Saturday, September 14, 2013

Having My Say. Asking my Questions. Same Difference.

What's that quip about how opinions are like _________, every one's got them? 

Well, it's Narendra Modi, and the Prime Ministerial race, and the political discourse in this country, so I feel entitled. 

In response to all the questions about how I feel about Narendra Modi as a Gujarati, I would have to say......I don't. Really. I believe that reducing Modi to a Gujarat phenomenon is a cop-out. The truth is that Modi could have emerged from a number of states in this country. The question that needs to be asked is what it is about our culture, society and politics that makes him legitimate and likeable. Of course there is something to be said for context, for the fact that Modi's won consecutive elections from Gujarat. But to limit the conversation around Modi to Gujarat, as some commentators and analysts do, is to claim a false distance from the possibility - and truth - that prejudice and discrimination manifest almost everywhere in India, every day. These instances are just not on the radar quite as persistently. 

Modi's success and his growing personality cult parallel the rise of a certain rhetoric of growth and prosperity in India, and the crystallization of the idea that quality of life can be measured in very specific ways - roads, public transport, industrial investment. These things are important - but the reason they dominate our popular notions of development so disproportionately is because there's a large number of Indians who believe that they need to make a choice between populism and effective government. They're interested in the idea of secularism and collective progress only tangentially, because no one - no political party, and almost no mainstream media outlet - is creating dialogue around equitable growth and what it means for us all as a people and a country. Social welfare and justice are not constructs that come fully formed from some mysterious ether. Some one needs to take responsibility to explain why they matter, and to frame the smaller pictures we're so fond of as an electorate in terms of a larger vision or idea. Otherwise, why be surprised if this purported 'big picture' lacks takers? 

In any case, it's hard to dispute that Narendra Modi's been able to use this seeming scarcity of political choice to his advantage. The fact that he is able to set the terms by which other parties and their policies are judged is largely due to a massive failure of imagination on the part of the Congress. India's G.O.P. still has a year to re-present the issues, but will it demonstrate the intent and the initiative? 

One more thing. I read an incredibly silly column in the Mumbai Mirror today about how Indian Americans worry about 'explaining' Modi's rise to power to their friends in the US, given the State Department's refusal to issue him a visa. I'm confounded that this is a talking point that merits actual inches in newsprint. Choices about whether or not Modi should run India should be based on what people think he can or can't do for this country, here. Why do we believe that our leaders need endorsement from institutions abroad? Why this continuing preoccupation with how we 'look' to others, instead of how we see ourselves? 

That being said, I have no idea about which way the winds will blow. I am prepared to be surprised either - and every - way. 

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