Ghanshyam Shah, a 75-year-old retired professor of political science at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, is considered one of the leading political scientists on Gujarat. Born and raised in Baroda, he is the author of 15 books and a contributor of numerous articles to the Economic and Political Weekly. A few weeks before the Vibrant Gujarat Summit this month, Shah discusses with Zahir Janmohamed what has changed since Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s inauguration and where he sees Gujarat heading under its new Chief Minister Anandiben Patel.

When we last met in May, there was much excitement in Ahmedabad, even among some of Modi’s detractors, who said it is time to give him a chance. Young people spoke about Modi ushering in a new India.
I do not believe in this “new India”. What do we mean by it? A new India in the sense of re-enforcing the Hindutva forces? Perhaps. But not a new India in the sense of a better India. Liberals, naively, expected that Modi would take a stand on the lumpen elements in the BJP, the so-called fringe elements. He did not do this in Gujarat, except checking (Praveen) Togadia and, to some extent, not always following the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh in Gujarat.

Can you give me an example when Modi did not follow the RSS in Gujarat?
The English language curriculum. Modi introduced English from Class V and the RSS opposed this. He could oppose the RSS in Gujarat because he was confident about his popularity in the state. This is different at the national level.

That said, Modi did not stop the Vishva Hindu Parishad when it went after a fine arts student in Baroda in 2007. The student made some painting and the school organised a public exhibition. The VHP objected to one painting, which it considered insulting to a Hindu goddess. The dean tried to protect the student, but the VHP took the police and the police arrested the student. So the state arrested a student. This is the critical part – the VHP pushed the state to act. And it acted. The dean is suspended till today. There were protests, and yet Modi did nothing. He was silent.

So when people say that Modi has changed, or that he only espouses a soft form of Hindutva, what does this mean? Even the Congress is soft-Hindutva. And we have to ask: what do we mean by “soft” Hindutva?

Modi’s idea of India is still (Veer) Savarkar’s idea of India – that those people whose religion’s founders (Islam and Christianity) were from outside India are not Indian. Has Modi given up this idea?

But in the past few years, we have seen Modi tone down his rhetoric and many, like Professor Ashutosh Varshney, argue that Modi has moderated himself.
This is wishful thinking. At least 30% of Modi’s victory is because of the RSS or VHP. I am writing about this at present. People expect Modi to go after the lumpen elements in his party, but did he do this in Gujarat?

You mentioned the failure of liberals in India. Can you elaborate?
Sixty years from now, we will say that liberals failed to develop rational thinking in society. Liberals have reiterated the same idea of nationalism. We liberals have not interrogated the nature of nationalism.

We thought that once you have economic development, these forces will automatically be taken care of – caste, religion and others. The national pride we see in India is primarily caste pride or family pride. My nationalism, right or wrong – this was never interrogated by liberals, at least many of the liberals.

We have not generated a debate in society. We thought partition was a dark time and we tell ourselves we have recovered from it. But we never recovered from the partition. The BJP understands this.

In this way, the BJP has built this organisation brick by brick. Is there an organisation, a liberal group, that is building a movement like the BJP, that is creating a liberal idea of society at every level?

The Aam Aadmi Party claims it is building a movement.
(Laughs) It is just new people. They have not applied their mind to this idea of building a movement. They have the potential but the problem of a democratic society is that you have to fight elections. And then when you win, you have to make choices, you have to govern.

We liberals have to learn a lot from the BJP and RSS – their organisation, ideological clarity, commitment to working for a cause rather than political positions. The BJP connects with people at an emotional level because it is seen as a movement to transform society, not a party trying to win seats in an election.

The BJP and RSS have not built this over a few years – they have been building this since long. They have infiltrated trade unions, jails, schools. Look at how they made inroads into tribal communities.

Now we protest that the BJP is changing textbooks as if it is happening for the first time. The earlier National Democratic Alliance government changed textbooks, then the United Progressive Alliance made changes to those changes, and now we are going back.

Can you speak about education in Gujarat and efforts to change textbooks here.
In a way, saffronisation was there in Gujarat. I would say saffronisation is a difficult thing to talk about – because it happened before Modi or the BJP. Textbook writers earlier were not free from this idea of the nation – that India is a Hindu state, that there is a dominant culture. This idea had crept into textbooks.

For example, even in Gujarat’s so-called civil society, among literary people and others, there is a belief that “Ok, we Hindus are in majority”. They have internalised the idea that Muslims have harassed Hindus, that Muslims are more violent than others. It has come from their upbringing. The problem in Gujarat is, we do not have a tradition of critical analysis.

