Essay

Our swadeshi McCarthy

Print edition : January 19, 2018

Prime Minister Narendra Modi addresses an election rally ahead of the second phase of the Gujarat Assembly elections, in Nadiad on December 11. Photo: REUTERS/AMIT DAVE

U.S. Senator Joseph McCarthy, who alleged during the Cold War in the 1950s that communist spies and sympathisers had infiltrated American institutions and carried on smear campaigns against them. Photo: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

Mani Shankar Aiyar with Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri (left) during a conference on the evolution of India-Pakistan relations, in New Delhi in 2011. Their friendship goes back decades. Photo: PTI

Modi with former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during a function to pay homage to security officials who lost their lives in the 2001 attack on Parliament House in New Delhi, on December 13, 2017. Photo: AP/Manish Swarup

Chinmaya Gharekhan, who rose to a high position at the U.N., one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

K. Natwar Singh, former diplomat and Minister for External Affairs, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: R.V. Moorthy

T.C.A. Raghavan, former Ambassador to Pakistan, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: Vijay Bate

Sharat Sabharwal, former High Commissioner to Pakistan, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: V.V. Krishnan

K. Shankar Bajpai, former Ambassador, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Salman Haidar, former Foreign Secretary, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

General Deepak Kapoor, former Army chief, one of the other guests at the dinner that Modi did not mention. Photo: PTI

Modi’s divisive politics and hateful rhetoric during the final phase of the campaign for the Gujarat elections have profound legal, moral and political implications.

IF Prime Minister Narendra Modi could go on such a ravage of slander in the last week of the election campaign in Gujarat, to what depths will he not stoop in the Lok Sabha elections in 2019? His campaign, it is accepted by all, averted the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) defeat, but it could not inflict a humiliating defeat on the Congress. The campaign over, the commentariat has gone back to its trade in trivia, neglecting the grave issues he has raised. His speeches as Chief Minister of Gujarat reeked of communal hate. Muslims of India were freely linked to Pakistan with the title “miya” applied freely.

The old Adam did not improve. Modi has been electioneering ever since he became the Prime Minister—in Delhi, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. But Gujarat was qualitatively and fundamentally different, a fact which is overlooked. There, our swadeshi McCarthy levelled charges of conspiracy to kill him and to overthrow his government with Pakistan’s aid. He named specific persons—such as a former Vice President, the former Prime Minister and a former Cabinet Minister—and deliberately distorted speeches reported by reputed correspondents, all in just four days before the final phase of voting.

This has profound legal, moral and political implications. Modi flouted the law, told palpable lies and spewed hateful, divisive rhetoric. The record of his speeches should make our submissive and supine commentators sit up and ponder.

Mani Shankar Aiyar’s (hereinafter referred to as Mani) friendship with Pakistan’s former Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri goes back a good few decades when they were together at Oxford. Kasuri, a man of high integrity, is known for a strong desire to improve relations between Pakistan and India. He gave ample evidence of this when he was Foreign Minister (2003-07). A Delhi-based think tank, Ananta Centre, invited him to deliver a talk titled “The Current State of India-Pakistan Relations” on December 7, 2017. Such invitations are not sent at short notice. His friend Mani was also invited. That he, in turn, hosted a dinner in honour of his friend was but to be expected. Invitations were sent a month earlier for dinner at Mani’s residence on December 6. Among the guests were former Vice President Mohammad Hamid Ansari; former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh; former Army Chief General Deepak Kapoor, who retired in March 2010; former Indian diplomats who had either served in Pakistan as High Commissioners—K. Natwar Singh, K. Shankar Bajpai, Sharat Sabharwal and T.C.A. Raghavan—or had dealt with Pakistan in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), former Foreign Secretary Salman Haidar and Chinmaya Gharekhan, who was in Rajiv Gandhi’s PMO and rose to a high position at the United Nations; and, of course, Pakistan’s High Commissioner Sohail Mahmood.

That the dinner meeting was fully covered by the Intelligence Bureau (I.B.) was par for the course; else, Modi could not have revealed that it lasted three hours. The subject was no secret—India-Pakistan relations. It is doubtful if the menu was.

Modi addressed election rallies in Gujarat, specifically on December 8 and 10. He began with Mani’s infamous remark on December 7 that Modi was a “ neech a a dmi” (a lowly character), for which his party awarded him his just deserts. But Modi distorted it to mean allusion to a caste; The Hindu of December 9 quoted Mani to have spoken of a neech a a dmi. It reported that Modi “labelled the Congress a casteist party”, its dissociation from Mani on his remark notwithstanding.

But Modi had not come to dole out such trifles as distortions of fact. He was in the big business of charges of murder and virtual treason. Speaking at Bhabhar in north Gujarat, Modi accused Mani of visiting Pakistan to arrange his supari (contract for killing).

