Did Karan Thapar pave the way for Narendra Modi from Gujarat to New Delhi? In a belated interview to Siddharth Varadarajan, Editor of The Wire, Thapar disclosed that Modi had called him up to say `Thank you, Karan, I love you`. This was with regard to an aborted interview that Modi (when he was Gujarat chief minister) did with Karan, where he not only requested for the interview to end abruptly but was seen to be precipitating and asking for a glass of water over Thapar`s persistent questioning about Modi`s role in Gujarat riots, 2002. This three-minute video went viral. Thapar in the interview to Varadarajan, in fact states that he forewarned Modi that he should complete the interview otherwise the half-done interview would go viral. Modi did not reply. Did Modi wanted the interview in its incomplete form with his inability to answer in English to go viral? Did he sense that this would be perceived as unfair victimisation of the Hindus represented by Modi?
While many of us admired Thapar for his fearless questioning, Modi seems to have seen it differently. This was almost 10 years before the Bharatiya Janata Party, with the help of TV channels and journalists, popularised the idea of ‘Lutyens Delhi’. This was followed up more recently by Modi that his image was not the making of ‘Khan Market’ socialites. After he won his resounding victory last month, Modi, in a speech in Varanasi, took jibes at intellectuals with a 50-page CV who couldn’t see what was to come. The very next day, after the results were announced, Ram Madhav writing in The Indian Express said it is now time to eliminate the ‘Khan market cacophony’.
Global literature on fascism now notes that anti-intellectualism is a standard tool of fascist repertoire. They abhor intellectuals for taking positions that are beyond `mere` common sense, raising difficult questions and speaking truth to power. However, the traction this kind of anti-intellectualism has not only among the less literate but also essentially among the professional middle classes and urban elites tells us something about the changing imagination of what constitutes the new markers of urbanity and social status.
The Nehruvian middle classes self-represented themselves through cultural capital that included knowledge of English, global literature, geography, music, and cuisine. On the contrary, the ‘new middle classes’, even as they are better travelled globally, seem to have become less cosmopolitan. Professionals in the new IT sector and service industry, take pride in specialisation, and not nurturing wide interests. It is to this class that even the `cloud theory` that the Prime Minister Modi offered is more about nationalist claim than veracity of the claim. It even allows for a sense of patronage for those belonging to the kind of social background Modi claims to come from. Was Thapar interrogating from the wrong side of the history? And it is still not clear who did he represent in making Modi uncomfortable.
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Narendra Modi on his part followed up the optics with the new binary he invented between kaamdar (hardworker) and naamdar (entitled). But it is ironical that socially privileged urban middle classes loved the narrative, even as they were staking their entitlements for social privileges that they had inherited. The kind of `victimhood` Modi displayed in his interview to Thapar, allowed the middle classes to see in him the double whammy of being both the aggressor and the vanquished, questioning existing entitlements but putting in place a more muscular claim to majoritarian-entitlement. Thapar belonged to an old middle class that had a different social ethos since it was a pre-globalised social class. He represented the `nationalism` of the same kind as national bourgeoisie constituting the Tatas and the Birlas. But the new middle class was the product of the expansion of comprador capital represented by Adani and Ambanis, who are the new nationalists working for the ‘New India’ and ‘India First’.
Did Thapar miss the political moment in the making, unlike Modi who could not only visualise it much before it arrived but fashioned his image and narrative to suit it. Would it be fair to conclude that political leaders have the uncanny ability to visualise the future; while many of us as intellectuals have the residual privilege of analysing history after the historical moment passes us by? Former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee fashioned his `liberal` Right-wing image decades before it had fructified, propelling him to the centre-stage of national leadership. The optics of his image fitted perfectly to a historical moment where one could sense a rightward drift without a consensus and its consolidation. Much in contrast, BJP veteran L. K. Advani`s attempts to make a quick image makeover from a rabid right-wing voice to a moderate one with his comments on Mohd Ali Jinnah backfired. He built the momentum with his rathyatra, yet attempted to disown the politics that came with it.
History will move on and we might or might not have an occasion to revisit Thapar`s interview of Modi but it will remain etched as a very significant moment in the political history of post-independence politics of India. It will also remain very significant in understanding the shifts in media and ethics of journalism. Thapar is going ahead, unhindered, with his job as a conscientious journalist, and did a similar interview with another senior BJP leader, Nitin Gadkari, recently. Gadkari – much like Vajpayee has fashioned – is another liberal image, but it does not seem to speak to the current political moment. Speaking truth to power and holding those in power accountable will continue to remain important ethics, even if Modi continues to love Karan Thapar.
The author is an Associate Professor at the Centre for Political Studies, JNU. He recently published ‘India after Modi: Populism and the Right’. The views are personal.
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