Those voting for Narendra Modi in the 2014 General Elections included a section of blind hero-worshipers of Modi who had voted either out of extreme Hindu rightist views or out of being bowled over by his charisma and claims of development owing to a sense of frustration with the UPA. For such people, politics is understood in personality-centric rather than policy-centric terms, wherein personalities are not judged by policies but policies are to be justified, however illogically, to defend the political personality.
In May this year, when former BJP minister and eminent public intellectual Arun Shourie came up with a very scathing critique of the Modi sarkar in the context of economic policies and his (Modi’s) not keeping in check those trying to threaten India’s secular fabric in an interview he (Shourie) gave to Karan Thapar, Modi’s ‘bhakts’ were, in the verbal sense, up in arms. This, when Shourie has been perhaps the only public intellectual of some stature who has written well researched books to present points of view seen as politically incorrect by left-liberals, raising issues like Muslim communalism and sexism in independent India, financially incentivised conversions by Christian missionaries and the damage caused by caste-based reservations. Noted historian Ramachandra Guha had acknowledged before Shourie’s interview to Thapar critical of Modi that Shourie is a socio-cultural right-wing intellectual with much scholarly worth, perhaps the only such in India (Guha rightly mentions that on the other hand, there is no dearth of Indian economic right-wing intellectuals, of which again Shourie is an example). Though Shourie embarrassed himself once with respect to an incorrect historical inference with respect to Nalanda University, and on another occasion while delivering the PD Desai Memorial Lecture in Ahmedabad in 2009 (which I had attended as a college student), in which he cited the guidelines of the landmark DK Basu judgment of the Supreme Court as entirely applying to terrorists, though this is not the case, and he was contradicted there by a Gujarat High Court judge, on the whole, Shourie’s writings and speeches are indeed marked by impeccable scholarship. Interestingly, before Shourie criticized Modi recently, he was almost uniformly hailed as a hero by the Hindu right. Incidentally, even while offering his recent critique, Shourie maintained that Modi was still, in his opinion, the best alternative India had. Indeed, many would agree that given the practical impossibility of UPA-III (owing to the authoritarian high-handedness exhibited by UPA-II by way of arresting Anna Hazare, lathi-charging sleeping protesters in Ramila Maidan and subjecting anti-rape protesters to water canons), an unstable Third Front or the then very newly emerged AAP getting an absolute majority to govern the whole of India may not have been very good options (though I, for one, still voted for the AAP in the national elections in 2014), as much as Modi’s alleged role in the riots in 2002 cannot be overlooked (just as Sajjan Kumar or Tytler’s alleged role in the anti-Sikh riots in 1984 or the killings and forced displacements of Kashmiri Hindus, also known as Kashmiri Pandits, and pro-India Kashmiri Muslims by militants in 1989-90 cannot be, and a more highlighted wrongdoing doesn’t become any less of a wrongdoing just for being much more highlighted), and contrary to rooftop shouts of Modi having been cleared by the Supreme Court, he has been acquitted only by a district court based on the report of a Supreme Court-appointed SIT, with the matter pending in appeal in the High Court of Gujarat, and that way, Sajjan Kumar and Tytler too have been cleared by lower courts.
Quite a few people have suggested that Shourie’s criticism of the Modi sarkar was owing to Shourie not being conferred a ministerial berth in the current government. However, this would mean overlooking several fundamental facts. Back in 2009, when Modi was not a PM-candidate, Shourie had, in an interview, while appreciating Modi’s development work in Gujarat, criticized him for banning Jaswant Singh’s book on Jinnah as chief minister; so, it wasn’t as though he wasn’t open to criticizing Modi back then (and by the way, in the very same interview, he also slammed many other senior BJP leaders – so, he isn’t someone who has ever hesitated to speak his mind), though just a few months prior to that interview, he had hinted at supporting the idea of Modi being the next PM-candidate of the BJP (the candidate then was Advani). In fact, it must be noted that the Nira Radia tapes exposed how Shourie, owing to his opposition to a certain legislative proposal that would benefit Reliance, was replaced by NV Naidu (incidentally, a minister in the current government) to start the discussion on the budget in parliament, which points to Shourie’s honesty (no allegation questioning his integrity has really stood) and how Naidu was possibly amenable to lobbying. Once the tapes were out, Shourie said he wasn’t in the least surprised and went on to even say that Reliance and a few other big corporate houses were controlling the government in power, whether of the Congress or the BJP, from behind the curtains, and went to the extent of saying that the Congress and the BJP are united in their devotion to these corporate houses, making them one party for practical purposes, and this was much before Modi became PM. Some may be confused as to how an economic right-winger can be critical of corporate houses, but capitalism, in its true sense, is about ‘free markets’ with the state having minimal intervention in the economy, primarily restricted to enforcing contracts and checking tort and crime, with all citizens (including farmers and tribals) enjoying inalienable rights over their private property, and not about the state acting as an agent of some select business houses (rather than allowing all of them to compete in a free and fair fashion), which instead is called ‘crony capitalism’. (Interestingly, noted British free market economist Adam Smith had been critical of the economic control being exercised by the then prevalent British East India Company government in India, which had been officially conferred a monopoly over the Indian market by the British government in London, which goes against the very grain of the idea of free markets, and if some say that capitalism is usually always followed by crony capitalsim to some degree, regulation should be improved to prevent that and contrarian voices can assert themselves in a democratic setup, but the state seeking to control the economy, killing entrepreneurial spirit, has never proved to be a solution to poverty.) Thus, Shourie had been very critical of and disillusioned with the BJP for quite some time, having withdrawn from active politics, and so, his critique of the Modi sarkar should not be seen as emerging out of resentment over not getting a ministerial berth.
