In Response to Nayantara Sehgal's Op-Ed Piece in Indian Express
On June 19, The Ideas Page of The Indian Express featured an article titled ‘Once upon a time, a nation’ in which noted novelist and author Nayantara Sehgal attempted to argue that the outcome of 2019 elections was based on ‘storytelling’ with no real basis. I disagree with her premise and here are the reasons why.
Sehgal claims that the nation of 130 crore people has bought a false story - again. The election result, she says, was no surprise to her and that was largely because of Yale professor Stanley Jason’s study of right-wing extremism and breakdown of democracies. Now, even as the mainstay of her argument is that a story was built ahead of the elections to fool people, what she presents in the following paragraphs is a spectacular formula story of her own.
Sehgal links the formula, as attributed to Stanley Jason, to contemporary India and draws the picture of a failing state. In Stanley’s formula the rise of right wing is hinged on a sense of fear, resentment, anger - be it in the form of mercenary majoritarianism or divisive nationalism. In this scenario, citizens are labelled, excluded and feared and a mood of hysteria is created. Even as Sehgal shows us this picture, she fails to notice that her own words and world view are also aimed at stoking fear and distrust – only hers is against a democratically elected government.
In the second phase of this end-of-days story people are made to perceive a danger to the nation and conspiracy theories are propped to raise deafening slogans of nationalism. Sehgal wants us to believe this is what the ruling dispensation has done in the last five years. The truth, however, is that it is liberals like her who have tried to create the perception of ‘threat to the idea of India’. In fact, this has been the mothership of all arguments raised by the opposition during this period. If Nayantara Sehgal and others on her side of the argument are to be believed then in the last five years, national institutions have been in danger, constitution has been in danger, social fabric of the country has been in danger, as has been the economy, polity, history, diversity...the list of 'endangered' has been rather long and scary.
It may do well to remember at this point that the word ‘anti-national’ had turned into a rhetoric overnight when the leader of the principal opposition party, along with other opposition leaders, saw his window of opportunity in a local campus incident. The story they wanted to sell was of a fascist government at the helm orchestrating nationalist frenzy. Incidentally, this is also the story that liberals still wants us to believe.
It was Sehgal who had first given measurable push to the ‘in danger’ argument in 2015 by beginning the ‘Award Wapsi’ drive. This was started after the Akhlaq murder in Dadri. The Award Wapsi campaign at that time was directed at creating the impression that the ruling party was creating an ecosystem that incited people to commit acts of violence in the name of cow protection. None of the accused in this case - or the subsequent cases that were cherry picked by the opposition to further their argument – was found to be linked to any office bearers of the ruling party. It could hardly be called a coincidence that the debate around ‘Intolerance’ and ‘Award Wapsi’ was being waged in 2015 when Bihar assembly elections were taking place; more so, since these campaigns withered away soon after the results were announced.
The Prime Minister addressed the issue of ‘cow vigilante’ repeatedly and at several platforms. Nevertheless, the ‘Award Wapsi' activists insisted that the PM had not spoken on the matter. You are also expected to overlook the fact that similar incidents in non-BJP ruled states were ignored by the champions of the cause because these incidents were an inconvenience to the narrative being constructed. This brings us to the third stage of the right-wing nightmare of Sehgal and her Yale professor – absence of facts.
It must be pointed out here that it is often the self-proclaimed champions of truth who are most economical with it. Sehgal, for example, cites the murder of four writers, one of whom was Narendra Dabholkar. Dabholkar was killed in August, 2013 when there was Congress government both at the Centre and in the state. But a Congress government is never questioned and a summary conclusion is pronounced on the day of the crime.
The biggest ‘disappearance of truth’ - to borrow Sehgal’s phrase – in the last five years, has been with regard to the work done by the government. Despite clear facts released by the government, Sehgal and many like her refused to believe – the absence was not of facts but of trust. They did not believe any real change was made in the lives of the people. But, Sehgal’s disbelief is hardly surprising. It is something that the so-called right, in general, and the BJP in particular, have been facing for decades – smug disbelief and vicious prejudice. The labels of fascists, rightists, Nazis, despots, dictators, anti-women, anti-Dalit, have always been used without discretion to dismiss them and drown out their voices.
In the first term of Modi government, 34 crore bank accounts were opened under Jan Dhan, 7 crore gas cylinders were distributed under Ujjwala, 8 crore toilets were built under Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, farmers received Rs 4,000 in their bank accounts under PM-Kisan, lakhs of people received benefits of up to Rs 5 lakh for medical care under Ayushman Bharat. But the so-called liberals, living their own nightmare, refused to see. They also failed to notice that with the exception of J&K and Pathankot, no terror attack took place in any part of the country in the last five years. There was also no major communal riot during the last Modi regime.
One of the biggest problems in Sehgal’s arguments is her intrinsic formulaic approach to describe contemporary Indian politics. She believes that Stanley’s right-wing extremism formula is coming to fruition in India – the country where a norm is an exception and exceptions are a norm. Many liberals tend to misread the ground realities of India today when they use foreign approaches, theories and idioms to decode the Indian society and polity.
Through her article Sehgal tried to give ideological platform to the argument that the government lacks moral grounds to govern the country. Instead of allowing paroxysms of prejudice to get the better of her, she should respect the electoral mandate of millions who have voted in favour of one party. Importantly, Sehgal is the niece of Jawaharlal Nehru and enjoys close ties with the Congress party. Perhaps this is the right time for her to write about how the grand old party needs to reinvent itself. Such an attempt on her part would be far more fruitful and consequential.
(Author teaches Political Science in Delhi University)