More Columns by T N Ninan
Einstein is supposed to have said that “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one”. In politics as in astrophysics, what you see from your point of view, or extent of knowledge, is reality for you. Bearing this in mind, over the past few weeks I have asked several people (all of them urban and English-speaking, and, therefore, a hopelessly biased sample – but one that should have resonance for readers of this newspaper) whether they would have preferred another year of Manmohan Singh instead of what they have got as the first year of Narendra Modi. Almost without exception, people say that they prefer Mr Modi. That should place in context the volleys of criticism directed against the prime minister at the first anniversary of his government.
That is not to underplay the disillusionment prevalent — which results not from comparisons with Dr Singh but with the hopes Mr Modi had raised. Perhaps, like everyone else, they expected too much, but among the most disillusioned are businessmen. By far their biggest complaint is arbitrary taxation — not just the headline-hitting stuff like portfolio investors and the minimum alternative tax, but everyday stuff that companies confront when dealing with tax officials. Next comes a perception of ministerial arrogance — the government is so caught up in its own narrative of change that ministers don’t want to be quizzed or told anything to the contrary. Importantly, most businessmen don’t see any real uptick in the economic tempo. If they did, they might forget the other complaints. Finally, there is the old reluctance to speak truth to power; wariness persists about the risks of speaking out.
The second set of critics comprises civil society, broadly defined. The self-goal that the government has scored here is by following the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s usual “Us versus Them” approach. This flows perhaps from the fact that Sangh acolytes were once (are still?) seen by the dominant English-speaking set as beyond the pale of secular discourse, as a consequence of which they developed a subaltern siege mentality: you are either one of us or not one of us, there is no room for middle ground. This attitude colours the BJP’s approach to people and organisations; hence, the crackdown on civil society activists, the hostility to the media, the constant ruffling of academic feathers by the human resource development minister and the general prickliness when faced with criticism. It seems beyond the ken of our new rulers that people can adopt positions that are not linked to party politics, and that there is a democratic space where party politics need not (should not) intrude.
Third comes the commentariat, for whom the operative line comes from an old TV serial: “I reject your reality and substitute my own!” If you take Mr Modi at face value, almost everything that he has said and done over the past couple of years – during his election campaign, interventions in Parliament and comments elsewhere – suggests that he would like to bury the ghost of Godhra. It is possible to understand rationally that it does not suit his purpose today to create communal divides, for it would divert his government and its energies away from its main agenda. But, implicitly, much of the commentariat continues to view him through the prism of Godhra. So they see his hand in, or his implicit consent to, the nonsense about “ghar wapsi” and the rabid comments by people from the Sangh parivar, including a couple of his ministers. You can’t blame the critics; it is legitimate to ask why people with poisonous thinking find place in the central council of ministers. Still, there is a case for cutting the prime minister some slack and waiting to see if he is, in fact, as good as his word. Equally, Mr Modi and his colleagues must adopt a more relaxed attitude to criticism, and listen more — if they don’t want to risk a further loss of popularity in the second year.