YOU CAN KEEP Mani Shankar Aiyar away from power or office, even from 10, Janpath, but you can't keep him away from controversy and books.
On Tuesday, the irrepressible Mani Shankar Aiyar, who once referred to Prime Minister Narendra Modi as 'neech aadmi' and before that as a 'chai wallah', went to a book launch event and ended up launching a controversy.
"I have always held that PV Narasimha Rao was the BJP's first prime minister and Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the last Congress prime minister of India," Aiyar told an audience at a book launch event in New Delhi.
The punch line was still to come: "Narendra Modi, the current head of government, is India's first Hindutva Prime Minister," Aiyar said.
Atal Bihari Vajpayee of the BJP was the first non-Congress Prime Minister to complete a five-year tenure. He ruled the country for 13 days in 1996, and then for for almost six years from 1998 till 2004. PV Narasimha Rao was the Congress prime minister (1991-96), often credited for ushering in liberal, pro-market economic policies.
"Narendra Modi, the current head of government, is India's first Hindutva Prime Minister." — Mani Shankar Aiyar
Compared to Narendra Modi-Amit Shah times, Vajpayee pursued a soft Hindutva line while Narasimha Rao followed a right-wing economic policy approach. Aiyar emerged as the first Congressman, though suspended, to give a pithy formulation that Rao was the first BJP premier and Vajpayee was the last Congress head of government.
Mani Shankar Aiyar made the controversial remarks in the presence of former Vice President Hamid Ansari.
Among others present were Aditya Mukherjee of the JNU, Prof Apoorvanand Jha of the DU, and journalist Marya Shakil.
In fact, Aiyar went for the jugular when he endorsed the view that life for a Muslim in India has become too difficult.
The dyed-in-the-wool Congressman who has often proclaimed his close affinity to the Gandhi family in the past and holds late Rajiv Gandhi in high esteem, even read out a paragraph from "Saffron Flags and Skull Caps: Muslim Identity and the Idea of India" that could have made even many a Congress cadre cringe.
"It is not easy being a Muslim in India, it never has been... It was not easy being a Muslim when Indira Gandhi was prime minister; it did not become easier during the reign of Narasimha Rao. It is certainly not easier today," Aiyar cited from page 132 of journalist Zia Us-Salam's book, and then added to the loud guffaws of the audience: "This is not Modi bashing, though it is my favourite occupation." He said he was talking about "the nature of our nation today."
The quote was from a chapter titled "Not easy being a Muslim."
Aiyar said even the most successful Muslims in India, even those who are most well integrated in our society and those who are part of our political process are asking themselves how difficult it is to be a Muslim here in India. He specially pointed out to the presence of senior editor Shahid Siddiqui of the Urdu weekly Nai Duniya in the audience who is seen as being somewhat soft on the Modi regime.
"It is a question every Muslim asks himself or herself - why can't I be just an Indian? No one else has to ask this question, only a Muslim has to ask this question," Aiyar said.
Of course, it was not Modi bashing; he was bashing his own party leadership, too, a trait he has displayed earlier to much acclaim from some of India's left of centre intellectuals and elite.
"Both these ideas, the Hindutva idea of India and the Nehru-Gandhi idea of India, have rivalled each other for better parts of the century but Hindutva has been rejected time and again by Indians, and most specifically by the Hindus," Aiyar said.
Life for a Muslim in India has become too difficult. — Mani Shankar Aiyar
He said the fact that Modi got only 31 per cent of the vote in 2014 proved that a larger majority of Hindus rejected the Hindutva idea of India. "Earlier, the Hindutva idea had only ideological backing, now it has got political backing also."
Former vice president Hamid Ansari was also present at the book launch at the India International Centre.
Aiyar and other participants contended that while the phrase, "the idea of India," was coined by Nehru, there could be any number of ideas of India reflecting the country's uniquely pluralistic society.
Aiyar, in his speech, was not only hitting Prime Minister Modi hard but also bashed Narasimha Rao for his pro-corporate policies, and as any student of politics and economics can guess, any criticism of Narasimha Rao's policies is ipso facto criticism of former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's approach.
As things currently stand, Congress supremo Sonia Gandhi needs an ageing Manmohan Singh by her side for credibility and the sense of calm that he brings with him, and can do without the maverick ways of an outspoken Mani Shankar Aiyar.
Where does Mani Shankar Aiyar look for hope? "Indians are beginning to speak up for India and that is where hope lies in 2019," he said.
Mani Shankar Aiyar made the controversial remarks in the presence of former Vice President Hamid Ansari.
While Mani said the book was about an issue "seminal to the survival of the concept of a secular nation as envisioned and guaranteed by the Constitution of India," historian DN Jha has termed the work as being about "the twists and turns in the history of our country ... especially during the period of Modi regime."
Speaking at the book launch event, Prof Apoorvanand of the Delhi University recalled an incident from the days of Holocaust and described how children would pelt stones at the Jews being taken in a train to the Nazi concentration camps. "We are living in a time when people are cheering the killers," he said.
In a blurb comment in the book, Professor Apoorvanand said it was a "bold and frank account of the transformation of the relationship between Muslims and the Indian nation" as it "questions the civilized denial about the antagonistic othering of Muslims and their marginalisation."
"Mani is not helping his cause by bashing Narasimha Rao or Manmohan Singh's policies. It is one reason that a sharp intellectual mind like his is not the darling of the Gandhi family anymore, but then it is also the reason that people sickened with divisive politics and sick of a Congress that is not rising to the occasion have become admirers of Mani Shankar Aiyar," a member of the audience who has served in senior government positions told Punjab Today after the event.
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