Current Public Administration Magazine (November - 2015) - In a spin over intolerance

Sample Material of Current Public Administration Magazine

Current Issues

In a spin over intolerance

A lot of ink has been spilled over what has been described as a suffocating atmosphere of intolerance in India. The ‘intolerance’ bug has followed Prime Minister Narendra Modi all the way to the U.K., with 200 writers, including the likes of Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie, writing an open letter to the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, urging him to raise the issue with Mr. Modi.

‘Intolerance’ in this context has come to serve as a shorthand for the unending series of, to borrow Mr. Modi’s words, “unfortunate incidents” — the murder of M.M. Kalburgi; of Mohammad Akhlaq; of a Toyota showroom employee, Yakub Shaikh; the repeated petrol bomb attacks on Kashmiri truck drivers; the burning of two Dalit children in Sunpedh. And this is just a partial enumeration of one kind of intolerant behaviour. Short of killing those you disagree with, there exists a range of strategies for making intolerance the new normal. We have, for instance, an entire pantheon of Parivar-accredited rabble-rousers — many of them are office-bearers of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party — who seem to follow a roster system for coming up with hate speech. Another strategy is to erect a new regime of intolerance by packing state-funded cultural institutions with pro-Hindutva mono-culturists, often at the expense of qualification for the post in question. Then there are the seemingly random incidents that are, in part, an outcome of the message of impunity sent out by the state’s extreme tolerance of majoritarian intolerance: disruptions of book launches, ghar wapsi , love jihad , and so on.

Pattern of excessive tolerance

All these taken together reveal a pattern not of intolerance but of too much tolerance — of hate speech, of sectarian violence, of violation of freedoms guaranteed in the Constitution. It was this toleration of the intolerant that prompted writers, academics, students, and scientists to protest in whichever ways they could: by returning state awards, writing open letters, and so on.

Unfortunately, defining the current crisis as one of ‘intolerance’ has made it easier for the government — by making it seem like a culture war rather than one of life and death, which is what it really is.

At first, therefore, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) could brush off the wave of protests as ‘manufactured rebellion’. Then it attempted to discredit the protestors as proxies of the Congress. But Moody’s Analytics could not be dismissed as a Congress supporter, nor could the American press or the Reserve Bank of India Governor, or, for that matter, Arun Shourie, who has branded the NDA regime as “Congress plus cow”.

As evidence of the state’s divisive tolerance mounted, the BJP fell back on its strategy of last resort: make it all about Mr. Modi, the victim.

In a recent Facebook post that received extensive media coverage, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley launched a sharp counter-attack, asserting that “since 2002, the Prime Minister himself has been the worst victim of ideological intolerance”. This was such a surreal spin on reality, and on the very idea of intolerance, that even his opponents were left dumbstruck by its sheer audacity.

Indeed, its rhetorical cunning needs some unpacking.

First, Mr. Jaitley contorts the meaning of the term ‘intolerance’ to imply criticism, but it is much more than that — it is the curtailment of another’s right to political and social equality, and a violation of their freedom of belief and expression.

In other words, only those who wield power, such as the state, or those who enjoy the support of the state’s coercive apparatus, can exercise intolerance in a society governed by a state. Mr. Jaitley’s notion of “ideological intolerance”, therefore, makes no sense in this context. Or it makes as much sense as the slave’s intolerance of his master’s ideology.

In the present scenario, the real issue is not ‘societal intolerance’ — society does not change wholesale in 18 months — but state tolerance. It is not about ideology, but about this simple thing known as law and order, whose custodian is the state. In a functional state, intolerant, non-state actors cannot get away with perpetrating unlawful violence. It is only when the state tacitly empowers them by tolerating, and perhaps encouraging, them that they are able to exercise their intolerance to lethal effect.

Second, what also gives the lie to Mr. Jaitley’s assertion that the Prime Minister has been a victim is that he seems to have done rather well for a victim. A lot of people would love to be similarly victimised if only it would fetch them the most powerful post in the country.

Third, even if we take Mr. Jaitley’s claim literally, what exactly is the nature of the “ideological intolerance” that Mr. Modi has faced? To answer that question, we need to first state what his ideology is. It is now a truth universally acknowledged that Mr. Modi’s real ideology is, and always has been, development. Nothing but development. Is Mr. Jaitley suggesting that writers, filmmakers, and a visa-denying United States have all along been intolerant of Mr. Modi’s pro-development ideology? Well, yes, no, maybe.

This is why his mention of 2002 is a masterstroke. At one level, it’s just a number, denoting the year of commencement of Mr. Modi’s supposed victimisation. But at another level, it’s a dog-whistle aimed at those who admire him for whatever he did or did not do in 2002. The irony is that even as the Prime Minister’s supporters have wanted the nation to ‘move on’ from 2002, it is not a Teesta Setalvad or a Romila Thapar but supposedly the most liberal-minded minister of Mr. Modi’s Cabinet who is reminding us in 2015 of 2002.

For all we know, Mr. Jaitley’s ingenious claim about Mr. Modi being a victim of intolerance could well end up as a self-fulfilling prophecy, though not in the sense he intended. It is not the intolerance of his ideological opponents but that of his own party members and Parivar affiliates that could victimise Mr. Modi’s political future. The drubbing that the BJP received in the Bihar assembly polls is an unmistakable warning. The alienation of every entity that refuses to play ball with the Parivar’s agenda is bound to diminish, if not victimise, the office of the prime minister.

Protesting the protestors

Apart from the Modi-as-victim card, the other strategy to counter the protestors has been to paint them as a bunch of elitists who are crying wolf because they’ve been evicted from their cosy club of pelf and influence in Lutyens’ Delhi. Even if this is true, it does not detract from the fact that the illiberal brigade feeling emboldened under NDA rule is authentic and in earnest.

In fact, the real victims in all this are the Prime Minister’s media managers and their amplifiers in the press, who have struggled to provide answers to some straight questions: Is our Prime Minister a strong leader or a weak leader? Is he in control or is he not in control? Is he still for development or is he no longer for development?

If he is a strong leader who is in control and is for development, then he should be able to take a public stand against the Parivar elements sabotaging his development agenda with their divisive one. But if, as has been the case so far, he cannot open his mouth against them, then he is a weak leader who is not in control and doesn’t care for development. So which one is it? As Aristotle pointed out a long time ago, A cannot be ‘A’ and ‘not A’ at the same time. Clearly the Prime Minister’s spin doctors have tough times ahead.

Get this magazine (Current Public Administration) free if you purchase our any of the below courses:

Public Administration Online Coaching / Study Kit

<< Go Back to Main Page