agreed to follow. The Congress has chosen to break the liberal assumptions of constitutional politics by setting bizarre standards of intolerance. Those with long memories will recall the unwritten ban on broadcasting Kishore Kumar songs during the Emergency because the singer had the temerity to refuse to perform at a Youth Congress rally.

Hostile public reaction may well force the Congress to call off its hounds and allow normal politics to prevail once again. That would be prudent. If nothing else, there is a cruel irony behind embracing the vicious logic of the very rioters who equated the Godhra arsonists with an entire community.

The Telegraph, April 2, 2010

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