National Interest: Or else, Modi

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Nov 18 2013, 10:30am hrs
The first person to call me that September morning in 2002 was a friend who had been present at a political (NDA) dinner the previous night and said I was under attack there from many BJP ministers. Apparently, the only ones to rise to my defence instinctively were Sushma Swaraj and Arun Shourie, also members of the Vajpayee cabinet. The first, my friend since 1977 and a distinguished senior on the Panjab University campus but an exact contemporary professionally: she won her first election to the Haryana assembly and became a junior minister almost the same month that I joined this paper as a cub reporter in the same city, Chandigarh. The second, much more than just a friend, philosopher and guide, a teacher through life and to whom I owe, among many good turns, the most wonderful of them all, my tour of duty in the Northeast between 1981-83 for this paper. The conversation at that dinner was about something I was supposed to have said in a speech in Pakistan. And it wasnt nice. L.K. Advani had complained, in particular, that I had boasted that I, and this newspaper, would sort out Narendra Modi, so nobody need worry about him. Also, that George Fernandes (then defence minister) had brought it up in the cabinet earlier that week, even passing around some printouts that showed I had described him in Pakistan as a buddhu rakshas (stupid monster). The speech was delivered in the course of a series of public events in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi to mark the launching of the Daily Times, edited by Najam and Jugnu Sethi, among the bravest and most liberal journalists youd find anywhere, and owned by Salman Taseer (later assassinated by religious thugs). I was only the third and the least significant or eminent of the three speakers invited from India, N. Ram of The Hindu and Arundhati Roy being the other two.

Since Advani is one of our most accessible leaders ever, I called him to check what had caused this. He said, besides whatever else I may have said, two things stood out as objectionable in particular. One, George was really upset with my description of him, and that I had boasted I, this newspaper and the Indian media would fix Modi. And then Advani said he wouldnt have been so disappointed if Arundhati or Ram had said such things. Kintu Shekharji, aap se aisi apeksha nahin thhi... (But we didnt expect this from you). It was all very polite and dignified and he added that I should also call George.

Which I did at once, and asked George that buddhu was alright, but would anybody in Pakistan ever understand the meaning of rakshas, so why would I describe him as such He said I had a point, but this is what he had read in an article posted on by Varsha Bhosle (Asha Bhosles right-wing daughter who died, sadly, in October 2012, allegedly having committed suicide).

Here are the facts of that story. The first offence, the insult to George Fernandes, was all fiction. Somebody in the audience had asked Ram what he thought of his defence ministers idea of a limited war with Pakistan. Remember, this was mid-August 2002 and, following the Parliament attack, our forces were massed on the border with live ammunition under Op Parakram. Ram said it was a stupid and monstrous idea. There is no way he would have used buddhu or rakshas, given that his Hindi is no better than my Tamil. He never used that description for George, and certainly I hadnt even spoken on this. But the second charge, I stood guilty of. At least prima facie. And this was also in response to an audience question.

You keep praising Indias democracy all the time, asked this concerned woman, but what will happen to your democracy if Modi comes to power Shouldnt we Pakistanis and your Muslims worry

Dont worry about our democracy and Modi, maam, I said. We have institutions to deal with Modi if he threatens our democracy and its values of liberal secularism... we have the judiciary, Parliament, Election Commission, and also us, the free media. You can trust Indias institutions to deal with any such challenges now, I said. And then added, in some exasperation, as that question was being asked often on that visit (just months after the Gujarat riots), You dont worry about Modi. Please leave him to us Indians and our institutions.

That is all there was to that offensive statement, and I am quite happy to repeat it even today. Except, I now have to address campaigners of the Congress party who are building their entire 2014 election campaign on a Modi paranoia. That he will come to power and ruin our democracy, break up our country and sully every liberal value the founding fathers built this republic on. It is not for me to take a call on who the people of India should choose to lead them next year. But the fact is, whoever it is will have to work within the parameters of the Constitution and uphold its core values, whether he likes them or not. Because a democracy is neither made nor destroyed by individuals. It is built around institutions that sustain and nurture it, and protect it in case of an assault by any monsters, whether buddhu or wise. Tested by dictatorial individuals and forces, as India was during Indira Gandhis Emergency, these institutions emerged even stronger, thereby making our democracy even more unassailable. Howsoever formidable Modi may be, he cannot be like the Indira Gandhi of 1975 with a brute majority. And she also failed.

It is because the voters know this well that the Congress partys current, single-point campaign, built on the Gabbar-isation of Modi, is not working. After ruling India for 10 years uninterrupted, you cannot merely scare India into voting for you. Those that fear Modi, notably the Muslims, will vote to defeat him anyway. They do not need a reminder, and Modi is unlikely to be able to calm them unless he finds a way of seeking some sort of closure to 2002, which until now he has shown no inclination to do. But the Congress cannot win a third term just by scaring us all of Modi. Because 2014 is a far cry from 1984. And because we are not scared of Modi, even those who wont vote for him. And surely, we will deal with him, or anybody else, from any party, Congress, BJP, Third Front, who threatens to become a monster. To win power in 2014, you need a much wider, affirmative agenda.

I had taken a few months off on a sabbatical between 1993 and 94 to write a monograph for the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies (Adelphi Paper 293, India Redefines its Role, OUP, January 1995). This is when the BJP was a rising power post-Ayodhya. I had analysed this in detail and recklessly stuck my neck out to say that while the BJP would come to power, you need have no larger worries as India would make the party change a lot more when its in power than it would be able to change India. Second, that the BJP was riding a peculiar surge, whereby it looked as if Indias large majority of Hindus had acquired a minority complex. Vajpayee flattered me by referring to this argument from the monograph (with due credit and citation) in his brilliant defence of the NDA (although that first government fell in 13 days) and held forth in some detail on why the majority had acquired this minority complex. He talked about how it was important now to challenge this division of the Indian mind between majority and minorities. In his prime ministership, he genuinely wanted to deliver on this promise. But Gujarat 2002 blotted his report card. And he never forgave Modi. Or even himself, for his inability to ensure adherence to rajdharma after talking about it in Ahmedabad.

I would repeat both these points once again now. The more the anti-Modi forces work towards polarisation, the more they bring back the majoritys minority complex. It helps their adversary rather than harming him. At the same time, if at all he were to be voted to power next year, India and its institutions would change Modi (and even his BJP) rather than him being able to change India. Thats why fear cant be the key to the voters mind in 2014. It will be a positive, considered choice from the options on offer.