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Mainstream, VOL LIV No 12 New Delhi March 12, 2016

Modi, RSS Get Unexpected Empathy

Saturday 12 March 2016, by M K Bhadrakumar

The turmoil in the Jawaharal Nehru University (JNU) and the caste war in Haryana are bound to attract a lot of attention abroad. When the government projects India as the ‘fastest-growing big economy’ of the world, it whets outsiders’ appetite in a world steeped in recession and bleak outlook, especially in the Western countries or China that are unabashedly looking for market openings for their exports. So, developments in India that impact on its political or social-economic stability arouse curiosity abroad.

The American ambassador in India, Richard Verma, has publicly commented on the agitation in the JNU. He made clear that his sympathies lie with the ‘anti-nationals’ in the campus. I bet President Barack Obama shares his view. Of course, the Left student bodies in the JNU campus cannot afford to express gratitude to Verma who represents an imperialist power. But I feel nice to know his heart is in the right place.

Generally speaking, the Modi Government faces a hostile Western opinion. Famous names have jumped into the fray such as Noam Chomsky who in fact wrote to the Vice-Chancellor of the JNU (an appointee of the present government) questioning the propriety, necessity or wisdom of letting in Bassi’s uniformed men into the campus. The Western academia on the whole is voicing a strong sense of revulsion at the appalling state of affairs in India. Such an expression of solidarity is very touching.

At least two most respected voices in the Western print media robustly criticised the Modi Government’s track record of resorting to high-handed, crude methods of stifling dissent in the country—New York Times and Le Monde.

However, there is always a silver-lining in such situations—except that in this case it came from a most unexpected quarter for the Modi Government. To be sure, the government least expected that the Chinese Communist Party tabloid Global Times would write a favourable thing or two at this juncture. The GT has featured on successive days an opinion piece on the JNU agitation and an editorial on the violence in Haryana, marking a high level of interest in understanding what is going on in PM Narendra Modi’s India at the moment. What stands out is the GT’s stubborn refusal to pillory the Modi Government for these ugly happenings in India.

The opinion piece on the JNU unrest is a subtle piece, which actually attributes to the militant Left the responsibility for confron-tational politics, sowing the germane seeds of the current tensions over ‘freedom of speech’. It rather sees the BJP as reacting:

The heart of the debate is still the ideological antagonism between the Left and Right wings of Indian society. Ever since Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office, Left-wing forces that uphold secularism have always been lashing out at the BJP and its political offshoot Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), for promoting Hindutva (Hindu nationalism), hampering the freedom of expression and jeopardising India’s tentative harmony.

Last year, beef bans and attacks against social activists by Right-wing forces have angered Indian intellectuals and cultural figures, who are influential on the Left... Facing the accusation, the BJP has not flinched, but engaged in the debate against the Left wing with great fanfare. Being pushed to the eye of the storm in the ideological confrontation was only a matter of time for the JNU, a traditional front of India’s Left wing. [emphasis added]

The GT doesn’t give much of a future for student politics in India in the internet era where social networking sites are trend-setters for the youth, and it concludes that the “Indian society’s current culture war... is not enough to shake Modi’s throne”.

On the other hand, the GT editorial on the caste tensions in Haryana is a deeply reflective piece by drawing comparison between India and China as regards their respective rising curve of social tensions in times of profound economic transition. Its estimations are:

One, caste tensions in India will keep erupting and are disruptive but they are not really a serious issue in the country’s political economy as such, while the growing income differential (“wealth gap”) is.

Two, India focuses on growth, but is neglecting social justice.

Three, the wealth gap, however, won’t undermine India’s development, since “Indian society’s ability to resist turmoil” is remarkable.

Four, China can learn from India “what the consequences of weak governance are” and from the Indian society’s adaptability. “There is general stability amid quite a chaotic situation in India. It defies a simple label.”

The editorial concludes:

“China and India have some similar national conditions and they can be each other’s development reference. In recent decades, China has been far ahead of India in development, but India offers us thoughts for its society’s adaptability, which China must build along with its problem-solving ability.”

This last observation is a common refrain that one comes across while travelling in China. The open-mindedness stands in sharp contrast with the obstinate refusal of our one-dimensional pundits to say a nice thing or two about China. Clearly, it is a pity that Modi let the good beginning with China in his tenure as the PM be upstaged by the hardliners in New Delhi.

But then, the important thing is to learn from lost opportunities. As the GT pieces testify, China remains a hard-headed pragmatic power in the contemporary setting. Much congruence of interests exists and is worthy of exploration—especially in the economic sphere, which is crucially important for India’s growth trajectory at present and for Modi’s own ‘development agenda’. Perhaps, the visit of the National Security Advisor Ajit Doval to China will turn over a new leaf.

Ambassador M.K. Bhadrakumar served as a career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service for over 29 years, with postings including India’s ambassador to Uzbekistan (1995-1998) and to Turkey (1998-2001).