Whose Ambivalence – Modi’s or Varshney’s? Jyoti Punwani

Guest post by JYOTI PUNWANI

What is it about Narendra Modi that makes people suspend disbelief? Ashutosh Varshney in his Modi’s Ambivalence, Indian Express, June 28, actually considers it possible that the new Prime Minister has a chance of going  down as “one of the greatest leaders of independent India”.  Surely anyone qualifying for such a status must be acceptable to the majority of Indians? Last we heard, the magic of Modi had left almost two-thirds of the electorate untouched, not to forget the fact that he doesn’t exactly inspire respect among our largest minority.

Varshney makes some bewildering assertions in his evaluation of Modi’s first month as PM. From a “novel policy language for poverty alleviation”  to a new acceptance of Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of the Nation,  to his RSS-defying portfolio distribution,  Varshney sees signs of a new Modi, quite different from the man cursed forever with the burden of Gujarat 2002.

But do these signs tell the whole story? Parliamentary declarations  about enabling the poor instead of throwing crumbs at them would have been exciting indeed, had the actions of the PM’s trusted colleagues not sent completely contrary messages. Nitin Gadkari, who had to step down as party president in unsavoury circumstances, has been entrusted not only with multiple portfolios, but also with the responsibility of co-ordinating infrastructure-connected ministries. His first initiative has been to get the stringent Land Acquisition Act diluted. Environment Minister Prakash Javdekar has made it clear that environmental concerns will not be an obstacle to growth any longer—this was the clear message reiterated in a meeting between Javdekar and the ministers of coal, power and steel.  To clear all doubts on this score, Greenpeace and other groups fighting peacefully against the “land- takeover-resource-exploitation” pattern of development, have been smeared as foreign-driven anti-nationals.

This is about as far as you can get from Mahatma Gandhi’s ideals, but who respects him in the new dispensation anyway?  The only two references Modi made to Gandhi as Varshney himself says, were to his ideas of sanitation, and to his transforming the freedom struggle to a jan andolan. But that in no way implies that Modi approves of the kind of jan andolan Gandhi led. Taking care to avoid naming Gandhi and Nehru in his election campaign,  Modi nevertheless made it clear that it was the Congress that  was responsible for splitting the country, not just into two, but also into linguistic states. Had Sardar Patel’s ideas  been implemented, he lamented, we would have had a strong united India. Modi’s idea of India came through loud and clear in his campaign speeches, and it was most certainly not either the Gandhian or the Nehruvian idea of the country.

Finally, in Modi’s choice of the finance and education ministers, Varshney sees a defiance of the organisation that propelled him to power. Again, this would have been cause for rejoicing had Smriti Irani not asked her ministry to study how our scriptures could be included in the curriculum,  as soon as she took over. Nothing in her personality suggests that she would go against the RSS’ goals in education.  As for finance, Swadeshi had been  abandoned long back, under Vajpayee’s regime itself. And no less an ideologue than the RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat had declared six months back, after Modi launched his election campaign, that his organization was neither against liberalization, nor FDI. Within days of the new government taking over, RSS ideologue Ram Madhav clarified that they were not “economic fundamentalists”.

In all this – be they efforts to dilute laws and procedures that protect farmers’ rights and the environment, which the previous government had introduced despite stiff resistance from within, or be it open encouragement to saffronize education, the PM has followed his predecessor’s practice of maun vrat, after having mocked it in his election campaign.  Is this ambivalence or simply proof that silence means assent?  

8 thoughts on “Whose Ambivalence – Modi’s or Varshney’s? Jyoti Punwani”

  1. While Ms Punwani makes a number of sensible points in this piece, she begins on a note that diminishes her credibility. She says “What is it about Narendra Modi that makes people suspend disbelief? Ashutosh Varshney in his Modi’s Ambivalence, Indian Express, June 28, actually considers it possible that the new Prime Minister has a chance of going down as “one of the greatest leaders of independent India”.” If you go and read Varshney’s piece in the Indian Express, he says no such thing.


    1. here’s what varshney writes: “…much depends on how ambitious Modi is. If he wants to go down as one of the greatest leaders of independent India, he will have to, much like Vajpayee, keep a politically safe distance from the RSS and embark on a project of inclusion.” doesn’t that mean that varshney considers there’s a chance of this happening?


