This is the second article in a series of articles pertaining to Ravi Kiran’s posts on his blog “Ravithinks”. In this article, I address Kiran’s views on the then-Prime Ministerial candidate, and now Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, as expressed in Kiran’s article entitled “Modi-My Observations”, which was published on the 9th of February 2013.
1. ELECTIONEERING AND POLITICAL DISCOURSE
Kiran claims, without providing any verifiable evidence (a common pattern in Kiran’s writings), that Indian “political parties’ campaign” slogans have solely been promising to “give” people “free rice”, “free power”, etc, in an attempt to win cheap votes. This is not only dishonest, as the parties will likely not follow through with those promises, but in Kiran’s mind it will also bring the country down on principle, regardless of whether the promises are fulfilled. This is because those who have not ‘earned it’ do not deserve such gifts to sustain their livelihoods (more on which below). It is unclear if Kiran is referring exclusively to the campaigns of the two major political blocks in India, or if he really thinks that this is the most substantial thing that any and all of the national political parties in India have to contribute. Kiran does not care to elaborate on why or how he decided on this sweeping disparaging statement. But let us give him the benefit of the doubt. The real question is, with these apparently disappointing performances in mind, can we then say that Modi offers something substantially different, despite belonging to the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) (one of the two major national political parties in India)? Common sense would indicate not, as we shall see.
Kiran happily describes how, “[f]or the first time in Narendra Modi [he has] seen someone talk consistently about creating wealth, governance and development” (my emphasis), and that Modi’s “speech on hope, that [current] trends can be reversed, felt like music to [his] ears”. There are two things to note here.
Firstly, though it may well be the first time that he, Kiran, has heard this sort of talk from a politician, I seriously doubt whether that applies for the vast majority of his fellow Indians. For example, those listening to a speech given by Modi’s opponent Rahul Gandhi could surely have alerted Kiran to the gapingly obvious—namely, that mere talk of “creating wealth”, “governance”, and “development”, is quite commonplace.
Secondly, Kiran waxes rhapsodic about the “music[al]” message of “hope” that this Pied Piper candidate offers him. Kiran does not appear to appreciate the elementary idea that all political talk is cheap unless supported by long-term actions, and Kiran does not care to present any evidence of such actions. Sure, Modi may be more “consisten[t]” (my emphasis) in his cheap talk than are other political figures, but it is still cheap talk. Modi’s team of pollsters tell him what his audience on any given day most likely wants to hear, and he says what he must say to win over the crowd. He gives a tailored message that will reap the desired benefit for his campaign. It does not mean that he believes a word that he says, and it certainly does not mean that he will do what he promises to do. Modi, like virtually all other politicians, is only interested in courting public opinion insofar as it will get him into office. This most basic of observations seems to entirely escape Kiran, even as he uses the very words “change the political discourse” to extol Modi’s achievements—everything is kept just at the level of discourse and rhetoric, because the public must be kept at arm’s length from any real involvement in the political sphere.
This practice on the part of political figures is not without precedent. Over and over again in history, we see the electorate invited to hypnotise themselves by following the political pendulum as it swings from the new, brave, creative, dynamic politician seeking to change everything, to modernise, to liberalise, etc on one side, to the traditionalist, conservative, restrained politician who wants to stop, think, and get back to our core values, and who scoffs at the utopian dreams of the liberal, on the other side. But the joke is on the electorate—one probably could not slide even a piece of paper into the gap between the actual policies of these two candidates. It is a drama, it is theatre written and performed to give the electorate the illusion of choice, or even better, to create a sense of disillusionment with politics among the frustrated public so that they forget about voting and leave the society to be run by the elites as they see fit. The challenge would to find any examples that do not follow this pattern in liberal democracies. Politics is about power, and serving power, and we the voters are supposed to applaud at the person who can arrange for the most crumbs to fall down to the lower classes.
