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'India is a very powerful democracy. It can humble any dictator'

By Syed Firdaus Ashraf
December 22, 2015 12:00 IST
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'I have never seen anybody disliked more as prime minister than Modi.'

'What is interesting is in his prime ministership, no matter whatever happens in any corner of India, Modi is blamed for it.'

'Modi has not suspended any Constitutional liberties. No Opposition leader has been put in jail... Modi is not Hitler.'

IMAGE: Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the ASEAN summit in Kuala Lumpur, November 22, 2015. Photograph: Olivia Harris/Reuters

Lord Meghnad Desai, economist and member of the British House of Lords, is one of Narendra Modi's staunch supporters.

Lord Desai explains to Syed Firdaus Ashraf/ why the prime minister provokes such hostility.

How do you see Prime Minister Modi's tenure?

I find him to be a very active prime minister. He has a very different style from his predecessor, Manmohan Singh, who was quieter. He (Dr Singh) was not his own master and was driven by Congress President Sonia Gandhi and others.

In contrast, Modi is in charge. He is very active.

Do you think Modi is the most divisive prime minister India has seen? There are, it seems, only two kinds of Indians -- people who adore him and people who despise him.

India had one party rule for 65 years. There were divisions earlier as well when the country went through the Emergency. Those have been forgotten because the single party (the Congress) which was in power had an imperialistic ideology.

Modi is deeply disliked by some people. I have never seen anybody disliked more as prime minister than Modi. He was disliked even before he was the prime minister. That is not new. He was called a 'merchant of death' and now he is being called a 'psychopath'.

I think such language has never been used for a prime minister. Probably he is different because he represents an alternative ideology to the hegemonic ideology of the Congress. So people are surprised and disturbed and they say, 'My God! This is intolerance.'

It is intolerance only because these views were not heard before. These views are of Indians and not foreigners.

But it is the Modi government which dictated what one must eat, by banning beef. Isn't that intolerance?

The Modi government has not done anything. The government has not passed a single piece of legislation on what people should eat. The government cannot pass a single bill in Parliament.

The BJP's (Bharatiya Janata Party) government in Maharashtra has done that.

Before Modi became prime minister, there was a ban on beef in 22 states. This issue never came up until now. It is very interesting how consciousness changes. The Directive Principle of state policy in the Constitution says that India should ban cow slaughter.

Many states, including Bihar, have banned cow slaughter. Beef became an issue in Maharashtra when the BJP government came to power. You can see how extensive the ban on beef is, and it has got nothing to do with the Modi government.

What is interesting is in his prime ministership, no matter whatever happens in any corner of India, Modi is blamed for it. This is very interesting because it is for the first time a single person is responsible for whatever is happening in the country. I find this amazing.

At the same time, Modi takes credit for all the good that is happening, isn't it?

Absolutely. That is the prime minister's job. What I am saying is that factually, the Modi government has not dictated to anybody what they should eat.

But his party, the BJP, has done so.

The BJP has not taken any official position (on beef). The BJP has not passed any resolution. Only individual BJP members have said things. Individual BJP state governments have done it.

Here in India, a man was lynched over the beef issue. And Modi kept quiet on the issue.

That is his style. He was criticised for not criticising the Gujarat thing (riots). That's his style. I think he should not be criticised for it.

IMAGE: Demonstrators protest outside the SAP Centre in San Jose, California, the venue for a community reception for the Indian prime minister, September 27, 2015. Photograph: Stephen Lam/Reuters

You made a point on an NDTV debate last week that Modi is not allowed to function because he is an OBC (Other Backward Class). Is that what you feel?

I think it (Lord Desai's comments) needs to be replayed very carefully. What I am saying is that there is a certain kind of anger and contempt shown towards Modi. Because for the first time, we have an OBC who is democratically elected and is commanding a majority in Parliament.

Before the elections, if you recall, not only the Congress said that he would never get elected, Mani Shankar Aiyar called him a chaiwallah. Even the BJP was not so sure about him and said it would get around 180 seats.

But he got elected against all expectations, and with a solid majority. It shocked people. India is a very casteist society. Every time I come (from London) I am struck by the casteist behaviour.

He (Modi) incites anger, he displays anger. That is his style. The uniqueness of an OBC prime minister itself is shocking after 67 years. There has never been a Shudra prime minister.

Why are people so bitter towards Modi?

I will give my interpretation which people may not like. First of all, there is an alternative vision of India being displayed more by cyber trolls and by many within the BJP about what makes India a nation. It is not the Nehruvian Congress view.

I don't agree with either of those views. I have an alternative view, which I have written in my book. They (Modi's supporters) have an alternative view about India as a Hindu nation. It is being debated.

