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A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters
A file photo of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Photo: Reuters

Modi’s idea of India and flaws in the media-intellectual narrative

It is time for Modi to recognize that religious identity, unfortunately, remains an axis of discrimination in today's India

“My India resides in that Imran Khan from Alwar"—with this statement, or rather proverbial stone—Prime Minister Narendra Modi killed many birds from the podium of Wembley stadium. India is far too complex, far too big, far too great to be captured by television channels or newspaper headlines, contended Modi. One thing is clear: Modi has still not lost his political ingenuity despite what may appear from loss of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in Bihar.

Modi’s visit to the UK was marked by a range of unkind—sometimes bordering on hostile—editorials and columns appearing in the British press. Such coverage was not unexpected given the backdrop of some recent events in India itself. Since the barbaric lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq in Dadri, the Indian media and a whole host of intellectuals have been vociferously questioning the Modi government’s commitment to freedom of expression and minority rights.

Amid all these questions, Modi’s statement on Alwar’s Imran Khan is notable because it instantaneously created two fault lines, both deeply political in nature. The fault lines were meant to create a wedge between Modi’s detractors and the people whose cause they intend to espouse.

Modi’s statement embraced Imran Khan unequivocally but not because he is a Muslim but because of what he has done. Imran Khan, a math teacher in a government school, has created as many as 52 education-oriented mobile applications and dedicated it to students for free. With his statement, Modi clearly chose his side in a contest between two different ideas of India. Pratap Bhanu Mehta, an eminent thinker and academician, has often articulated this contest as one between an India modelled as a federation of communities (FOC) versus an India playing a veritable zone of individual freedom (ZIF). In the former, group allegiance is a determinant of the identity of an individual. The latter values diversity of identities but—Mehta says—“as an outcome of free individuals exercising their choices."

During the same speech, Modi also admitted that India’s diversity is its strength. The strength, as the reference to Imran Khan confirms, is not due to mere presence of myriad caste, religion, culture and languages but because of what each individual shorn of these identities contributes to a project Modi calls “India first". It is timely to recall that Modi has said on numerous occasions that, for him, secularism means “India first". Or one can recall Modi touching the feet of Colonel Nizamuddin, a veteran of the Indian National Army and a close associate of Subhas Chandra Bose. Or Modi’s high regard for former president APJ Abdul Kalam, also known as the “missile man of India"—a sobriquet that captures, though not entirely, his contribution to “India first" project. Modi’s idea of India is an extension—a utilitarian one at that— of ZIF.

The second fault line that Modi generated is one between the sub-altern and the privileged. Imran Khan, an industrious man of modest means, was pitted against people who are—in the words of finance minister Arun Jaitley—“rabid anti-BJP elements" many of who have been “recipients of past patronage." While these two fault lines do blunt the attack on Modi’s critics considerably, they do not answer one important question. Mohammad Akhlaq’s lynching in Dadri was a gruesome act mediated by his identity (there are some recent reports disputing this). If identity is at the core of injustice, how can efforts to address such injustice skirt questions around identity? Moreover, Akhlaq was a small town man of modest means, not someone with access to a column space in liberal newspapers of India and abroad. In essence, Modi has answered his critics, not yet Akhlaq’s family.

Now let us come back to what I call for the purpose of simplification, ‘media-intellectual narrative’. This will need some explanation. The ‘secularism versus communalism’ narrative since the late 1980s paralleled the rise of BJP as an electoral force. Much of this period can also be called the ‘post-Mandal era’. In 1990, prime minister V.P. Singh accepted the Mandal Commission report which recommended 27% reservations for other backward classes in government services. This added to the pre-existing reservations for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes.

The instruments of affirmative action, universal adult franchise and first-past-the-post system created a system which—stated in terms of principal-agent problem—ensured adequate representation among the decision makers (agent) from the lower castes and backward classes. In absence of affirmative action, minorities merely had the luxury of using the first-past-the-post system to vote out the BJP. The fact that they belonged to minority communities did not make them winnable candidates even for the so-called secular parties. According to 2011 census, Muslims comprise 14.2% of India’s population but represent only 4.2% of the 16th Lok Sabha. The number in 15th Lok Sabha—not dominated by the BJP—was not much better at 6%. Muslims have been reduced from citizens to merely voters and the so-called secular parties are to be blamed.

I am not at all, lest it may appear, suggesting affirmative action, or quotas, for minorities. Whether representation should be such a coveted goal and if quotas should be employed to achieve it are matters beyond the scope of this article. But representation is an effective tool to point out the deficiencies of the media-intellectual narrative, which blames Modi and the BJP disproportionately for the plight of minorities.

It is time for Modi to recognize that religious identity remains, unfortunately, an axis of discrimination in today’s India. It is also time for media and intellectuals to raise more intelligent questions than they do today.

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