Kiran continues to baffle when he says, “[Chandrababu] Naidu [is] second only to Modi [in Kiran’s esteem] for the simple reason that [the] latter knew how to face an election better”, yet still does not seem to consider the obvious possibility that he himself has been taken in by the superior electioneering strategies of Modi. “[F]ac[ing] an election” has become a science. It is not about the people, it is about their votes, about gerrymandering. It is about managing public expectations, not actually responding to them in any genuine fashion. What does it mean to “face an election better”? Nothing more than being able to lie well, avoid gaffs, and look more presentable and likeable than the opponent in what is essentially a public relations campaign. Why is this true? Well for an answer to that, one has to look at the source of funding for Modi’s meteoric rise. Once again, it should hardly be necessary to note that Modi’s primary loyalty will be to these funders and to the political class and intellegentsia that defend him.
With the aim of demonstrating how baseless and cynical the media spotlight on Modi is in his mind, Kiran gives the example of a journalist, “Barkha Dutt”, who apparently avoided asking Modi a question on substantive topics such as “development” and “infrastructure” (presumably because Modi is proud of his record therein), and instead sought to probe Modi about “seat allotment” and “inclusive politics” in his state. Holding up this lone example as his banner, Kiran proclaims that this type of journalistic thinking is the “defining” character of Indian politics, which has “destroyed this country for years now”. Kiran laments how people like Dutt, the “so called best minds in the country”, can be so superficial with their questioning.
This is a microcosm of Kiran’s bizarre style of argumentation in general: poor substantiation, confusing jumps in logic, and no clear thought pattern. I believe that he relies too heavily on this one example, and since he does not even source it properly, we cannot go back and check if what he claims about Dutt’s journalism is true.
Kiran pushes forcefully the idea that Gujurat is a state that has undergone (at the very least) satisfactory development under Modi, he presents no evidence for this, but that is another matter. Let us suppose it to be true. If it is true, surely one could make the argument that the press, whose job is to monitor power and offer constructive criticisms thereof, should not question Modi purely on such terms as would be uniquely favourable to him. The successes of Modi’s administration can surely be trumpeted by his own party propaganda channels. A cantankerous and obstinate press should take politicians where they do not want to go, into areas where they have not performed well, precisely because those are the topics on which public awareness is lacking, since they will likely will not be covered at all, or at least not in any real depth, by Modi’s propaganda channels. This is not to demonise Modi or his team, they are just doing their job. Their job is to run an effective public relations campaign. We can certainly criticise the system that gives rise to such spectacles and calls them democratic elections, but that is a separate matter.
Returning to Kiran’s disgust at Dutt’s questioning, Kiran does not even care to mention what Modi’s answer to that question was! Tokenism or no, the public, the press, want an answer about seat allotment. That is in the public interest as far as Modi is concerned, and he should answer the question. Kiran should present that answer to us, and then we can judge him, and the journalist’s approach, subsequently. It seems that such trivial details do not figure in Kiran’s reckoning.
Again we see the irony of Kiran complaining in such a grandstanding manner about tokenism, without considering the possibility that he himself might also have been taken in by the token slogans and appeals to “hope” and “change” that Modi dishes out on demand in his speeches.
Kiran bewails the “trend” of “[p]romoting tokenism in the name of inclusive politics” “that is catching” on quickly in India. It is not clear whether Kiran would take the quite indefensible and vigorously undemocratic stand against inclusive politics per se. I assume instead that he disapproves of policies that declare themselves to be inclusive, but actually have ulterior motives. Unfortunately, Kiran is neither clear about what exactly these nefarious policies are, nor does he care to mention any alternatives that he thinks may promote truly inclusive politics without being “tokenis[tic]”.
Kiran has mentioned elsewhere that he is a supporter of Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy. It naturally follows that Kiran would expect Modi to maximise his own individual advancement at all costs. Indeed, the more Modi neglects the public and carries on in a selfish manner, the more Kiran should respect him. Because after all, it is every man for himself in this world. Given where the real power lies, not just in India, but in any nation state (i.e. in the concentrations of elite wealth and privilege), Modi, and indeed any other politician who wants to ‘make it big’, should be orientating themselves in that direction. To serve those elites. That is who the much-ballyhooed “development” is for, that is for whom the “creating” is done (my emphases).
