As is my weekly habit, I read Shekhar Gupta’s National Interest column in ThePrint published Saturday last week. As usual, it was crisp, analytical, precise in its ideation, and laid out a superb analysis of the recently concluded assembly elections in Haryana and Maharashtra. Whether you agree with Shekhar Gupta or not, his National Interest column is usually good food for thought. But even as I reread it to make sure, I couldn’t help feeling a deep sense of foreboding. Almost as if I had lost something precious. A sense of having been let down when I least expected it. Even betrayal if you will. So, I tried to puzzle out why and this is what I found.
If anything, Shekhar Gupta’s intellection was brilliant. The pith and substance of his argument is reproduced below in three quotes from his column:
- “Then, a voter was convinced India had faced an existential threat from Pakistan for seven decades, nobody had done anything about it, and that (Prime Minister) Narendra Modi was nailing the problem, with a finality. And that while he would do it mostly by “decisive, deterrent and fearless” military punishment, he was also raising India’s global stature to “isolate” Pakistan. Once enough voters bought into these, they forgot their other, traditional political loyalties and binaries. The rest then followed. Pakistan is Muslim, it spreads terrorism in the name of jihad, blood-thirsty jihadis are a pestilence for the entire world. Again, the implicit insinuation was that the threat was pan-Islamic, Indian Muslims were not immune, and Hindus needed to consolidate. Of course, all this would not have worked so well but for the spectacularly efficient distribution of almost Rs 12 lakh crore in visible welfare to the poor: Cooking gas, toilets, homes, and MUDRA loans. I have written and spoken about these often in the campaign weeks.”
This is as crisp a précis of Modi and BJP president Amit Shah’s political strategy that you will find anywhere. This is also the political strategy that went awry in the recent elections, failing to deliver the numbers that the BJP was expecting. That it is a pure myth is only to be expected?
- “And remember, all of this happened within 11 weeks of the scrapping of Article 370 in Kashmir, five weeks of ‘Howdy, Modi!’, the talks with Donald Trump and the speech at UNGA. Add to these the TV spectacle of Mamallapuram with Xi Jinping, P. Chidambaram and D.K. Shivakumar’s arrests, and key NCP leader Praful Patel’s inquisition for an alleged ‘terror-financing link with Iqbal Mirchi’. Moreover, the hearings on Ayodhya were going on a day-to-day basis in the Supreme Court, bringing the issue back into national consciousness.”
Very few commentators have been able to so succinctly capture the failure of this strategy as Shekhar Gupta does. How could someone like me, vehemently opposed to the BJP/RSS ideology, not possibly approve this, notwithstanding the failure to mention elusive trade deals?
- “My central proposition therefore is that the winds of nationalism laden with religion will now yield to those of concern over the stalled economy, unemployment and a general malaise and unhappiness. Fresh noises and action on Pakistan, Kashmir and terror will not be able to reverse these. Except, in the most unlikely event of a larger armed conflict.”
Having laid out his case, Shekhar Gupta concludes that voters are no longer mesmerised by the nationalist narrative and will henceforth focus on the economy. He concludes his article with an advisory that says it all. “They (voters) want the return of economic optimism.” “Optimism”, not growth of 8 per cent plus in GDP.
All good writers, like all good tweeters, address their articles/tweets to a specific person/audience, even if unnamed. You always write with someone in mind, who you think will read your stuff and react in a certain way. This is what gives coherence and logical structure to what you write or tweet. Good writing is rarely an abstraction.
Shekhar Gupta’s audience
So, who is Shekhar Gupta addressing with this piece? Your guess is as good as mine but I would say the target audience here is the top policymakers in the BJP/RSS who craft political strategies. That much is clear from a recap of the BJP/RSS strategy in the first quote, followed by how it translated in praxis in the second quote, and, having failed, how the policy, according to Shekhar Gupta, must now focus on the economic instead of rhetoric. You and I are not the audience here. We may or may not read, but this piece is not aimed at our hearts or minds. It is for the elite policymakers, written as a prescription or suggestion – a way out – now that the old strategy has failed.
What has Shekhar Gupta done in the process of his analysis for the laity – you and I – without ever intending to do so? Let us look at the three quotes.
- For 70 years nothing was done to address the Pakistani threat across the border. Really? The fact is, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel had more or less tacitly agreed that Kashmir would go to Pakistan. It was Maharaja Hari Singh who thwarted Mountbatten’s attempts to push him into Pakistan’s lap. India fought four wars, in the teeth of world opposition, to keep Kashmir, and in the process, split Pakistan in two in 1971. Modi’s decision to scrap the special status of Jammu and Kashmir through Article 370 pales into insignificance compared to what previous governments accomplished in the face of world opposition, when the US-led West was firmly on Pakistan’s side. And here you have Shekhar Gupta, quite inadvertently, but nonchalantly, normalising a maliciously false narrative floated by the BJP and the RSS to ensnare Indian citizens. In Shekhar Gupta’s defense, I would concede that he is merely recapping the RSS/BJP narrative. Fine. But is there any word, anything in the recap, that says it is false, malicious, inaccurate, contrary to history, misleading and wholly inappropriate to use as a narrative, even in a partisan election campaign, leave alone form the bedrock, so to speak, of a national political strategy over six years? What does false, malicious, mendacious propaganda do to the foundations of the polity? How corrosive is this acid to mutual trust and how will we ever mend what it has destroyed? On the other hand, this is straight normalisation of a despicably evil and mendacious strategy, intended or not.
