Prime Minister Narendra Modi made two thoughtful gestures this past week, in keeping with a new-look persona that subliminally conveys the spiritual rather than the political. He visited the Rakabganj Gurdwara in New Delhi and addressed the centenary celebrations of the Aligarh Muslim University (AMU).
The outreach to Muslims and Sikhs comes at the end of an year marked by unrest in both communities, in the contexts of the Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) and agricultural reforms respectively.
The NDA government has displayed no intention of rolling back either of these initiatives, but by civility of action and speech, Modi has signalled a respect for differences of perspective and opinion as part and parcel of a democratic system. His plea, however, is that points of contention cannot be allowed to stall development.
His speech at AMU has evoked a flurry of comments on social media, many appreciative of his statesmanlike address, which emphasised the paramount necessity of nation-building. Others dismissed it as clever, sugar-coated rhetoric delivered with an eye on his global audience. In other words, it is all part of an elaborate, image-building exercise by a brand-savvy politician. The truth may well lie somewhere in between.
It is the content rather than the intent of Modi's speech at AMU that is important; post-pandemic India needs an emollient discourse: “Every citizen should rest assured about their constitutional rights and their future...no citizen would be left behind because of their religion and everyone would get equal opportunities”.
It is not the first time that Modi has stressed pluralism as a sine qua non of a democratic government. In the past, he has often expressed the inclusive intent of his government by saying “the 125 crore people of India are my family” or “I am Prime Minister of 130 crore people”. But the message at AMU was clearer than of yore: electoral politics is one thing, governance is another.
He harked back repeatedly to the core message of his 2014 and 2019 campaigns: vikas, which knows no creed, caste or community. “When we talk about the vision of new India, we should not see the nation's development through a political prism...Politics can wait, society can wait but the country's development cannot wait,” he said.
Even as the PM bestowed fulsome praise on AMU for its quality of research and education and contribution to the nation, he took a swipe at the Opposition: “When we come together for a larger objective...some elements get disturbed...They will do anything to fulfil their vested interests and spread negativity”. He also brought in gender parity, one of his favourite subjects, by congratulating AMU for increasing the number of women students and mentioning the triple talaq law.
The question arises as to why a generally taciturn PM has chosen to step in at this particular time, and bring his moral force to bear on simmering discontents, some spontaneous and others transparently fuelled by his political and ideological opponents. Scornfully dubbing it as a political ploy is simplistic. After all, the BJP continues to meet with victory after victory at the hustings, be it in the assembly or local self-government (Delhi being a notable exception).
Continued electoral success, however, is contingent on beating anti-incumbency and renewing the hope factor which the BJP has deployed to excellent effect. This means addressing the economic and geopolitical fallout of Covid, as well as taking advantage of the opportunities in a post-pandemic scenario. And this, in turn, naturally calls for peace at home and an inclusive image abroad, particularly in the US, regarded as an important strategic partner.
Modi's visit to Rakabganj Gurdwara was clearly aimed at recalling the cultural bonds between Sikhs and Hindus. Certainly, there was a political element, in that he was reaching out personally to Sikh voters in Punjab, after the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) quit the NDA. But he was also seeking to allay fears among the Jat Sikh farmers and signal that his government's approach is empathetic rather than antipathetic.
Thus, the repeated calls for discussions and offers of amendments and guarantees, with the government consciously stressing its willingness to accommodate the farmers' concerns. Likewise, from the point of view of West Bengal, which has a substantial Muslim electorate and a level of polarisation that threatens unprecedented violence, the AMU speech was politic.
It is clear to him, however, that the electorate's patience is wearing thin and “poor and youth don't want to wait”. Hence, the note of urgency: “Due to differences, the nation has already lost time in the last century. Now we don't have time to waste. Everyone has to move towards building a self-reliant India”.
The writer is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.