PUT THE GE­NIE BACK IN THE BOT­TLE

The Free Press Journal - - FRONT PAGE - S S Dhawan

So­cial con­flicts in a deeply po­larised so­ci­ety — where the chasm between the lib­er­als and the con­ser­va­tives is widen­ing by the day — are not ne­go­ti­ated through si­lence. A leader of Mr Modi’s stature and sen­si­tiv­ity can­not squint through th­ese malev­o­lent times -- when there is this egre­gious out­pour­ing of ha­tred, big­otry and vi­o­lence -- with the sto­icism of a her­mit in a pagoda.

Un­less, of course, the Prime Min­is­ter too is feel­ing marginalised and per­se­cuted like the rest of us. Al­most like a hap­less Prad­han Sevak who must stick to the ide­o­log­i­cal tem­plate and re­spond to the ‘aadesh’ from his feu­dal over­lords.

The sense of dis­may is even greater when one re­alises that the BJP has taken its eyes off its all-in­clu­sive de­vel­op­ment agenda and in­stead sees its own po­lit­i­cal for­tunes as in­ex­tri­ca­bly hitched to the ten­sions and schisms within the so­ci­ety.

Party rook­ies and ide­o­logues have been al­lowed too long to play peek-a-boo with the na­tion, huff­ing and puff­ing in TV stu­dios, stir­ring fears, de­mon­is­ing com­mu­ni­ties, whip­ping us into a state of frenzy...so that we are chok­ing with fear even as we post mes­sages on What­sApp. They have, in turn, wit­tingly or un­wit­tingly, spawned a tribe of on­line flamethrow­ers who have, in a very short time, brought the worst out of us, turn­ing us into ugly lit­tle duck­lings.

Th­ese dis­cor­dant voices have em­pow­ered us with hate; clawed into our in­nate in­se­cu­ri­ties with the zeal of a grave dig­ger and turned our fears into po­lit­i­cal rhetoric. They have em­bold­ened us to in­flict ver­bal and even phys­i­cal vi­o­lence on those whom we de­spise: That is their ma­lig­nant in­flu­ence and one finds it dif­fi­cult to dis­pel the mis­giv­ing that it is not a com­mand per­for­mance.

PM Modi’s monk­ish si­lence and in­ac­tion in th­ese mat­ters is rem­i­nis­cent of the pouted ret­i­cence of a pre­de­ces­sor — Narasimha Rao — who had sim­i­larly sleep­walked into a de­mo­li­tion; and the wooden rec­ti­tude of an­other — Dr Man­mo­han Singh — whom the na­tion had suf­fered in scams out of sheer def­er­ence for his age and re­spect for his white goa­tee. The dis­tress­ing as­pect is that PM Modi is over­come with elo­quence in Par­lia­ment and be­fore a cap­tive au­di­ence in the Vi­gyan Bha­van, where he does not tire of telling us that his is a dy­namic, fast-paced and a re­sult-ori­ented ad­min­is­tra­tion. Nor does he turn coy in NRI jam­borees — where the dis­tinc­tion between pol­i­tics and en­ter­tain­ment gets blurred when he wants to har­ness his good­will abroad for do­mes­tic growth — for build­ing high-speed rail­ways and other in­fra­struc­ture.

In a way, a ‘wooden’ Naren­dra Modi is even more wor­ri­some be­cause his si­lence on such mat­ters of so­cial co­he­sive­ness is of­ten per­ceived by his de­trac­tors as strate­gic or tac­ti­cal -- that by both re­treat­ing and pointed avoid­ance, he is per­haps al­low­ing the more vol­u­ble sec­tions of the pari­var to sway the opin­ion of the ma­jor­ity.

By do­ing so, one re­in­forces the im­pres­sion that ex­tra­ne­ous out­fits can whim­si­cally in­ter­fere with the free­dom of ci­ti­zens; they can con­trol the eat­ing habits of peo­ple, tam­per with school and col­lege cur­ric­ula; change heads of in­sti­tu­tions; de­clare an open sea­son for ma­lign­ing oth­ers - in short, ride roughshod over the na­tion!

This is a deadly sol­vent and the re­sults are im­me­di­ately ap­par­ent: one, there is a vi­cious as­sault on cit­i­zen's demo­cratic rights; two, a sub­tle mes­sage goes to the me­dia that if you mess with us, there will be heavy costs to pay. Re­sult: other in­sti­tu­tions take the cue and al­low them­selves to be coopted; even the right-think­ing ci­ti­zens feel in­tim­i­dated enough to keep their own coun­sel; and the rest go with the flow.

Thus the busi­ness of gov­er­nance is not merely thrown off course but the en­tire na­tion is pushed to the fringe - the outer lim­its of san­ity; the gulf between the con­ser­va­tive and the lib­eral widens; the sec­u­lar am­bi­ence gets vi­ti­ated.

The leader of a party that does not tire of blam­ing the Con­gress for not ad­dress­ing anti-Sikh vi­o­lence with ex­pe­di­ency is at least ex­pected to show a lit­tle more alacrity in con­demn­ing a sense­less cult of ver­bal as­sault. Ar­tic­u­late and ex­pres­sive lead­ers do not wait for a year for the groundswell of pub­lic opin­ion to build in the streets be­fore they take con­trol of the sit­u­a­tion and make trite re­marks such as - ''vi­o­lence never has and never will solve any prob­lem.’’