Moreover, Shourie’s critique also indeed stands the test of logical validity. Shourie does undoubtedly lean towards the Hindu right, but he is not a very extreme Hindu rightist with no conception of a pluralistic society. His book ‘The World of Fatwas’, while being critical of many Muslim clerics who issue regressive fatwas (which are religious decrees, not necessarily carrying legal weight, to do or not do anything, and are not necessarily instructions to kill anyone; there is no such thing as a ‘fatwa on someone’ implying an instruction to kill that particular person, though fatwas by some hardline religious clerics to kill Salman Rushdie and Taslima Nasreen have created that erroneous impression, and by the way, as Shourie mentions, there have been fatwas by sensible clerics against terrorism too), is full of praise for Maulana Abul Kalam Azad and Maulana Wahiduddin Khan, among some others, and he even states that many an average, middle-class Muslim doesn’t care about fatwas. He has even mentioned in his writings that though he is an agnostic, he prays at Sufi shrines (other than Hindu temples). Besides, though this has no theological dimensions, he is a great lover of Urdu poetry too. Likewise, in his book ‘Missionaries in India’, he very unambiguously defends Christian missionaries’ moral and legal right to convert by way of genuine conviction, though he has issues with employing financial incentives, and he is indeed entitled to his opinion (interestingly, Mahatma Gandhi, who otherwise fell to the bullet of a Hindu extremist, and Maulana Azad had also been critical of Christian missionaries employing financial incentives to convert), and he also praised several Christian bishops for listening to him with an open mind when he addressed them once raising this particular issue of financially incentivized conversions.
So, while Shourie does raise issues with respect to Muslims and Christians that our mainstream secularists would shy away from discussing (and sometimes, his writings and speeches may seem to not have their tone exactly right on these issues), that doesn’t mean that he is against the secular ethos of our constitution, and indeed, unnecessary controversies like ‘love jihad’ (for a more detailed discussion of why I think it is unnecessary, please see this article), deeply communal statements from politicians of the ruling party, and increased communal riots and instances of vandalism pertaining to the religious minorities that Shourie condemned should be a matter of concern for every right-thinking Indian, for secularism is important not only for the religious minorities (which is very important in itself) but also to prevent moral and religious policing eroding the civil liberties that lie at the bedrock of democracy, as has been the case in Muslim-majority Pakistan and Christian-majority Uganda. As for readers who are deeply resentful of Muslims, I would request them to persuse with an open mind (not skim through and judge based on their preconceived notions) this e-book of mine available for free download.
As for what Shourie said in the sphere of economic policy, that too was valid, given that we have seen food inflation and investors moving away from India to Taiwan and South Korea! He was also right in saying that transparent allocation of natural resources following Supreme Court guidelines is expected, not particularly a great achievement. I do agree that given the public scrutiny this was bound to arouse after what the UPA did on this front, the BJP indeed had absolutely no choice but to perform this task transparently.
Shourie was also not wrong in his stating that India needs a lokpal (something over which the BJP supported the agitation led by Anna Hazare) and chief information commissioner, and these appointments can’t be indefinitely postponed. On the other hand, he said he did approve of a certain proposed amendment in the Prevention of Corruption Act protecting honest bureaucrats, preventing them from being heckled for exercising their discretion.
In the sphere of foreign policy, he did appreciate Modi’s enthusiasm, but was not wrong in pointing out that Modi had not fully evolved the right strategy when it came to Pakistan (I think what Shourie meant was that Modi has not fully understood the implications of the de facto militaristic nature of the Pakistani state), and he was right in saying that every new prime minister thinks he can resolve issues with Pakistan by talking, which is not the case, and this trend has continued after Shourie’s interview to Thapar. Indeed, terrorism sponsored by the Pakistani establishment has occurred under the Modi sarkar, the latest gruesome examples having transpired at Gurdaspur and Udhampur, following earlier ones like in Burdawan, West Bengal, in October 2014, Bangalore as also Srinagar, Tral and Shopian in Jammu and Kashmir in December 2014, and Kathua and Samba in J&K in March 2015 (after these attacks in March 2015, no minister met the kin of the victims, but India’s MoS for External Affairs, Gen VK Singh, attended Pakistan Day celebrations at the Pakistani High Commission!), while Modi’s Pakistan policy has entailed wishing Pakistan luck for the cricket world cup as also offering financial assistance to the Pakistani hockey federation, and he is now planning a visit to Pakistan too. As for what I think our attitude and approach to Pakistan should be, please read this article.
I do wonder as to what was so very wrong or baseless in what Shourie said that we must invent conspiracy theories to decipher his motives! Instead, it would only serve well for Modi and his supporters to take heed to the critique offered by this experienced parliamentarian, former minister and eminent public intellectual and make a course-correction.