Modi & India: 2024 and the Battle for Bharat. Rahul Shivshankar and Siddhartha Talya. Penguin. 2023. Price Rs 699. Pages 231, excluding notes.
Few journalists are as eminently qualified to give us a panoramic view of Bharat under Narendra Modi’s ministrations than Rahul Shivshankar, a prime-time TV news anchor whose career began well before 2014.
Even if you are not particularly addicted to watching these, often toxic, prime-time debates, the anchors at the centre of this verbal scrimmage get more opportunities than most of us to not only record what politicians and other guests formally say on camera, but what they may quietly agree with behind-the-scenes.
For those who would like to know what is happening in Modi’s India, both above the surface and below it, there is no better place than Shivshankar’s book, Modi & India: 2024 and the Battle for Bharat, co-authored with Siddhartha Talya, who is also a Delhi-based news anchor.
As the title suggests, the 2024 Lok Sabha election is central to understanding the stakes Modi has built up over the last decade of his premiership in reshaping India.
If Modi wins convincingly, it would be a fair bet that the changes, both in nuance and substance, will endure. India will be on course to remake itself as Bharat, the second republic, one built on connectedness with its 5,000-year civilisational heritage.
The book begins with a discussion on two sweeping changes that Modi and his Home Minister, Amit Shah, brought about soon after winning the 2019 elections with an improved majority.
One relates to the decision to nullify article 370, which gave Jammu and Kashmir a special status, and the other to the Citizenship Amendment Act, 2019 (CAA), which fast-tracked citizenship to persecuted minorities in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Afghanistan, who are primarily Hindus or Sikhs.
While the article 370 nullification was recently upheld by the Supreme Court, CAA has been left in limbo due to the BJP’s needless political rhetoric. Among other things, the CAA was said to be a precursor to a National Register of Citizens (NRC), an exercise to weed out illegal immigrants.
This political mix-up enabled Muslims and the Left-liberal lobby to strenuously oppose the CAA itself, making the act ineffective in practice. As one writes, rules under the law are yet to be framed four years after being legislated.
While the authors fully support the article 370 decision, they seem conflicted on the purpose of the CAA, since it excludes other minorities like the Ahmaddiyas, who are persecuted in Pakistan as a non-Muslim minority.
I do not agree with this suggestion, for Ahmaddiyas were also at the forefront of partition, and their problems relate to persecution within the context of an Islamist nation. Ahmaddiya can be Islamists too, and it cannot be India’s job to help them, given their ideological predilections.
India’s job is to help those minorities left behind after partition, and not those who opted for it. No country is obliged to take on all persecuted people from everywhere, except temporarily. We can see how the acceptance of huge numbers of west Asian and African refugees has created huge social turmoil and violence in Europe.
Countries have the right to choose who they will give refuge to, especially if the ideological or religious convictions of those seeking refuge can pose problems for the host nation. No nation should be forced to invite trouble for itself by being ultra-liberal.
The book explores what has changed during the Modi years in terms of India’s re-embrace of its civilisational roots. It clearly disagrees with the Left-liberal view that India became “secular” and democratic only under the Nehru dispensation.
Rather, in the process of embracing secularism, what we finally got was a country where the minorities enjoyed special privileges that the majority community didn’t, and the pursuit of minority vote banks ultimately ended up giving Hindus a bad deal in Bharat.
The book, which is divided into 10 chapters apart from an introduction and a conclusion, traces the gradual conversion of India into Bharat under Modi, both in terms of terminological usage and in substantive terms.
The authors also suggest that while Modi, and even the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, may be moving towards moderation in emphasising the Hindu cause and gradually reaching out to the minorities, especially backward Muslims (Pasmandas), some fringe Hindu elements may be out to sabotage it.
In another chapter, “Imagining a Hindu Rashtra”, the authors examine the various definitions of Hindu Rashtra, from Veer Savarkar’s idea of Hindutva, to Guru M S Golwalkar’s to the RSS’s and the BJP’s own watered down version of it. They conclude that, far from the extreme fears expressed in some quarters, that the BJP is taking India towards a more militant Hindu state, the push is actually towards a civilisationally-rooted “harder secularism” where no community is given special privileges.
This conclusion follows from an earlier analysis in the book, where two chapters, “They took the Hindu out of the Indian”, and “A discriminatory secularism”, examine how Indian secularism was perverted by making it anti-Hindu and minoritarian. Hindu Rashtra is thus a corrective to the anti-Hindu nature of Indian secularism.
The authors conclude that despite the rhetoric surrounding the term Hindu Rashtra, the very fact that India and Hindus believe in the idea of Dharma, righteous conduct and balance, implies that it would not be discriminatory. No civilisation that talks of Vasudhaiva kutumbakam (the world is one family), or Ekam Sat, Viprah Bahuda Vadanti (The Truth is one, the Wise speak of it in different ways).
However, the question that the authors do not engage with is this one: can Hindus, who were never created top down or given a set of final commandments or fundamentals to follow, defend their collective interests without the support of a state that bats on their behalf? Can excess diversity result in disunity rather than pluralism?
I believe that every civilisation or religious community must have a guarantor state, and for Hindus that state is India. That is the underlying logic of Hindu Rashtra, not the creation of a theocratic state.
There are more than a hundred Christian states and more than 50 Islamic ones, many of them theocratic in nature. They can speak up for Christian and Muslim rights if they are violated in India. Hindus (a term which includes Sikhs, Jains and Buddhists) can surely have at least one state that speaks up for their rights, both inside and outside India?
Despite this quibble, I strongly recommend this book as a good way to understand Modi’s India and the transition of India to Bharat in stages. To continue this transition, the 2024 elections may prove to be decisive.
Jagannathan is Editorial Director, Swarajya. He tweets at @TheJaggi.
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