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2. MUSLIM-HINDU TENSIONS
Switching the focus to the 2002 riots in Gujurat, Kiran opens his remarks on this issue by stating “frank[ly]” that he “know[s] nothing about what exactly happened”, but this does not stop him from trying to make some general comments around the issue.
He claims that “[t]o Modi’s credit, there hasn’t been a single [similar] disturbance in Gujurat ever since 2002″. Kiran seems to be misinformed about this. In 2008, 56 people were killed and 200 injured in bomb blasts that hit Ahmedabad, orchestrated by the Islamic group Harkat-ul-Jihad-al-Islami.
Moving on, Kiran opines that the “media neither reports [on disturbances in states other than Gujurat] nor makes any leader responsible for [those disturbances]”. Again, this seems to be a questionable statement, and again based on literally zero evidence. It is straightforward to gainsay Kiran’s thesis. For instance, The Times of India has a whole section of their website dedicated to the topic of “Hyderabad Communal Violence”. Hyderabad is not in Gujurat, but in the state of Telangana.
As for Kiran’s belief that Modi is targeted unfairly in comparison to other leaders, unsurprisingly we find no evidence presented in support. In my opinion, even if what Kiran says is true, there may well be a good reason for such a focus on Modi. Kiran would be well advised to see if these other leaders presiding over regions containing communal violence, offer such bizarre and irresponsible remarks regarding those outbreaks of violence as Modi has done.
In addition, we see that Modi’s political allies, such as Amit Shah, make inflammatory speeches intended to stoke religious tensions, without arousing any concern or denunciation from Modi. The New York Times explains this in the context of a speech given by Shah:
“‘This is the time to avenge,’ Mr. Shah [said]. ‘A man can sleep hungry but not humiliated. This is the time to take revenge by voting for Modi.’
Mr. Shah’s speech, which was videotaped and leaked to the media, confirmed what most political observers already knew: Even as Mr. Modi avoids religious rhetoric in his speeches and seeks a mandate on promises of an economic resurgence, his party’s foot soldiers are encouraged to mobilize along religious lines in the politically critical state of Uttar Pradesh, which sends 80 members to India’s lower house of Parliament, more than any other state.” (my emphasis)
Ultimately, whether Modi is unfairly targeted by the media, and whether he has made mistakes, are quite separate issues. Even if Kiran demonstrates that Modi is being overly targeted by the media (which he has not at all done), that does not mean that the criticisms the media make of Modi are wrong. It is a quite desperate defence to say that other states’ political figures are just as bad. It is obvious that such a tactic does not begin to absolve Modi of blame.
Eventually, Kiran settles for the argument that, well, Modi is prepared to face the consequences of his actions: “like [Modi] himself says” we should “hang him if found guilty”. Brigadier-General Dyer presumably would have shared that view after the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This illustrates the narrow field of view through which Kiran appears to have considered this topic. This is not about liberals, or Muslims, ganging up and exacting revenge on Modi. Of course Modi should face punishment if found guilty, but his reiterating that truism does not make him a saint—he has no choice in the matter. Whether he accepts it magnanimously or not is of no relevance. What Modi does have a choice in though, is how he tries to make amends. Hanging an unrepentant and ignorant Modi will not heal the religious wounds that he helped inflict, any more than hanging Dyer would have healed wounds after the massacre he supervised.
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3. PUBLIC “LEADERS” OR PUBLIC SERVANTS?
In Kiran’s view, a “leader’s job is to create a conducive environment” for “individuals” to “grow”, “depending upon their ability and passion to take up the challenge.” This sounds less like a political figure in a democracy, and more like a parent, or boss/project leader in a corporate environment. Kiran appears to be very fond of using vague, recycled phrases such as “grow” and “conducive environment”, so yet again his presentation of ideas requires some unpacking.
