Campaign rhetoric that is patently incendiary is being read as the discourse of moderation. Actions that are menacingly communal are being interpreted as harmlessly secular. Silence is being taken as proof of innocence
As India enters its 2014 general election to constitute the 16th Lok Sabha, the spectacle of prominent commentators adjusting their views towards the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi unfolds before our eyes with escalating frequency and vivid clarity. These adjustments — to use a term that is more descriptive than judgmental, at least for starters — take a variety of forms, and come from a range of observers, analysts and experts.
Abdications of political judgment
We are told that Mr. Modi has changed his ways: to reassure likely allies and be able to lead a coalition government, he has transformed himself from an extreme Hindutva majoritarian to a right-of-centre moderate. We are told that Mr. Modi will not act in the future as he did in the past: he has left behind his persona of a parochial leader whose popularity was confined to Gujarat, and is in the process of becoming a statesman of national and indeed international stature. We are told that Mr. Modi is not what he was made out to be by his critics: he was never divisive, sectarian, authoritarian and violent; he has always been more interested in economic growth and infrastructure development than in religious politics and communal violence.
Further, we are told that all along, the liberal commentariat has been biased against Mr. Modi and intent on demonising him, mainly because it is habituated to flattering the Congress and the Left parties; sensible Muslims both inside and outside Gujarat who seek concrete economic opportunities over abstract secular values actually back Mr. Modi — as they must, being driven by pragmatism rather than sentimentality; and moreover there is no legally actionable proof that Mr. Modi or his administration planned, incited, encouraged, tolerated, enacted or helped mass violence against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, which left at least 1,000 dead and tens of thousands displaced. These being the new facts (“new” because they differ quite noticeably from what we were used to thinking of as the facts), many former sceptics have now become supporters of Mr. Modi and are not embarrassed to declare themselves in public.
These apparent adjustments of political opinion, I would suggest, are in fact stunning abdications of political judgment. Campaign rhetoric that is patently incendiary is being read as the discourse of moderation. Actions that are menacingly communal are being interpreted as harmlessly secular. Silence is being taken as proof of innocence. Denial is being projected as maturity. Claims about administrative efficiency, good governance and high growth rates — themselves empirically dubious — are being presented as satisfactory alibis and valid substitutes for a lack of concern for, not to say an outright threat to, the rights of minorities. The ecological costs of Mr. Modi’s preferred model of aggressive corporate investment are being papered over with unseemly haste. What is really at stake, as Dr. David Bromwich wrote in his brilliant essay of 2008, “Euphemism and American Violence,” is the truth of words and the reality of violence.
The language of Narendra Modi
In a recent exhibition of art at the Lalit Kala Akademi in Delhi, held to mark 25 years of the SAHMAT collective — named after the radical theatre activist, Safdar Hashmi, who was killed in 1989 at the age of 34 — there were many images that showed very clearly what this increasingly voluble language of equivocation, compromise, euphemism, complicity and propaganda tries so hard to hide. The sickening, brutal arson, rape, murder and displacement in Gujarat during the riots of 2002. Gutted homes, traumatised survivors. Ahmedabad charred and disfigured, as documented not only by countless photographs, but also recorded and mourned in paintings, sculptures and poems. Gulbarg Society and Naroda Patiya, scars on our collective conscience that would be slow to heal — and that cannot even begin to heal without some gesture of acknowledgement, howsoever oblique, a tacit ownership of responsibility, an apology, be it belated and muted, from Mr. Modi and his lieutenants who were ruling Gujarat at that time. If such a heinous pogrom could happen once under Mr. Modi’s watch, what guarantee is there that it will not happen again? How can we trust that justice will be done, when no one is willing to own up to what happened?
Images can reveal what words try to conceal. But the most reliable guide to what Mr. Modi really stands for and promises, is his own language. This language is saturated with Hindu piety, religious chauvinism, contempt for Muslims, and the fears and fantasies of Hindutva nationalism. This is a man who equated Muslims killed in 2002 with a puppy run over by a car. Whose popular campaign slogans are “Har Har Modi” and “Namo NaMo.” Who said that rhinoceroses are being hunted in Assam to clear space for illegal Bangladeshi Muslim immigrants. Who referred to Rahul Gandhi as “Shehzada” and Sonia Gandhi as “Sultana” — using Persianate terms in Urdu for royalty to designate, at one go, the dynastic nature of the Nehru-Gandhi family as well as the “foreign” origins of its most prominent members. Who dismissed genocidal violence against Muslims as the “reaction” of the “action” that consisted of the Godhra train fire in which 59 Hindu kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya were killed in February 2002 — the infamous kriya-pratikriya remark.
This is the man who parsed being a Hindu Nationalist as “I am a Hindu and I am a nationalist.” Who glossed “true government” as dharma, the Constitution as a “Holy Book” and public service as puja (i.e., worship, in the religious sense). Who characterised relief camps for displaced 2002 survivors — most of them Muslim — as “baby-making factories.” These are examples of phrases not including his innumerable personal insults and digs at rival politicians, notably Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (whom Mr. Modi called “Maun Mohan Singh,” thereby deriding his silence in various corruption scandals that surfaced during his tenure as Prime Minister), and Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal (whom he called “AK49” — alluding to the 49 days of his Chief Ministership of Delhi from December 2013 to February 2014, and simultaneously to the AK47 rifle used most often in Kashmir’s separatist militancy for the past 25 years, thereby implying that Mr. Kejriwal is an anti-India insurgent of sorts).
The alarming love of euphemism
Many times it is not Mr. Modi himself but his henchmen, admirers and self-appointed spokespersons, who speak in terms of revenge rather than reconciliation, of invasion versus indigenousness, when talking about Muslims and Hindus. They say we have to choose secularism or growth, as though there were something at all obvious or logical in presenting the nation with this sort of absurd choice, between a cornerstone of our political beliefs and a desideratum of our economic agenda. They say we have to count how many prominent Muslims are joining the BJP, as though the opportunism of a handful of elites is any indication of the options that are or are not available to millions of disenfranchised members of a beleaguered minority. They say Mr. Modi has learned respect and moderation, as though pretence, affectation and mendacity during election-time are simply unheard of tricks that we would never expect from our politicians when they go out seeking votes. They say Mr. Modi is clean, as though his apparent lack of fiscal corruption offsets other, very serious shortfalls in the values of toleration, inclusion and pluralism that are foundational to our democratic culture.
Do we really want to forget, ignore, misrepresent or deliberately misunderstand these and many other highly inflammatory words of Mr. Modi and his coterie? Should we be a party to what Dr. Bromwich called the “euphemistic contract” between the Modi camp and some sections of the media as well as influential opinion-makers? Do we want to fall prey to the Lady Macbeth syndrome, washing and washing those bloodstained hands so as to give over the reins of power to them in coming weeks? In the American context, discussing President George W. Bush’s “war on terror” after 9/11, Dr. Bromwich wrote: “Democracy exists in continuous complicity with euphemism.” Indian democracy too, and especially its most vocal proponents, the liberal intelligentsia, seem to have developed an alarming love of euphemism that is taking our polity further and further away from both moral responsibility and political judgment. It’s time to call a spade a spade, before it’s too late.
(Ananya Vajpeyi is the author of Righteous Republic: The Political Foundations of Modern India, Harvard 2012. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org)