Dividing Lines: Text & context

A political party which seeks a text book start often remains superficial, pretending that the preamble or the introduction remains the real thing. For a party that created a great propaganda machine to devastate the Congress during the election, the Bharatiya Janata Party regime has little to say. The old cliché “valuate us by what we do” does not work because little is said and less is being done. The BJP right now is a modest party with a lot to be modest about. There are whole domains of confusion, silence, even suspicion and violence which need to be commented on.

In fact, as the joke goes, one learns more on twitter from S. Gurumurthi and Madhu Kishwar than from the policy pronouncements of the regime. Oddly, even in his Independence Day speech, Prime Minister Narenda Modi is still trying to galvanise a people than activate a regime.
One feels the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh is already on the ground working for its idea of transformation but the Modi regime sits coyly acting as if secrecy is the first promise of good governance. In fact, some of the decisions from raising the height of the Narmada Dam to the closure of the Planning Commission are announced without any expectation of debate.

If policy were a set of promissory notes, Mr Modi has offered many from Saarc to sanitation. Yet, one has to wait to encash them. The old tactic of reiterating that BJP did better than the Congress wears thin. Worse, as a cast of characters, his Cabinet lacks collective character. In fact, the bumbling and the comic often intervene to mimic policy. Let us look at education.

The government treated the whole liberal arts controversy with forceps, as if it was an internal matter between University Grants Commission and Delhi University. However, when a lakh of students are involved can the government play coy, especially when the UGC is so blatantly submissive to it. If we add to it the antics of human resource development minister Smriti Irani parading her Yale degree or her incomplete B.Com degree, one wonders whether she has the competence and the capacity to understand higher education. The question was not a battle between three and four years, but about the fate of educational experiments.

There is no sense that government is open to academic debate. One would have thought that the BJP, which was particularly inept in its handling of the history debates, in its last incarnation, would raise more fundamental questions about language, history and culture. In fact, it is the spectre of culture and the increasing importance of the RSS that needs to be addressed. The RSS seems to shape, affect issues of culture and agriculture. Its stand against genetically-modified crops in food virtually determined the government’s stand on the issue. One has to emphasise this background to look at Prime Minister Modi’s speech on Independence Day.

To treat the speech as a promissory note, to be evaluated a year hence is philistine. A speech to the nation on Independence Day cannot be treated like an obstetric handbook, to be concerned with delivery. It deals with vision, a sense of unity and a horizon of inclusiveness. It is true that in terms of a delivery package Mr Modi offers little. What we have to read is a “Sunday best” performance of a man projecting a certain self and asking people to respond to it.

Prime Minister Modi’s challenge was two fold. He had to dream beyond the Nehru era and yet not invite negative comparisons with Nehru’s almost legendary tryst with destiny speech. Second, he had to make a pracharak’s world view, his list of virtues sound like a broader idea of India. He has to magnify the microcosm of the shakha into the macrocosm called India. He realises he cannot appeal to current social problems or issues of international relations like China or Pakistan. All he can do is to appeal to civics, to essential virtues which can link solidarity to performance.

The speech could be about the rules for an ashram, a shakha or a school rather than norms for a nation. Symbolically, the speech has to be seen in several frames. As a piece of history it lacks resonance. It does not talk of major reform or institutional change; Mr Modi talks about the virtues of nationhood, punctuality, cleanliness, a swadesi pride in manufacture, an attempt to reskill India. He wraps all this in an emphasis on sewa, a civilisational ideal of service which transcends the individualism of self. It is an appeal to self discipline before one seeks a wider control of populations. Mr Modi’s sense of a public self is self reliance and self discipline. It is the virtues of a pracharak extended to a nation. Unlike Gandhi, he has nothing to say on sanitation in public spaces, or of untouchability. His dream of a toilet in each school turns into a corporate social responsibility project. It is as if Gandhi summons the community to regenerate itself, while Mr Modi asks the nation, the corporation, the networks of civil society to help revitalise a society. A boy scouts enthusiasm for civic badges substitutes for the intricacies of policy.

This Independence Day speech was different. To condemn it for its absences will not do. To use it as an index of future delivery will be too half-hearted. It is the construction of a self, a touched up swadesi self, out Vivekananda, Malaviya, Tilak, tapping into an unconscious which goes beyond a Nehruvian epidermis. Mr Modi is literally saying this is a presentation of my best self. It is a civic self, a revitalised self, respect me for it. The task of the spectator, the critic and interpreter is to map this self among the other selves of Narendra Modi. The question one has to ask is can they co-exist? Does the latest self subsume the other selves? Viewed internally, in an isolated way it is a gem of a performance. Yet, located within his other speeches, his other incarnations, one is perplexed. The question is which is the real self or what is the relation between the various selves. In puzzlement, one is forced to ask “Will the real Narendra Modi stand up?” And behave beyond Independence Day?



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