First of all, I do agree in general terms that a community can benefit from a leader or leaders. These are often elders, or generally those with relative comfort and privilege such that they can lift their heads somewhat and consider the long-term, broad needs of others, instead of having to work tirelessly themselves just to put food on the table. Their experience of the lessons of history can then be passed on to other members of that community so as to try and ensure continual progress and prevent hope from lapsing in times of particular difficulty. Such leaders can also connect with other communities near and far to share and learn from stories of success and failure in building a just society. However, I do not believe that this description, which applies perfectly well for leaders in a family or local grassroots community context, can work for a national context with the political realities we face today. The further up the ladder one goes in politics today, the more divorced one is from the ability to directly address the needs of the community in which one lives, or indeed the tailored needs of any single community. This then necessitates a broad brush approach to governance which runs a greater risk of failure and cutting corners. So even at the theoretical level, being most sympathetic to the leader in question, there are intrinsic difficulties that arise. To this picture, we must then add the corrupting financial influence of elite elements in an unequal society, such as we see all around us today. Putting aside obvious restrictions such as their mortality, individuals will always be vulnerable to basic pitfalls such as ideological fluctuations, institutional/career constrains, threats, bribery, and human error. Insofar as politics can be made more exclusive, with more voices involved in the communal discussion, more shoulders to bear the responsibility for success and failure, and more constructive critical exchanges between community members, these pitfalls can be avoided. There is nothing new or complicated in this very basic outline of the problems all societies face, yet Kiran seems quite oblivious of the need to address these issues when he talks about social progress.
Incidentally, note that the state welfare system of which Kiran so disapproves would enable there to be more educated and informed voices of leadership and thus a more inclusive debate about the decisions a community would have to make. This again reduces the reliance on those one or two ‘special’ personalities to have to rise up and take command, thereby avoiding the pitfalls already noted.
I personally would propose a different definition of a “leader” in a stable democracy, namely nothing more than a public servant. This would be someone who faithfully and consistently carries out the will of the public as represented in polling data, as well as in policy assessments and other forms of critical input by representatives of grassroots organisations.
Kiran places prime importance on the “judgement” of leaders. He proposes that, since the “people elect[ed]” Modi, they “value” his ability to “take decisions” and that Modi is “exercising that authority in the best possible manner”. This is a bafflingly premature conclusion to reach, considering Kiran’s earlier concession that he himself “know[s] nothing about exactly what happened” in Gujurat in 2002 during the anti-Muslim riots. This is such an important issue in Modi’s political career that Kiran himself says “[n]o discussion on Modi is complete without discussing [the] 2002 riots”. Yet, without informing himself fully on “what happened” there, or without even reserving judgement until all the relevant facts are known, Kiran feels content to assume that Modi must have acted “in the best possible manner”. Kiran should be wary of the strong tendency of bias towards Modi that he seems to exhibit in this instance.
Secondly, what does Kiran mean when he says leaders should induce “grow[th]”? Is it economic growth? Is it personal growth? Why is growth important? What about stable living and providing for one’s family? What about the basic amenities of life? These do not figure at all in Kiran’s idealistic, high-octane, technological wonderland of a society where individuals are pitted against each other to demonstrate their “ability and passion” to the “leader”, so that the “leader” alone may judge who is worthy enough to receive subsequent state assistance (garnered from the unsuspecting public’s taxes) for their life goals.
Perhaps Kiran would argue that his favoured leaders will take care of the general public, but in an indirect manner. “[W]hen you create wealth”, he tells us, “it eventually trickles down to the poor and they get better . . . [the t]rickle down effect takes time”. Perhaps Modi’s strategy is, and should be, to inspire and motivate the high achievers in the country, so that they may raise India up to such heights as an economic and technological power that inevitably the unwashed masses will be able to glean some benefit by hanging onto the coat-tails of the rich and intelligent ones.
