November Issue 2015

By | News & Politics | Published 4 years ago

As a former High Commissioner to India, how do you see what is happening in India now, and do you think there will be a reaction against Modi?

Well, we already see evidence of that reaction. That is why the Bihar election, which used to be seen as a cinch — as the Americans would say — for the BJP, is now being seen to be very closely contested. It is possible the BJP might not win. If that happens, that would confirm the supposition that Modi’s popularity has, to some extent, peaked.

However, I wouldn’t say that his hold on power or the Indian masses has significantly weakened. He’s only been in office less than a year, but if he continues in the current vein with events like those in Mumbai and various other places, killings and assassinations [and violence] not just against Muslims, but also against other Hindus who are arguing for a secular liberal India [I don’t know]. All of that has shocked a lot of people; they are shocked by his silence, because they know the Shiv Sena is a collaborator; it is affiliated with the Sang Parivar. It may not be a part of it, but it has exactly the same ideology. And they’ve been given this license.

Modi has finally made statements [against the communal violence], but tepid statements — too little too late and most certainly not felt, because he still believes his base is the Hindutva base. This he has worked up and made more fanatically anti-Muslim, and also anti-Christian and anti-other minorities. So it’s a very unhealthy development. Most Indians like to believe that their country represents something better than this: secularism, liberalism, where there is space for every point of view.

It is generally believed that India voted for Modi due to the promises he made regarding the economy. He was also seen as the cleaner and more successful alternative to the Congress. There are still people who believe Modi will deliver on the economic boom he promised and also that now, because he is the prime minister of India, not just the chief minister of Gujarat, he will eventually have to tone down on Hindutva. What do you think?

In an article I had written, I said that if the economy begins to slow down, then Modi’s emphasis on Hindutva will increase in order to maintain public support. However, that is not a winning strategy; ultimately people will vote according to their stomachs. If prices are under control, if corruption is under control, if the government can administer with efficiency, then Modi’s positive image can be sustained. He could even go to a second term with some confidence. But if the economy weakens, we will see what happens. At present the economy hasn’t weakened, but people are disillusioned in many respects that [Modi’s government] hasn’t quite delivered, considering he’s so much a businessman’s Prime Minister, even though he does not have a business background. But coming from Gujarat, he’s been associated with multibillionaires such as the Ambanis and Adanis, who have backed him very enthusiastically. However, many of the lower class and middle class feel they have been excluded by his policies. Unless he does something for them, [that disillusionment will grow]. The BJP had this slogan in the previous elections, ‘Shining India,’ but that let them down because only one-third of India was shining, not the remaining part. So they lost the elections. Modi runs the same risk if his economic policies don’t impact the majority of the people positively. The fact that they will impact the elite or the rich, won’t be enough to politically save him. He now has to rethink [his strategy]. But [ironically], since his Hindutva programme has provoked a liberal backlash [one would have assumed] this would go in favour of the Congress. However, the Congress has been associated with such corruption, and Rahul Gandhi’s own performance has been so unsatisfactory, [that hasn’t happened].

Is the situation in India similar to that of the PPP in Pakistan?

Absolutely. People say you can’t write off the Peoples Party, but it might take a better part of the decade for it to recover — and that too depending on the leadership it has.

Don’t you think that the ink thrown on Kulkarni, Kasuri’s host for his Mumbai book launch, was part of the Shiv Sena’s internal politics — i.e. the Sena wanting to win the upcoming municipal elections after their poor showing in last year’s elections?

When a party begins to lose strength, economic, political or other, it tries to appeal to the baser instincts of its base, in this case Hindutva. So they talk about Muslims in a particular manner, one designed to evoke racist or anti-communal and anti-Muslim feelings,

So you think the buck doesn’t stop with Modi then — it stops with the Shiv Sena, its desperate attempt to gain power…

The Shiv Sena is confined to Maharashtra and certainly, most of the unpleasant incidents that have recently occurred have happened in Maharashtra, especially those against Pakistan and Pakistanis.

So while, right now [the fascist tendencies] are concentrated in Maharashtra, such incidents will gradually impact other parts of India, unless this movement is controlled.

