When I came to America in 1998 to take over as the editor of a weekly Indian newspaper in the Bay Area, California, I discovered in the very first week that my reputation as a journalist, such as it is, had preceded me.
It was not so subtly let known to me by an amorphous group of Indians that they knew that I was a “pseudo-secularist and communist”. I remember bursting out laughing at the sobriquet and its paranoid absurdity as the seemingly neutral representative of this group of Indian Americans sat in my office telling me about their concerns. Journalism is perhaps the only profession where its practitioners wear disapproval or denunciation as a badge of honor. The visitor was expecting me to offer an elaborate defense and perhaps even a willingness to ingratiate with those who harbored such concerns.
I don’t think my visitor had any inkling of my reflexively cosmic view of everything. I told him something to this effect: “You are grossly overestimating the importance of me as a journalist, this newspaper as a platform and whomever you represent as a political grouping. The only “ist” I am is a journalist.” Flummoxed by my response, he paused for a few moments and then left my office without saying anything.
It was some weeks later that I received an article written by someone in New York and sent via that visitor. It was only later did I realize that it was meant as a litmus test of my professed independence. After ensuring that some linguistic and other grammatical errors were fixed I published the piece as it was. I vaguely remember the main thesis of the piece was that the Hindus faced serious marginalization in India and the world if they did not watch out and back the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). A day or two after the publication I received a phone call from a very excited and intrigued writer of that opinion piece. He said he was overwhelmed that I chose to publish the piece and that he had seriously misjudged me as a “pseudo-secularist and communist”. I did not have the enthusiasm to tell him that publishing the piece in no way mitigated whatever damning misgivings he had about me because there was no connection between the two. Making such a fine distinction would have been lost on someone who saw the world in such black and white terms.
I mention this silly little incident because I still get asked about my politics. My answer that I am just a detached and mildly amused observer of the human species does not convince them. I try to give it a poetic flavor by reciting Ghalib’s memorable conceit captured in his lines “Baazicha-e-atfal hai duniya merey aagey, Hota hai shab-o-roz tamasha merey agey.” (The world is a children’s playground before me, Where spectacle unfolds day and night before me). That confuses them even more. So I say a politer version of ‘Fuck it’, which is ‘Fuck it’ said softly, and move on.
Now that the very BJP has captured power with such thunderous success, Hindus of the kind who wrote that piece and the one who represented that constituency to me must feel tremendously aroused. Prime Minister-to-be Narendra Modi, after all, is seen by them as the greatest advocate of that worldview. I have news for them. Modi is the greatest advocate of the Modi worldview. The man has a powerful sense of individual destiny which stands exclusive of his own political ecology. You may ask how I presume to make such knowing statements about him without knowing him that much. I will venture to counter that by saying I just do. There is an element of unfounded conceit that propels me from time to time. Either that or the world is indeed a children’s playground where spectacle unfolds daily and showing currently is the new blockbuster ‘The Improbable rise of Narendra Modi’.
I want to avoid heavy political analysis during the weekend. From Monday next you might see some observations about what Modi’s rise means for India’s foreign policy and relations with major powers such as America, China and Japan.