Yet again, Kiran exhibits a shocking indifference to actual data on this subject, and instead relies purely on his own ability to conjure up fairy tales about how the world works. Just to take the most obvious example, and one dear to Kiran’s heart, the poor in the US are most certainly not becoming better off with greater incentives and support given to the rich in that country. The so-called free market is doing nothing good for them. Inequality is widening. Increasing numbers of the US population are realising what seems to have completely eluded Kiran—class is the determining factor in socioeconomic justice. In India as well as in the US, the interests of the higher and lower classes are fundamentally opposed, and the capitalist system has made it that way. One group cannot progress, and fulfil its self-defined ambitions, without stamping on the throats of the other group and crushing their ambitions. Modi, like Barack Obama, was elected due to the influence of centres of domestic power and privilege, and they will serve the interests of those power centres during their time in office.
It is interesting how, for someone who by his own admission apparently believes in an “each man for himself”, “selfish” world view, Kiran does feel the need to defend “[t]rickle down” economics. Why should this be? Surely Kiran should never wish for anything to “[t]rickle down”. Even a tiny drop falling to the lower elements in society is an abhorrent thing, because they have not ‘earned it’. I feel this seeming contradiction can be explained by realising that deep down, even Kiran knows that objectivism, and Randian approaches to building a society, are completely wrong and immoral. Try as he might, Kiran cannot bring himself to say (at least in any consistent manner) that those who can scrap the hardest for the piece of bread must live, and everyone else can starve to death while he applauds Randian objectivism in action. If he wants to hold this (in my opinion) disgusting world view, that is fine. But what is even more disgusting, as I see it, is holding that world view while simultaneously proposing “[t]rickle down” economic benefits and future social welfare gains. One should drop such pretences. Kiran would seem to be an out-and-out objectivist fanatic, and deeply opposed to democracy and social justice. His preferred law is the law of the jungle, and I believe that he should be honest and consistent about it.
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4. POLITICAL DECISION-MAKING
Kiran offers the following argument in defence of Modi:
Today, in the name of consensus building, if you take years to [m]ake a decision, it is seen as a sign of flourishing democracy and any quick decision is seen as dictatorial. Suddenly the word ‘dictator’ doesn’t seem to be such a bad thing.
Who sees it as a “flourishing sign”? Can Kiran provide any concrete examples of this?
Since Kiran would seem to be allergic to real-world examples, favouring instead the tactic of clinging to hypothetical scenarios, perhaps we should oblige him.
A more likely scenario might be that the decisions taken in the current political climate are so hideously skewed to favour the elites that progressive activists may well be looking, as a compromise position forming the lesser of two evils, to lend an ear to political figures who at least deliberate somewhat, who take in alternative views and outside voices to whatever minimal extent, before making their decision. This deliberation on the part of big politicians gives a window of opportunity for other views to come to the fore and perhaps exert some influence in an arena otherwise exclusively dominated by corporate-interest lobbies. Thus, the pertinent point is not whether a politician “take[s] years” or takes seconds to decide on an issue, rather, it is the extent to which their eventual actions follow the interests of the mass of people.
Furthermore, it is probably not even the “quick[ness]” of the decision about which Kiran’s imaginary progressives complain, rather, it may be the secrecy with which the deliberations are done, and the extent to which they are beyond the reach of public scrutiny and independent criticism, as is the case with real-world progressives.
But returning to Kiran’s actual argumentation, he does not provide us with any evidence for the existence of these reflexively disparaging progressive commentators that need to be castigated for blindly wishing for deliberation and slow decision-making for their own sakes. There is no need to take Kiran seriously on this point, and on many others.
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 Stone, C., Trisi, D., Sherman, A., & Chen, W. A Guide to Historical Trends in Income Inequality. Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. [Online] 2014. Available from: http://www.cbpp.org/files/11-28-11pov.pdf [Accessed 24th July 2014].
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