The na­tion would also ap­pre­ci­ate if the BJP lead­ers stop in­vok­ing Gandhi and re­mind­ing us of his ideals; we would pre­fer if we were equally con­vinced of Mr Modi's un­fail­ing hu­man­ism and he would say that he per­son­ally dis­ap­proves of any hate cam­paign against the Mus­lims.

Mr Prime Min­is­ter, the world is so con­vinced about your own un­fail­ing bril­liance, why can't you then see the ob­vi­ous con­nect between Gau Rak­shaks, love ji­had etc and the thinly dis­guised hate cam­paign against the mi­nor­ity com­mu­nity?

Why not come out with a un­equiv­o­cal state­ment -- not one couched in cow wor­ship niceties -- un­der­scor­ing that no­body should ever be tar­geted be­cause of who they are, what they look like, what they eat or how they wor­ship.

There are times when a Prime Min­is­ter needs to calm down a na­tion, soothe its frayed nerves, ban­ish its fears, ex­or­cise its ghosts -- past and present.

We are in­deed blessed that PM Modi is not just a fig­ure head to be no­tion­ally wor­shipped like the cos­mic cow and to be de­picted on a cal­en­dar; rather, he is a ro­bust and, from all in-house ac­counts, a de­ci­sive leader. True, in the in­terim, he may have ex­cused him­self from the task of ac­tual gov­er­nance, and pos­si­bly a pun­ish­ing sched­ule does not al­low him time to show­case his moral lead­er­ship. Also, he is per­haps feel­ing a tri­fle low th­ese days as the pub­lic per­cep­tion about his govern­ment does not match with his sense of grand ac­com­plish­ments.

But some­how I hold the PM in such awe that I find it dif­fi­cult to ac­cept that his strate­gic sulk is a man­i­fes­ta­tion of his sup­posed fee­ble­ness, his sense of po­lit­i­cal cau­tion and gen­eral dis­in­cli­na­tion to take any ac­tion against vit­ri­olic voices. But eye­brows are bound to rise be­cause this is be­com­ing a ha­bit­ual re­luc­tance to in­ter­vene by word or ges­ture.

My ele­men­tary maths tells me that it will take him just ten sec­onds on Man Ki Baat to ask th­ese in­flam­ma­tory voices to shut up --voices which are also in­com­pat­i­ble with de­vel­op­ment goals. PM Modi had the courage to do what he thought was po­lit­i­cally the right thing -- be it de­mon­eti­sa­tion or Dok­lam. We all re­alise he is not averse to tak­ing a de­ci­sion even if it alien­ates a sec­tion of so­ci­ety. Be­cause he has the sagac­ity to un­der­stand that it is bet­ter to put his prime min­is­ter­ship on the line rather than go down in his­tory as a head of govern­ment who frit­tered away a golden op­por­tu­nity on the whims of fos­silised ide­o­logues.

If you, Mr Prime Min­is­ter, still can't fathom what I am say­ing, take a day off and run through any Face­book ac­count -- it is strewn with jokes about you and your govern­ment. So, just two words are needed -- Keep quiet! And if you are still not able to muster the po­lit­i­cal will and keep buck­ling un­der the weight of your ide­ol­ogy, in­deed go and take refuge in a pagoda, away from the quo­tid­ian din of pol­i­tics. Be­cause the na­tion can­not suf­fer your in­fi­nite pa­tience. A cri­sis is a good time to con­nect with the na­tion, very of­ten by start­ing a con­ver­sa­tion. We will hear you out.

It was easy to brow­beat a na­tion into sub­mis­sion on de­mon­eti­sa­tion. It was eas­ier still to use a pli­able me­dia to weave a nar­ra­tive about sur­gi­cal strikes. The dif­fi­cult part is chang­ing the na­ture of pub­lic dis­course. You can make a be­gin­ning by tak­ing the na­tion in your em­brace, so that we too can feel the warmth of the 56 inch chest.

There is a dis­turb­ing schiz­o­phrenic streak to a party that talks in mul­ti­ple voices and chooses to be a dummy in the hands of a ven­tril­o­quist. But be warned that when it comes to a crunch, the dummy can be­come a handy scape­goat, too. So, be­fore you be­come po­lit­i­cally ex­pend­able -- and you know what a ten­u­ous re­la­tion­ship you have had with the ide­o­logues in Gu­jarat -- break free, find your voice, help bring down the walls, help ce­ment the fault lines. Put the ge­nie back in the bot­tle. That would be then your last­ing le­gacy — of a man who was most mis­un­der­stood by the lib­er­als and the sec­u­lar minded.

THE DIF­FI­CULT PART is chang­ing the na­ture of pub­lic dis­course.You, Mr Prime Min­is­ter, can make a be­gin­ning by tak­ing the na­tion in your em­brace, so that we too can feel the warmth of the 56 inch chest.

The au­thor is edi­tor of The Free Press Jour­nal

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