India's Political Drama


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Category: International 25 May 14


We are in the midst of a local and the Cannes film festivals. Although India churns out some 1,300 films annually, nobody expects Indian films to be nominated in the foreign film category. The accepted verdict is that Indian films are garish, crowded with unrealistic multiple costumes, locations and themes, lack subtlety, are overacted, with formulaic schizophrenic scenes that take one from wonder, disbelief, suspense and excitement, to horror, laughter and tears in 60 seconds.

India is live drama: the US$5 billion campaign funded by film stars, criminals, industrialists; the truckloads of seized whisky and packets of rupees that didn’t fit in police stations and had to be shuttled to warehouses; the shadow of the Gujarat massacre of 2002 of some 60 Hindus and over 2,000 Muslims (Modi, who was chief minister of Gujarat at the time, has been cleared of involvement by the Supreme Court); the toppling of the Nehru-Gandhi dynastic rule of the Congress party; the ousting of Nehru’s granddaughter in-law Sonia Gandhi and grandson Rahul by a former tea boy.

The details of the historic 282- seat win of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), led by Prime Minister- elect Narendra Modi, with a first-time absolute majority, are everywhere. Pundits laud Narendra Modi as the epitome of capitalist hope for an India which, in the last five years, dwindled, under the spectre of mass corruption, from being among the fastest growing economies to a near-welfare state with growing unemployment.

But India—with 1.3 billion people with 28 states and seven union territories, and some 2,000 ethnic groups and close to 700,000 villages—thinks in images and emotion. It maintains tribal, religious and caste boundaries, while defending the secular, as the world’s largest democracy.

When I was a child, my father took my mother, brother and me to meet Indira Gandhi at her residence on the cusp of the controversial state emergency of 1975. Yards away from where she was assassinated nine years later, we sat under the shade of trees, while thousands thronged outside her gate shouting: “Indira Gandhi is good, she keeps her promises” in Hindi. While talking to my parents she kept a deft eye on her grandson Rahul, who, flushed with the summer heat, fidgeted like every spoilt child of an aristocratic Indian family.

There was no question about it. She would groom him for greatness. If determination had a face, hers was it. Her family was in. The rest of India was pressing at the bars of her gate. When I think of the dozens of times I have been on trains in India, the exchange of a few rupees for hot sweet tea in glasses thrust at travellers by small, often emaciated hands, and that a child like that is India’s Prime Minister-elect, it is difficult not to be overwhelmed by human possibility.

Modi was born in 1950 in a “backward,” “oil-presser,” vegetarian community in Gujarat. He helped his father sell tea at Vadnagar railway station. He ran a tea stall with his brother near a bus terminus, married at 18 (but eschewed married and family life), and brooded solitarily in the Himalayas before joining the Hindu nationalist movement, the RSS (Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh). By 20, he had a master’s in political science; was an Internet- and multimedia-savvy workaholic; was a bit of a dandy, with custom-made kurtas, watches and sandals; and enjoyed the luxury of chartered flights. He had all the makings of an Indian hero.

It remains troubling that there is no Muslim MP in the BJP’s 282 seats despite the fact that Muslims comprise some 14 per cent of India. But Modi has made the right moves by appointing a Muslim as Cabinet Secretary and inviting the Pakistani and Bangladeshi premiers to his inauguration. Muslims in India may be a bit jittery, but women in full burqa have been filmed holding up plaques with his photo.

Modi’s tears flowed during his victory speech as he promised a government “which thinks about the poor, listens to the poor and which exists for the poor.” It is said people in power are flooded with chemicals that make them forget why or how they got there. I say this because ten years ago, when Rahul’s mother brought a narrow victory to Congress, I wrote: “Sonia’s son Rahul is not fazed by the hatred his mother’s win has incited in the hearts of many Indians. ‘Let them attack us... my family’s and my heart beats for India and will continue to beat for India.’

“But his next few words make us want to watch this democracy closely: ‘These people are part of my coming here is to reassure them that this association is destined to continue...

“This is not about your association with your father, grandmother, and great-grandfather, Rahul. It’s about the people. The poor, the marginalised, the forgotten. They made it possible for a widow and a white woman in a land of Indians to say Jai Hind to a country of a billion people. You and she must never forget the people of India. This victory is about their lives. Not yours.”

Rahul and Sonia Gandhi forgot the poor. It remains to be seen if Modi will remember them.


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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur