Cruel test for Modi government : The Tribune India

Cruel test for Modi government

The crisis point in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s second attempt at governing the country had to arrive sooner or later.

Cruel test for Modi government

S Nihal Singh

The crisis point in the Bharatiya Janata Party’s second attempt at governing the country had to arrive sooner or later. Perhaps it arrived earlier than expected in the first year of the Narendra Modi government. In banning the BBC film “India’s Daughter” on the infamous Delhi rape of Nirbhaya, the governing party was responding to its support base.

The first time the BJP ruled at the Centre was under the leadership of Mr Atal Bihari Vajpayee running a coalition government. Two factors were in its favour: the acceptability of the leader as a man of catholic tastes and the constraints of a coalition. Events came to a head in the banning of the film because Mr Modi is recognised as a strong leader and his party has an absolute majority in the Lok Sabha.

The bulk of the BJP is deeply conservative in its outlook and is part of the Sangh Parivar presided over by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh and is a votary of a set of beliefs woven round the superiority of the Hindu past and mythology as history as an armour against the inferiority complex of many stemming from the unpleasant fact of being ruled by foreigners over long periods.

Bred in the RSS culture, Mr Modi himself was part of this culture, but his extended secondment to the BJP, particularly his chief ministership of Gujarat for more than a decade, gave him the opportunity to hone his realpolitik skills. Other BJP leaders are in the process of making this transition, but most of the supporters are firm in their worldview, the myths that constitute their reality. Once in a while, the Prime Minister's carefully cultivated image slips as when he harked back to the myth of ancient Indian plastic surgery at a hospital ceremony, for which he drew much opprobrium. 

By banning the film, the Modi government was giving expression to the instinct of a traditional conservative family hiding a shameful event by covering it up. But the BJP leaders forgot that this particular rape had resulted in nationwide protests, notably in New Delhi, and led to the Justice Varma committee report, and could not be swept away under the carpet. Besides, in an age of internet and social sites, banning films is a useless exercise.

The logic of Home Minister Rajnath Singh is that by giving voice to the rapist's views, the film shames India around the world. Yet those who have watched the documentary, including myself, have been deeply moved by the sensitivity with which the film has been made in explaining the compulsions of the rapist with his mediaeval mindset of how girls should conduct themselves and the feeling of empowerment a lower middle class man gets in engaging in such a shameful and brutal act.

The Modi government hoped to resolve the contradiction of governing the country on the support of a base fed on myths by giving it freedom in perpetuating their fantasies in education and allied fields disregarding the future of the younger generation. Several known supporters of the Parivar have been awarded top posts in semi-autonomous bodies to spread the new wisdom. But the problem has not gone away because the RSS wants more.

Mr Modi’s singular achievement has been to marry the compendium of myths to modern technology, particularly the digital world. He himself has practised new technology to win elections at the regional and national levels by demonstrating how far ahead he is of rivals in understanding the power of new media. After winning the prize at the Centre, he is the first Prime Minister to use social media such as Twitter and Facebook to communicate with the people.

The BBC film indeed presents a major problem for the guardians of the Modi government. The leaders of the Independence generation were deeply influenced by Western thought and philosophy and had discarded some of the less endearing aspects of Indian behaviour and mindset. If Congress Party leaders and supporters still practised their superstitions and beliefs, they did in private away from prying eyes.

As a young reporter, I recall interviewing an astrologer of one of Nehru’s senior Cabinet ministers, T.T. Krishnamachari, ensconced in Delhi in a five-star hotel, for a local feature. The minister moved heaven and earth to stop the feature appearing in print. Today Mr Modi's ministers flaunt 'tilak' on their forehead as a badge of honour and most of them are not comfortable in carrying on a conversation in English without breaking into Hindi.

In this milieu, sadhus flaunt their ochre robes and regressive thoughts in Parliament, and to be superstitious is to be on the right side of the powers that be. “India’s Daughter” therefore was a cruel test for the BJP leadership because it challenged the basis of its belief system influenced by a traditional patriarchal framework with women assigned their place in society. The much commented upon remarks of the defence lawyers did not sound strange to BJP supporters. They were, for many of them, facts of life.

However, the younger generation of the country presents a greater challenge for the BJP and its leadership. On the one hand, youth welcomed the Modi government moving away from the shibboleths of 20th century past such as socialism and communism to present the real problems facing the country. On the other, the Parivar's regressive social thinking and beliefs are anathema for the young. The number of young demonstrating on the Nirbhaya case around the country was a testament of their feelings.

In electoral terms, the revolt of the young from traditional beliefs of the Sangh Parivar on gender sends out a clear message to the BJP. Much as the party's leaders and supporters are wedded to the role of women as essentially homemakers, buttressed by mythological examples from the hoary past, young women today have professional ambitions and the will to make their own lives.

There is thus a clash of cultures and rapes and honour killings are, in a sense, an expression of this conflict. The Modi Government is, therefore, in a bind.

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