Up Elections Block Salman Rushdie
Although the first three decades since freedom in 1947 saw a single party rule at the Centre and in most—when not all—the states, since then, the Indian political scene has got fractured into a multiplicity of parties, each with a loyal core of supporters. A weakness of India-style democracy is that almost all political parties in India are controlled each by a single family, with the top job being inherited by the next of kin of the departing leader. The Nehru family illustrates this proclivity for nepotism most starkly. The founder of the political dynasty that has ruled India for nearly three-fourths of its history was Motilal Nehru, who used his influence with Mahatma Gandhi to secure a berth within the Congress leadership for his only son, Jawaharlal. The more Gandhiji dealt with the younger Nehru, the more he liked the impetuous “Brown Sahib”, who had his schooling in Harrow, and who to the end of his days was happiest in the company of people from the British isles. Since the mid-1930s,it became an obsession of the Mahatma to ensure that his successor as Congress boss was the young Nehru. Democratic niceties were not allowed to stand in the way of this love and faith for the handsome Kashmiri Pandit. Despite being supported by only a small minority of the senior leadership of the party, Gandhiji ensured that Nehru got made the Congress President and later the first Prime Minister of free India.
History records that the very first decision taken by the Mahatma Gandhi-annoited PM was to beseech the outgoing Viceroy of India, Lord Louis Mountbatten, to stay on in Delhi, this time as free India’s first Governor-General. In the annals of history, it would be difficult to come across another instance of a colonial master being begged by his former subject to continue to serve as the boss. Mountbatten wanted to be the Governor-General of Pakistan as well, but Mohammad Ali Jinnah (who apparently had more self-respect than his Indian counterpart) made it clear that the former Viceroy would be welcome in Pakistan only as a guest, and not as formerly, the Head of State Nehru ensured that the colonial administration, including its rules, laws, personnel and procedures, continued seamlessly after 15 August 1947. The consequence of continuing with the vast discretionary powers of the British period has been corruption on a gargantuan scale. The fastest way to become rich is to win a lottery. The next fastest is to enter electoral politics. Today, in every star hotel in India, the rooms and restaurants are filled with politicians and their families. London and Dubai have become the locations of choice for themselves and their family members. Within the country, they treat ordinary people with the contempt they feel for those who elect to power people with such a low level of ethics and vision. However, for a few weeks during each election cycle, they change their tune, pretending to be deferential towards the very people whom they ignore for the rest of the time. Once the votes get cast, the political elite once again forgets that India is supposed to be a democracy, and with the various agencies of their state as the junior partners, behave as though they were the British during the time when the latter were the masters of India.
Because winning elections means hitting the jackpot, in terms of access to the cash and other benefits that flow from power, the period of the election cycle sees a transformation in the attitudes and discourse of the political elite. Suddenly they become very sensitive to what they see as “public opinion”. And it is into precisely such a maelstrom that Salman Rushdie found himself in, when the British author (who first said that he was from Pakistan and later corrected himself and claimed to be Indian) got invited to the 2012 Jaipur Literary Festival to do a reading of his book,”Midnight’s Children”. It may be remembered that Rushdie is also the author of the book “Satanic Verses”, which was first banned by the Rajiv Gandhi government in 1988.Soon afterwards, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a fatwa asking for Rushdie to be executed for the crimes of apostasy and blasphemy, an edict that made Rushdie both famous and a recluse. The controversy helped the sell of his many books. Rushdie has a turgid style, and let it be confessed that this columnist has not been able to go beyond a few dozen pages of any of his books. They are either very poorly written or “too evolved” for this columnist’s tastes. However, perhaps because it is taken as a sign of literary ignorance not to like Rushdie, the author has a considerable following.
The Congress Party is looking forward to installing Rahul Gandhi as PM, but for this to be a smooth transition, he needs to show that he has the potential to be an electoral asset. Hence the need for Rahul to ensure that the Congress Party wins a lot more than the 23 (out of 403) assembly seats that it won in UP during the last assembly polls five years back. Rahul’s backers (and let it be confessed that this columnist too has a soft corner for the only son of Rajiv Gandhi) are aiming at the Congress Party getting close to a hundred seats, or more than four times their previous tally. This is possible only if the Congress Party can attract the Muslim vote away from the other two contenders, the ruling Bahujan Samaj Party and the Samajwadi Party, both of whom have traditionally been more attractive to the Muslims than the Congress Party, which is seen as a less than reliable friend, and whose concern for the Muslims is more verbal than real. Given the importance of the Muslim vote, when Rahul Gandhi’s key political advisor Digvijay Singh (a former chief minister of neighbouring Madhya Pradesh) realised that Salman Rushdie was to give a speech in Jaipur, he began to worry that the presence of the author in a Congress-ruled state would turn Muslims away from the Congress Party. Very soon afterwards, as if on cue, some Muslim organisations began to demand that the invitation by the Jaipur Literary Festival to Rushdie get withdrawn. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram (who is the Cabinet minister most trusted by Sonia Gandhi) talked to the chief minister of Rajasthan, the state where the festival was being held.
The conversation is secret, but immediately afterwards, reports began to appear in the media of mysterious groups “out to kill Salman Rushdie”. The Mumbai underworld was talked of as the danger to the author. The cries against Salman Rushdie coming to India, a country that he has visited many times in the past, got used as an excuse to put pressure on the organisers of the Literary Festival to disinvite Rushdie. Later, even a video link with the author was called off. The clear worry for the political managers of the Congress Party was that even a video image of Salman Rushdie in an event held in a Congress-ruled state would annoy the Muslim community. In holding such a view, they were implicitly denigrating a community that is as tolerant and as socially progressive as any other. While few Muslims like Salman Rushdie (as they are aware of the way in which his writings are being used to give a bad name to them), the overwhelming majority don’t care about the issue. They are too busy going about their daily lives, just as their fellow-Indians who are Hindu, Sikh, Christian, Buddhist or Jain are. To seek to portray an entire religious community as narrow-minded and prone to violence is wrong and indeed shameful. Yet that is the image conveyed by the episode of Rushdie’s aborted visit to India.
This columnist believes in freedom of speech, and hence considers it wrong that a silent conspiracy took place to deny Salman Rushdie the right he has as a Person of Indian Origin to come to India. Had he come to Jaipur, while there may have been a few protests by those organisations anxious to show that they are “Islam Pasand”, the overwhelming majority of Muslims (together with other Indians) would have ignored him. Salman Rushdie would have come and gone, the way he has so many times in the past, without any fuss. However, the anxiety of the Congress Party was to block his presence in India during the time when elections are to take place in a state (UP) where 18 per cent of the population is Muslim. This denial of the right of Rushdie to come, and the right of others to listen to him, have once again brought into focus the imperfect nature of India’s democracy. While the Constitution of India is a wonderful document, sadly the Criminal and Civil Procedure Codes are still based on the colonial British model. And it is these that are repeatedly used to flout the promise of the Constitution and deny the people of India the freedoms enjoyed in genuine democracies. While Salman Rushdie is a writer best ignored, the effective denial of entry by him to India has hurt the conscience of the country.
By MD Nalapat