THE MOCKING OF MODI
India, says Modi, isn’t where it ought to be,
And on economic isues it’s hard to disagree.
But he claims he’ll heal divisions of religion and of caste.
Is that really very likely when you think about his past?
India, easily the world’s most populous democracy, has just undergone a major test of its system. Over half a million people voted in an election for a national government. By and large the election was considered free and fair – that is, rival parties and organizations competed, making their case openly in the news media. Moreover, a question of particular concern in this blog, the several parties and candidates were subjected to a blast of satire from all sides.
This is not surprising, for India has a lively tradition of political satire. It was there during the British Raj in cartoons, essays and jokes – though subjected to heavy censorship whenever anti-colonial pressure mounted. Since independence satire has grown in popularity and exploded into television, the Internet and the social media. On television the two most popular satirical shows are The Week That Wasn’t, broadcast in English, and therefore directed to a predominately, urban, educated audience, and Gustakh Maaf (“Excuse the Transgression”), a puppet show aired in Hindi. Then there are fake news online programs such as Faking News and The Unreal Times modeled on America’s The Onion.
The Times of India has argued that “Indian satire websites have yet to match the incisive humor of The Onion” and that “westerners have a greater tolerance for humor and greater freedom of speech” than is the case in India. Indeed, in a previous blog (June 23, 2011) I discussed the problem faced by one Indian satirist, Assem Trivedi, who was briefly jailed and whose website was shut down. In fact, efforts to censor dissident viewpoints are inevitable in a vast population deeply divided by religion, region, custom and class,.
Even so, there was no lack of diverse expressions in the 2014 Indian election, and so much satire that a Faking News headline complained: “Hundreds of ‘joke-makers’ to go jobless as Indian elections comes to and end.” With an extraordinary range of candidates and issues satirists had an abundance of targets for their art. But ultimately the election revolved around the two leading parties and their candidates. The incumbent Congress National Party, a secular party dominated by the Nehru-Gandhi family, had been in power 49 of the 67 years since independence. But now its leadership was profoundly unimpressive. The prime minister, Manmohan Singh, derided as “made of wax”, was standing down. His prospective successor, Rahul Gandhi, whose grandmother and father had both been prime ministers. was regularly lampooned on That Was the Week That Wasn’t as a grinning idiot totally devoid of political skills, and controlled by his imperious mother, Sonia Gandhi, the Congress Party’s president. So the satirists bored in on the consequences of inept leadership. First there was the economy slowing from 10% a year to 5%, falling well behind China. Second, there was massive corruption. The blog, Humor-Satire News, offered a “news report that the country left China far behind in corruption. After the news, the countrymen filled with pride. They said that giving credit to one or two would not be just for this achievement. Certainly many did hard work for many years ... The real credit goes to political leaders, officers, and middlemen.”
This, together with an array of economic and other failures of the governing party, resulted in an overwhelming victory for an opposition coalition headed by Narendra Modi of the BJP (Bharatiya Janata Party), a strongly nationalist party appealing primarily to India’s Hindu majority. Modi was a brilliant speaker, elected three times as First Minister of the state of Gujarat, and widely praised for his business-friendly economic record. But Modi, too, was a frequent satirical target during the 2014 campaign. On television’s The Week That Wasn’t he was imitated and mocked. On line The Unreal Times questioned Modi’s Gujarat economic record, deriding his frequent boasts about his 56 inch chest while many in Gujarat suffered from malnutrition. They also suggested that his claim to sleep only four hours a night was evidence “that he is clearly a man with a disturbed conscience.”
As to why his conscience might be disturbed, The Unreal Times wondered if it began “after the 2002 riots”. This brings us to an issue that was featured only marginally in the campaign, but is the cause of much anxiety on the part of many Indians. In 2002, soon after Modi’s first election in Gujarat, communal riots erupted in the state. First, Muslims attacked Hindus, killing 79. In retaliation Hindu mobs killed at least ten times as many Muslims. Modi is alleged to have done little or nothing to stop the anti-Muslium riots, perhaps even surreptitiously supporting Hindu organizations engaged in them. Though these allegations were not proved, they were so pervasive that the U.S. State Department denied Modi a visa when he wanted to visit Washington.
However, after his massive victory in 2014 these misgivings were put aside. Congratulations poured in from around the world – even from Pakistan. And the US State Department, following a fulsome message from Obama inviting Modi to Washington, announced that, of course, a visa would be issued. T
``````The good feelings were encouraged by the fact that during the 2014 campaign Modi had adopted a conciliatory tone to all of India’s religious groups, notably the 15% of the nation’s population who were Muslims. Some satirists were unconvinced. It was unfortunate, they alleged, that India had moved away from a secular governing party to one that was assertively Hindu. So when Modi during the campaign proposed new laws boycotting candidates with records of communal violence, a cartoon in the satirical blog, My Say, drew Modi as a lion announcing to the animal world: “I, king of the jungle, announce death penalty to any of you killing any fellow being for food!”, while the other animals say “What’s wrong with him?”, and the lion thinks “What am I saying?”
Nonetheless, for now the verdict is clear: