Mr. Modi’s next stunt — a page out of the Congress book

Only Narendra Modi does it better.

The government has declared the birth anniversary of Sardar Patel as National Unity Day. Feverish planning is on for the day as had preceded the Teachers' Day. Mr. Modi is to address the nation and students are to take a pledge. The day displaces Indira Gandhi's birth anniversary celebrated so far as National Integration Day. It also displaces observance of her death anniversary that coincidentally falls on the same day.  However, eclipse of the dynasty in more ways than its electoral drubbing is but a side issue.

Mr. Modi, fresh from his appropriating Mahatma Gandhi's legacy with his Swach Bharat campaign platform, is going to use the opportunity this week as yet another one to inveigle his way into popular imagination. This time he is to participate in a run. Taken together with his rushing off on Diwali to Siachen for a photo opportunity with soldiers there, there is incipient a cult phenomenon surrounding the personality of Mr. Modi.

The political dividends of this are self-evident in his notching up Maharashtra and Haryana and looking forward improbably to a victory even in J&K, one that will no doubt be enabled by a more thorough boycott in the Valley.

Indeed, there is precedence in post-World War I Germany that in scholarly literature is taken as indicative of fascism-on-the-make. National Unity Day is to invoke similar hyper-nationalism as prevalent in states that fell to nationalism, enumerated most recently in a New York Times article by Pankaj Mishra ( opinion/pankaj-mishra-nirandra-modis-idea-of-india.html).

Of course, it is a page out of the Congress book in their glorification of the dynasts. Only Mr. Modi does it better.

However, for readers of this publication, it is significant in more ways than can superficially be perceived. At face value, there can be little objection to an expression of fealty for the safety and security of one's own state, nation and country. However, the expectation is that in the normal course, this should really be taken for granted. As citizens, we owe this obligation to the collective and take care to discharge it. That the country is being asked to reiterate the obvious therefore bears scrutiny.

To originators of the idea, perhaps in the labyrinths of Nagpur and innards of the right-wing political organisation that passes for a cultural one, the act of getting all to conform and reaffirm their loyalty is to catch those opposed to them on the wrong foot. Any reticence can then be construed as disloyalty to the nation and manipulated by them for the political purposes. To them, while their co-religionists will have no problem with swearing the oath to Mother India, others of differing religious persuasion may. This will in their thinking reveal these 'others' as less than patriotic and, having their spiritual well springs elsewhere, also having their political compass set outside the land, and consequently, less than deserving of equal citizenship. Even so, there can be no problem for any citizen to take an oath. After all the Constitution, while not scripture, is indeed sacred.

However, the problem is in the change that is afoot in India. National ethos and culture will be first worked on and with the majority that Mr. Modi has so can the Constitution be reworked over time to fit the image of an India of right-wing imagining. It is not necessary for all citizens to find this agreeable. Swearing loyalty to India as we know it is fine. But to swear loyalty to an India that appears to be emerging must give pause to all citizens. Therefore, for the government to insidiously ask all to take such a step is itself a dead give-away of a larger game-plan ahead; one that citizens need being wary of and forewarned against.

For India's Muslims watching Mr. Modi and his government continues to be important despite his clean chit to Muslims acknowledging that they are ready to live and die for their country.

It would be to succumb to a Stockholm syndrome if Mr. Modi is let off scrutiny merely on account of this. His politics has been to use Muslims as the 'Other' and build his 'vote bank' on the majority community. Having made the necessary gains in the national elections from an internal Other, for the state elections that soon followed, the government, staying aloof from the 'love jihad' campaign of its supporters, latched on to an external Other.

His government's self-acknowledged shift to being aggressive on the borders figured in his election speeches, that he has 'shut up' the Pakistani army and has them 'screaming'. Pakistan is seen as having a propensity to interfere with India's internal affairs in J&K and with fostering a fifth column supposedly based on minority 'sleeper cells'. There is therefore a collapsing of the internal Other and the external Other in the mind's eye of right-wing strategists.

The oath of fealty on national unity day is yet another unnecessary ploy to push the largest minority on the back-foot by yet again getting it to disassociate itself from Pakistan. This is unnecessary since no such link exists but for a right-wing inspired, media-sponsored contrived linkage. The right wing has been known to foster this over the past decade through terror acts of uncertain origin. If investigations were to proceed to their logical end, the media that has purveyed the right-wing conspiracy theory would indeed be considerably surprised. A false linkage does not need to be time and again denounced.

The day is not significant in more ways than one only for Muslims. For India's populations on the social and geographic periphery, the latter in J&K and North East, it is yet another annual reminder that they being suspect can take as an opportunity to redeem themselves. It is 'yet another' imposition because the national days - Independence Day and Republic Day - are already there for all citizens to remind themselves of their obligations to the national collective.

Finally, the choice of Sardar Patel, always an icon of the right-wing and soon to be honoured with the world's tallest statue, owes not only to his contribution to making India whole as advertised, but on account of his arguably questionable role in Hyderabad and J&K. If the likes of AG Noorani are to be believed in their well-researched work on the period, national integration could have been proceeded with differently. The Hyderabad integration is being used politically for right-wing penetration into South India as the gamesmanship surrounding the contretemps surrounding hoisting of the national flag in Gulbarga on the day of the merger this September shows. As for J&K, the Day will be yet another stick to beat it into submission, close on heels of Mr. Modi's choice to spend Diwali in Srinagar (It is unlikely that a similar idea of Mr. Modi spending Holi in Nagaland would ever occur to his advisers.). Mythologising the past in face of well-founded and long-standing reservations on Mr. Patel's attitude towards Muslims does not help unity any.

That said and acknowledged, the new regime can be given the fullest rope to first reveal itself in its fullest colours. Therefore, Muslim Indians can indulgently play along with the latest Modi stunt this National Unity Day, while keeping powder dry for when his larger cultural nationalist project reveals itself as an oncoming iceberg heading for India through the mists.  

Firdaus Ahmed’s Think South Asia: A Stand for Peace that can be downloaded free from his blog

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 November 2014 on page no. 11

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