Do you see anyone in history who was elected after facing so much bitterness?

This is not Hitler. People say, 'Aaah Hitler, Hitler...' Only Indira Gandhi was Hitler, Modi is not. We never had any Hitler. India is unique.

So you are saying only Indira Gandhi was a Hitler-like figure and not Modi?

Modi has not suspended any Constitutional liberties. No Opposition leader has been put in jail. The press is free. We have more than one television channel. I think it is a matter of style.

You can intervene and say he is evil and compare him with Hitler, but I don't have to join the crowd.

I have read about Hitler, and I have lived in other countries, and this is not a dictatorship by any imagination.

What about the raids on Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal's office?

Raids by the CBI (Central Bureau of Investigation) have happened before. Even now Himachal Chief Minister Virbhadra Singh is going through CBI raids. Only the CBI can clarify this issue.

I don't think everything has the 'sinister hand' of Modi. He will not pick up the phone and say, 'Jao, jaa ke Kejriwal ko maaro (Go, beat Kejriwal).'

Kejirwal is a paranoid man. He thinks the whole world revolves around him. His odd-even vehicle policy (for Delhi's traffic) is a great policy. But now he has gone back to 'Everybody hates me and everybody is after me.'

Don't you think it is the prime minister's job to see Parliament functions?

Did the Parliament function during the last government's tenure?

No, it did not.

Exactly, right. If you see the statistics, you will see how much time was wasted for the last 20 years. Parliament's performance has been deteriorating for a long time. I was just going by statistics in 2013's winter session -- 95 per cent of the Lok Sabha's time was wasted and in the Rajya Sabha, about 92 per cent. We have been here before.

Parliament depends on how the parliamentarians behave, whether the Speaker can command control.

I have sat in the British parliament for 24 years, and I have not seen anybody interrupt or shout. Nobody gets up and rushes to the well.

They enter, they bow to the chair, and everybody sits in their place. Why does Parliament have to be disturbed over what happened in Haryana or Kakinada?

Parliament in India has stopped functioning and everybody wants to make it a partisan issue. The citizenry is not aware that they are being robbed of a Parliament. All they are interested in is criticising one government or another.

Do you think these things hurt India's image internationally?

In India, people call it intolerance. Everywhere else, they call it debate. I think it is debate, not intolerance.

The New York Times wrote about the growing intolerance in India...

People are hearing views which they have not heard before. People from the Hindi medium are suddenly coming in the public forum. Until now, we only had sophisticated people commanding the media, and now we know subalterns speaking a different language.

They may be clumsy, they may be rude, but India is big enough to tolerate this. It is a democracy and I don't think there is any interruption in that democracy.

But the economy is going nowhere... exports are falling and food inflation is high.

It (The Indian economy) is currently growing at the highest rate in the G20 nations. The IMF (International Monetary Fund) has acknowledged this. In any other regime this would have been celebrated.

(Sarcastically) But, of course, everybody has to believe Modi can't do any good and that is why our economy is going down. If that is how people want to perceive it, I am relaxed.

IMAGE: A grain shop in Kolkata. Photograph: Rupak De Chowdhuri/Reuters

But food inflation is high.

Food inflation is not very high. It is lower than what it was in the UPA (United Progressive Alliance) years. It is at 5.4%. The Wholesale Price Index is in the negative territory and that is bad.

I feel we ought to have food inflation below 5%. Now we have the RBI (Reserve Bank of India) committed with bringing inflation lower. We have a monetary policy and an anti-inflationary policy in place, and that is work in progress. Inflation has to be brought down, there is no doubt about it.

Indira Gandhi returned to power in three-and-a-half years after her election debacle post the Emergency. Do you think the Congress can revive by 2019?

Why would I care for a particular party?

As a political observer, what you feel?

That is Congress party business.

Do you think the Congress can resurrect itself?

It is always bad to forecast anything. I think it will be difficult for them to come back. Bihar was interesting because the Congress recognised that it is a far more junior party in that part of India and joined the coalition as a junior party for the first time.

Sonia realised that the Congress' hegemony days were over. If it does revive, it will take about 20 years.

Twenty years!

Let us say it may get back to say above 100, maybe 150 seats, in 2019. A hundred and fifty seats is not bad because they formed the government with 145 in 2004. It all depends on how the BJP does.

So far, the Congress has not articulated an explanation why it lost apart from blaming Modi for everything.

The problem is that there is no enquiry on why the Congress lost (the 2014 election). The party has a problem of not being self-critical enough and being very happy that everybody is criticising the BJP.

