Saturday, May 18, 2024

The President’s position probably has empathy from all quarters

Writers, commentators and all types of Toms, Dicks, Harriets, Girigorises and Haramanises have gone into a state of apoplexy over the President’s Independence Day speech. They are levelling a charge of pan-Sinhalaism on the new government, particularly singling out the President for what they say are his exclusionary policies.

They say, predictably, that his pro-Sinhala stand which is simply a long overdue recognition of Sinhala Buddhism as being the fulcrum that holds together Sri Lankan nationalism, is hegemonic. ‘Long overdue’, because the previous Government so enjoyed kicking the Sinhalese around, period.

The President is on the one hand doing the necessary reset after the Sinhalese had their collective noses rubbed in the mud in the years between 2015 and 2019. Even those who decry the President’s current stand and his Sinhala Buddhist orientation acknowledge that the abject mentality of the previous dispensation was reprehensible.

But yet, when the President tries to compensate for these five years of humiliation of the Sinhalese Buddhists, he is accused of ‘Sinhala hegemonism’, and being unable to read the political barometer. India wouldn’t be impressed, we are also told, because we are relying on the Chinese to support us ­– the ‘Chinese backstop’ – with this hegemonic agenda that has turned the world against us, or so the story goes.

That is interesting. The last time I checked, India followed a ‘Hindutva’ or a Hindu majoritarian agenda. One would have thought, what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander? “A spate of inquiries into the nature of rising India, specifically under the tenure of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, has attempted to examine the role of Hindutva as the guiding philosophical framework for the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) foreign policy orientation,” opined the Diplomat.

Liberal Interpreter

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Swapan Dasgupta, Rajya Sabha MP notes, “The test of success was not what Hindus thought but how Muslims and other communities felt. Translated into secularist politics, this implied that Hindus must live in a state of permanent magnanimity, and, in the realm of competitive politics, never assert themselves as Hindus.

The Ayodhya movement challenged this pseudo-secularism – L.K. Advani’s coinage that acquired popularity in the 1990s – frontally. I met Dasgupta in Colombo in 2011 or thereabouts. No Hindu chauvinist, he. Rajya Sabha MP Swapan Dasgupta is a liberal interpreter of the BJP’s policies, states The Wire, a respected Indian web publication. He is widely considered to be one of India’s foremost centre-right intellectuals.

He views the Indira Gandhi–Nehru secularism of India as a form of pseudo-secularism. Narendra Modi, the incumbent Indian Premier of today became a Premier – then a two-term Premier – and changed all that. The parallels with Sri Lanka couldn’t have been starker. Notice that Dasgupta writes about Hindus in India having had to live in a state of permanent magnanimity. Dasgupta engaged the voluble Congress MP Sashi Tharoor in a debate and said, “The country has witnessed a fundamental change. There is a mirror reflection of the confident country. Narendra Modi has captured the process very well. In 1990, when the entire community was driven out of Kashmir, that was a weak India. The country’s evolution into a strong nation is natural. In 1999, the Government had surrendered before the terrorists at the time of the Kandahar plane hijack. Liberalisation has helped India boost its self-confidence.”

India as a strong country that harks back to its Hindutva roots, will be Modi’s legacy. Premier Modi won a second term with these policies, it must be remembered. That is especially important because some of the pundits who decry President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s policies have already branded him a one term President with the Lankan President having barely completed one-fifth of his first term.

Hindutva Sentiment

If India is comfortable – and if Indians are feeling strong and empowered – after years of forced magnanimity under pseudo-secularist policies which have now been turned back under Modi, why should Narendra Modi or any current Indian leader grudge a reckoning on the same lines for Sri Lanka? Indians have by and large been proud and empowered rediscovering Hindutva roots. It is obvious from the fact that Modi won his second term.

To be realistic, the Gotabaya version of Sinhala-Buddhist revivalism if one were to draw a parallel, is far less strident than Modi’s version of Hindu revivalism in India. Dasgupta is forced to write about “the permanent state of magnanimity of the Indian Hindus.” This writer has not heard of any pro-Gotabaya theoretician speaking of anything as patronizing as Sinhala Buddhist magnanimity or Sinhala Buddhist patronage that forces this majority community to be ‘magnanimous to the minorities’. The President’s views on his Sinhala Buddhist leadership can be distilled essentially to a single sentiment – no longer will the Sinhala Buddhists tolerate institutionalized neglect.

It is worth repeating clearly. What Premier Modi and his Government wants for India — which is the reemergence of the quintessential Indian identity as mirrored by the country’s core Hindutva past ­– cannot be grudged by him or any in his Government, for neighbouring Sri Lanka, surely?

Can anybody be heard to say, “Well, that’s good for India, because of the country’s size – but we cannot aspire to be what Big Brother is to the North?” What has a country’s collective sense of self-worth got to do with its geographical proportions? Will Premier Modi deem that the Hindutva that’s good for Hindu-majority India under his leadership is fine, but the Sinhala Buddhist resurgence in the neighboring country that is majority Sinhala Buddhist, is abhorrent?

Quite apart from the fact that he will be seen as a tad hypocritical if he does so, it is worth noting that PM Modi is not a leader of the sort that cannot identify with the dilemmas of his fellow leader and President that are extremely similar to his own.

Remember that he has been excoriated in the West, and in liberal intellectual circles everywhere for his pro-Hindutva stance. Proof is hardly necessary for what’s common knowledge, but if you need any or have been living under a rock, here are some jottings:

“Modi is going about the ugly business of consolidating a majoritarian idea of India,” skulked the Politico published in the US. “Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi now joins the long historical list of tyrants …,” complained the Washington Post. “Hindu supremacist Narendra Modi should not be invited to the Commons,” admonished the British Guardian.

It’s the kind of coverage that is familiar from the Western media regarding matters closer to home, but yet we are told the Indians won’t empathize and would be worried about our ‘Chinese backstop’.

Great Mismatch

Maybe that is how realpolitik works. Unrelenting, projecting power ­– no matter the niceties. If that is the case, the less said about the optics of that the better.

Already, China uses Buddhist diplomacy far more effectively to project its soft power than India does. Our neighbourly relations with these two giants have far more complicated nuances than may be seen at a first glance. In the backdrop of this complex web, there is Premier Modi establishing a ‘Hindutva first’ State harking back to the country’s historical origins.

Surely, he would see the compulsions in a country to the South of him, to do a somewhat similar reset? Surely, there should be more empathy from his Government for the stance for which the pro-Sinhala President here is excoriated so regularly in certain sections of the commentariat? If there isn’t, the mismatch between what Modi wants for India, and what Modi wants for Sri Lanka would be so glaring, it may look a tad surreal.

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