In its 11-year journey, the Jaipur Literature Festival (JLF) has seen speakers using the platform to send out strong political messages. But the hundreds of thousands who gather at the literary extravaganza are also adept at sending their own message. And from their cheers and thunderous applause this year, rises a whisper: Things are not all good for Mr Modi -- in the literary space, at least -- and the mood of the nation may be changing.
Narendra Damodardas Modi, the Prime Minister of India, has had a rockstar presence at the lit fest each year since 2014, the year he took power in New Delhi. Even without being physically present, his aura was such that crowds would burst into cheers every time a speaker uttered his name, or one of his policies, for that matter. Name the Prime Minister and the crowds would go gaga; shame him and there would be instant hooting, signifying that the majority of the audience was not in favour of the speakers criticising Modi -- or maybe they were just the loudest.
Consider, for instance, the 2016 closing debate of the festival, on whether freedom of expression was absolute and unconditional. The debate was being held in the backdrop of police complaints being filed against the comedy show "AIB Roast", comedian Kiku Sharda being booked for spoofing Dera Sacha Sauda chief Gurmeet Singh, and a few such examples. But the crowd at JLF exhibited the mood of the nation.
Bollywood actor Anupam Kher, one of the panelists, said that in a country "where you can abuse the Prime Minister (Modi) and call him a psychopath, let's not create a perception that freedom of speech is under threat". And the crowds began chanting "Modi, Modi..." Kher rose from his chair, looked at the crowds, and chanted "Modi, Modi..." into the microphone, before returning to his seat. It was a sight that would give goosebumps even to Modi's staunchest opponents. He was clearly the hero and they hailed him, unconditionally.
The same year, Shashi Tharoor, in a session on "Swachh Bharat: The India Story" took a subtle dig at the Prime Minister when he said: "The PM on corruption had said, 'Na khaunga, na khaane dunga.' We didn't know he was talking about beef." Tharoor is a well-known and popular face at lit fests, but his snide remark did not go down well with the crowd, which countered him with hard-hitting questions and criticised the Congress party.
In 2017, it was a slugfest scenario again when Manmohan Vaidya, head of RSS' communications department, and Dattatreya Hosabale, the organisation's joint general secretary, participated in a discussion "Of Saffron and the Sangha", attended by Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasundhara Raje, among others. Vaidya, when asked by the moderator (Pragya Tiwari) to share his views on intolerance, said that people have diverted from core issues and so there are problems and that intolerance exists among those who are against Hindutva and diversity.
"Hindutva is about bringing everyone together. We do not believe that everyone should accept one faith, but coping with all diversities and yet living harmoniously and working in the interest of the nation is what RSS wants to achieve," he had then said, again to the approval of the crowd, which hailed Modi.
Just a year down the line, the lit fest, which concluded on January 29, saw the same crowd that had chanted "Modi, Modi..." clapping and cheering any statement from the dais that took a dig at the Prime Minister. Tharoor's comments on the politics of Hindutva and Modi's double standards found many takers, but even the likes of Salman Khurshid, Nayantara Sahgal and Salil Tripathi struck a chord with the audience.
The audience expressed itself with its questions too. Somebody asked, "Why can't the Prime Minister speak against the Karni Sena?", and the crowds clapped, perhaps much louder than they ever had in favour of Modi in the past.
Of the half a million visitors to the festival this year, more than 60 percent were under the age of 25 -- and the "Young India" that Modi flirts with in his speeches seems to be unhappy with him. Is there more to the political message arising from the premises of Diggi Palace this year? Only time can tell.
(Saket Suman can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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