The call for calibrated criticism of Modi is sensible

The call for calibrated criticism of Modi is sensible

Effective opposition to Modi will be by people who plow the middle path or explore the grey shades.

Congress has appeared divided over the comments by some senior leaders that 'demonisation' of PM Narendra Modi is wrong

At a private reception not too long ago, I carried my recent books as gifts for the host – the one on the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom and the latest one on iconic Hindu nationalistic leaders. Another guest, an Indian who appeared to be aware that I was not ideologically in sync with the Hindutva brigade and that I had also written an even-handed biography of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, sported a quizzical look after picking up the book on the gory violence post-Indira Gandhi's assassination. "How is it that you took a critical look at the Congress even while you are not a Bhakt?" I was asked.

The answer to the query is unimportant. However, a thousand probes which the person wished putting me though, exemplifies the narrow characteristic of the current socio-political discourse in India. From being a society which valued its diversity – of people, cultures, principles and opinions – conversations have shed nuances and become bi-coloured or two-toned. Every issue is framed in black and white terms. There is no space for grey shades. 

It was a matter of coincidence that I underwent the above experience even as debate raged within the Congress on what stance the party should adopt towards Modi: That of appreciation or of demonisation?

The issue became the subject of ‘hot discussion’ in Congress circles, and that of the Sangh Parivar for the discomfort within that party, because of Jairam Ramesh’s fairly-balanced speech. The occasion was the launch of a book which, in its title, termed the country since 2014, with Modi as prime minister, as a  ‘malevolent republic’. What made headlines, as usual, is just one facet of Ramesh's address – his assertion that demonising Modi all the time won't help. "It is time we recognise Modi’s work and what he did between 2014 and 2019 due to which he was voted back to power by over 30% of the electorate," the former Union minister was quoted as saying.

Soon other leaders picked up the cue from him. In less than twenty-four hours, another senior Congress leader, Abhishek Singhvi tweeted: "Always said demonising #Modi wrong. Not only is he #PM of nation, a one-way opposition actually helps him. Acts are always good, bad and indifferent — they must be judged issue wise and not person wise. Certainly, ujjawala scheme is only one amongst other good deeds." 

Newspapers also quoted Shashi Tharoor as making a similar statement: "I have argued for six years now that Narendra Modi should be praised whenever he says or does the right thing, which would add credibility to our criticisms whenever he errs. I welcome others in opposition coming around to a view for which I was excoriated at the time."

Some newspaper reporters, especially those committed to 'giving a spin' to most developments which may not be connected, remarked that these assertions had been made within a day of Sonia Gandhi flaying the prime minister for "'misusing the public mandate" and creating an "atmosphere of terror". These reports made out as though Messrs Ramesh, Singhvi & Tharoor were turning supportive of Modi and were chalking a political path at divergence to the party matriarch.

This reading, however, is another instance of our two-toned discourse. Of the three Congress leaders, only Singhvi made a monochrome statement singling out the Ujwala scheme to theorise that acts can be of three varieties – good, bad and indifferent (whatever this means when it comes to political assessment). But Ramesh, who possibly made the most elaborate comment, was rounded in his opinion. 

Although he argued that it would not do the Congress party any good if it has a pre-conditioned stand of criticising Modi, he qualified that the prime minister's governance model is not a "complete negative story" (meaning that it may be contended to be partially damaging). Moreover, he restricted himself to what he said was Modi's "governance model" which according to him had created different social relations. It is not clear what he was trying to say, but it appears that Ramesh was arguing that the BJP under Modi has successfully widened its social base through its governance model.

The truth of the matter is that there is a need to differentiate between Modi's non-discriminatory egalitarian policies and programmes, and the ideological unitarism which drives his political agenda towards a majoritarian or a malevolent polity. Ramesh was correct when he said that the Opposition must recognise the programmatic agenda initiated by Modi and realise that he speaks a language which connects him to people. 

Yet, Ramesh was incorrect in suggesting that this was the sole reason for the BJP’s ability to secure the support of more than 30 per cent of the electorate. The 2019 verdict was chiefly the result of the nationalistic overdrive seen post the Pulwama attack, although this was backed by delivery of micro-economic programmes which made the government appear benevolent to the poor.

Part of the problem is the Congress carrying the legacy of Rahul Gandhi's angry young man avatar. When he embarked on reincarnating himself, Gandhi had to provide a complete critique of Modi but in his exuberance, he missed taking note of what was being appreciated by people. He was right in focussing on rural distress but post February 14, people were ready to ignore this for the ‘sake of the nation’. 

Both Ramesh and Tharoor, also Singhvi to some extent, are suggesting that some aspects of Modi's programmatic agenda must not be summarily dismissed and instead must be appreciated. This approach would add to the Congress party's credibility and project it as a responsible Opposition party. In the absence of such a nuanced approach, the party would get further alienated from people who already are 'high' on the ideological toxicity of the Modi regime. 

The Tharoorian approach is correct when it comes to offering sharp political criticism of the Modi regime while endorsing economic programmes and even foreign, defence and technological strides. This will insulate Congress from the charge of opposing policies just because it is in the opposition. If the Congress continues complete criticism, the path will enable Modi and BJP to depict the Congress as being opposed to national interest. 

Barely two days after his endorsement of some measures of the government, Tharoor was biting in criticism of Modi's Kashmir policy. Commenting on the refusal of the Jammu and Kashmir administration to disallow Rahul Gandhi and other Opposition leaders into Srinagar, Tharoor tweeted: "Quite clear that the Governor’s invitation to @rahulGandhi to visit Kashmir was not sincere. No wonder my proposal during the #Kashmir debate in Parliament to permit an all-party delegation to visit, got no reply. Govt can’t be open about what it’s doing." Most significant was Tharoor's hashtag: #DemocracyDiesInDarkness.

Effective opposition to Modi will be by people who plow the middle path or explore the grey shades. This is all the more important because the prime minister has convinced a large section of people that he is the sole custodian of the nation's security. It is a tall order to challenge parochial nationalism because people will first focus on the 'ism' and then on the qualifying 'adjective' which makes it retrograde. This task will become tougher with blanket criticism of everything that Modi does. A beginning can be made with the tactical ploy being suggested by Messrs Ramesh & Tharoor.

(Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay is a Delhi-based journalist and author. His latest book is RSS: Icons Of The Indian Right. He has also written Narendra Modi: The Man, The Times (2013))

The views expressed above are the author’s own. They do not necessarily reflect the views of DH.