From Praising to Critiquing Modi: PB Mehta’s Columns Over the Yrs

A glance at some of Mehta’s columns since the UPA-II era and a look at how his views of Modi changed over the years.

5 min read
Pratap Bhanu Mehta resigned as professor at Ashoka University on Tuesday, 16 March.

From praising Narendra Modi’s leadership skills prior to 2014 to becoming a staunch critic of his policies, Pratap Bhanu Mehta – considered to be one of India’s foremost political thinkers – has an interesting trajectory of opinion columns. His resignation from the faculty of Ashoka University stating criticism of his political views has created an uproar.

Here’s a glance at some of his columns since the UPA-II era and a look at how his views of Modi has changed over the years.

1. While We Were Silent

In a 2013 article for The Indian Express, Mehta pointed out how the UPA destroyed infrastructure, institutions, and industry in the country in its 10-year term. He began his article with: A story of destructive governance and citizens who did not speak out.

Talking about the Congress government’s failure to preserve liberal values, Mehta wrote:

“Then they came after freedom. They promulgated more restrictive rules for everything: freedom of expression, right to assembly and protest, foreign scholars. They used sedition laws. They kept the architecture of colonial laws intact. They said they stood against communal forces. But then, they let Digvijaya Singh keep the communal pot boiling. They matched BJP’s communal politicisation of terrorism at every step and then some. We did not speak out. After all, if they are not Hindutva forces, they cannot be a threat to peace and liberty.”

2. A Modi-fied Politics

After PM Modi secured a fresh term as the chief of Gujarat in December 2012, Mehta in a piece title “A Modi-fied politics” wrote about his views on the politician’s leadership abilities and addressed the persistent criticism of Modi for having watched over the Gujarat riots 2002.

“Modi cannot be exonerated of marginalising minorities or worse. But consider this. The secular-communal divide in India, except at the extremes, is not so much a divide between two different species of citizens as a fissure running through most of them. This divide is activated by circumstances. It is not a structural fact. Second, we hope that the law will take its course and deliver justice. But Gujarat has, at least, been subject to serious court scrutiny, direct SIT investigations and so on. Even if they technically exonerate Modi, the political culpability remains. It is a political handicap he still needs to overcome. You can look at the convictions of Modi’s cabinet colleagues and point to those as proxy proof of his culpability. You can also look at them and wonder why so many Congress cabinet ministers still have not been made to answer for 1984. The point is not to use 1984 to politically exonerate Modi. The point is that it is hard to attack evil when we so widely condone it in other contexts.”

3. Regarding Fascism

With days to go for the first phase of 2014 Lok Sabha elections, Mehta criticised those who characterised Narendra Modi as a ‘fascist’ and wrote in an article in The Indian Express:

“The rise of Narendra Modi has brought the “F” word into promiscuous use. The spectre of fascism is said to be haunting India. It is easy to dismiss this concern over fascism as the hyperbole of a crumbling elite that has often used moral outrage as a substitute for addressing genuine political challenges. It might be tempting to engage in an argument over the historical specificity of fascism. Can the the combination of military power, total mobilisation and eliminationism that marked fascism really be reproduced in India?”

Even though Mehta recognised the pattern of growing communalisation in the country and it had barely been a year since the Muzaffarnagar riots, he argued that the BJP’s ultimate goal of growth and economic development won’t let overpower their agenda of communal polarisation. He wrote:

“...the incentive structures for the BJP at this moment are very different. Large-scale communalisation will, in the long run, create the very uncertainties that can damage growth. Violence may pay in specified local contexts, but beyond a point it backfires nationally.”

He further wrote, “Democracy cannot be the excuse for immobilising questions of individual liberty and security. But invocations of fascism often express a kind of distance from Indian democracy that is also disquieting. We are not on the high tide of fascism. It is more about a complicated country feeling its way through difficult times, fed up with old power structures. The “F” word has become a substitute for real thinking. We will need to think anew about what incentives and pressures will work in our new context. We are on a wing and a prayer. But we need to show more intelligence than screaming the “F” word.”


4. Dadri Reminds Us How PM Modi Bears Responsibility for the Poison That Is Being Spread

Mehta’s views on Modi’s leadership took a deep U-turn after the lynching of Mohd Akhlaq in Uttar Pradesh’s Dadri in 2015 over the suspicion of storing beef in his home. Mehta wrote in The Indian Express:

“No one had expected this morally odious part of the BJP — and it is part of the BJP — to vanish easily. But there was the hope that opportunism would tame fanaticism, that the need to take India into the 21st century would have enough momentum to overcome many of these nasty folks. Vijay himself seems to acknowledge this. He seems to think Akhlaq’s killing can derail Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s agenda, as if only an instrumental reason should make us worry about this death. But the truth is that a lot of nasty people within the BJP and the Sangh Parivar are feeling empowered to the point of shamelessness. No one in the party is willing to signal an intolerance of the intolerant.”

5. An Act of Tyranny: ‘Modi Govt Threatened Democracy; That Is the Most Anti-National of All Acts’

After the JNU sedition row in 2016, Mehta in his piece ‘An Act of Tyranny’ for The Indian Express, wrote, “The arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar and the crackdown on political dissent at JNU suggest that we are living under a government that is both rabidly malign and politically incompetent.”

“It is using nationalism to crush constitutional patriotism, legal tyranny to crush dissent, political power to settle petty scores, and administrative power to destroy institutions. The instigation of this crackdown was the alleged chanting of some anti-national slogans at JNU, and a meeting to mark the death anniversary of Afzal Guru. But the government’s disproportionate response smacks of tyranny of the highest order. It ordered the arrest of Kanhaiya Kumar, whose speech had nothing anti-national about it.”

6. The Haryana Bill Is Constitutionally Indefensible, Politically Cynical

Since then, Mehta has emerged as one of the fiercest critic of the Modi government and called it “colloquially fascist" in an interview to The Wire. In a recent column for The Indian Express, Mehta criticised the Haryana government’s job reservation policies by describing it as "constitutionally indefensible and political cynical”.

“The Haryana government’s State Employment of Local Candidates Bill 2020 is constitutionally dubious, economically myopic, socially divisive and politically cynical. The Bill reserves 75 per cent of new jobs in private establishments under a compensation threshold of Rs 50,000 for Haryana residents. This is part of a growing pattern of domicile-based preferential policies, where state after state is flirting with laws of this kind. Andhra Pradesh has mandated 75 per cent reservation for locals; Karnataka is toying with the idea of reserving all blue collar jobs for locals; Madhya Pradesh has announced that public employment in the state be reserved for state residents. The last time there was such a contagion of domicile-based preferences was in the 1970s, when states such as Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh issued circulars directing employers to hire local residents.”

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