Counterview: By voting for Modi, did Gurcharan Das place economics over the values of humanity?

In Sunday’s column in The Times of India, the commentator explains his moral dilemma in picking the right prime minister in 2014.

It was perhaps an unintended irony that The Times of India published commentator Gurcharan Das’ June 4 column under the title Men & Morals. This is because his article, “Was voting for the BJP a risk worth taking? Three years on, jury’s out”, offers to us the slate of moral values he holds dear, and then explains to us readers the logic behind his preference for one value over other competing ones.

In the process of explaining his choice, Das hollows out morality from his logic.

From the article, it would seem that the grand old intellectual of the corporate world, with a degree in philosophy from Harvard University, has been beset with pangs of guilt for voting Narendra Modi in the 2014 general elections. It was as if through his article Das was verbalising the arguments he has been citing to counter the relentless murmuring of his conscience.

Disturbingly for all of us, given Das’ stature, he not only silences his conscience but, alarmingly, pledges to make the same choice that lies at the roots of his ostensible internal conflict.

Das opens his piece with a confession, that in 2014 he took a “risk and voted for” the Bharatiya Janata Party for the “first time”. He provides us with the context in which he took this risk – that he was acutely aware of India having a narrow window of opportunity, at best a “dozen or so years”, to cash in on the demographic dividend. Thereafter, India would begin to age and forfeit its chance of redemption, he argues.

In these 12 years, it is imperative to make crores of Indians prosperous and turn India into a middle-class country. To achieve this, it was, therefore, vital to choose the right prime minister in 2014. Modi fit the bill, Das thought.

He came to this conclusion despite being aware of the risks Modi posed. What were these risks? Das spells out: “Modi was polarising, sectarian and authoritarian”. But he brushed aside these risks because he thought “not voting for him” was an even greater risk.

And, pray, why? “If India failed to create enough jobs, we would sacrifice another generation,” Das writes. Those who might pick on Das’ use of the word sacrifice are likely to be dubbed petty. But, really, sacrifice does have a wide range of connotations, including death and extermination. Not to create jobs, in his mind, is akin to killing people, albeit slowly.

The killings in Gujarat during the 2002 communal riots are widely recognised as a state pogrom. (Credit: Sebastian D'Souza / AFP)
The killings in Gujarat during the 2002 communal riots are widely recognised as a state pogrom. (Credit: Sebastian D'Souza / AFP)

Gujarat riots and job creation

It is perhaps this meaning that underlies his word choice. For, a sentence later, Das recalls the Gujarat riots of 2002. He writes, “I did not absolve Modi of the communal stain of 2002 but I argued that job creation was as great a moral imperative as secularism.”

Subtly then, a moral equivalence between communal killings and a possible sacrificing of another generation, because of paucity of jobs, has been established. Both are terrible moral choices, both ought to be shunned.

Nevertheless, pressing Nota (none of the above) on the electronic voting machine could not have been an option in 2014 – it might have kept out Modi, who had the “communal stain of 2002”, but who was the only one around to have both the vision and drive to turn India into a middle-class country.

Thus, in 2014, Das’ debate with his self was decided in favour of Modi.

It is indeed a leap of moral imagination to establish equivalence between the Gujarat riots and the imperative of creating new jobs. The killings in Gujarat – over 1,000 people died in communal violence triggered by the death of 57 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire at Godhra railway station – are widely recognised as a state pogrom, as is the slaughter of Sikhs in 1984, in the wake of Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh bodyguards.

Through its inaction, the Gujarat administration, presided over by Modi who was then the chief minister, allowed the communal conflagration to rage unabated. It was not a sudden outburst of atavistic passion. It was pre-planned, evident from the arms the assailants possessed and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of combustible fuel that was used to burn the dead and their properties.

Nor was it that Modi apologised for his administration’s failure. If anything, he exploited the communal polarisation to garner votes in two successive state Assembly elections, eschewing this electoral strategy only after he discovered the mantra of development to build a persona that has swept people like Das off their feet.

The Gujarat riots of 2002 have been reprised here to ask the fundamental question: can the complicity of a government in the killings of those whom it is expected to protect be compared to its failure or inaction in creating jobs?

Gujarat was not just about Das’ imperative of secularism; it was about the state being just and impartial. The “stain of Gujarat” was about the state tacitly encouraging people to turn into insensate brutes.

