A rightwing secular manifesto

BY AJAZ ASHRAF| IN Books | 10/06/2014
The word"aspiration" acquires a termite-like quality in 'Anticipating India'. It keeps surfacing in every possible context over its 516 pages,
says AJAZ ASHRAF in this incisive review of Shekhar Gupta~s book. PIX: Cover of the book

Anticipating India
The Best of National Interest
Shekhar Gupta
HarperCollins Publishers India 
Express Book Series
Pages: 516, Price: Rs 799

Anticipating India by Shekhar Gupta, the outgoing editor-in-chief of The Indian Express, is a selection of columns through which he has sought to draw for his readers the shape of India’s future, based on his reading of the socio-economic and political trends prevailing at the time of writing. Since these columns were penned, under the title National Interest, over 18 years, you might assume it would be easy to prepare a  checklist of the predictions Gupta got right. However, the book does not lend itself to such an exercise. After thumbing through 516 pages, index included, and some tiresomely repetitious theories and quips, you cannot but conclude that the India Gupta anticipates is the India of his imagination; the country he so earnestly wants it to be.

This India of his must worship the market, nurture entrepreneurial talent, venerate wealth-creators even when they bend rules, condone politicians for all their sins as long as they can be said to have contributed to economic growth, cite poverty alleviation only as an argument for greater economic reforms, nurse aspirations rather than grievances, and rally behind the Indian state when it crushes popular movements that question its authority.

Among the movements Gupta abhors, it must be emphasized, is communalism of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) variety, which the Indian state hasn’t challenged with the same ferocity as it has attacked secessionism and Left radicalism. Gupta’s angst at radical Hindu mobilisation is palpable in Anticipating India, not because it disrupts the economy, but because it is inhuman and marks a return to the politics of grievances.

Thus, while analysts on the left of the Indian ideological spectrum might dub the term ‘Rightwing Secular’ an oxymoron, it is an apt description of Gupta’s imagination. Had Anticipating India not been a collection of columns, but a set of essays stringing together the dominant themes of the book, it could well have been called A Rightwing Secular Manifesto.

It is unclear, however, whether he perceives himself as right-wing. There is a revealing anecdote on page 438, in which he narrates how a story, carried on an Indian website, on a remark he had made in Pakistan, incurred the displeasure of BJP leader LK Advani. The author of the story was Varsha Bhosle, whom Gupta accuses of cooking up the quotes she attributes to him. While doing so, he describes Varsha as “Asha Bhosle’s rightwing daughter who died, sadly, in October 2012, allegedly having committed suicide.” His spelling out of Varsha’s ideological leanings, in the context of hostility to Pakistan, suggests that Gupta perceives the term “rightwing” as having only communal, not economic, connotations.

It’s possible that the only label Gupta would settle for is that of a “Hardboiled Realist”.  No quarrel with that, except that he often appears so bereft of empathy that you begin to think that national interest, as imagined by him, can only be a sterile concept.  For instance, a book dominated by discussions of political economy doesn’t mention the phenomenon of farmers’ suicide even once, not even in a column entitled Drought-proofing India.

Again, the words ‘human rights’ are mentioned just once in the book, that too only while cautioning the NDA government against running down the National Human Rights Commission’s decision in 2003 to appeal to the Supreme Court against acquittals in the infamous Best Bakery case. To disparage the NHRC now, warns Gupta, is to also deny New Delhi its own argument against attacks from abroad on excesses in Kashmir – that India has an independent human rights commission. In the column, The Bleeding Heartless, he confesses that the only time he failed to maintain his “clinical, reporter’s impartial reserve” was when he glimpsed the body of a 20-year-old soldier killed in Operation Bluestar. It would seem nothing can quite match the tragic sight of a corpse in uniform. 

Perhaps the issue of human rights doesn’t have salience for Gupta because in his imagination the state is nearly always right. Similarly, to speak of farmers’ suicides is to also admit to the limitations of market reforms. Gupta thinks in neat binaries: Indians are either good or bad, believe in market reforms or in rigid state regulations, articulate old grievances or aspire for a bright future. His imagination seems to have little room for nuances, and cannot accept the possibility of overlapping, at times contradictory, causes triggering an occurrence or episode. 
This is why Gupta sees the NDA’s shock defeat in 2004 as solely a consequence of the then Prime Minister AB Vajpayee’s failure to remove Narendra Modi as chief minister following the horrific Gujarat riots, and Murli Manohar Joshi’s bizarre Hindutva experiments in education. This is also why Gupta won’t entertain the possibility of India reacting adversely to the NDA’s Shining India campaign. He asks: Had this been true, would the cities of India have voted so emphatically against the Vajpayee government? 

He would, obviously, not agree with what a journalist-friend says, “It is one thing to persuade people about a bright future awaiting them. It is quite another to convince people, as the NDA tried, that their present is exceptional even when it is not.” 

Gupta’s insistent linking of the 2004 verdict with the backlash against Hindutva seems to have an underlying motive –to ensure that the political class doesn’t interpret 2004 as a vote against market reforms and roll back Vajpayee’s economic initiatives. Within a month of the Congress’s surprise victory in that election, in a column dated 29 May 2004, you hear Gupta lashing out against the UPA for not talking about Modi and Hindu communalism, and accusing it of hypocritically debating the electoral viability of market reforms. His language is strikingly shrill and sarcastic.

For instance, he accuses “the Left and the entire ‘equal distribution of poverty’ mafia” of wrongly redefining the 2004 verdict as “a rejection of economic reform.” Gupta, for his part, wants the UPA to send the religious minorities a “thank-you note” for turning out in large numbers to vote against the BJP. But he furnishes no empirical evidence to back this assertion. 

