Arnab Goswami’s news show has an exciting fairground quality to it. It’s like the coconut shy stall where the paying customer gets to throw balls at stranded nariyals. On the news hour, Goswami does the job for his viewers and since his targets are often netas, he provides his audience with a way of purging itself of its exasperation (long felt or Arnab-stoked) with desi politics.
In a recent show, Goswami had invited several spokespersons of the Hindu Right so he could hold their feet to the fire about K. Laxman’s comment that Sania Mirza ought not to have been appointed brand ambassador for Telangana because she was married to a Pakistani and thus was a “daughter-in-law” of Pakistan. K. Laxman is the leader of the BJP’s Telangana unit. Arnab’s tack was incredulous indignation: how could the BJP question the Indianness (or Telangana-ness) of a sporting icon who had achieved so much in Indian colours and had made so many Indians proud? In the normal course, this rhetorical stratagem would have worked because the measurable excellence of international athletes is so much more sympathetic than the malevolent insinuations of politicians, but in this instance Arnab Goswami was checked by the ideological enthusiasm of his guests.
The BJP, in response to the furore over Mr Laxman’s statement, had paid tribute to Sania Mirza’s standing as an Indian icon, thus seeming to distance itself from the slur that her Indianness had been compromised by her marriage. Not so: even in the early weeks of this government, a basic public relations strategy had become apparent. In the wake of a controversy, senior members of the BJP hierarchy would make unexceptionable statements while on the news shows, less inhibited party spokespersons made the majoritarian case in plain terms.
For example in the controversy over the government’s refusal to approve Gopal Subramaniam’s name for the Supreme Court bench, the law minister, Ravi Shankar Prasad, took the high road, saying that he wouldn’t be drawn in to commenting on the specifics of the case. Subramanian Swamy, on the other hand, appeared on television and accused Gopal Subramaniam of letting Hindus down in the Ram Sethu case. Thus, the law minister projected a high-minded sobriety, while Swamy vigorously made the ‘Hindu’ case against Subramaniam on television.
In the Sania Mirza controversy, Prem Shukla, the editor of a Shiv Sena newspaper and Sudhanshu Trivedi of the BJP peddled a robust, majoritarian common sense. The Shiv Sena editor argued that Laxman shouldn’t be punished for voicing a perfectly natural apprehension. Sania had, after all, married a Pakistani. When Goswami asked what business this was of his, he smiled disconcertingly and declared that it was his business because he was a fan of Sania’s and interested in her doings.
But it was Sudhanshu Trivedi, national spokesperson for the BJP, whose performance exemplified the BJP’s two-step routine in the wake of controversies. Trivedi began by taking the high road, arguing that the party had clarified its stand on Sania and described her as an Indian icon. But, in the heat of argument, his political instincts reasserted themselves. What, he mused aloud, would happen to Sania Mirza’s loyalties if India and Pakistan went to war?
Arnab was appalled by Trivedi’s question. Trivedi was unfazed: he had, he argued, merely asked a hypothetical question and the answer to it would become available when (and if) that situation arose. Horrified by the unrepentant chutzpah of Trivedi and Co., Arnab declared that it was time Narendra Modi and Rajnath Singh and Amit Shah intervened in these controversies to rein in the divisive rhetoric that had begun to characterize the ruling party’s utterances. Times Now had even devised a hashtag for this political tendency, #RightWingFreeRun.
In Goa, for example, Deepak Dhavalikar — a Maharashtrawadi Gomantak Party minister in Manohar Parrikar’s government and an ally of the BJP — declared that under Narendra Modi’s leadership, India would become a Hindu nation. Not to be outbid in the loyalty stakes, Francis D’Souza, Goa’s deputy chief minister and a senior member of the BJP, declared that India was already a Hindu nation.
Goswami invoked the BJP’s central leadership as a moderating force. In this he wasn’t alone; several pundits in recent days have cautioned, warned or advised Narendra Modi’s government about the rash of sectarian and majoritarian statements that belie the promise that Narendra Modi had held out (in their understanding) during his election campaign. His promise, according to them, was of a new political inclusiveness, a more robust kind of secularism and a freedom from the polarizing politics of identity.
On the face of it, the belief that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah can be plausibly invoked as moderating figures, party grown-ups who can be expected to call the BJP’s vicious juveniles to order, is a curious one. Even after the caveat that the allegations against the prime minister and the president of the BJP are unproven, it should be difficult for any observer of India’s political scene to persuade himself that Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are inclusive politicians. They are possibly the most divisive politicians in India’s republican history since L.K. Advani in his Ram Mandir avatar. So why should Goswami, or indeed any political commentator, look to them to moderate the BJP’s majoritarianism or its hostility to India’s religious minorities?
The most remarkable aspect of Narendra Modi’s electoral success was the fact that he was elected entirely on his own terms without any soothing concessions to the sensibilities of religious minorities or anxious liberals. The keenness of political pundits to read into generic slogans like “sabka saath, sabka vikas” a new inclusiveness, a new moderation or a new concern for minorities is a testament to their capacity for hope. Their disappointment, therefore, at Narendra Modi’s failure to live up to promises he didn’t actually make, is unreasonable.
So, what explains this unfounded enthusiasm and unreal disappointment? It’s partly to be explained by the pre-election need to be in sync with the pulse of the nation. The disillusionment with the Congress and the enthusiasm for Modi and the BJP were so palpable in the run up to the election that it may have seemed shrill and unserious to constantly carp about the divisiveness of Amit Shah’s election campaign in UP or Narendra Modi’s willingness to use majoritarian staples like the “pink revolution” in north India or the displacement of rhinos by Muslims in Assam during his election meetings.
Secondly, after the election, the understandable urge to affirm the legitimacy of electoral outcomes combined with the need to be on the right side of history, might have persuaded some writers that wisdom lay in acknowledging a famous victory instead of railing against it. The easiest way of doing this was to read into the BJP’s mean-anything slogan, “sabka saath, sabka vikas”, political inclusiveness or, even more daftly, a new secularism.
Thirdly, for many pundits the smell of the swamp that hung around the BJP’s majoritarianism was deodorized by the fragrance of a more stringent economic liberalization. Liberalization seemed to shade attractively into liberalism, so they gave themselves up to hope. Sometimes they made a Faustian compact: they traded in their commitment to pluralism in return for an economic upturn that would lift everyone’s boats. It was only when the first budget turned out to be less than radical that they began to feel a kind of buyer’s remorse, a sense that they had binned their liberal instincts for an economic course correction that hadn’t happened.
Which explains the plaintive reproaches being aimed at the blameless prime minister who had never promised a new, improved inclusive India in the first place. What it doesn’t explain is the credulousness of journalists who are paid, or ought to be paid, for being sceptical, for describing and explaining the world as it exists.
No one should be surprised that the BJP’s deputy chief minister in Goa describes himself as a Christian Hindu, or that another minister in the same state looks forward to Narendra Modi leading him into a Hindu nation, or that a BJP spokesperson publicly speculates about the patriotism of Sania Mirza in the event of an Indo-Pak war. These aren’t aberrant voices; they represent the common sense of the sangh parivar. That political pundits and journalists should be shocked by these statements into reproachful commentary tells us more about them than it does about Modi’s sarkar.