By Devang Pathak:
2014 will be remembered as a landmark year when the criticism of the man became the criticism of the nation.
I am in attendance at a suburban Literary festival in Mumbai. The topic is “Tyranny Of Power” with distinguished panellists including Congress’s Mani Shankar Aiyer. The debate ensues about our Prime Minister and his 6 months in office as well as the speculation about the true intentions of his government. The panel talked about the hesitance of the national media to criticize or question the Prime Minister, such as the meeting with the press, where several journalists were seen taking selfies with the Prime Minister and basking in the glory of his compliments for their work. There was discussion about how the media reported the Madison Square Garden event – without highlighting that it was essentially the Non-Resident Indians which were excited about the Prime Minister’s visit and not the American public in general. My guess is this was somehow construed as the criticism of the nation as in the approaching Q&A session one person shouted at Mr. Aiyer for his Chaiwallah comment about the Prime Minister last year and was supported by few people in the crowd in what became a shouting match.
The noise which enveloped the arena was barely recognisable. But it had a common message – don’t be cynical about our country and don’t criticize our leader. How did the disrupted session end? Mr. Aiyer, in his usual antagonizing way said that if anyone compares Mr Modi to Adolf Hitler, he isn’t wrong. The resistance to criticism was rewarded with outrageous comparisons. This has been the general discourse in our country since May – when a question or action which goes against popular political belief of the country is asked, it is met with rebuke and disgust which in turns triggers more heated reactions.
I will confess that I am not an avid supporter of Narendra Modi. I had maintained that even before the elections and I do even now. But on 16th May, after he became the Prime Minister of the country, I had an obligation to accept and respect it. The constitution and a basic democratic principle involves respect for the office of the democratic leader of the country. But the man bearing that office is not free from criticism.
For instance, at a recent adoption of the village of Jayapur by the Prime Minister, he made a case to let the girl child live. “If we kill girl child in the mother’s womb, then what will happen to the world. If only 800 girls are born against 1000 boys, then 200 boys will remain unmarried.” I find this to be an unacceptable argument. A girl or any human being for that matter is not utilitarian. They do not exist to serve a purpose such as breeding vehicles for men. They have the right to simply exist. The argument can be that while addressing the conservative villagers, Mr. Modi had to adopt this simple statement. But this would be a naïve view. A leader of his stature and power could have influenced the core idea – A woman has as much right to live as a man, without any regressive comment to support that argument. He left the crowd of his followers imprinted with the idea – to give birth to a girl and marry her off, in turn setting back the women’s rights movement in rural areas by many years.
There were many logical flaws in his argument at the rally. Yet, I failed to see even one mainstream journalist or publication point that out.
Let’s put that treatment in stark contrast to the former Prime Minister, for whom the criticism would be no-holds barred, by the public and even the media. There would even be a barrage of humor and jokes at his expense, some well-deserved and harmless while others personal and derogatory. Every mistake of his was scrutinised and penalised such as the “Theek Hai” gaffe.
The treatment of Mr. Modi falls on the other end of the spectrum. There are many well-deserved questions or criticisms which are never asked by the public or the journalists, and anyone asking these questions is often berated. I know the managers of a few Indian humor pages on social media, which often make fun of Indian popular culture, who are flooded with abuses and threats every time anything is said about the current Prime Minister, even if the query or statement is genuine. Even if there is something to criticize or question, the issue would be raised in an unprecedented manner – with civility. An example of this is a trend on social media a few days back “#ModiSirRemoveUnfairPOCSOLaw”. In my 4 years of using Twitter, I have never once seen a trend which addressed Dr. Manmohan Singh with a civil or kind request.
It is pretty evident that the intensity of emotions aroused by the 2014 election have been those unlike any other in recent times. Many have taken the present government as a sign of hope that the long promised “Developed India” will become a reality. There is nothing wrong with this level of optimism. But this optimism is being used to supplant logic and criticism. The worship and reverence of one man is being tied to our self-worth as Indian citizens and nation. This leads us to align patriotism with blind faith instead of our self-confidence and belief as a nation.
Let’s hope that our fragile belief systems make way for a stronger and resilient system of nationalism in 2015, which is not afraid to criticize and question its leaders.