Government and governance, Social policy, Arts, culture & society | South Asia

19 October 2015

Narendra Modi is rapidly falling from the pedestal of inspirational leader to transactional politician, argues Ramesh Thakur.

On September 28, just outside Delhi in Dadri, a 50-year-old Muslim man, Mohammad Akhlaq, was lynched by a mob wielding sticks, swords and makeshift pistols. Whipped into a killing frenzy by an announcement in a local temple that someone had slaughtered a cow and eaten beef, the mob accused Akhlaq of this heinous – to Hindus – crime, brushing aside the family’s protestations of innocence.

Meanwhile at Facebook headquarters in California on September 27 – that is, the same day Indian time – Prime Minister Narendra Modi teared up and his voice broke as he recalled the sacrifices his mother had made to raise him. His paean to mothers rings hollow against Ashgari Akhlaq’s emotions at her son being killed in their own house where they had lived peacefully with neighbours for several generations.

It took Modi ten days to refer to the lynching publicly, and then only to deliver a homily about how Hindus and Muslims should join forces to fight poverty and not each other. No condemnation, no abhorrence of what had been done in the name of his religion, no words of solace and condolence to the grieving family.

Cursed by a surfeit of politicians, India has been thirsting for a leader, and millions believed they had found one in Modi. He is rapidly falling from the pedestal of inspirational leader to transactional politician. Leadership consists of the elusive ability to make others connect with you emotionally and intellectually so that they embrace a common, uplifting vision that transcends their immediate self-interest. Modi is reminiscent of Barack Obama in the capacity for soaring rhetoric that successfully connects the audience to the audacity of hope and an inspiring vision for a better future. Will Modi prove to be like Obama in the wreckage of the hopes and vision amidst the scattered debris of disappointments on domestic and foreign policy agendas alike?

With each passing month disillusionment mounts. A politician chooses expediency and panders to populism; a leader does what is right, setting standards, explaining why they matter, and cajoling and coaxing the people to meet them in their personal behaviour. A politician will hug the powerful and famous foreigners; a leader would have embraced Akhlaq’s traumatised and shrinking-into-themselves 75-year mother and 22-year son in a very public show of solidarity, connected with their loss and ensured the full apparatus of the state is committed to speedy delivery of the perpetrators to justice.

The long silence on Dadri of the exceptionally eloquent PM follows his taciturnity on fanatics who decry Hindu-Muslim love, encourage coerced reconversion of ex-Hindus, and in myriad other ways demean the rich religion in whose name they act despicably.

Modi must answer a fundamental question: does he want India trapped in the prison of yesterday’s glory and recreated as a Hindu Pakistan? His party is split between the obscurantists whose only vision is that of a reality-distorting rear view mirror, and the aspirational youth who clamour for a vibrant, modern India of opportunities to be seized, and talent and enterprise to be rewarded.

Last year voters repudiated the stale, populist and patronising politics of a corrupt Congress Party coterie around a cocooned first family that had produced policy paralysis and governmental drift. Modi won by convincing voters that India deserves and can do better with decisive political leadership and firm policy direction. His catchy campaign slogan was “MG2”: minimum government, maximum governance. No one talked of a sudden surge in Hindu religious sentiment that would carry Modi to power, yet Modi has unwisely allowed Hindu zealots to distract attention and energy from his pressing development and good governance agenda.

When Modi raises the shameful spectre of rapes, asks parents to take responsibility for the behaviour of sons as well as ensuring the safety of daughters and attacks sex-selective abortion; when he injects cleanliness, sanitation and adequate toilet facilities for schoolgirls into the national conversation; when he introduces public squalor into high public discourse; and when he challenges the dominant culture of settling for the mediocre instead of demanding the best: Modi is operating in leadership mode.

But he is missing in action in confronting extremist religious ideologies and forces of violent politics that are gradually overshadowing the idea of a liberal, tolerant society on which he Republic of India was established. Novelist Taslima Nasreen, hounded out of Bangladesh by Islamists, was forced to flee Kolkata because some local Muslims objected to her presence. The great Indian artist M.F. Husain was exiled overseas by Hindu fundamentalists who took violent objection to some of his art depicting Hindu goddesses.

In the church of Our Lady of Velankanni in Mumbai, when drops of water began to drip from the feet of a statue of Jesus, a rationalist established that a blocked drain was producing a dirty puddle through which capillary action was propelling the water to drip on the statue. Three police stations received complaints against him for inciting religious hatred and he was arrested and charged, ensnaring him in the nightmare of India’s notorious legal processes that recall Charles Dickens’ Bleak House.

The trend to growing intolerance predates Modi, but the PM’s silence amounts to a licence to strip Muslims of dignity and kill dissenting writers and scholars. If India is not to follow the same path to the dead-end of religious extremism as Pakistan, Modi must act decisively against fanatics of all religions and reaffirm that India has no future but as a tolerant, multi-religious, secular polity.

Where Modi stands condemned by his silence on the Dadri abomination, President Pranab Mukherjee managed to speak to the nation’s conscience by calling for the core values of Indian civilisation – that celebrate diversity, plurality and tolerance – to be protected and fostered. Similarly, the true carriers of Hindu civilisational heritage are the growing chorus of artistes who have returned their national awards in protest at the shameful silence of the Sahitya Akademi (Academy of Letters).

The genius of India’s greatness lies in a central tenet of Hinduism: sarva dharma sambhava (all truths/religions are equal and in harmony). The poverty and destitution of any Indian distresses me as a person of Indian origin; a preventable death anywhere in the world diminishes my common humanity; every murder in the name of my religion defiles me as a Hindu.

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