Over the past fortnight I have had to undertake many long car journeys in West Bengal. Since few of them involved travelling through what the Americans call ‘scenic routes’, much of the time in the backseat of a car has involved playing with my iPad and scrolling through Twitter.
Predictably, the main topic of conversation these days is the general election. If Twitter is any guide, the world of India seems to be sharply divided between those who want Narendra Modi to secure another five-year term and those who can’t wait for counting day to show the Prime Minister the door. When Modi came to power in 2014, perceptions of him were somewhat hazy. Yes he had a significant fan following across the country and, equally, there were people whose ‘idea of India’ was seriously offended by his mere existence. However, apart from Gujarat where he was a known commodity, the perceptions of Modi varied according to individual tastes. I remember writing in 2014 that Modi was seen very differently — as a modern version of Chhatrapati Shivaji, as a free market enthusiast, as a no-nonsense administrator, as a poor boy made good and even as just another BJP leader. Despite the Modi-centric quasi-presidential election campaign, Modi was moulded to suit individual convenience.
This isn’t the case in 2019. Today, after nearly five years of sustained exposure, almost every Indian has a view of their Prime Minister. Some dote on him while others are unrelenting in their hate. Few are indifferent. Whether this awareness will help him or go against him will be tested in the general election, especially if voting becomes a referendum on Modi’s leadership.
I don’t want to dwell on why many people think that Modi is the best thing that has happened to India since Independence. I think the reasons for his amazing popularity are well known. In any case, they will be debated and discussed during the long campaign. It is the perceived negatives I want to focus on — at least as far as they become apparent in social media.
However, before I touch on this theme, I would like to quote extensively from a column in The Spectator by the British writer Rod Liddle talking about an encounter with a well-heeled Indian lady in a pub.
“I was down the pub with my wife last week, out in the tiny smoking section, when a woman with a glass of beer sat down beside us and opened a conversation. She was from Delhi, she told us, before announcing somewhat grandly that she was an ‘academic’. I suppose I should have got the hell out there and then, but I was enjoying my cigarette. Anyway, we chatted briefly about the university at which she worked and shortly after this she said that at the moment she was ‘preparing for 29 March’ and was aghast at the whole Brexit business.
“Oh, I said, I voted Leave. She responded somewhat acidly: ‘And this is where the conversation ends. I cannot talk to irrational people.’ I demurred a little… um, you know, I don’t think I’m actually irrational and it’s a little bit rude to suggest that I am.
“At which point she told me to ‘check your privilege — I have brown skin and you are old and white’. I suggested to her that when it came to privilege, holding a university post wasn’t too bad, was it, which was when she called me a ‘jackass’ and the conversation sadly ended.
It seemed to me a bit rich that a woman who came to the UK on a nice scholarship and had landed a good job in a university could be so blithely dismissive of the views of the majority of people in this country, even if it is a small majority. She struck me as being smug and stupid, a fairly lethal combination…”
Unlike writers in the UK who can get away by calling people ‘smug and stupid’, we in India tend to be more circumspect in expressing our displeasure. However, if were to scroll through the posts of the anti-Modi brigade, especially those who see themselves as being fairly cosmopolitan, you will realise that the lady from Delhi in the pub, was fairly representative of those who threaten to buy one-way tickets out of the country in the event Modi gets a second term.
It is not the actual policies and performance of the Modi Government that invites ire, although they seem to have reserved a special place in hell for demonetisation. Their main grouse seems to me is that the Government is stupid and the BJP is even more stupid. A Congress spokesman, hardly known for his astonishing erudition and profundity, for example, expressed bewilderment that the BJP has an ‘intellectual cell’. Another, thought it unlikely that a BJP spokesman could ever have been employed by a global organisation, except perhaps in their call centre. A young man who is listed as an AAP candidate for one of the Delhi (unless he is left high and dry by a deal with the Congress) even put out a photograph of two cows with the caption: BJP workers seeking votes.
The examples can be multiplied but point to unmistakable signs of condescension. Like the Indian lady in the pub who couldn’t countenance the idea that anyone decent could have voted for Brexit, there is incomprehension that anyone can support Modi and vote BJP. During the 2014 election, I encountered foreign journalists who were taken aback by the suggestion that the BJP looked like winning since he hadn’t met a single person who was supporting Modi. Of course he didn’t since the ecosystem around the foreign press corps tend to be vociferously anti-Modi. Had they been covering the Brexit referendum they wouldn’t have met anyone voting to leave the EU.
It is the sheer arrogance of those who believe that they have a monopoly of the truth that marks the liberal resistance to Modi. This is one reason they failed in 2014 and this will be a reason why they may not succeed in 2019.