Opinion: Does Hamid Ansari need freedom to speak or is it Narendra Modi who craves it?

The prime minister’s speech at the farewell of the 12th vice-president was a dog whistle to his core constituency.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s short speech last week on the occasion of the farewell of Hamid Ansari, the 12th vice-president of India, was characterised by impoliteness and churlishness. Some called it uncivil. But those who have been following him know that and were neither surprised nor startled by his words.

In his speech in the Rajya Sabha on August 10, Modi recalled Ansari’s past and reminded the audience that as a career diplomat he had spent most of his time in West Asia. He said that Ansari later headed the National Commission for Minorities and had been the vice-chancellor of the Aligarh Muslim University. All this formed a narrow world of experience, Modi implied. The prime minister also recalled that Ansari’s family had been associated with the Congress party and the Khilafat movement launched by Indian Muslims to urge the British government to preserve the authority of the Turkish Sultan as Caliph of Islam with the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. Ansari’s vision was formed by his circulation in this restricted world, Modi suggested.

Ansari was a member of the Indian Foreign Service for almost four decades whose postings included the United Arab Emirates, Iran and Saudi Arabia. What is the common link between these West Asian countries, the National Commission of Minorities, Aligarh Muslim University, the Khilafat movement and, to some extent, the Congress party, all of which found a mention in Modi’s speech? What links all these disparate countries and institutions? Modi knows that the answer is clear to his support base.

Some of us found it unbecoming that a prime minister bidding farewell to the country’s vice-president should have made such a speech. But those who have observed Modi over the years found that the speech was merely in keeping with his previous statements.

Memories of 2002

Recall, for instance, how in 2002, Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, reacted after the Election Commission, led by JM Lyngdoh, decided to postpone the Assembly elections in the state?

In 2002, large parts of Gujarat were still recovering from anti-Muslim riots when Modi dissolved the state Assembly so that elections could be held. In such a surcharged atmosphere, civil society and other groups felt that it would not be possible for riot victims and those displaced from their homes to exercise their right to vote freely. Lyngdoh visited Gujarat and met with various sections of society. On August 16, the Election Commission announced that it had decided to postpone the polls since the situation in the state was not conducive for the fair conduct of elections. This decision led to the Gujarat chief minister pouring scorn on the Chief Election Commissioner.

The nation, especially the people of Gujarat, who only knew him as JM Lyngdoh, were supplied with his full name. On August 20, Modi addressed a public meeting in Bodeli, 55 km from Vadodara. This is how Outlook magazine reported his speech. Modi said:

“For several months, the Opposition has been after me to resign. When I did [not], they did not know what to do and started running to Delhi to seek Madam’s help. They realised that James Michael Lyngdoh, the Election Commissioner of India, is their only saviour.
“Some journalists asked me recently, ‘Has James Michael Lyngdoh come from Italy?’ I said I don’t have his janam patri, I will have to ask Rajiv Gandhi. Then the journalists said, ‘Do they meet in church?’. I replied, ‘Maybe they do.’”

In his speech, Modi not only blamed Lyngdoh’s religion for his decision, he also hinted at a possible link between him and Congress President Sonia Gandhi. It’s obvious what the common factor between the two is.

(Photo credit: PTI).
(Photo credit: PTI).

Messages for Modi’s followers

In the past, Modi has also addressed Sonia Gandhi with viciousness. He emphasises her family connection with Italy. Again, this is a statement of fact. But the implicit message is nothing if not sinister.

Last week, though he was ostensibly addressing Ansari, Modi was actually speaking to his constituency, which he creates, expands and solidifies with each new act of vilification of the minorities.

This is achieved in creative ways. The best way is to humiliate the elite of the minority communities. Deep down in their hearts, members of Modi’s constituency resent the position of honour certain members of these communities enjoy. The strategy of humiliation gives his followers a vicarious pleasure. Modi does it by questioning their claim of universality. When they are pulled down, the applause among his core constituency can almost be heard.

This is perhaps why authorities in Gujarat looked the other way as Ehsan Jafari, once a privileged Member of Parliament, was butchered by a mob during the Gujarat riots in February 2002. The humiliation heaped on JS Bandookwala of Vadodara, a scientist and academic of repute, whose home was attacked during the riots, is part of the same strategy. Similarly, it is almost forgotten that in 2010, Modi, as chief minister of Gujarat, questioned the impartiality of Syeda Hamid, a member of the erstwhile Planning Commission. Hamid was accused of maligning the image of Gujarat by visiting the state several times to meet the displaced victims of the 2002 riots, and questioning the role of the state government in the riots. Modi announced that he would boycott Planning Commission meetings at which Hamid was present.

These elites are thus pushed back in the box of their communitarian identities.

In his speech in the Rajya Sabha, the prime minister expressed his sympathy for Ansari, claiming that for the 10 long years he was in office, the vice president’s core beliefs formed by his insular world remained stifled as he had been forced to operate within the boundaries set by the Constitution. Modi said that he was happy that after this moment, Ansari would be free – free to act according to his core belief system, free of constitutional bindings.

Did the BJP leader mean to say that the posts of high commissioner, chairperson of the National Minority Commission or vice-chancellor – all of which Ansari has held – are not creatures of the Indian Constitution? Most importantly, was it Hamid Ansari, a long-time adherent of the Constitution and also its interpreter, who needs freedom, or is it Modi, whose essential being seems to be chafing at the Constitutional straitjacket in which it is imprisoned, who craves it?

Ansari must have listened to Modi with amusement. After all, he has a sense of history. Ansari knows that the unease of the speaker made him attack him.

However, Modi’s words were ultimately not aimed at Ansari. The purpose of his words was to generate more viciousness and venom among the majority community. You could hear the snarling. This is what’s alarming.

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