- There is much more in the first quote that normalises many a heinous feature of the Narendra Modi government’s politics. For instance, how was the welfarism funded before the elections when there was no money for it? Clearly, payments to regular government vendors were stopped to pay for the pre-election bonanza, which left a king-sized hole in the budget and was later made up by dividends and capital transfer from the Reserve Bank of India (RBI). The present slowdown can be traced to stopped payments. All this stand normalised now as part of realpolitik. The abuse of agencies, mentioned in the second quote, the politics of vendetta, the scrapping of Article 370, the showmanship at Houston, the stark failure to get a trade deal, the lies to confuse substance with hype – all stand normalised as if it was politics as usual. Intended or not.
Some of you may think I am being too harsh. In a sense I am. Everybody in the media, not just Shekhar Gupta, in a sense is guilty of the same wholesale normalisation of the most mendacious myths and fabrications of the Modi regime. So why single out Shekhar Gupta? Fair point. Tell me who to start with, if not your own favourite column?
Normalising, legitimising lies
But more seriously, consider what Modi has but US President Donald Trump lacks? No, it is not the lack of a serious opposition that helps Modi, as compared to Trump, to dominate the discourse with false narrative and fabricated myths. In a word, it is that rather hard-to-pin-down quality called legitimacy. Modi has easy legitimacy, while Trump is denied it day in day out by the US media because it refuses to normalise even a single lie by the President. No, it is not normal to lie, it is not normal to use myths instead of history, it is not normal to misrepresent facts, fudge statistics, make false claims, etc. The list goes on but the fact stands that while Trump may be President, his aberrant conduct is not normalised, and so he lacks the essential legitimacy to roll all his critics and opponents into a barrel and float it out into the sea. Instead, many keep a daily tally of his lies, call him out at every presser, and anybody who can thwart the President has the legitimacy to do so. Trump may rave and rant at the media but legitimacy eludes him and he is reminded of it every single day. Legitimacy is essential to exercise of power. Trump doesn’t have it. Modi does. Why?
Abuse of agencies by the ruling party is not new. Congress and others have also misused this power. They too have lied, and adopted unfair means at elections. Go back in history. Was the Congress’ abuse of power, its corruption, its lies ever normalised and made legitimate by the media? That is the essential difference between the past and the present. In the past, we called out abuse by default. Today, we condone, normalise, overlook, and thus legitimise abuse of power by default. That is a huge change. Who has conferred legitimacy to such a process? The media, of which Shekhar Gupta is the leading light, one of my favourites.
So okay, thought leaders like Shekhar Gupta and the media have been normalising what can never be normalised, and in a manner that is so casual and routine, indeed banal, that it goes almost undetected and uncommented upon. But where does my sense of loss come from?
Who was Shekhar Gupta addressing and writing for? The top 10 strategist in the BJP/RSS. May be some other parts of the elite as well. Now, if he was an analyst or a strategist at a think tank, I would say brilliantly done and then walk away. But Shekhar Gupta is, first and last, a journalist, not a think tanker, strategist, or mythmaker for some political party. And as a journalist, he sees, hears, observes things and events for me, and questions the government on my behalf. He is my agent, I give him agency, as well as the protection he gets from the government, for being my eyes and ears. But where am I in his superb piece? Where are my questions for the government? Where are my fears and concerns? Has Shekhar Gupta done anything – anything at all – in this piece that reflects his obligations to his readers as a journalist? In which part of the piece has he called out and questioned mendacious narratives, abuse of power, arm twisting, vendetta politics or even pointed out that this is unacceptable? Was the Congress given such a free pass ever in the past from such scrutiny? This abandonment of the laity, almost as if the voters are just gullible sheep to be herded by the ruling party, is a new phenomenon in journalism. Not everybody is guilty, nor to the same degree, but on the whole, the most damaged part of our polity is the media. And intellectuals. And thought leaders.
Listen to people from the Kashmir Valley. Listen carefully. What are they saying? Over and over again, you will find the same complaint – that they have been let down, betrayed, abandoned and orphaned, not so much by the Indian state as the Indian media. The very people who made their careers on the misery and dilemmas of the Kashmiri people were among the first to turn the official narrative against them. This corrosion of trust spills over to everything else in their lives. I am not alone when I say I feel abandoned, and betrayed. There are millions more who are crying out the same and their plight is far more acute than mine. How can you continue to hide behind the facade of a profession that you are no longer able to honour?
Politics today is not normal. In the ideological war unleashed by the RSS/BJP, the first casualty has been the spirit of the Constitution. It has been trampled upon in so many ways that tomes can be written about them. The alternative to it hasn’t been codified; nobody knows what the alternative is, or whether it even exists. Instead, patently dishonest obeisance is paid to the existing Constitution even as it is quietly subverted and shredded. Why not ask for a return to honesty? You want a Hindu Rashtra? So be it. Let us see what it looks like? Please put it down on a piece of paper and let us debate it in all honesty and vote on it? Why this subterfuge, the backdoor intrigues, the doublespeak, the lies, the corrosive distrust, the destruction of institutions? Is it too much to ask what exactly do you have in mind in place of the Constitution for our future?
Can the media not resolve to ask the BJP to publish such a blueprint of the future that we can debate? Is that too much to ask of the media? You sir, Shekhar Gupta, is that too much to ask? Politics is about we, the people. Not the politicians. Return what belongs to us.
We do not know the real identity of the author who tweets as @sonaliranade. We are publishing this response to Shekhar Gupta’s latest #NationalInterest in the spirit of free debate and healthy disagreement.