THE AMAZING THING ABOUT FREEDOM IS THAT IT remains contested forever. The word appears on the cover of this issue of the magazine as a commemorative reminder, and it brings back conflicting histories of occupation, struggle, separation and liberation. Even as Nehru made his poetic tryst with destiny, the orphaned ghosts of Partition were uninvited guests at the midnight rite. Seventy one years on, they still remain unresolved stories of freedom, in memory and art. Not just in India, but elsewhere as well, history has the habit of adding a spectral subtext to epic tales of freedom. We overcome the past only to be confronted with new struggles that keep the word as unifying as ever. And as disputed as ever.
Is India passing through such a phase in its political life?
The answer takes us back to the rupture of 2014. Ironically, only a section of the ruling establishment sees it as a normal election, or as a necessary eviction of an anodyne prime minister. For the India that shed its inherited virtues of left-of-centrism, it was history at play as an entire belief system collapsed to reveal a new covenant—political, cultural, and moral. Politically, this right turn was made possible by a singular argument that relied more on the promise of the future rather than on the negativism of the past—a past longer than the ten years of the Manmohan Singh Government.
Narendra Modi came into the arena with a plan that was bigger than the purposes and pieties of politics as usual, even though it took a while for his own party to catch up with his mind. As a candidate, he earned a place in the club of originals by redeeming the word ‘change’ from the banalities of salvation politics. (Though it must be said that only a few of the originals managed to remain so while in power.) It was one of those moments in which the personal and the political complemented each other in the passage of struggle and freedom, and for Modi on the stump, the campaign was a counter-narrative of the nation. A rejection and a re-imagination.
The personal set him apart from the familiar subcontinental story of power: the divine rights of the bloodline. In Modi’s case, biography set the tone; it was not a test of rights but a fable of possibilities. Elsewhere, the man who came from the ‘wrong’ race, after a spectacular run as a candidate, was playing out a historic mandate in uninspiring ways. And here, Modi, while tapping into the resentments of the world’s most disparate democracy, turned his backstory into a rejoinder to the hereditary mythology that had swayed Indian voters for so long.
The political was daring: contrary to conventional belief, it de-ideologised politics. Modi didn’t win on the Temple, or on Hinduism as a wounded religion. He campaigned and won on the issue of how we were governed and how we deserved to be governed as a people punished by the worst instincts of borrowed ideologies, redundant isms. Unlike the previous candidate of the Right, LK Advani, he did not travel back in time in search of displaced gods. For the cult of the Deliverer, Modi did not need Hindu mythology. He only needed a self-portrait. No ordinary Indian before him had attempted— and succeeded—in projecting himself as the One. It was his ideas of the future—set against a political tradition that combined ideology and privilege, genealogy and entitlement—that made him the Choice. The ascetic in the self-portrait brought a moral as well as civilisational dimension to his argument, which was in essence a pitch for an Indian Renewal Project. A freedom project.
The stories Modi told on the stump need to be retold to silence cultural extremists. Freedom requires sobering storytellers of the nation. Modi, contrary to claims by sceptics, remains one
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Has the project run its course? Or has it been abandoned for expediency? Or, is it a vindication of the adage that poetry on the stump is incompatible with the prose of governance? Or, is it that this very question—in its many variations—is an expression of the visceral anti-Modi-ism of a section of the so-called thinking class that’s still wallowing in liberal nostalgia? Or, is it the resentment of the class that lost its Establishment membership? Or, is it a plain failure of those who won the mandate to realise the historical importance of it?
Each one of these questions tells a story. And every story is an exaggeration. And it is questions that make democracies meaningful, so long as they are born of a sense of moral responsibility. Some questions thrown at Modi are manifestations of impatience. There are still admirers out there who expect Prime Minister Modi to be as dramatic, as kinetic, as Candidate Modi. Then there are professional sceptics, who by the nature of their trade are inclined to put any ruler on trial because, in their book, rulers are not meant to be adored but questioned. The dissident is the sceptic as an active idealist, whose idea of truth can seldom exist with power. These groups are alarmed by the cultural militancy of the Hindu Right; they are appalled by the assault on cosmopolitanism and the rise of an intolerant ‘mainstream’, even though the trend is a fringe phenomenon.
Any political awakening with a religious content has to live with the mad fringe. When the mad becomes the mainstream, as happened in the Middle East, arguments die. There is only one, controlled reality. India will never be that place. Indian democracy has consistently curtailed the worst temptations of power. The mad fringe may not have official sanctity, but it should not be allowed to become the loudest cultural expression of our time. The stories Modi told on the stump need to be retold to silence cultural extremists. Freedom requires sobering storytellers of the nation. Modi, contrary to claims by the sceptics and alarmists, remains one. Maybe we need not just a retelling, but a re-imagining as well. Modi is still the most capable one, and the most authentic, too.
To equate his India with the India of the mad fringe is to misread the man and his methods. He nevertheless continues to be misread by those who just can’t accept him. For the last fanatics of the left-liberal class, he is the usurper, the man who destabilised their world, though that world is shrinking. Liberals, here and elsewhere, built their argument on the twin pillars of identity and rights, with minimum responsibility. The struggle for freedom today, lazily labelled as ‘populism’, is more than a struggle for individual liberties, especially in affluent societies. A people striving for a national ideal are not necessarily what Hillary Clinton would call ‘the deplorables’. The struggle in politics is always about freedom. In India, it is a bad joke only when a loose alliance of communists, sub-nationalists and sub-rural socialists lead the struggle. Freedom from the alternative is a sentiment shared by the saner majority here.
Still, no other idea is worthy of a permanent struggle. And no other idea is so elastic that it can accommodate every aspect of human identity, from the religious to the ideological, from the inventive to the incendiary. The challenge is to remain free to talk freedom, even if it hurts. With an Open mind, as in the following pages, where ideas alone have a free run.