Yes, I am at the Jaipur Lit Fest. Or are we better off calling it the Jaipur Lit Sham, as Arnab Goswami does? A Republic TV staffer called me up on 23 January to ask if I would come on the channel’s evening “debate” in which Goswami tagged JLF with the ‘Sham’ moniker. Or should I say expletive? Of course, I declined.
Why? Isn’t Republic TV India’s most-watched news channel these days? I do admire Arnab. He’s turned this enterprise into one of the most popular media houses in India. In a few years. From scratch. That takes guts, vision, business sense, and a killer-mentality. All of which Arnab displays every day with incredible stamina, indefatigable gusto. But to shout at others or be shouted at on his show is to risk losing one’s credibility.
Friday’s show was a hatchet job on the world’s greatest literature festival. It was a one-sided and vicious attack, quite far from the actual reality of what happens at JLF. Arnab’s central contention was that the festival is the last resort of the trounced and vanquished Lutyens’ Delhi cabal or the Khan Market gang. This is where they congregate to commiserate with one another and lick each other’s wounds at champagne parties in palatial settings.
I disagree. But first, let us give the devil his due. That is what the Bharatiya parampara of purvapaksha demands. You have to present your opponent’s case in the best possible light before you refute it. Did a politician, Rajasthan Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot, inaugurate the festival? Yes. Did he use that slot to attack the Narendra Modi government? Yes. But here is where Arnab Goswami’s slant needs to be called out. Gehlot’s dig was very gentle, just an innuendo really. He only said that along with “mann ki baat, kaam ki baat bhi honi chahiye.”
Well, what does that really mean? I can’t be sure. Does it mean he was encouraging panellists to attack the Modi Sarkar? Later, in another interview with the press, Gehlot spelt out his intent a bit more clearly. He said he hoped that the Modi government would listen to the voices of intellectuals, writers, and poets, their mann ki baat, too. Now, is that hijacking the whole festival to political ends? No.
Arnab’s second allegation was that non-writers abound at the JLF and they make hugely political statements all the time. Like Nandita Das’s claim that Shaheen Baghs (Delhi’s anti-CAA protest site) are erupting all over India. Yes, again, Arnab is partly right. JLF does abound with actor-activists and celebrities. Many of these do hate the present dispensation and are waiting for its downfall. It also attracts politician-author-celebrities, like Congress MP Shashi Tharoor, who also use this platform to attack the Modi government.
JLF is diverse
But this doesn’t mean that there are no speakers from the other side. Lyricist and CBFC chairperson Prasoon Joshi, for instance, openly praised Narendra Modi on the opening day, saying the Prime Minister wanted nothing for himself and was working day and night for India’s welfare. He was greeted with loud claps and cheers.
JLF’s title sponsor continues to be ZEE, a media house that openly supports Modi. Similarly, BJP’s Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta, Niti Aayog CEO Amitabh Kant, historian Vikram Sampath, author Hindol Sengupta, Panchjanya editor Hitesh Shankar, and several others, all usually identified with the Right-wing, are also at the JLF. In this list, I might include myself. I do consider myself centre-Right, if that is some sort of ideological position. And I am a supporter of PM Modi. But above all, I am a pluralist; there are many valid points of view. Not just one. Whether it be the party line or a theological dictum. More importantly, I am a writer. Not just a polemicist or a publicist. I have authored over 20 books and edited as many more, covering a range of genres — from poetry and fiction to criticism, non-fiction, and the intellectual traditions of modern India.
The diversity of opinions at the JLF came out clearly during the panel discussion on “Gandhi: In Our Times.” While moderator-activist Ruchira Gupta tried to politicise matters from the very start, both Edinburgh academic Talat Ahmed and I tried to keep our different views evidence-based. Filmmaker Ramesh Sharma openly said that M.K. Gandhi would fast against Modi, but I replied to cheers that Modi would join the fast too, though not necessarily at Shaheen Bagh. So there was ample scope for different points of view at the JLF.
For controversy’s sake
It is, therefore, incorrect to say that the JLF has no writers of note or that it is purely the political platform for lost Lutyens souls. It has plenty of good writers from all over the world. Most important publishers show up. There are synergies and exchanges that promote the pursuit of literature and the arts.
The directors of the literature festival, Namita Gokhale and William Dalrymple, have worked very hard for over a decade to ensure the success of JLF. As has its producer, Sanjoy Roy, and the entire Teamwork Arts group. JLF is a hugely successful demonstration of India’s soft power. It has proved that we can be world leaders, even world beaters, in this field.
I say this not only as a participant, but as the founding-curator of another literature, allegedly Right-wing festival, the Pondy Lit Fest (PLF), which Arnab Goswami supported. In fact, today there are far more Right-wing lit fests in India than Left-wing ones. We should not run the JLF platform down unnecessarily, spitefully or unfairly.
Of course, this message may fall on deaf ears as far as Arnab is concerned. He and his channel thrive on controversy. But, then, so does JLF.
The author is a Professor and Director at the Indian Institute of Advanced Study, Shimla. His Twitter handle is @makrandparanspe. Views are personal.