He said: “After I became Prime Minister, this man (Aiyar) went to Pakistan and met some Pakistanis. All these things are available on the social media. At that meeting he is seen discussing with Pakistanis that ‘ jab tak Modi ko raste se hataya nahi jata’ (until Modi is removed from our path), the India-Pakistan relationship cannot improve.” Modi added: “Someone tell me what the meaning of ‘ raste se hatana’ is. You had gone to Pakistan to give my supari, you wanted to give Modi’s supari.” He added: “This conversation took place three years ago. The Congress Party had tried to suppress this episode. ...They did not take any action against him for the last three years. ... Maa Ambe is protecting me.” Mani had made the remark in 2015 at a talk show in Pakistan ( The Telegraph, The Hindu, December 9, 2017).

Do you believe that Narendra Modi himself believed in this palpable falsehood, bluntly, a lie? The questions it raises are obvious. Suparis are not announced on TV or on social media. He was the Prime Minister in 2015. What action did he take on this public threat to his life delivered in a foreign country on TV? Did he even ask the Congress to discipline Mani? Even Donald Trump will not misconstrue it as a threat to his life if an Iranian politician were to tell the BBC, in a talk show in London, that Iran’s relations with the United States will not improve as long as Trump remained President and that he needed to be removed before they could be put right. To arouse people, Modi capped his lie with a religious invocation to “Maa Ambe”.

In this category fall other falsehoods—the Congress’ rejoicing when Hafiz Saeed got bail; Pakistan’s support to Ahmed Patel (a typical old Modi ploy of identification of Indian Muslims with Pakistan); and Rahul Gandhi “embracing” the Chinese Ambassador during the Doklam crisis. In a democracy, politicians, scholars and journalists openly meet envoys of countries with whom their own country’s relations are under strain. They should.

This brings us to the crowning piece in the record of mendacity—the dinner. Speaking at Palanpur on December 10, Modi said: “A Pakistan delegation meets at Mani Shankar’s house and the next day he disrespects Gujarat’s society, its pachat (backward) society, its poor and Modi. Don’t all these things raise questions and concern? The Congress has to answer” (Ritu Sharma, The Indian Express, December 11, 2017).

Her report continued: “You must have read in newspapers, you must have seen on TV, a debate yesterday, that at Mani Shankar Aiyar’s house in Delhi, ‘Didn’t he disrespect you (Modi), disrespect Gujarat?’ Pakistan’s High Commissioner, former Foreign Minister, India’s former Vice President and India’s former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh all met at Aiyar’s house, for three hours, and then the next day, Mani Shankar calls Modi neech. This is a serious and sensitive issue, being a meeting with the Pakistan High Commissioner. Also, what is the reason for such a secret meeting amidst Gujarat elections?”

At his rally in Sanand later that day, Modi repeated his claims against Aiyar and of support for Ahmed Patel from across the border, but this time identified “Rafiq” as “a former chief of Pakistan army”. “Does that not create a suspicion in the mind of the nation?” Modi asked the huge audience. “Does it not cause worry for India’s sovereignty?”

In Vadodara, Modi said, “Did you [Aiyar] inform the government of India that during tension between the two countries, Pakistani officers were visiting you? When I was the Chief Minister of Gujarat, I used to inform the Manmohan Singh government about any foreign delegation coming to meet me.”

Every Chief Minister reports to New Delhi when he meets a foreign visitor. There is no such obligation on a private citizen in an open society. Dinners are held in homes or restaurants; not in public parks. Selection of guests is the host’s prerogative. In the instant case, the choice was impeccable. Modi complained: “No Indian official was present during the meeting and the government was also not intimated later” ( DNA, December 11, 2017). Is he, indeed, as utterly ignorant of the social life that lies at the heart of the diplomatic process as he pretends to be, three and a half years after he became Prime Minister? Regardless, the malevolence is patent and it emerges clearly from his speech itself. The I.B. “covered” the dinner, as it usually does. National Security Adviser Ajit Doval reports to the Prime Minister, who, thus, came to know that the dinner lasted for three hours and who all were present. Why then did Modi single out just four names for public mention—Pakistan’s High Commissioner, its former Foreign Minister Khurshid Mahmud Kasuri and, to establish a McCarthyite guilt by association, former Vice President Hamid Ansari and former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh— studiously omitting all others because their presence would have exploded his falsehoods sky high.

