Taking on Mr. Modi’s Chief Cheerleader: Chetan Bhagat

The final round in the fight for India’s soul is underway. Mr. Modi’s forthcoming triumph in the provincial elections in the western Indian state he heads is intended to set the stage for his elevation soon thereafter as the potential prime ministerial candidate of India’s conservative party, the BJP. One leader from of the competition, Ms. Sushma Swaraj, has already thrown in the towel for party leadership and prime ministerial ambition, citing Modi’s development record. The other, Mr. Arun Jaitley, is not known to command a mass following within or without the party. Of the official leader of the party, Mr. Nitin Gadkari, political obits are already past the draft stage.

The first blow of the final round has been struck by Mr. Modi’s unofficial spokeman, Mr. Chetan Bhagat. Earlier his outpourings in favour of his preferred leader were confined to his Sunday Times column. Today they have been elevated to the op-ed space of the widely read, The Times of India (1 December 2012). The thesis this time round is essentially that “if India has to move forward, the voting public must wean itself off the Gandhi family.” QED!

With the “family” out of the way, in particular the princeling, Rahul Gandhi, Bhagat knows it would be cakewalk for his fighter in the ring, Mr. Modi. This explains his thrust on getting “the family out of the way,” which explains why his piece is misleadingly titled, “Out of the family way.” That his piece does not mention Mr. Modi’s name even once is yet another dead giveaway. There seems to be much to hide, and Bhagat, in doing so, knows this best.

To have Mr. Bhagat as an unpaid PR man can prove a boon for Mr. Modi’s incipient national campaign. After all, Bhagat’s self-description as a “best-selling novelist” is not incredible. It is, therefore, important to interrogate Mr. Bhagat, lest his writings going uncontested lend ballast on Mr. Modi’s journey to 7 Race Course Road.

Bhagat’s piece is ostensibly on the shortcomings of the conservative party and how these would prove debilitating its bid for power in 2014. By default, the ruling party stands to gain although it has little that Mr. Bhagat finds on offer. This owes to the dynastic impulse of “our feudal mindset”. Weaning ourselves off the Gandhi family to him is the first step to acknowledging the Sun rising in the west, Mr. Modi.

In Mr. Bhagat’s laundry list of the BJP’s shortcomings a discerning reader will fail to find mention on the party’s chief limitation: the nature of its subterranean connection with the wider rightist fraternity, the Sangh Parivar. This amounts to a resounding silence. Such sleights of hand explain why Bhagat is chief cheerleader and, therefore, need pointing out as relentlessly as Bhagat champions his champion.

To Bhagat, “the new India the youth wants to see - merit-based, efficient, accountable and progressive” – requires the BJP to reinvent itself; be less like the Congress. However, Bhagat, and many who agree with him, do not factor in the umbilical cord between the BJP and its mother entity, the RSS. Being management savvy and technocratic, they are politically naïve.

The “new India” in the world view of conservative extremists – that Mr. Bhagat is seemingly oblivious to - is at least a century-old in conception, situated as it is in the world view of triumphant fascism of the between-wars years in Europe. Since history has taken a beating in curriculum reinvention over the recent decade, the youth need reminding of this intellectual legacy of the party Bhagat promotes.

Bhagat expertly papers over the cracks by sandwiching “efficient, accountable” between “merit based” and “progressive” in his version of the vision of India’s youth. On “efficient,” it needs mention that authoritarian methods sometimes bear such result. After all, it was said that the trains ran on time during the Emergency. The model of “development” of Gujarat can instead be attributed to an extended, if undeclared, Emergency. Look at the fate of officers such as Sanjeev Bhatt. With hatchet men such as the former state home minister continuing if not prospering in politics, the common government official can surely sense which way the wind blows. As for “accountable,” even the formidable Vajpayee - the very same blaster-in-chief himself of India’s grand entry into the nuclear club - could not exact accountability for the absence of “raj dharma” in Gujarat of 2002.

This leaves “merit based” and “progressive” as the remaining yardsticks; in themselves inoffensive standards but worth a “dekho”. “Merit based” has been mantra of anti-reservationists, the ones who agree with Bhagat. Their reading of India is blind to India’s logic of caste – its defining feature if any. By making a case to privilege “merit”, their’s is an easy-to-see-through bid to remain interminably ahead. With starting blocks way ahead, there is little chance of the gap attenuating. To them, “merit” is a formula to stay on top. “Merit” busting is therefore of significance for the readers of this journal, most being disadvantaged at, and sometimes by, birth.

Lastly, Bhagat’s use of the term “progressive” is to stand it on its head. It’s an easy bid to steal the thunder, usually a property in this instance of the left. By progressive, Mr. Bhagat presumably means the alacrity with which Gujarat can attract the Tatas when divested off their land in West Bengal. What makes Gujarat able to do this and what prevents others? Answering this would reveal how self-serving Bhagat’s definition of “progressive” actually is; yet another instance of his expertise: word play.

Mr. Bhagat’s columns will get more strident as the national elections campaign draws closer. Silence in response may be misread as silence of the lambs. To do as he advises – overthrow the dynasty – would be to throw out the baby with the bathwater. To do so would pave way for a pracharak as prime minister. Though Mr. Modi’s self-exculpatory version of the 2002 presents himself at best as “The Nero of 2002,” history knows best that this is a charitable honorific. And that is enough to expose the cheer-leader for what he is not, a political analyst.

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