Saturday, September 21, 2013

India's Rewari Moment

By Swapan Dasgupta

Within the media, there is always a fierce debate on what constitutes ‘news’. More to the point, the discussions invariably centre on the hierarchy of news. The events in Syria and the tizzy over a possible US intervention in some form or the other is big, front page news in the ‘quality’ newspapers of the West, and quite understandably so. However, with the exception of one Chennai-based newspaper that pursues an ‘anti-imperialist’ editorial stance, the diplomatic and other turbulence over the future of Prasident Bashar al-Assad is inevitably relegated to the ‘foreign page’.  

Some people may argue that this disdain for ‘world news’ is a commentary on India’s insular ways. That may well be the case but India is not alone is putting itself at the centre of the world. How many column inches were devoted in the western media to the devastation in Uttarakhand that led more than 4,000 deaths earlier this summer? As the hardnosed-cynical news editors used to say: ‘a dead dog on your doorstep is more important than 400 dead in China.”

In India, there is a further complication when attempting to define what constitutes ‘national’ news and what is ‘regional’ tittle-tattle. This came to the fore last week in a curious sort of way. The anointment of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate was preceded by the great sulk of some of the party’s patriarchs. This initial reluctance to toe the majority line was minutely followed in the ‘national’ media and was the subject matter of umpteen TV talk shows. To the Delhi Establishment, this last-ditch revolt of the veterans provided confirmation that while Modi had many energetic supporters, his climb to the top was not going to be uncontested. If Modi can’t prevail inside his own party, it was argued by those whose fascination for the Gujarat Chief Minister is less than lukewarm, how can he not end up being a fringe phenomenon in the 2014 general election?

Ideally, such scepticism would have carried little weight had the descriptions of Modi’s public meetings in Hyderabad last month and Jaipur earlier this month been fully digested. But, like the sectarian clashes involving Bodos and Muslims in Assam last year which got relatively less play in the national media compared to the Muzaffarnagar riots which happened barely two hours motoring distance from the National Capital, the experiences of Hyderabad and Jaipur were seriously discounted.

Last Sunday Modi spoke at an ex-servicemen’s rally in Rewari in Haryana which, again, is within close proximity of Delhi. Actually, it was more than just a gathering of ex-servicemen where a former army chief was also on the dais: it became a mass rally where villagers from the neighbourhood also turned up in their tractor trailers. And the attendance, said to be anywhere in the region of two lakh people and above, exceeded the most optimistic expectations of everyone. This was more so because the BJP does not count that region of Haryana as a stronghold: it won one of the 10 seats in the 2004 Lok Sabha election and failed to open its account in 2009. More important, unlike political rallies in Haryana which are dominated by the wizened village Taus, the composition of the crowd was mainly youth who didn’t come to hear him but to cheer him on. Judging from the ‘Modi, Modi” chants they kept up, they were there not be convinced but display their conviction.

More than anything else the Rewari meeting has transformed the ‘national’ news buzz. Delhi’s political establishment which believes it has its finger firmly on the pulse of the nation has abruptly changed its attitude towards this pesky interloper from Gujarat who imagined he was capable of dislodging the modern-day Delhi Sultanate. Eminent notables who, until the other day, were making weighty pronouncements such as ‘India is not Gujarat’ changed their tone dramatically. They commented favourably on the attendance, Modi’s eloquence and the fact that he made a ‘responsible’ speech on defence that didn’t involve demanding that the local Jats and Ahirs prepare themselves for a proverbial final war with Pakistan. Quite miraculously, the stereotypes built around Modi were dismantled and drastically remoulded.  

In the prologue to The American Future, historian Simon Schama wrote: “I can tell you exactly, give or take a minute or two, when American democracy came back from the dead because I was there: 7.15 pm, Central Time, 3 January 2008, Precinct 53, Theodre Roosevelt High.” With these dramatic opening lines, Schama described the grassroots spontaneity that led to (the then) Senator Barack Obama scoring an upset in the Iowa primary.

I can’t be so lyrical but elections, I once read, is best charted “in flight”. By that process, ‘national’ India experienced its Rewari moment last Sunday afternoon when it felt the pulse of excitement over a candidate who is well and truly an outsider to Lutyens’ Delhi.

Of course there are still outstanding questions over Modi’s ability to attract some coalition partners in states where the BJP can at best be a spoiler and not a winner. But when the intellectual classes deftly move away from questioning Modi popularity to articulating their wariness of his alleged challenge to the “idea of India”, you can smell the change in the political air of Delhi. Maybe Indian democracy is liberating itself from the condescension of those who imagined they were born to rule. 

Deccan Chronicle/ Asian Age, September 20, 2013


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