There the matter would have rested. Liz Mathew (of The Indian Express) did a service to the truth by revealing the names of their dinner companions—they were a former Army Chief, four former High Commissioners to Pakistan, a former Foreign Secretary, and a universally respected former diplomat who rose to high positions at the U.N. Why did Narendra Modi so calculatedly omit to mention their names while loudly publicising at an election rally two Indian figures along with two Pakistani figures? Pakistan’s High Commissioner to India took up his post only recently, with all the hopes and expectations of a diplomat in a new post. This is no way to treat him, surely?

Sustained campaign

Can or should all these disgraceful tirades be forgotten as being of no consequence and as a “stunt”? That is all right for a cynical political operator like Ghulam Nabi Azad. In a people addicted to sub chalta hai (everything is tolerable). That would be a shame. Modi’s smear campaigns have been sustained over a period of time. There was no solitary outburst. In recent weeks, the attacks were on named persons’ patriotism and loyalty to India. They have been divisive and blatantly communal. There is no criticism or debate on policies, foreign or domestic. The nation has been calculatedly split. The people’s gullibility is systematically exploited. Were it not for their consequences, Modi’s rallies on December 10 would make one laugh. Little does Modi realise that it is his own credibility which now stands diminished.



Consequences

This is the moral consequence of Modi’s behaviour. But he is not above the law. His conduct and speech have legal consequences and, what is more, grave and deep political consequences as well. The legal route none at the dinner will take and waste time in our courts pursuing cases of defamation against Modi. The election law is defective. Section 123(4) of the Representation of the People Act, 1951, makes it a “corrupt practice” for any person to publish, with the consent of the candidate, “any statement of fact which is false, and which he either believes to be false or does not believe it to be true; in relation to the personal character... or in relation to the candidature which is reasonably calculated to prejudice” his prospects. This is too narrow. In the U.S., formerly, there were non-partisan NGOs which kept track of false and hate speeches. We have none.

There remains the criminal offence and civil tort of defamation. It is instructive to trace these routes even though none will take them. Modi’s speeches fall pat within the definition of defamation in Section 499 of the Penal Code. He will be compelled to establish that his statements were true or that his opinions were expressed “in good faith”. But Section 52 defines “good faith” as something “done or believed” after “due care and attention”. The burden of proving that falls on the accused.

As for the civil remedy, the U.S. Supreme Court carved out an exception in the case of a “public figure”. The one who attacks him will be liable only if he spoke with “actual malice” or “with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not”. Any and all of these three fit Modi’s utterances perfectly ( The New York Times Co. vs Sullivan; 401 U.S. 265 [1964]).

On October 7, 1994, the Supreme Court approved that rule as good law in India in the Nakheeran case ( R. Rajagopal vs The State of Tamil Nadu [1994) 6 S.C.C. 632 at page 649). But the U.S. Supreme Court clarified that its ruling was not a licence for defamation. In 1979, in Herbert vs Lando (441 U.S. 153), it prescribed rules akin to the definition of “good faith” in our penal code. In this case, the plaintiff was allowed access to the media’s editorial proceedings to establish lack of care.

The defendant will have to prove what steps he took to ascertain the facts. The petitioner, Anthony Herbert, was a retired Army officer who had extended wartime service in Vietnam and who received widespread media attention in 1969-70 when he accused his superior officers of covering up reports of atrocities and other war crimes. Three years later, on February 4, 1973, Columbia Broadcasting System, Inc. (CBS), broadcast a report on him and his accusations. The programme was produced and edited by Barry Lando and was narrated by Mike Wallace. Lando later published a related article in The Atlantic Monthly magazine. Herbert then sued Lando, Wallace, CBS, and The Atlantic Monthly for defamation in Federal District Court. He alleged that the programme and the article falsely and maliciously portrayed him as a liar and a person who had made war-crimes charges to explain his relief from command, and he requested substantial damages for injury to his reputation and to the literary value of a book he had just published recounting his experiences.

The court held (6-3) that, “To be liable, the alleged defamer of public officials or of public figures must know or have reason to suspect that his publication is false. In other cases proof of some kind of fault, negligence perhaps, is essential to recovery. Inevitably, unless liability is to be completely foreclosed, the thoughts and editorial processes of the alleged defamer would be open to examination.

“It is also untenable to conclude from our cases that, although proof of the necessary state of mind could be in the form of objective circumstances from which the ultimate fact could be inferred, plaintiffs may not inquire directly from the defendants whether they knew or had reason to suspect that their damaging publication was in error.”

Knowledge of the facts as well as belief about the truth of the utterances must be disclosed in a civil suit in pre-trial discovery proceedings. “There is no constitutional value in false statements of fact.” The Court added: “Our cases necessarily contemplate examination of the editorial process to prove the necessary awareness of probable falsehood, and if indirect proof of this element does not stifle truthful publication and is consistent with the First Amendment, as respondents seem to concede, we do not understand how direct inquiry with respect to the ultimate issue would be substantially more suspect.”

