Fifth Column: Keeping the faith

Written by Tavleen Singh | Updated: Dec 22 2013, 16:59pm hrs
Ever since Narendra Modis rallies started drawing huge crowds, I have had the dubious honour of participating in many debates about the danger he poses to India. At literary festivals, political occasions and on prime time television, I have found myself pitted against secularists, whose case is that Modi will divide the country. So last week when The Economist had him on the cover of its Asia edition with the insinuation that Modi could wreck India, I was not surprised. Foreign correspondents in Delhi meet only a small group of Indians who have one thing in common: they speak an Indian language only when they speak to their servants. From conversations with the driver in broken Hindi, they glean the mood in the country and nearly always get it wrong.

So The Economist piece is filled with lavish praise for Modis economic achievements. Gujarats economy has nearly tripled in size during his time in office; its GDP has grown by 10% a year, faster than India as a whole and roughly on a par with China. With 5% of Indias population, Gujarat now accounts for 16% of its manufacturing and about a quarter of total exports. There is praise for the infrastructure built in Modis time and acknowledgement that under him Muslims have fared well and only 11 per cent of them are poor compared to a national average of 25 per cent. But, he could still wreck India because of the violence he allowed in 2002 and because he is the strongest voice for Hindu nationalists on the national stage.

What this highly respected newspaper misses, like most of Modis Indian opponents, is that the support he is getting nationally has nothing to do with Hindu nationalism. Casual conversations with ordinary Indians (non-English speaking ones) usually reveal that they are impressed with what he has done in Gujarat and support him in the hope that he can do the same for India. Not even in Uttar Pradesh these days is it easy to meet people who support him because they want him to build a temple to Ram in Ayodhya.

What I personally find most worrying is that Indian intellectuals of secular, Leftist disposition appear to have so little faith in the institutions of Indian democracy. They see them as so feeble that one man in the prime ministers office can blow them down as soon as he takes office. Surely, they should have noticed that although the prime ministers office has been seriously diminished in the past 10 years by the Congress president, and Parliament made dysfunctional by the BJP, these institutions remain strong enough to remain upright in the worst storms.

The justice system moves too slowly for modern requirements but it has maintained the rule of law and, except once during the Emergency, has defended the fundamental rights of Indias citizens. So even if a supposedly dangerous man like Modi becomes prime minister, he would find it impossible to become a despot. The institutions of Indian democracy, we should remember, proved strong enough even when democracy was a newly born, fragile thing, during the Emergency. Since then a vibrant, very powerful media and an aggressive, demanding middle class have caused the institutions of democracy to grow so strong that Arvind Kejriwal and his activists could take over Delhi and Anna Hazare has managed to ram the Lokpal Bill down our throats.

From being reviled not so very long ago as a nuisance and a troublemaker by our political leaders, Hazare now has them at his feet. Rahul Gandhi and he write loving letters to each other and Sushma Swaraj conceded in the Lok Sabha during the Lokpal debate that the credit for it should go to him. My own opinion of the Bill has been expressed too often in this column to need reiteration, but fellow pundits in the media have praised it fulsomely and cannot contain their joy at the advent of the Aam Aadmi Party. So will someone please explain to me what it is about Modi that makes so many people believe that he could wreck India

As someone who believes that democracy is Indias greatest achievement since it became an independent nation, I really am curious to know why there are so many people who believe that Modi has the power to so damage the institutions of democracy. For myself I have to say that despite the distortions that have entered the polity, like dynastic succession and political parties being turned into family heirlooms, I have faith that the roots of democracy have grown so deep that anyone trying to tear them out will be felled in the process. It is ironic that the only people who appear not to have faith in Indian democracy are the English-speaking Indians foreign correspondents wine and dine with in Delhis drawing rooms.

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