The reality was, in fact, just the reverse of  Gupta’s claims. In a brilliant essay, Whither Muslim politics? (Economic and Political Weekly, September 26, 2009) Mohd Sanjeer Alam cited the Centre for the Study of Developing Studies’ polls to show that the Muslim turnout in 2004 election was just 46 per cent, as against the national average of 58 per cent. In the 1999 election, the Muslim turnout had been significantly higher, at 67 per cent.

In his 2004 column, Gupta lambasts the UPA’s interpretation of the electoral verdict as an attempt at “brainwashing” people, and warns that this ruse won’t succeed in the long run. It did, though, in 2009. The UPA once again rode to power in that election. Typically, Gupta does not give the UPA’s National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGA) any credit for that electoral victory, as many other analysts did at the time. He asks: Had this been the case, would the Congress have fared poorly in what are called BIMARU states? Why did a large segment of urban India vote Congress and reject the BJP?

Gupta asks these questions because he is inclined to assign only one cause or factor to an occurrence. To begin with, BIMARU states, barring Rajasthan, didn’t vote Congress even before NREGA was introduced. It’s therefore possible to argue that there are other factors accounting for the demise of the Congress in these states. Then again, while city-centered growth may have yielded dividends for the Congress, it would be erroneous to assume that urban India has no links to the rural hinterland. Indeed, a fair portion of the Indian city’s population comprises rural migrants. NREGA supplemented the money they remitted home.

Gupta trots out a range of questionable arguments because he wants to frame India within the theoretical paradigm he has constructed. This  paradigm holds that Indians are no longer interested in the “outmoded politics of grievance” and want to support the “wonderful new politics of aspiration.” Aspiration is, of course, shorthand for growth, development, market reforms; and “grievance” signifies caste and religious identity, social welfare schemes or doles. Negativity, judging from this book, can be defined as any idea in which the word “market” doesn’t appear. 

Obviously, in Gupta’s imagination, grievance and aspiration can’t exist together. Nor does he offer any explanation for the forgetting of grievances other than the fact that Indians have bitten into the development cake, and are pining for more. Is it not possible that Indians have also become aspirational because two decades of the politics of social justice have created a social landscape conducive to aspiration? Is not the quest for caste equality an aspect of aspiration? Would it be wrong to conclude that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s astonishing performance in Uttar Pradesh in 2014 was a consequence of the party deftly combining religious mobilisation, caste identity, and development?

In his column Lose-Lose, written on 13 July 2013, Gupta castigates Modi and the BJP for assigning the supervision of the election in Uttar Pradesh to Modi’s aide, Amit Shah. In a touching outburst of passion, Gupta concludes, “An election fought on identity will be so unfair to Muslims, so contemptuous of Hindus and so insulting to such a resurgent, young and aspirational India. It will also give the Congress a chance.” Alas, the young in Uttar Pradesh showed they could be both aspirational and Hindu, and also grind the Congress to dust.

The word “aspiration” acquires a termite-like quality in Anticipating India. It keeps surfacing in every possible context over its  516 pages. Aspiration first makes an entry on page 62 and simply refuses go away thereafter; you keep discovering its anew as you turn the pages. Gupta’s depth of love for the word “aspiration” is best expressed in the column Ears Wide Shut, on the 23-year-old who was brutally gang-raped in December 2012 in Delhi. Of her story, Gupta writes, “This is about a public transport-using, ordinary, but aspirational and modern Indian… She is what this is about, first of all.” At the end of his column, he wonders what prompted Delhi to express its outrage. Well, you guessed it: “India’s most improved city is also necessarily India’s most aspirational.”

This is not to say Gupta cannot be prescient and engaging. In November 2002, he identified Modi’s victory in Gujarat as a defining moment in India’s politics, and foresaw that he would eventually emerge as the principal challenger to the Gandhis. In his column, That Funny Bofors Feeling, he correctly predicted the disruptive impact of the telecom scam on Parliament. His writing on the judiciary is sharp, his comparison of Delhi with Mumbai compelling, and his insights on society’s upper crust worthy of any sociologist’s.

Anticipating India has engaging profiles of politicians and, among its many  anecdotes and quips, the most interesting is Sitaram Kesri’s, comment, after a visit to Beijing. Gupta quotes the wily Congress leader as telling him, “These Chinese communists are like drivers of DTC buses. They signal left but turn right.” However, the comment palls when you encounter it no less than three times in the book. Gupta’s interaction with RSS supremo KS Sudarshan, who insists it wasn’t Godse but Nehru who killed Gandhi, also makes for a hilarious story. But this one, too, is repeated.  

There is a possibility that Anticipating India could come to haunt Gupta, especially his narration of an exchange with a woman he met while visiting Pakistan in 2002.  The woman asks  him, “You keep praising India’s democracy all the time, but what will happen to your democracy if Modi comes to power?” to which Gupta replies, “We have institutions to deal with Modi if he threatens our democracy and its values of liberal secularism… we have the judiciary, Parliament, Election Commission, and also us, the free media.”

Modi is now the prime minister, and already a substantial section of the media feels threatened. Coincidentally, Gupta himself is migrating from the Indian Express to the India Today Group, which is visibly enamoured of Modi. We can only hope that for Gupta’s sake, as well as India’s, that we won’t need to remind him about his assurance about a “free media”. For, in this era of corporate domination, Gupta might discover that proprietors are to the media what the RSS is to the BJP –  the dominant force in an unequal relationship he finds both exasperating and incomprehensible in Anticipating India. 

(The author is a Delhi-based journalist and can be reached at ashrafajaz3@gmail.com)
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