The U.S. Supreme Court amplified: “The President enjoys no immunity. The President, for example, does not have an absolute privilege against disclosure of materials subpoenaed for a judicial proceeding ( United States v s Nixon, 418 US 683, 41 L Ed 2d 1039). In so holding, we found that although the President has a powerful interest in confidentiality of communications between himself and his advisers, that interest must yield to a demonstrated specific need for evidence.” The same applies to a Prime Minister.

Discussion of the law illustrates the gravity of the matter. That no legal proceedings will be taken is no reason for ignoring it. For, there is a yet graver issue—lies by the head of government. McCarthy was only a Senator. Hitler needed Goebbels. In combining in his person Hitler and Goebbels, Modi presents a dire warning—the spectre of nascent fascism—complete with fawning Cabinet colleagues, a supine media, subversion of the Cabinet and the civil service and the sedulous spawning of an atmosphere of hate and intimidation.

No one went to the roots of McCarthyism with such deep insight as the great Prof. Hans J. Morgenthau did. The people were not victimised; they were “proud to play however minor a part in the farce. The very refusal to look the facts in the face even in retrospect, to acknowledge the ignoble part most of us played in different ways, and to stand trial before the bar of history points to an answer to our question more profound and more disquieting than those commonly suggested. The answer must be found in the very nature of American society.

“While it is obvious that McCarthyism was thoroughly un-American in its standards of judgment, which were destructive of individual freedom and of the equality relevant to it, it is less obvious how profoundly American it was in its impulse and modus operandi. Far from being alien to the essence of America, McCarthyism was, as it were, its illegitimate offspring, a bastard but nonetheless the child of the same mother who had borne and nourished the true purpose of America. McCarthyism was a corruption in the Aristotelian sense, a perversion of what is good. It sprang from an impulse that, as we have seen, has been endemic in American society: the primordial anxiety about its ability to survive, the fear of losing its reason for being, its identity, itself.” This is Hindutva in India.

McCarthy targeted F.D. Roosevelt. Modi targets Jawaharlal Nehru and all he stood for. Both traded on fears of treason, spreading smears. “The intellectual failure is comprised in the complete misunderstanding of the actual nature of the threat and in the complete inappropriateness and the self-defeating results of the measures taken to meet it. The moral failure consists in the corruption of the American purpose, a corruption so thorough as to amount to its destruction” ( The Purpose of American Politics, 1963, pages 145, 146 and 156).

McCarthyism was nihilistic; so is Modism. Veneers began peeling off before the Gujarat Assembly election results and they alarmed him in a sphere where he felt his embraces had won him kudos abroad to compensate for criticism at home.

The Economist’s lead editorial on June 24, 2017, summed it all up accurately:

“As Prime Minister, Mr. Modi has been just as careful to court militant Hindus as jet-setting businessmen. His government recently created havoc in the booming beef-export business with onerous new rules on purchases of cattle, in deference to Hindus’ reverence for cows. Yogi Adityanath, the man he selected to run Uttar Pradesh, is under investigation for inciting religious hatred and rioting, among other offences.

“The fear is that, if the economy falters, Mr. Modi will try to maintain his popularity by stirring up communal tensions. That, after all, is how his Bharatiya Janata Party first propelled itself to government in the 1990s. Mr. Modi himself was Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2002 when rioting there killed at least 1,000 people, most of them Muslims. To this day, he has never categorically condemned the massacre or apologised for failing to prevent it.

“Under Mr. Modi, debate about public policy, and especially about communal relations, has atrophied. Hindu nationalist thugs intimidate those who chide the government for straying from India’s secular tradition, or who advocate a less repressive approach to protests in Kashmir, India’s only state with a Muslim majority. One of the few media companies that dare to criticise the government has been raided by police on grounds that would not normally attract such heavy-handedness. Mr. Modi himself has become the object of a sycophantic personality cult. The Prime Minister may intend all this as a way to keep winning elections. But it is not hard to imagine it going disastrously wrong.

“Mr. Modi’s admirers paint him as the man who at last unleashed India’s potential. In fact, he may go down in history for fluffing India’s best shot at rapid, sustained development. And the worries about a still darker outcome are growing.”

Since then Modi’s fortunes have declined, not prospered. Wait for more slanders. Give it a thought. What effect will it have on Modi’s credibility? Who will believe him hereafter?

Do you remember the report by a diplomat in the British High Commission in New Delhi on Modi’s performance in the Gujarat pogrom? It was leaked by WikiLeaks. Each mission of a major state has political counsellors backed by a good staff to report on India’s politics. They are read by their foreign offices. It does not require much imagination to guess what they think of Modi’s conduct and utterances.

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