Deconstructing Mr. Modi’s speech

In his early-bird take on Mr. Modi’s speech at the National Celebration of the Elevation to sainthood of Kuriakose Elias Chavara and Mother Euphrasia in New Delhi, the editor-in-chief of the news and opinions portal First Post got it right. He writes that “while Modi actually meant, ‘Tolerance has to cut both ways,’ it is not quite the way his speech will be interpreted in newspapers tomorrow.”

Indeed, the media has taken a positive view of Mr. Modi’s speech and the chief ministerial candidate in J&K, hoping to justify his faustian pact with the BJP there has gone on to advertise his appreciation. That the speech that is otherwise loaded with double meaning can get such a reception indicates less clairvoyance on the editor-in-chief’s part and credulity on part of others, but a Stockholm syndrome in which captives learn to love their captors, in this case a nation held hostage to Hindutvavadi antics over the past year ends up seeing light seemingly at the end of the tunnel while it has only just entered it.

Defence Minister of Israel, Moshe Ya'alon with Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on February 19, 2015.
Defence Minister of Israel, Moshe Ya'alon with Narendra Modi, in New Delhi on February 19, 2015.

Jagannathan’s article with unconcealed glee brings out two hidden points Mr. Modi makes. One that Modi finds conversion “without coercion or inducement” acceptable. This may have had greater relevance for his audience comprising Christians, worried over the spate of attacks on churches in Delhi in the run up to the election there. Whereas they are worried of their right to practice and propagate their religion under the circumstance, Mr. Modi is highlighting alongside “inducement” that is alleged to accompany such propagation.

However, for the audience of this publication, the second one is consequential, which in Jagannathan’s words is that, “Tolerance has to cut both ways.” The message, therefore, for the Muslim audience from Mr. Modi is in his parting words: “We cannot accept violence against any religion on any pretext and I strongly condemn such violence. My government will act strongly in this regard.” This, as Jagannathan wholly in agreement, points out, can only be intended for Muslims. 

This is easy to surmise, given that Mr. Modi takes pains to bring out that tolerance is intrinsic to India since ancient times, when presumably there were no Muslims in either India or the world. Tolerant India accepted all religions that have come from without. Further, it is this tolerance in India’s “ancient cultural traditions” (read Hindutva, since it is a “way of life”, cultural tradition, according to the Supreme Court) that has been embedded in the Indian Constitution. Therefore, India is tolerant because the majority, owing to its religion and culture, is tolerant.

In other words, intolerance can only be of religions that have come from without.This he takes pains to highlight, referring to the turmoil in the Middle East using the phraseology: “The world is at cross-roads which, if not crossed properly, can throw us back to the dark days of bigotry, fanaticism and bloodshed.”Since tolerance “must be” in Indians’ DNA, it is so presumably also in the case of Muslim Indians because they are taken as converts for most part and therefore having tolerant Hindu forebears. Nevertheless, they need reminding that his government “will act strongly”.

It cannot be that Mr. Modi has suddenly realised the need for strong action against religion-inspired violence. He spent three terms in Gujarat without appropriate action (to put it generously) against those who spilt blood (to put it mildly) on his watch in the Gujarat carnage. Therefore, his message - “My government will not allow any religious group, belonging to the majority or the minority, to incite hatred against others, overtly or covertly. Mine will be a government that gives equal respect to all religions.” - is surely not directed at his support base in Hindutvawadis.

Also, note he and his political party have spent a quarter century highlighting that the Congress treated the Muslim minority differently (“appeasement” is the term used). So when he and his party mention “equality” it implies taking Muslims down a peg or two for “equality”. Lastly, he “will not” allow incitement of hatred. He does well to use the future tense since that absolves him of inaction in the case of his worthy minister’s colourful description for the minority.

Sure, he has called the Delhi DGP and emphasized that Christians need due protection. This concern may well be Obama induced in that the US President has on two occasions – in his town hall speech when in Delhi and at his prayer breakfast meeting when back in Washington – voiced concern on rising Hindutvawadi impertinence. Being responsive to “Barack” can be expected, especially in light of the defence and nuclear-related goodies India expects in return.

While the tolerance-related part of Mr. Modi’s speech has drawn attention – much of it misguided – what has been missing in the ensuing commentary is his concluding portion: “I havea vision of a Modern India. I have embarked on a huge mission to convert that vision into reality. My mantra is Development for all – sabka saath, sabka vikaas…. I sincerely request all Indians, and all of you present here to support me in this huge task.” Italics capture the megalomania dripping in the extract.

Clearly, with the budget up soon, the decks are being cleared. Social unrest can put paid to development. Development is needed to justify the Modi era, set to last a decade as per the moratorium on casteist and social unrest Modi had sought in his speech on 15 August last year. Therefore, Mr. Modi’s “Behave or else” speech, is also a “Behave and I will be the saviour”  speech. 

Finally, is Mr. Modi’s “appeal to all religious groups to act with restraint, mutual respect, and tolerance in the true spirit of this ancient nation which is manifest in our Constitution and is in line with the Hague Declaration.” The reference to the Hague Declaration is to guide the Christians in his audience. The reference to the Constitution presumably is to inspire Muslims, for whom their religion’s intrinsic resources are presumably not enough. The “true spirit of ancient nation” as guide is perhaps intended for the majority. Whereas Hinduism is notably tolerant, its political avatar, Hindutva, as with political usage of any religion, is certainly not so.

It would not do to attribute this speech to Mr. Modi’s speech-writer alone. It cannot readily be said that while Mr. Modi has turned a new leaf, his speech-writer is still stuck in the Vivekananda International Foundation groove. These are very well Mr. Modi’s own sentiments. He cannot be blamed for inconsistency. Since future events may make of this a landmark speech, it is as important that it is neither misconstrued nor misunderstood.

That said, there is no reason for Muslim Indians to give scope to the government to come down “strongly” on them. Nor need they practice tolerance because Mr. Modi is a late convert to it, but must continue to do so because it is both strategic and a religious duty. Clearly, there is no place for violence. Such recourse will leave Mr. Modi only one option: to put his money where his mouth is and instead come down “strongly” on his support base. Mr. Modi may like to tune into his one-man-army cheerleader, Mr. Bhagat’s latest piece of advice: “Shut up regressive Hindutva fanatics.”

Firdaus Ahmed, author of Think South Asia and Subcontinental Musings (, blogs at

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