Drawing a line on communal incidents

Gujarat apart, Modi is not the first Indian prime minister to hold out the promise of job creation. The phenomenal expansion of the middle class in India dates to the advent of liberalisation in 1991. No doubt, Das, like all of us, wants India to build upon it.

However, on the score of creating jobs, Das is deeply disappointed with Modi. But he gives the prime minister a vote of approval because of indices such as low inflation, a growth rate of 7%, surplus electricity production, of India being the highest recipient of foreign direct investment in the world, and the introduction of the Goods and Services Tax.

It is then he takes to assessing the risks he took in voting for Modi in 2014. His slate of moral values is deftly turned into, to use his own words, a “balance sheet”.

Like a smart chartered accountant, Das manipulates the debit (risk) column of Modi’s balance sheet to spruce up his performance.

For instance, Das says, “So far, no communal incident has gone out of hand.” Well, to begin with, it is the Sangh Parivar that has manufactured most of these communal incidents, whether over cow protection, love jihad, ghar wapsi, or even a road accident.

If these incidents have not gone out of hand, it is because the Sangh Parivar has not allowed it to. This is not because it has understood the values of communal harmony, but because letting an incident go “out of hand” is not to its electoral advantage.

Ever since the people recoiled from the Gujarat riots to vote out the Atal Behari Vajpayee government in 2004, the Sangh has realised the value of low-intensity communal polarisation, often in places outside the media spotlight. A fraught communitarian relationship in perpetuity is a better bet to ensure that people do not have moral qualms about voting for the BJP.

The superiority of this strategy is palpable even in Das’ position in his piece – his moral certitude will not be shaken unless a communal incident goes out of hand to become a full-blown riot.

Till then, even the lynching of cattle traders is par for the course. Das clubs them as a “sectarian event”. As he writes, “Not a week goes by without a sectarian event, which must be a huge distraction to a government committed to vikas.”

It seems he does not find lynching morally repugnant for its brutality, because it is so unconscionable. The lynching, that weekly sectarian event, is a problem because it distracts the government from bringing to reality the economic dream it promised in 2014.

In quite the same vein, he asserts that the “new animal cruelty rules do not ban cow slaughter”, but decries them for the economic losses they will inflict. In Das’ view, the morality of all actions must be judged on the basis of whether or not it yields economic benefits. As far as killings go, aren’t people dying, anyway, in a country of a billion-plus every day?

Communal incidents continue, whether over cow protection, love jihad, ghar wapsi or even a road accident. (Credit: PTI)
Communal incidents continue, whether over cow protection, love jihad, ghar wapsi or even a road accident. (Credit: PTI)

Moral dilemma

Das goes on to offer gratuitous advice to Modi, telling him he has a chance of going down in history as a “great leader”… “if he controls extremists in his party, and acts quickly and decisively at the first smell of a communal incident”.

This is an extraordinary demand to make on a man who, in February during the Uttar Pradesh election campaign, dissed the political parties that he falsely complained were favouring the people who bury their dead in a qabristan (graveyard) over those who burn them at the shamshan ghat (cremation ground).

Das writes that cow vigilantism “goes against the Hindutva ideology and is very damaging to Modi’s reputation”. He will render tremendous service to secular fundamentalists, as also to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, if he could explain in his column his understanding of Hindutva, and why cow vigilantism contradicts that ideology.

In the end, the presumed murmuring of Das’ conscience is silenced as he declares that “there is no alternative” to Modi. But he would prefer that the “TINA factor” not be the reason for his choice in 2019, the year in which the next Lok Sabha elections are due. As far as Das goes, that can only happen if Modi delivers the jobs he promised.

It is possible Das does not wish to face in 2019 the moral dilemma Modi poses, akin to what he faced in 2014. His plight brings to memory the tale in which a mother is asked to decide who between her two children she would offer for a sacrifice to the gods.

Between Mother India’s two children – job creation (economy) and secularism (humanity) – Das has plumped for the former. For him, economics must always trump the values of humanity. The economic dream of corporate India’s foremost intellectual has a whiff of blood.

Ajaz Ashraf is a journalist in Delhi. His novel, The Hour Before Dawn, has as its backdrop the demolition of the Babri Masjid

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