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The debate over Narendra Modi

September 20, 2011 11:03 IST

Whether one likes Narendra Modi or not, one cannot deny him the credit of putting the national debate back firmly in the political realm and on the merits of relative political choice, says Shashi Shekhar.

It would be interesting to go back in time to conduct a survey of avid India news-watchers a fortnight ago when India was in the grip of an apolitical sentiment. How many of them would have predicted that two weeks later, the entire nation would be debating political choice where everybody has an opinion.

There are many takeaways from the three-day long fast by Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as part of what he calls the 'Sadbhavana Mission'. It is extremely difficult for a wannabe analyst like this columnist to match up to expectations of fairness and objectivity on a debate as polarising as one that finds practically nobody without an opinion.

Before getting to the specifics of those takeaways from the fast and the specifics of criticism of the fast, it must be pointed out that this polarising debate on political choice is perhaps the healthiest development since India found itself in the grip of an apolitical sentiment.

Whether one likes Narendra Modi or not, one cannot deny him the credit of putting the national debate back firmly in the political realm and on the merits of relative political choice.

Some have questioned if all political choice must be relative. In a direct democracy it is legitimate to have absolute views on issues and personalities with the ballot empowering one to say NO without the burden of having to say yes to an alternative.

But our Founding Fathers chose an indirect form of democracy for us in their wisdom, thus forcing us to make a relative choice. The wisdom of the Founding Fathers in forcing us to do so was to avoid the pitfall of making a political choice by default. A pitfall we managed to find ourselves in for five long decades despite their foresight.

For decades the Nehru-Gandhi family has enjoyed an unfair advantage in Indian politics on account of the TINA -- 'there is no alternative' -- factor. While it took five long decades to challenge that monopoly, the TINA factor manifested itself recently into a negative choice between apolitical activism that rejects everything and a far from satisfactory choice of voting in the next Nehru-Gandhi by default.

It is far from clear if Narendra Modi will move to Delhi anytime soon. With the announcement to extend his mission to each district, Modi has clearly made Gujarat the subject of his immediate focus. To focus the debate over his fast of the past three days to the single issue of his prime ministerial ambitions is flawed.

Even his detractors must recognise that not only has the debate expanded to multiple issues in the political realm but the bar has also been raised for political choice to be exercised on vision, platform and agenda in the run-up to 2014. Whether one likes Modi or not and whether he himself will run or not, he has set a bar on expectations across India by holding up Gujarat's success as an example of what is possible if one can dream big.

This raises the bar very high for those aspiring to run India in 2014. They must not only meet that high bar on expectations but must also demonstrate how they can surpass it, for Modi intends to continue doing exactly that in the subject of his immediate focus -- Gujarat.

Modi's many detractors may not be satisfied with the open questions over the Gujarat riots in 2002. They must legitimately recognise that there are only two courts to settle that debate. The court of law shall settle the issue of justice to the victims and punishment to the perpetrators. It is unfair to accuse Modi simultaneously of both interfering with that process and not doing enough to speed up that process. The judicial process in the courts must continue without further politicisation.

The moral issue of 2002 has to be settled in the court of public opinion and the ballot is the only objective method to settle it in our indirect form of democracy. Gujarat has opined twice through the ballot and will do so a third time. The rest of India can weigh in as well in 2014 should Modi decide to be a direct actor in that electoral battle.

Some have questioned the morality of what they describe to be a 'private fast at public expense'. There can be a legitimate debate on the spending by any incumbent government on publicity. That debate could not have come a day sooner as we read from a leading newspaper of the alleged attempt by the United Progressive Alliance government to use its spending on publicity as a leverage in response to negative commentary in that newspaper.

A rational debate on the limits to legitimate spending by any incumbent government on publicity is long overdue. If Modi's fast has woken up those who till yesterday were sleeping over every failed scheme of government spending being named after a Nehru-Gandhi to the need for such a rational debate on publicity spending, then we have a beginning here.

Others have questioned the need for some activists and riot victims to be detained by the Gujarat government. Once again a legitimate debate on the factors that lead to that detention is welcome and the Gujarat government alone is best placed to explain those factors. However, to amplify that detention disproportionately and to then make an argument that dissent is being muzzled is disingenuous.

The reality is that dissent by both the Congress and the activists themselves through their choice of methods continued uninterrupted. Negative commentary in local media over the fast also reflects that dissent by no stretch of imagination was being muzzled. Last but not the least, a press conference by the activists making new allegations against Modi with ample national coverage during the same period must be taken as a sign that dissent continues to thrive in Gujarat whether based on truths or falsehoods.

The reality of Modi's fast is that it has forced a political debate on issues, approach, agenda and platforms. We can choose to submit ourselves to cynicism and scepticism by focusing obsessively on his persona or we can choose to weigh those issues and that approach, agenda, platform against a better alternative.

We would be doing a great disservice to ourselves by reacting narrowly to it. We must avoid the path of negativity where the choice is reduced to political nihilism of the Anna Hazare variety or the TINA factor of the Nehru-Gandhi factor. It is in our enlightened self-interest to dream big and ask why the bar must not be raised in our public debate on what model of politics and governance best serves us.

In the run-up to 2014, we need competitive politics on which idea, model or approach is the best. Let us not disqualify ideas and models even before that competition has begun.

Shashi Shekhar is a social media commentator on Indian politics and public policy. His blog can be found at http://blog.offstumped.in

Shashi Shekhar