New Delhi, 5 May-2014, Shruti Dhapola: Indian intellectuals swarming to Narendra Modi’s side, switching allegiances and ideologies so as to be on the right side of a possible BJP government. Or so claims Tony Joseph, an Indian journalist writing for Quartz in his essay titled, “The real reason Indian intellectuals are backing Narendra Modi.”
Only overseas intellectuals will oppose Modi, but Why?
The long and long-winded piece offers a fairly accurate assessment of Modi’s rise to power, and liberal fears about the same, its very premise — there is indeed a virtual stampede underway — is woefully misguided at best. Joseph’s list of Indian’s intellectuals for Modi includes “rom-com novelist, Chetan Bhagat, tweeting a selfie taken with Modi; Vivek Dehejia, an economics professor and author from Ottawa, Canada… Lord Meghnad Desai, an Indian born economist and Labour politician, writing a letter to the Guardian to protest an article that he thought was unfair to Modi; M.J. Akbar, editor, author and now a BJP spokesperson…Arvind Virmani, former chief economic advisor to outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, defending a BJP leader who used the word “revenge” while asking for votes; and professor Jagdish Bhagwati.” Narendra Modi. Reuters. Setting aside Chetan Bhagat’s inclusion on a list of intellectuals — a title he himself would be loath to claim — what is striking is that none of the others like Vivek Dehejia, Lord Meghnad Desai, or Jagdish Bhagwati are based in India. This is not to say their writings and opinions don’t matter, it’s just that it is outright bizarre to rattle off NRI names and then claim, “The turn of the tide in India is so strong that to see concerted action by intellectuals trying to stop the momentum of the resurgent BJP, one would have to go overseas.” Joseph’s proof: the letter that was written by 75 academics led by Professor Chetan Bhatt and Gautam Appa of the London School of Economics who had issued an open letter in the UK titled, “The idea of Modi in power fills us with dread”. He also mentions the letter written in the Guardian headlined: “If Modi is elected, it will bode ill for India’s future,” which included Salman Rushdie, sculptor Anish Kapoor, and filmmaker Deepa Mehta as the signatories. We can only assume that a Arundhati Roy or a Romila Thapar or Ramachandra Guha don’t quite count. The last being ironic since Joseph approvingly quotes Guha who said of Modi, he is “a bully and bigot… Unlike others, I don’t believe he will change, because at 62 you cannot have a personality transformation.” Joseph also that those in “academia, journalism, literature and films had tended to steer clear of the bad odour that came with the aggressive, religious-identity based politics that the party championed, based on issues such as demolishing mosques.” That’s a fairly bizarre claim given the extensive academic attention given to the Babri Masjid and Gujarat riots. Yes, there is cause for concern, as indicated by Penguin’s decision to pulp Wendy Doniger’s book, but the outcry it sparked surely undercuts Joseph’s thesis about a quiescent intelligenstia surrendering to the Hindutva forces. The reality is that it is Indians who have been fighting in the trenches against Modi’s candidacy. Recently Shabnam Hashmi, a well-known social activist, alleged she was beaten up for distributing pamphlets against Modi and BJP in Rae Bareli. There’s also the NoMore campaign, which is anti-Modi and has seen support from key academics across India. The truth is that it is hard to think of anyone in the Indian intellectual establishment who outright supports Modi. Some may be soft on the Gujarat CM, pooh poohing the notion that he will usher in a dictatorship — as Joseph notes in the case of Pratap Bhanu Mehta — but no one has endorsed him outright. When Joseph claims that some intellectuals are jostling for key advisory positions he is likely thinking of Arvind Panagariya or Bhagwati. Modi’s biggest supporters are for the most part non-resident Indian academics, not the native grown kind. And bringing in ” the well-known “twitterati” with thousands of followers pushing forward the viewpoints of BJP and its ideological guardian, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS)” does little buttress his claim. Twitter is hardly the bastion of intellectual debate. Given the long list that still exists of intellectuals who oppose Modi, it is unfair to say that their criticism of Modi has softened. For now, India’s ivory tower is still seeing red over saffron.