Tuesday, May 27, 2014

India: How the secularists caused their own downfall



The triumphant victory of the religious right in India's elections has been possible with a series of follies on part of the incumbent rivals. But the particular fall of two secularist icons, Manmohan Singh and Tarun Tejpal, aptly represents the decadence of the secularist camp. 



Finally, the world’s largest electorate has given a clear verdict. After a decade-long rule of the secularist Indian National Congress (INC)-led coalition marred by incompetence and rampant corruption, the baton has been passed to the opposition coalition led by rightwing Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) in India paving way for the premiership of its firebrand leader Narendra Modi. This more than makes up for the humiliating defeat of the BJP in 2004 when the Congress-led coalition had upset the incumbent’s applecart by outsmarting their glossy ‘India Shining’ narrative by meticulous work-up at the grassroots level.

With the formal coronation ceremony, Modi will now start the real task of governing the colossus of 1.25 billion people plagued by lingering poverty, increasing inequality and rampant corruption. Much of the media attention will be focused on whether he will be able to replicate much of his reported success in the realm of governance in Gujarat state where he has served for more than a decade as the Chief Minister.

Here, however, let’s explore a slightly different theme: what happens now to the so called secular fabric of Indian state in face of a stable government led by a firebrand Hindutva leader? This, of course, depends upon the future course taken by Modi and his government and many analysts argue that the sheer magnitude of power and responsibility will have the much-needed moderating effect on Modi thereby forcing him to focus on economic prosperity of his people rather than to push for any ideological agenda.

That said, the secularist incumbents in India, set to remain in opposition for at least five years to come and potentially for much longer, have a lot to do now in terms of soul-searching.  


To me, the fall of two prominent men from grace—with all the ensuing follies of either—epitomizes the calamitous course the secularists have taken in India over the past decade resulting in today’s sorry state of affairs. As one could expect, first is the outgoing Prime Minister Manmohan Singh with every single of his acts of omission and commission directly shaping the legacy of his decade long rule. The second, with his downfall rather symbolic but amply illustrative, is Tarun Tejpal, a journalist of special fame and now notoriety.

In his heyday soon after the 2009 polls which the incumbent coalition had won—despite the exit of the estranged leftist allies from the coalition—with an incremental margin, Singh had unparalleled opportunity to implement his vision for India. With the buoyance from the India-US civilian nuclear deal (that he concluded to the chagrin of his erstwhile leftist allies) yet to fade, the Indian middle class was firmly on his side and he was expected to expedite the process of further liberalizing the economy thereby accelerating growth. Already widely credited for kick-starting the liberalization process during the early nineties as finance minister, he was expected to complete the mission now as the stronger Prime Minister of the country.

What the Singh's second tenure as PM saw was, however, disgusting to anyone closely watching India, let alone those who voted him back to the post. The political inertia from the earlier years culminated into a series of financial scandals that erupted one after another implicating people at every level in the government including the PM himself. Rather than planning and implementing crucial measures to reinvigorate the increasingly slowing economy, Singh's government had barely enough time and effort to fend off the allegations relating to one scandal after another. People's fury about the scandals was only compounded by the government's profound mishandling of their fallout. 

As a keen commentator has recently noted, Singh’s profoundly misplaced sense about responsibility of the executive chief of a country like India was reflected in this single statement: “They (the intelligence people) say these methods are necessary.” This, he had reportedly told to historian Ramchandra Guha and professor Nalini Sundar when they went to him to ask him to end the reign of terror in Chhatisgarh state unleashed by Salwa Judum, a ruthless state-sponsored militia force.

What went wrong with Tarun Tejpal, one among Business Week’s ‘India’s 50 most Powerful People 2009’ is no less illuminating though not directly related to power tussle between the secularists and the religious right in India. Put simply, he has been one among the powerful intellectuals relentlessly fighting against what is perceived as the threat to Indian pluralism and secularism from the religious right.

Even though in journalism from much earlier, he gave a hard time to the then ruling BJP in 2001 when a sting operation on behalf of his Tehelka online paper exposed massive corruption in the country’s defense sector, by going as far as to clandestinely record the then BJP president Bangaru Laxman accepting a bribe of $2500. That sting named ‘Operation West End’ nearly brought down the BJP-led government that year.

That was followed in 2007 by even more daring sting involving the 2002 Gujarat riots presided by Narendra Modi as the Chief Minister of the state. By clandestinely recording the statements of dozens of cadres and leaders of the BJP and its mentor Rastriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS) who had participated in the riots, the sting went as far as circumstantially implicating Modi himself for complicity in the violence if not more.

Beside the stings, Tejpal’s Tehelka, a popular weekly both in print and online since 2007 meticulously covered the contentious issues like the Naxalite rebellion in the country and the perpetuating effect of the state’s highhandedness in the brutal conflict. In an otherwise corporate-friendly Indian media world, Tehelka did a fearless journalism even when it came to powerful corporations and was able to establish itself as a powerful alternative media outlet.

That all, however, came down crashing late last year when Tejpal was accused of sexually assaulting a junior employee at Tehelka during the course of Think Festival in Goa. The extravagant festival itself—funded by some corporate houses—was fraught with many paradoxes for a publication that claimed to be the impartial crusader against the grossly under-reported evil of corporate wrongdoing in India. The fact that Tehelka had just vigorously pursued the issue of sexual violence in India amid a heated debate following a series of outrageous and brutal incidents of gang rapes did not help the matter. The whole of the Indian right promptly rallied around to publicly declare him a monstrous hypocrite and rapist wearing the garb of secularism, just before the election season. As damaging as the allegation of assault itself was the subsequent revelation of the shady and often unsavory nature of his financial interest connected to Tehelka and Think Festival.

The sudden downfall of the two men was associated with two important symbolic acts during the past few months. First, Arundhati Roy, probably the most powerful voice in India against both the corporate wrongdoing and religious bigotry, came out to unambiguously chastise Tejpal (who was in the publishing team of her Booker winning book The God of Small Things) when she felt he was resorting to the age old tactics of blaming the victim for the sexual assault he had perpetrated. Second,  Vinod Mehta, an avowed ‘pseudo-secularist’ and respected founding chief editor of weekly Outlook recently declared that he had pressed the NOTA (None of The Above) button during these polls thereby abandoning the secularist Congress for all they had done in the past five years.  

 That was the unraveling of a very loose cross-professional alliance of the secularists in India that the right under Modi was able to handsomely capitalize during the elections. For the time being, they will remain in tatters but they will have to raise a coherent if not unified voice against the rightwing extremism that will try to grip the Indian society now. The sooner they place their own house in order and set out to carefully checkmate the unprecedented power that the right in India has been bestowed with, the better for the world's most populous democracy. 

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I do not know why I often tend to view people rather grimly: they usually are not as benevolent, well-intentioned and capable or strong as they appear to be. This assumption is founded on my own self-assessment, though I don’t have a clue as to whether it is justifiable to generalize an observation made in one individual. This being the fact, my views of writers as ‘capable’ people are not that encouraging: I tend to see them as people who intend to create really great and world-changing writings but most of the times end up producing parochial pieces. Also, given the fact that the society where we grow and learn is full of dishonesty, treachery, deceit and above else, mundanity, it is rather unrealistic to expect an entirely reinvigorating work of writing from every other person who scribbles words in paper.


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