On 15 August 2014, in his first Independence Day speech as prime minister, Narendra Modi said: “whether it is the poison of casteism, communalism, regionalism, discrimination on social and economic basis, all these are obstacles in our way forward. Let’s resolve for once in our hearts; let’s put a moratorium on all such activities for ten years. We shall march ahead to a society free from all such tensions … My dear countrymen, believe in my words.”
Lots of red flags should go up when a prime minister puts an expiry date on social harmony, but most mainstream media quoted Modi’s speech either uncritically or approvingly, including a national daily describing it as “non-partisan.” By 2014, the media should have been alert to the doublespeak of, and the division of labour in, Hindutva forces. A speech in the hinterland might demonise Muslims; one at a media summit in Delhi might focus on inclusive growth and democracy. A speech made by Modi is not binding on Adityanath, then a member of parliament from Gorakhpur and today the chief minister of Uttar Pradesh, whose repugnantly communal comments in the Lok Sabha, just a few weeks after the speech, did not ruffle the prime minister’s feathers.
But for the last five years, the English mainstream media and many intellectuals have helped to not only whitewash bigotry, but also to scrub Modi’s failures and missteps out of the public discourse. Today, clinging to his words instead of his track record has become a collective delusion.
The mainstream media seemed wildly aroused by Modi’s victory in the 2014 general election. Perhaps it was because of its scale—those once vilified were suddenly all-powerful. Or perhaps it was good old animal subservience to the alpha male. Whether out of sycophancy, fear or naive optimism, the media decided to forget all the awkward “butcher of Gujarat” and “merchant of death” monikers it had once conjured up for Modi. So did infuential liberal thinkers. The well-known academic Pratap Bhanu Mehta wrote a gushy op-ed about “one of the most gloriously spectacular political triumphs in the history of independent India.” He buried his liberal conscience in one short sentence somewhere in the middle: “We can talk about the way parts of his campaign fished in social polarisation in places like UP. But for the most part, he presented himself as something new…” That’s funny, a constitutionally minded liberal reader might think, Mehta forgot to talk about the parts of the campaign that fished in social polarisation.
Following 2002, Modi could not catch a break from the stigma of the anti-Muslim pogrom he had overseen as chief minister of Gujarat. Yet by April 2014, the academician Ashutosh Varshney was writing that “Anti-Muslim rhetoric has been missing in Modi’s campaign. Instead, he has concentrated on governance and development.” That simply was not true. Varshney must have missed Modi’s attempt to whip up communal passions with speeches about the “pink revolution,” a reference to cattle slaughter; missed Adityanath on the dais where a BJP man recommended exhuming Muslim women’s corpses in order to rape them; missed Amit Shah exhorting Jats to “take revenge” on Muslims in Muzaffarnagar, where the two communities had clashed violently in 2013. Praveen Donthi’s piece in this magazine’s June 2019 issue forensically examined the liberal intellectual defense of Modi on his way to the prime minister’s office.