What Narendra Modi’s Comment on “Five-Star Activists” Betrays About His Outlook Towards Grass-roots Movements

In 2013 Narendra Modi participated in the Joint Conference of Chief Ministers and Chief Justices as the chief minister of Gujarat. On 6 April this year, he inaugurated the event as prime minister. During his speech he entreated the audience to rethink the role of "five-star" activists in the country. Getty Images / Hindustan Times / Arvind Yadav
16 April, 2015

The contrast in the language used by Narendra Modi at various fora and his chosen mode of dialogue among different stakeholders—the elite and the subaltern—is revealing of his thoughts about the two divergent groups and those who represent them. The corporate sector in India—even those sections of it that are allegedly the most corrupt—always seems to escape being the target of the prime minister’s verbal acidity. The criticism of its predatory and fraudulent business practices comes couched in vague generalities. The name calling, as and when it is resorted to, is usually preserved for activists and organisations like Greenpeace. More recently of course, it has also been extended to journalists, with a comment by the Minister of State of External Affairs, General VK Singh, which described the media as “presstitutes,” a thinly veiled insinuation that left little to the imagination.

Modi’s scornful dismissal of activists at a gathering of legal luminaries has confirmed what many already suspected—that he has an innate suspicion of grass roots activism. Since taking charge, the government, which Modi runs as a tight ship, has made no bones about its hostility to activists. The relentless persecution of Priya Pillai, an activist from Greenpeace, in January, and of the organisation itself now, bears testimony to what already resembles a witch hunt of people perceived as inimical to the government’s economic policies. The re-promulgation of an ordinance to push through the land bill despite resistance from both farmers and activists, and most recently the Supreme Court is another visible instance of such suspicion at work.

It is of course paradoxical, to say the least, that the man who hurled the “five-star activist” insult was seen not too long ago wearing a suit that reportedly cost Rs 11 lakhs with the words “Narendra Damodardas Modi” monogrammed in pinstripes during a meeting with US president Barack Obama. Is this not the act of a five-star politician? In this regard, it is also worth mentioning that the political outfit to which Modi belongs, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party, often hosts its conclaves in plush hotels and not outdoors under shamianas where all and sundry can join the gathering, adopting a fairly five-star approach itself. Then there is the small matter of hypocrisy—the simple fact that even as the prime minister scorns five-star activism for hurting the country, his governmental ideology is nothing short of making India a five-star country, populated by an endless array of smart cities and the like.

The problem is that our political class has no sense of the complexities that frame activism or interventions in political and social spheres. Name calling is, after all, a signifier of an immature mind. It may be relevant in this context to turn to a different scene and think about the Marathi film Court directed by Chaitanya Tamhane. A courtroom drama, the plot of the film is constructed around Narayan Kamble, an elderly social activist, who tours among working-class communities with his troupe across Mumbai. The film follows the arrest of Kamble, who is accused of inciting a sewage worker with his songs, thereby prompting the worker to kill himself. In the courtroom Kamble is defended by Vinay Vora against the public prosecutor, Nutan.

“Vora shops for fine Western cheeses and wines in an upscale market and goes drinking at a chic bar where an Indian singer performs English and Brazilian ballads. He’s firmly a member of India’s globalized elite, yet he also participates on panels about social responsibility. Implied in all this is that his social connections could easily get him a high-paying position, but instead he chooses to be a public defender,” wrote Jay Weissberg in a review of the film. In contrast, Nutan, though socio-economically closer to the person she is prosecuting, lacks empathy and compassion for him: “... [S]he picks her son up from school, then goes home to make dinner, which is consumed by the family in front of the TV. If they go out, it’s not to a fancy restaurant but a greasy spoon. …” Weissberg added.

Based on the plot of this film, I could not help but wonder how the prime minister would view a person like Vora. Would he condemn the fictional lawyer for patronising a so-called five-star culture? Would he say that Vora’s lifestyle robs him of the right to speak for the dispossessed or the underclass? Perhaps he would claim that Nutan’s lower-middle-class life makes her a natural champion of the poor—a befitting parallel to the back story within which Modi casts himself.

On the other hand, it is perfectly plausible to argue that Vora represents, in socio-economic terms, exactly the kind of globalised and savvy elite that the government today wants to cultivate as the face of India. Is there, then, a sense of anxiety in the prime minister’s remarks that people who are "doing well"—in a manner of speaking—are somehow betraying the elite by speaking for working-class and tribal communities in India?

Much of the debate around the current government has focused on the challenges it poses to India’s secular cultures and traditions. The witch-hunting of activists bothers people less. While left-leaning, liberal and secular lobbies were expectedly swift in their condemnation of the impending threat of majoritarianism, such condemnation was also heard from some supporters of Modi. From economist Jagdish Bhagwati to prominent columnists writing in dailies, many have balked at the spate of communal clashes and chided the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for diverting attention from the supposedly real reason for Modi’s electoral mandate: development.

Arguably, it is somewhat easier to take a position against cultural nationalism than it is to challenge neoliberal economics. Beyond a point, the market needs consumers, not panicked and fearful citizens. We see, then, a convoluted trade-off among a section of India’s self-professed public intellectuals; a trade-off between cultural nationalism and activism. Many among the votaries of neoliberal development are often secular or indifferent to the call of majoritarian nationalism. Instead, they have reserved their anger for activists who are mobilising tribal communities and the rural and urban underclasses against economic policies that would ruin their lives and the environment alike. This trade-off is, of course, a mistake. Those who argue that Modi’s real agenda of development shouldn’t be side-tracked by communalism fail to see that both agendas are intrinsically connected. The prime minister’s policy of silence with regard to communal violence and his snarky commentary on activists are not isolated acts, they are nuanced manoeuvres that are being employed as part of a well thought out strategy.

Monobina Gupta is a senior journalist and author based in New Delhi.