I belong to the Labour Party which lost four elections and then revived itself under a new leadership. I know parties come and go in political life.

Parties do revive, but for that, you require some kind of recognition of why you lost so drastically. Basically, any organisation has to be revived and restructured. I think in India, elections dominate political life too much.

Elections are so frequent. A party goes from (contesting) one election to another election. All they think is that they need to win more seats in the next election. In Bihar, the Congress is very happy, but that has not reformed the party.

I think it is a structural problem in India. Political parties don't need to think about only fighting elections. All parties (want to) fight elections rather than articulate where they want the country to go.

India has been a single party dominant party democracy from 1947 until 1989. So, 42 years of single party domination. The Congress was like Snow White. Everyone else was the seven dwarfs. The Congress had a dominant narrative.

Apart from the Mandal (Commission), all ideas came from the Congress. Even (Atal Bihari) Vajpayee behaved like a Congressman. So we had a Congress-dominated coalition culture.

But Vajpayee was never criticised as much as Modi.

Vajpayee's behaviour was Delhi-based, Delhi-trained. He wanted to make the BJP acceptable. He was a very clever man. He had been in Parliament for many years. Modi is the first prime minister who entered Parliament after he assumed the post, which is very unusual

Even Arun Jaitley and Sushma Swaraj are a part of the Delhi culture. You know, give and take -- they know everybody.

Modi is not from that set. He has come from the provinces.

(Political scientist) Rajni Kothari wrote a brilliant book long ago about how the Congress was a party to the system. I am not saying the BJP can be like the Congress, but it may turn out to be so.

It is a whole new generation of Indians -- especially with the spread of education, provincially educated, Hindi-medium trained people from the backwaters, subaltern people -- and what they want from the government. They want roti, kapda aur makaan and so on.

It may be that the political culture will now shift to another dominant party. The BJP may get modified, who knows! And we may have this kind of role for others in 30, 40 years.

The Congress misbehaved during the Emergency, but it came to its senses. India is a very powerful democracy. It can humble any dictator. India will not have any dictator after Indira tried and failed.

Coming back to the OBC question, even Babu Jagjivan Ram felt he was not made prime minister in 1979 because he was from a scheduled caste.

Charan Singh said he would walk out of the (Janata Party) coalition if Jagjivan became prime minister. Even Morarji Desai never supported him.

You know when Mayawati was chief minister of Uttar Pradesh in coalition with the BJP, they used to wash the cabinet room after each meeting.

What are you saying!

I have said this in public and they have never denied it.

They used to wash the rooms because Mayawati is a Dalit?

Yes. In Bihar, when (former Dalit chief minister) Jitan Ram Manjhi went to garland Jayaprakash Narayan's statue, JD-U (Janata Dal-United) workers washed the statue. Caste prejudice is so deep rooted in the Indian psyche.

I read in the Asian Age some time ago that in the MEA (ministry of external affairs), a young IFS (Indian Foreign Service) officer once said, 'I don't know the caste of this person, and therefore I don't know how to behave with him.'

This is the IFS I am talking about, not some uneducated person, and definitely not Sakshi Maharaj.

Do we have a Brahmanical mindset in India?

This is the savarna (upper caste) mindset. The three top varnas -- Brahmins, Kshatriyas, Vaishnavs treat Shudras like dirt and the Dalits even worse.

Do you think this applies to Modi who is an OBC?

Mani Shankar Aiyar beautifully illustrated this concept. A Tamil Brahmin faced with the prospect of a Shudra coming to power could not believe it could ever happen.

Come on, I don't think Aiyar brought in a Brahminical point of view...

He said it openly -- Modi is a chaiwallah who can come and sell tea. The BJP claims that this particular statement got them a lot of votes. I know Aiyar has got that Tamil Brahmin arrogance.

The next time you go to a restaurant you observe how people behave with waiters. They always shout. They behave rudely. The way people behave with their servants. In India, there is no recognition of equality of dignity of different people.

But it is a class problem, and not a caste problem...

No. I live in a class society in the United Kingdom. I treat my maid servant, who comes once a week, with dignity. I make her a cup of tea, I don't shout at her, I don't mistrust her.

If Jagjivan Ram could not be made prime minister, then it is a caste problem. One of the greater tragedies of India is that after 70 years of Independence, there has been no social revolution and no social transformation at all, which is why orthodox Hindu parties can get to the top.

There has been no attempt by the Congress or the Left to challenge the caste order.

This is a tragedy. Everybody is worried about whether Modi is a dictator or not without realising that it is the social conservatism of Indian democracy, which made it possible.

But that is all right, India will survive.

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Syed Firdaus Ashraf /