Subscribe to South Asia Citizens Wire | feeds from sacw.net
Home page > Communalism Repository > The Kalinga Effect

The Kalinga Effect

by Ananya Vajpeyi, 13 April 2009

printable version of this article printable version
fontsizedown
fontsizeup
articles du meme auteur other articles by the author

Economic Times, 11 April 2009

In the April 2009 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, Robert D Kaplan has published a story about Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi, titled
’India’s New Face’. At the moment, Modi is billed as the BJP’s alternate candidate for PM, should the right-wing Hindu nationalist party win India’s 15th general election in May 2009 and in case L K Advani has to opt out for some reason. Kaplan reports his conversations with many people, including Modi himself, in which he tries to make sense of Modi’s role in the 2002 violence against Muslims in light of his repeated re-election as Gujarat’s CM since 2001, and his avowed success in fuelling economic growth in his state throughout his tenure.

In a political culture that tolerates high degrees of corruption as par for the course, Modi stands out in being personally upright and reputedly incorruptible. But his animosity towards Muslims is unusual in India’s politics, which was, at least up until the 1990s, by default not violently exclusivist or chauvinist. Like many Indians, Kaplan is clearly troubled by the Jekyll-and-Hyde personality of Modi, his ability to persecute and terrorise the Muslim minority of the state’s population without the slightest trace of remorse, while working so hard and so effectively to deliver the fruits of globalisation to Gujarat as a whole. One encounter between the American journalist and a Gujarati Muslim went as follows:

"There was no Kalinga effect on Modi," Hanif Lakdawala, a Muslim who runs a human-rights NGO, told me. He was referring to a war fought in the third century B.C. by the Mauryan empire under king Ashoka against the kingdom of Kalinga on the eastern coast of India. Ashoka’s forces slew 100,000 civilians. Yet the slaughter left Ashoka with so much guilt that he dedicated his life thereafter to non-violence and the peaceful development of his empire.

It is striking that 2,200 years after the fact, Ashoka’s change of heart — what Lakdawala calls the ’Kalinga effect’ — remains the byword for the birth of compassion in the mind of a powerful ruler, exactly in the midst of a carnage for which he bears responsibility. Kaplan searches for the Ashokan reversal in Modi’s consciousness, but sees no sign of it.

For Kaplan something about Modi’s inflexible stance militates against both Gujarat’s traditionally outward-looking, cosmopolitan culture driven by trade with Asia, Africa and now the US, as well as the legacy of Mahatma Gandhi, who was surely the most important Gujarati to emerge in modern Indian politics since the late 19th century, and became the very symbol of non-violence, communal amity and secular toleration. Says Kaplan, astutely: "India has been an idea since Gandhi’s Salt March in 1930. Either Modi will fit his managerial genius to the service of that idea, or he will stay where he is."

That Indian democracy not just functions, but thrives, after 60 years of tumultuous social and economic change, and stunning demographic multiplication, is indeed remarkable. But over time this democracy has acquired two characteristics that should cause us concern: one, it is, in many parts of the Indian union, notably the Northeast and Kashmir, authoritarian; and two, it is, increasingly, majoritarian. The naked militarism of the Indian state in its troubled borderlands, the growing political space occupied by Hindutva, and the ubiquitous evisceration of genuine secularism, all make the world’s largest democracy not quite so democratic for the numerous religious, cultural and economic minorities who must struggle to find their place in the new India.

The idea of India was never to exclude, ghettoise and oppress minority communities of any description. The Indian Republic was founded on the principles of equal citizenship and universal adult franchise. Thanks to the authoritarian and majoritarian tendencies of our polity, we now have a hierarchy consisting of real citizens — the rich, the entitled, the numerically dominant — and second-class citizens, the poor, the low-caste, the Muslims, the tribals — who are made to feel that they are Indian only on sufferance, and not because they enjoy, by constitutional fiat, the same rights and privileges as their luckier compatriots.

A democracy that was true to the idea of India given us by our founding fathers would allow citizens both the capacity to vote for more prosperity, that Modi represents in his one face, and vote against the intolerance and outright violence that Modi champions in his other avatar. It would also give us the understanding that you cannot bracket the events of 2002 in the general euphoria over, say, Gujarat landing the Nano — euphoria incidentally, whose corollary is despondency about the very same issue in West Bengal.

We could count our democracy as successful only if it tempered the politics of interest with sound political judgement. To have Narendra Modi become India’s next PM in the same year when Barack Obama has become US President would be the most egregious failure of political judgement on the part of Indian voters, the very opposite of the triumph of American voters in finally getting themselves a worthy leader.

In the past 20 years, India has managed to grow impressively as an economy, and thus far it has avoided the brutal path to prosperity taken by its main rival, China. A combination of factors made this possible: the steel frame of a basically secular and egalitarian Constitution, the legacy of men like the Mahatma, who may not have been able to prevent Partition, but nonetheless shaped the political consciousness of an entire nation from its very birth, and the historical memory of a king like Ashoka, who spurned violence when he realised how it rendered his rule fundamentally unethical and untenable. Ordinary people don’t necessarily vote one way or other in a given election because of the examples of political conduct they know from epics, history and legend. But even today, certain norms of ethical politics, culturally accepted and popularly cited, undoubtedly inform both electoral rhetoric and voter choice.

Nothing in our modern democracy, nor anything in our political culture that is over two millennia old, permits the ascendance of a ruler who lacks compassion for the people. In our myths, our history and our practice as citizens of a free and democratic country, there is no warrant for the exercise of unbridled power, or for a leader who fails the Kalinga test.

(The author teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Boston)

admin | Site Map |