      1. You have a point there Jyoti – upon re-reading AV’s article he does seem to entertain the possibility that Modi could become a great leader if he distances himself from the RSS. And on that many of us would disagree for Modi has already proven himself the opposite and there is little or no basis for any optimism in the future either. (Not to mention the utterly sophomoric business of “great leaders” to begin with).

        Perhaps I am being too charitable but I read AV’s paragraph to mean not so much his own assessment of the likelihood of Modi achieving greatness but rather that if Modi’s own personal ambitions regarding his place in history transcended narrow party- and RSS-circumscribed visions to something beyond then he would have to distance himself from the extremist wing of his own party and go in the direction of inclusiveness. In other words, the comment about greatness is more about the degree of Modi’s ambitions rather than AV’s assessment of the likelihood of him achieving it.

        At any rate, not to split hairs, let me just say that your take on it seems more defensible on a closer re-read than I had initially surmised. cheers, K.


    2. I agree … I guess the only problem is that it’s in quotes.

      I mean, it’s one thing to cite that as your own opinion, but I was somewhat surprised because even though I don’t agree entirely with him, I do respect Varshney. So, I had to go read the piece to realize you literally took him out of context … It was like click bait …


      1. Parteesh, please see Jyoti’s response above. I think she’s right to infer from that quote that Varshney thinks it possible that Modi can go down as “one of the greatest leaders of independent India.”


  2. Mr. Varshney feels that there will be changes in economic policy. Does he “feel” those new policies? I certainly do not. Modi’s policy of subsidy for sugar mills is not DIFFERENT. So what are these new policies, and how does one get to “feel” them. Everyone is talking about new policies, including Mr. Varshney. What are they? The BJP’s manifesto, and all of Modi’s speeches have to do with “better implementation”. I saw no new policy. Have they said they will do away with the food bill? Have they promised FDI in retail? Have they said that they will strengthen the competition commission to fight crony capitalism? I hear noises made by the Bhallas and the Jagganathans, but I neither see nor feel new policies. At best some tinkering will be done in the new budget and the press will go ga ga over it. But NEW policies? Give me a break! And Oh, by the way, Mr. Varhney’s opinion on this is no different from my mother’s. I do not know why my mother’s opinion are not published in English newspapers.

    Mr. Varsney’s take on secularism is interesting. I believe that the so called “secular” parties (including, actually very much including CPM) have done so much damage to secularism that Modi or the RSS nedd not do much. ….. just let matters slope downward, as they have been, and we will soon be in hog-heaven.


  3. I dont know whether this article is about NaMo or AV. But in any case, it is easy to see why NaMo can actually go down as India’s greatest PM (whether he will actually do so is by no means certain or clear)- the bar itself has been set so low. India has since independence been ruled by a whole lot of great leaders (barring Vajpai the hendoo fascist) starting with JLN himself, and after 67 years, it remains one of the poorest and most illiterate nations on the world- on some parameters like malnutrition and sanitation we “outshine” such stalwarts like Pakistan and Bangladesh. If NaMo can change that (which again is not certain), he may actually go down in the eyes of many Indians as the G.O.A.T. altho in the eyes of most kafila readers his name will still be mud.



  4. What Modi will become we do not know. But we know of his decisions in his first month in office as PM. a. Increased rail fare for passeners by 14%. b. Increased prices of diesel and gas that is causing increase in prices of basic commudities. c. Appointed one dozen ministers in his cabinet who are only high school pass. Excluded some of the best educated and experienced senior BJP leaders. d. Rejected the nomination of very distinguished layer Subraminan as supreme cort judge, in violation of the authority of the supreme court to make such decisions. Because Sunraminan did not bend rules in the past to favour RSS vilators of the nation’s laws. e. Pronounced in the parliament in response to the President’s address that now the nation can change the slavish mentality that was forced on us for 1200 years (the British period and the Muslim period increased by 400 imaginary years). f. Authorized increasing the hight of the Narmada dam in violaion of the supreme court guidelines.

    Does this point to a direction where the miseries of the common man will be reduced and the ethnic & religious minorities will feel more included in the nation’s affairs? Prof Varshney is just like other Indian-American intellectuals (eg Bhagwati) who are keen to profess the authoritarian rule of RSS as a”great solution” for all of India’s problems.


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