The Shiv Sena has a particular extremist side. Modi as prime minister now recognises that while his base needs to be satisfied, he also has larger responsibilities. He is also aware of the fact that he lost Delhi, the capital, soon after he became prime minister, because the Aam Admi Party came back. This was on account of many of his policies.

In my view, Modi doesn’t have the vision to learn from his mistakes. He is not a poet like Vajpayee was. While being a pracharak of the RSS and a member of the BJP, Vajpayee had the capacity, I have to say, to build a coalition, to give space to other points of view. Modi has come in with a mandate for Hindutva, and the RSS controls him directly, in a way that it could not control Vajpayee. Vajpayee could tell the RSS, “mujhay toh coalition banana hai” (I have to make a coalition), and the RSS gave him space. But they might not be willing to give Modi that space because he is completely their product.

He won the elections on the basis of the RSS workers who rustled up the votes for his victory.

Modi wants to leave behind a legacy. He invited Nawaz Sharif to India, and said he wanted a South Asia where there could be trade, etc. Do you think that was just rhetoric or genuine? Or do you think that vision has been scuttled by hawks from within his own party? And is Modi himself really a hawk, especially in relation to Muslims and Pakistan?

Oh yes, he is most certainly a hawk. His instincts are hawkish. [Examine] his role in and his reaction to the Gujarat riots, his subsequent statements [after the carnage]. His dream is a Hindutva dream.

What about trade and economy and bringing South Asia together —that’s also part of his dream.

But deep down, it seems to be a hegemonic dream. To have a proper vision you have to have an educated mind. What is the essence of education? It is the ability to see how and why the other person thinks [a certain way], even if you don’t agree with him. If you dismiss the other person as completely mistaken and completely wrong then you’re not educated, no matter how many degrees you have. Vajpayee, the poet, instinctively had that imagination to understand why Pakistanis think the way they do. He recognised we have differences, but also knew that only through talks could we resolve these. Modi started making pre-conditions [from the very outset], which ensured those talks would not take place. So there was a complete lack of imagination, a complete lack of vision — tunnel vision, symptomatic of a lack of education.

Modi is [unarguably] an intelligent man, he is an articulate man, a very charismatic speaker. But the top position requires a statesman because of the size of the country, its complexity, and because of the new [global] role India wants to play. To this end, one would need to take into account the opinions of the world, the opinions within India, and the opinions of the subcontinent. Is Modi capable of that?

On our side [in Pakistan], we have the opposite: Nawaz Sharif has all the desire and willingness to do the right things vis-a-vis India, but he simply has neither the capacity to deliver, nor the authority.

Do you believe India is fundamentally secular?

India was never as secular as it has pretended to be, but the Indian intelligentsia [wants others to believe] and a very large segment of the India population [itself] wants to believe in Indian secularism. Otherwise, for example, how would they be able to justify their own policy towards Kashmir. Their claim is that because we are secular we don’t accept a country or a people deciding their fate in accordance with religion. So the Kashmiris should not be allowed the opportunity to join Pakistan merely because they are Muslims. Now of course this is a totally false argument because the Kashmiris, like any people in the world, have the right to determine their own fate, whether it’s on the basis of religion or the basis of secularism, or on the basis of anything. They have that right that can’t be qualified in any way. But because India feels a secular ideology gives them the space to act with regard to issues like Kashmir, they want to cling to it.

Has Modi in some way challenged that secularism to the extent that there will be a backlash?

The aspirations of many of the political intelligentsia are secular, but the practise is certainly not secular. In practice there are so many compromises.

So who will win? Secular India or Modi’s Hindu nationalist India?

Secularism is not winning so far. [To attain that], you have to have very strong and visionary leadership which can communicate its visions to the masses like Nehru did. Nehru wasn’t secular with regard to Kashmir, but he had a secular approach, and as far as possible, he applied it to the politics of India.

Do you think Modi will decisively change India, like Zia-ul-Haq changed us?

He could, and that would be for the worse, like Zia changed Pakistan for the worse. Modi could do lasting damage to the secular tradition and self-image of India.

This interview was originally published in Newsline’s November 2015 issue.

The author is a contributor at Aaj TV