Why not?
Because the dominant culture in Gujarat is moneymaking.

Under Modi, do you expect the curriculum to change?
Yes, but not in the way the media reports it. The issue is how hyper-masculine, Hinduised ideas are a part of our culture and curriculum. This is not just about Modi. It has been happening for some time. The difference is that now people are in the open about it. We see people like Smiti Irani saying she wants Sanskrit in education.

But in Gujarat, no one wants to learn Sanskrit because you cannot make money learning Sanskrit. For that, people want English. Simple. Modi understood this. Modi never pushed Sanskrit in Gujarat.

What do you think of the performance of Chief Minister Anandiben Patel so far?
Well, I think she is following Modi’s line. I don’t know how much control she has on her administrators. Obviously, she may not have much power but all the programmes Modi started have continued under her. There are some interesting changes since she came to power. After Modi performed an aarti to the Ganga, every purnima (full moon), we have an aarti of the Sabarmati River. This is new.

Some of the critiques I hear of Patel in Gujarat are gendered. They suggest that as a woman, she cannot do anything.
Yes, it could be. People might be saying, “What can women do”? It is possible.

When we met earlier this year at a meeting of academics, I remember some discussed the climate of fear under Modi. Has this decreased in Gujarat since Modi moved to the Centre?
It is difficult to say. Climate of fear among whom? For the majority of people, there is no climate of fear because whatever they want to pursue, their interest is aligned with the Gujarat state.

Among Muslims, my sense is that a small section has compromised. My feeling is that after Muzaffarnagar, Muslims outwardly say that Modi will do something but inwardly they feel different. They still feel that insecurity.

As for my safety, I know people are watching me. I hear comments about my work and my criticisms of Modi. My friends abroad worry about me, especially the ones in Europe, because they have the experience of fascism, but I do not worry. 

Some people I have spoken to said that Gujarati culture has changed under Modi, that people have become more aggressive. Do you agree?
No, I do not think so. This is a larger trend across India. Basically, the dominant culture has penetrated with the advent of the liberal economic culture. In the past, the elite and the dominant culture were indifferent to the poor. This is still true and it has nothing to do with Modi. It is the nature of elites. I would say that a small section was aggressive in the past also.

Today, the lumpen element continues to behave this way. They might have increased, but Modi is only one factor. Perhaps they might feel more assured now because they believe the state is protecting them.

But the nature of the economy and its changes is not peculiar to Gujarat. It is also happening elsewhere in the world. Today more and more people in the world can say: I am born but I do not know how I will earn my income. This is true in the US, with its widening inequality, and it is also true in India.

As Gujarat faces Municipal elections in October 2015, what do you project will happen?
I think the BJP will perform okay, but that is less about the BJP than about the Congress’s failure. Most political leaders just want to win elections. But the Congress has lost its will to win elections, or so it appears.

And I do not believe that the Congress party in Gujarat believes in secularism. They maintain the dominant position here that the Hindu is superior, they believe that Muslims have harassed Hindus. We should note that some Congress politicians were also partisans in the 2002 riots. So, the Congress has not shown itself to be different than the BJP. I think it is incorrect to say that only the BJP is communal.

As for the AAP, I do not see it making an impact in Gujarat, at least so far.

The question is: for those on the fringe who are sceptical of Modi, those who voted for him but are now having doubts – will they speak out? It is doubtful because when I hear people criticise Modi in Gujarat, it is almost always followed with: bechari, kya kar rahen (poor guy, what will he do)?

As someone who has studied Gujarat for decades, how has this state changed?
Earlier, the economic aspirations to move up in Gujarat were held by a few belonging to the dominant strata but now it is widespread. That is a good sign. There is also more democratisation in society, more social groups. More groups have come to power – it not just a state of Brahmins and Banias. Patidars have come, other backward classes have come. In fact, OBCs came before Modi – from 1976 onwards.

One critical difference is that Gujarat is not just run by a small group of elites of upper castes anymore. In the past, it was ruled by a small group but this small group believed in the “public good”. Today, civic sense is declining, even though more participate in politics in Gujarat.

Also, the culture of dissent has diminished. For example, in 1985, I was one of the editors of a journal and we published an article that was critical of the Swaminarayans. The Gujarat court issued a non-bailable warrant against me and others. At that time, all the major regional newspapers wrote editorials criticising the government and supporting us. Now I cannot think that this support is possible. Today, the space to disagree in Gujarat is almost gone.