On the Sydney Writers’ Festival session ‘India: Writers Talk Politics’
India is in the midst of a social and economic revolution, the politics of which are still being defined. This was the basis for an outstanding, insightful discussion into the rise of Narendra Modi, the changing landscape of politics and the evolving state of Indian society held at the recent Sydney Writers’ Festival.
Indian writers and panellists Deepti Kapoor (A Bad Character), Samanth Subramanian (This Divided Island) and Ira Trivedi (India in Love) were joined by Christopher Kremmer in their exploration of poverty, sexual politics, corruption and violence in the subcontinent.
In 2014 the Modi-led BJP government claimed the most comprehensive majority in more than thirty years. The party had a clear mandate, swept to power on the vote of young, aspirational Indians. As Samanth Subramanian explained, “It signified the disillusionment people felt with the establishment.”
But, two years into a five-year term, over the past six months in particular, there has been a shift. Incidents of sectarian violence, the rise of Hindu nationalism and arrests of those daring to criticise the government have become the norm.
“The nature of the debate has changed, to the detriment of discussion, and become more like the US – angry, but largely empty rhetoric,” Samanth Subramanian said. “Modi is an able manipulator of sentiment,” he continued. “He uses polarisation to his advantage.”
“The rhetoric of his Hindu agenda was certainly simmered down for the campaign,” Deepti Kapoor agreed. “He promised jobs to the youth, development, there was a lot of hope. But now, the economy is staggering, jobs are not appearing, there is rural migration and high rates of farmer suicide and he’s returned to the Hindutva agenda.”
Ira Trivedi seemed to play the devil’s advocate in the discussion, describing PM Modi’s trajectory as a ‘journey of hope’.
“India’s young people really love him, he’s almost a sex symbol!” she said. “There’s a real sense that he can do something for this nation. He’s a man who came from nothing and his risen to become Prime Minister.”
“He’s good at projecting an image that he can save India from its fate,” Subramanian retorted. “The adoration of Modi is thinly veiled desperation.”
Indeed, with more than one million Indians turning 18 each month, there is a sense of urgency regarding where employment for these people will come from.
Desperation, fear, anxiety, concern. The youth of India have pinned their hopes on Modi and his bold economic and trade strategies, but perhaps there needs to be a reimagining of the public discourse.
“I would call those same things hope,” Trivedi said. “It’s what keeps us going.”
As moderator Christopher Kremmer turned his attention to the idea of Congress as a viable alternative, there was a distinct lack of enthusiasm from the panel.
“Rahul doesn’t have the charisma Modi has,” Trivedi lamented.
“He doesn’t have a 56-inch chest,” Kapoor noted, wryly. “Modi does.”
“But what is the alternative?” Trivedi questioned. “You have allegations of corruption coming out about Congress, and the concept of the Aam Aadmi is strong but it’s seen as an ‘upstart’, not a feasible, mass alternative.”
And what of India’s landscape of love? Kapoor’s novel itself is a portrait of desire, a solipsistic novel about love and sex in Delhi. Considered a strong cultural voice among the youth of India, she explores taboo issues of drugs and sex before marriage with several lovers.
Alongside this dark, urbane meditation, Ira Trivedi believes the sexual revolution has been underway in India over the past 15 years. “Arranged marriage still very much exists, but it has been ‘rearranged’,” she said. “Now there is a period of courtship, dating.”
On the 2012 Delhi gang rape, there was much introspection.
“Something was triggered in the collective psyche,” Kapoor said. “She represented the best of India – a girl, being educated – and there was this eruption.”
As Trivedi suggested, “The walls and taboos are breaking down. Earlier rape was hushed up and secretive. That we can write these explicit books, that sex is everywhere, is a huge sign of progress.”