Narendra Modi's Varanasi speech rebuffed 'liberals' who consider cultural pride and modernity to be contradictory

Modi's speech in Varanasi aimed to give a sense to people that Hindu cultural traditions and civilisational heritage, and the path of a new India are complementary to each other.

Sanjay Singh May 27, 2019 22:50:34 IST
Narendra Modi's Varanasi speech rebuffed 'liberals' who consider cultural pride and modernity to be contradictory
  • On Monday, Narendra Modi began his address to party workers with the chant of 'Har Har Mahadev'.

  • He appeared to be strongly responding to an elitist perception of the reasons behind the massive mandate that he and the BJP won the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

  • Several articles in foreign media had painted India under Modi as a land of doom and darkness, rejecting the popular verdict of hope.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, after conducting a puja at Varanasi's Lord Vishwanath temple, began his address to party workers at the Deen Dayal Hastkala Sankul with the chant of “Har Har Mahadev”.

This was not for the first time that he uttered the Shaivite chant, which in a way represents the "theme" of the holy city. However, on Monday, he seemed to have a special purpose — strongly responding to an elitist perception of the reasons behind the massive mandate that he and the BJP won in the 2019 Lok Sabha election.

Although Modi did not refer to anyone in particular, it was clear, from his statements about evolving a synergy between taking pride in cultural traditions and striving for modernity, that he was rebutting recent claims made in sections of the western media, like TIME magazine, New York Times, The Economist and The Guardian. Several articles on these media platforms had a similar theme — the claim that democracy is under threat in Modi's leadership, and that a landslide victory for him would “see India’s soul lost to a dark politics”.

These articles painted India under Modi as a land of doom and darkness, rejecting the popular verdict of hope and of India’s onward march on the road of development and national pride. Modi obviously had not taken kindly to the articles.

Narendra Modis Varanasi speech rebuffed liberals who consider cultural pride and modernity to be contradictory

Narendra Modi in Varanasi on Monday. Twitter/@narendramodi

Modi also appeared to be responding to persons like Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen (albeit without naming him), who has on numerous occasions been critical of him. Modi said that despite the BJP having won the Lok Sabha elections in 2014 and 2019, and most Assembly elections in this period, they (an apparent reference to "liberal" critics) kept their eyes and ears shut. The crux of his reasoning, which was also a part of his speech on Monday, was this — such critics are still living in a time zone of their own, and their thoughts and ideas were valid for the 20th Century, not for the 21st Century. They may have accomplishments to show, may have a long bio-data, and may have presented numerous papers. But compared to them, a poor person rooted to the ground has a better understanding of situations and realities. A rooted person, thus, is able to deliver better. Modi said that he and his government are dedicated to extracting the best out of those who have a good understanding of ground realities, and have a commitment to deliver.

This was also broadly the sentiment behind Modi's earlier "Harvard versus hard work" remark.

A day after Modi bettered his own victory numbers of 2014 and crossed the 300 mark in the Lok Sabha, Sen wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times titled "Modi won power, not the battle of ideas — The Hindu nationalists were victorious. What does that say about India?" The Guardian published an editorial with the title: “Narendra Modi’s landslide: bad for India’s soul."

In the past few days, several such articles are being discussed in elitist circles, which are now being described as Lutyens or "Khan Market" circles.

Commenting on how most in the mainstream media got it wrong, an article by BV Rao titled “Missing the Mood for the Breeze” said: “there is a reason why I have recounted recent events in such vivid detail. It is to underscore the point that so close to D-Day, the media had no clue that the country would be seeing the biggest electoral victory in more than six decades…...” Rao concludes by saying, “...we can feign surprise now, but it was there for all of us to see. A prime minister’s politics and political beliefs are an important measure of his appraisal, but cannot be the only one. In the first five years, Narendra Modi was judged only for his politics. Not for his leadership, ability to take big decisions, administrative skills or expertise in project execution of gigantic development and welfare schemes. The next five years we will hopefully be different.”

Modi appears to suggest that articles by sections of the western media sought to create a distorted perception about a person and the party he belongs to, using half-truths, falsehoods, misinformation and misinterpretation. This was done so because it is believed, and rightly so, that politics is about perception and if a certain perception is built, or is prevented from being built, then the battle is half-won.

Although the prime minister did not say it in so many words, his ire seemed to be directed at people who equated modernisation with westernisation, and equated pride in India's civilisational heritage with obscurantism and a descent to the "dark ages."

On Monday, Modi said, “The country's civilisational heritage was built by sages, teachers, preachers, farmers, labourers, scientists and spiritual leaders. This heritage has stood the test of time for centuries. Others may be ashamed of it, but I am proud of it. As far as those who are ashamed of it are concerned, it is their problem. But we believe that great historical figures have given a lot to the world. Their legacy is a matter of pride for us. We have to take this great cultural heritage and a modern vision together."

The prime minister has shown pride in celebrating Diwali in Ayodhya (a practice started by the Yogi Adityanath government two years ago), and has given a whole new dimension to the Kumbh in Prayagraj. Recently the Republic Day parade included a tableau of the Ramayana as it was portrayed in various Asian nations. In the NDA's tenure, Ramayana and Buddha circuit tours have been developed.

At the same time, the prime minister mentioned Atal tinkering labs in schools for students of Class VIII to Class X, to emphasise on developing a temperament for innovation among young Indians.

Modi's 50-minute speech aimed to give a sense to people that Hindu cultural traditions and civilisational heritage and the path of a new India are complementary to each other, and not contradictory — as some intellectuals and "political pundits" seek to portray.

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