In almost all his foreign tours and address to Indian diaspora, Prime Minister Narendra Modi talks extensively of values about promoting tourism in India and the transformation it could cause, both in terms of enhancing the nation's image and also the revenue earned. He actively promotes tourism in his domestic programmes also. Even a chaiwala earns through tourism, is his usual refrain.
As chief minister of Gujarat, he had realised what promotion of tourism could mean to the state and the nation. Megastar Amitabh Bachchan's Kuch din toh gujariye Gujarat me was part of a well thought out campaign initiated by Modi. Big B's appeal would not have meant anything if the state government had not provided the right environment for people outside the state and country to stay there without any fear or favour.
Tourism is essentially about being at peace with oneself, the ambiance and being in right frame to enjoy whatever comes by, nature or man-made.
In the last two years since the time Modi has been at the helm at the Centre, he has made all the right noises, expressed all the good intent. But he made a big mistake in choosing a person called Mahesh Sharma, a doctor-turned-businessman cum politician, as tourism and culture minister.
Tourism and culture are obviously areas of huge significance for the Modi government. Ideally, it should have been headed by the person in whom Modi had his fullest trust and confidence in competence. One is not sure what kind of talent and skills Modi saw in Mahesh Sharma but in popular perception, he is a man who thinks after he speaks and is a permanent embarrassment to self and the government he is a part of. He has been tasked to promote tourism and create the right environment for it, not to do the reverse. As culture minister, he had earlier conceived the idea of cultural cleaning, only to backtrack later.
His latest pearl of wisdom or an alarmist diktat as tourism minister — no skirt for foreign women tourists, no night out, free pre or post dinner stroll on the street, posting of a photo of the car one is using to a perceived protector before boarding a cab — is like actually saying don't come to India. In the land of Gautam Buddha and Mahatma Gandhi where the world's oldest civilisation flourished, you are at your own peril. What he didn't say but implicitly meant was that you could be raped and murdered if you don't cover yourself well and haven't taken care of moving around with male companions.
In a way, he is saying only burkinis are welcome here, not bikinis. Here is his idea of welcoming the foreign tourists when they land in Indian at various airports: "When tourists arrive at the airport, they are being given a welcome kit which has a card with dos and don'ts... it has instructions like if they are in small areas, they should not roam around alone at night or wear skirts...they should take a picture of the car they are travelling in and send it to their friend." Only Mahesh Sharma knows whether he is welcoming them or scaring them.
His clarification, after hit by all round criticism was no better: "I did not comment on what women should wear or not, I was just speaking in the context of religious places....Also if I ask women tourists to be a bit careful while moving around at night then what is wrong in it? I am simply concerned."
The Tourism and Culture Minister also needs to reflect how would Indians and Indian women react when after landing in any Islamic, Middle East countries they are asked to put on a veil or if travelling to western countries asked to put on a Bikini while venturing out on a beach. More so, if the issue is not just culture, but it carries an implicit threat to personal honour and life.
Looks like Mahesh Sharma has never gone to Khajuraho temples in Madhya Pradesh and Sun temple in Orissa. Or he does not even go out to fancy malls in Noida, where he lives. He is perhaps too big a person to walk inside these malls. Otherwise, he would have realised skirts, short frocks and such other western outfits are no longer exclusive preserves of the Western world. He needs to hand over similar advisories at bus stands, metro stations, malls, college gates, railway stations and so on.
He is better advised to give a thought to Modi's words, spoken recently at BJP's core group meet. Modi had said, "Hum nirantar vikas ke karyon me lage huen hain kintu kuch aise tatva hain jinko yah ras nahi aa raha hai. Wo hamara aur janata ka dhyan bhatkane ki koshish kar rahen hai lekin hume iss tatva se mamanya manvi ko avgat karana hai ki hamara ekmatra lakshya rashtra nirman hai (We are continuously engaged in developmental works but there are some elements who are not liking it, they are trying to distract popular attention from development. But we have to make common people aware of these elements and let them know that our only aim is nation building)."
PM Modi has to decide which category, Culture and Tourism Ministers falls and accordingly decide on future course of action.