In a hyperbolic op-ed in The Indian Express(29 December 2021), social scientist Pratap Bhanu Mehta tore into the Narendra Modi government. Mehta began with these words: “Even as the wheels are coming off the Republic of India...”
Now Prime Minister Modi has much to answer for — from communal polarisation to inconsistent governance. He deserves criticism, too, for allowing a culture of sycophancy to be built around him. But Mehta spoils his own case by abandoning rational argument for polemical bluster.
The title of the piece — ‘There is no alternative’, better known as TINA — occurs with metronomic regularity through the op-ed. Mehta’s diatribe argues with laboured sarcasm that of course there should be an alternative. Only besotted Indian voters don’t realise it.
But not once does Mehta spell out those alternatives. He could have said RITA — Rahul Is The Alternative. Or MITA – Mamata Is The Alternative.
That though would have given the game away. The target after all is Narendra Modi. Why dilute the message? Besides, Rahul comes with baggage. So does Mamata. RITA and MITA are not attractive alternatives.
Mehta isn’t alone in despising Modi. The prime minister is abused, vilified, caricatured and mocked daily by newspapers, television channels and digital portals. Mehta’s criticism of Modi, wrapped though it is in layers of leaden-footed sarcasm, is comparatively mild. Some of it is even justified. But a lot of it is piffle. Let’s examine both.
Exhibit One: Mehta writes: “There was a prime minister who kissed the floor of Parliament. It turned out to be the kiss of death for parliamentary democracy. But the refrain goes, ‘There is no alternative’.”
Good journalism demands balance. To be credible, criticism must not be selective. Does Mehta pass the test? He is careful to criticise the Opposition towards the end of his overwrought tirade: “The Congress is unable to shed the baggage of its past mistakes. Many Opposition state governments are not exactly models of institutional probity or principled defenders of liberal and democratic values.”
The rap on Opposition knuckles couldn’t have been gentler.
Exhibit Two: Mehta writes: “There was a prime minister who made the stock markets rise. Like every government in the last 20 years, his government has also done a couple of schemes well. Perhaps the top 10 per cent of the population really flourished.”
India’s welfare schemes, infrastructure, digitisation, health insurance, rural electrification, sanitation and dozens of other initiatives are dismissed with this: “…his government has also done a couple of schemes well.” Note the words: “...a couple of...”
Bias is the death knell of journalism.
Exhibit Three: Mehta goes on thus: “There was a prime minister who promised strong national security. But the result was the loss of territorial access, being tied down on the land border and the prospect of a two-front war. Yet the refrain goes, ‘There is no alternative’.”
The fact that India has stood up to China on the Line of Actual Control (LAC) for nearly two years is swept aside. So is Pakistan’s terrorism, supported by China. Not a word from Mehta on either.
Exhibit Four: Instead he pivots to this: “There is a prime minister who promised strong internal security. Indeed, this goal was achieved. Now that the Missionaries of Charity, human rights activists, environmental advocates, assorted journalists and writers can be hounded, we know the nation is safe. Did we not tell you, ‘There is no alternative’.”
Laboured sarcasm aside, Mehta is on thin ice by conflating the withdrawal of permission to the Missionaries of Charity to accept donations under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act (FCRA) with internal security and the hounding of journalists and activists. Besides, if they were being hounded, The Indian Express wouldn’t be publishing op-eds by Mehta eviscerating the government week after week.
Freedom of expression is the cornerstone of democracy. The Indian Express, NDTV, The Hindu, The Wire, Caravan, The Telegraph, Scroll and dozens of others uphold that freedom by criticising the government — as indeed they should — with no consequences. Their journalists remain free. The newspapers, TV channels and digital portals receive government advertisements. Hardly the vision of a dystopian state that a paranoid Mehta so fears.
Exhibit Five: When hyperbole replaces commentary, we get this from Mehta: “Every single institution has been decimated. But you see, ‘There is no alternative’.”
By now Mehta has lost his sense of critical balance. He offers no solutions. Not even RITA or MITA – he knows that Rahul is not the alternative; Mamata certainly isn’t.
But here too, Mehta is wrong. In 1996-98 India had two inconspicuous prime ministers: HD Deve Gowda and Inder Kumar Gujral. Few remember that one of the country’s most progressive Union Budgets (P Chidambaram’s “dream budget”) was delivered in 1997 under Deve Gowda.
So the fear Mehta has about there being no alternative is misplaced. There is an alternative to Modi. It needn’t be Rahul Gandhi or Mamata Banerjee. One is an entitled dynast with a personality disorder. The other is a rabble-rouser with a temperament unsuited to high office.
The real alternative to Modi will emerge in the fullness of time and from unexpected quarters.
Indian democracy has thrown up unheralded prime ministers – from Lal Bahadur Shastri and VP Singh to PV Narasimha Rao, Deve Gowda, IK Gujral, Manmohan Singh and now Narendra Modi.
Among India’s prime ministers only two were destined for the job: Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi. The rest were thrown up by India’s democracy. Mehta shouldn’t lose hope. What he should lose is his bias.
The writer is editor, author and publisher. Views expressed here are personal.