Indian economist Arun Shourie addresses a gathering in Ahmedabad on February 14, 2009. Shourie delivered a lecture entitled Individual Liberty and National Security during the event held at the city's Tagore Hall. AFP PHOTO/ Sam PANTHAKY
Abhiram Ghadyalpatil
The Problem Is Your Book Mr. Shourie That Modi Wishes You Hadn’t Written

Is Arun Shourie’s book on Ambedkar the reason Modi did not include him in his Council of Ministers?

Many of those who have seen the Arun Shourie interview or read about his critique of the Modi sarkar’s performance are convinced that the former minister has lost forever whatever chance he had of making it to the Modi cabinet. While this prediction may be accurate, Shourie’s criticism of Prime Minister Modi, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley, and BJP President Amit Shah is perhaps not the real reason why Modi won’t have him aboard. In the backdrop of the controversy Shourie’s critical comments have generated, it is necessary to try and find answers to a larger question–why has Atal Behari Vajpayee’s disinvestment minister not found a place either in the Modi cabinet or the economic architecture that Modi is building? The probable answers to this question may help us measure the gravity with which Prime Minister Modi and the BJP would consider the points Shourie has raised.

Many Modi and BJP sympathisers would have thought that Shourie would be a natural choice for one of the economic or infrastructure ministries in the Modi government. They had valid reasons to believe so. Some of the Modi’s election campaign slogans are worth a recall. ‘Minimum government, maximum governance’, ‘Government has no business to be in business’, ‘No more acts, action now’, and of course the main refrain ‘Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas’  sketched the broad outlines of an imminent Modi regime where calibre and not merely political pedigree would matter. Shourie, as the minister for the newly-created disinvestment portfolio in the Vajpayee cabinet, had the calibre, competence, and commitment to claim a suitable berth in the Modi regime. Yet he did not make it to the Modi cabinet.

Many of those who saw Modi as the answer to their prayers for a non-corrupt and radical governance, imagined that Shourie, with his unquestionable intellectual integrity and honesty, should have easily walked into the Modi cabinet as one of the top three or four ministers. Indeed, even Shourie’s critics on the Left and the ‘Idea of India’ suspects would have imagined that Modi would handpick ‘the man who sold off public sector assets for peanuts’. But Modi chose his long time trusted lieutenant in Delhi, the other Arun, to head the finance ministry. The Prime Minister picked up Arvind Panagariya, his well-wisher in recent times, as the vice-chairman of the new Niti Aayog and Arvind Subramanian, as the Chief Economic Adviser.  The other portfolios thought as suitable for Shourie—railways, surface transport, commerce—went to others who admittedly, have, so far governed them well. Modi made it clear that he had no place for Shourie in his cabinet or regime.

What could have been the reason for Shourie being overlooked? While Shourie’s critics and some of his sympathisers also perceived it as a slight, this author is convinced that Modi did not mean any ill will to the long time right-wing intellectual, well-wisher, and writer of eminence. The reason why Modi has not brought Shourie on board is most likely Shourie’s controversial book ‘Worshipping False Gods’. For anyone who has tracked Modi’s campaign for the high office he now occupies since he won the Gujarat assembly elections in 2012 third time in a row would know that Dr Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar has been a deity to Modi.

Shouire Ambedkar

In speeches after speeches since 2012, Modi has invoked Dr Ambedkar and the Constitution of India that he drafted to drive home the point that it was Dr Ambedkar’s life and the egalitarian Constitution that helped a backward class person like him to aspire big in life. Quite curiously, Modi seems to have found some connect between Dr Ambedkar and Mahatma Gandhi as he continues to invoke both the national icons with a remarkable simplicity. While not doubting Modi’s respect for Gandhi and his intelligent use of the Mahatma’s legacy for the Swachch Bharat Abhiyan, this author has a feeling that Modi adores and needs Dr Ambedkar’s legacy more than he needs Gandhi today. In many ways, a politician like Modi who has come up the hard way, fought the hierarchies within and outside his ideological family, and who is a quintessential outsider who stormed the fortress of the privileged, would instinctively relate to Ambedkar than Gandhi.

Consider just one example to gauge the enormous intellectual, symbolic, and political significance Dr Ambedkar carries for the Modi government. The Ministry of External Affairs and the BJP government in Maharashtra, headed by Modi’s handpicked man Devendra Fadnavis, went all out to ensure that the government of Maharashtra buys out the Ambedkar House in London for Rs 35 crore. In 1921-22, Dr Ambedkar lived in this three-storey house when he was studying at the London School of Economics. In April, the Maharashtra Government sent two senior ministers to carry out all formalities and also make a formal request to the LSE to set up a chair in honour of Dr Ambedkar where government could fund meritorious but poor Indian students. In all probability, the formal handing over of the Ambedkar House will happen in September and Modi is very likely to attend the event. This would be a first of its kind occasion for an Indian Prime Minister to commemorate the legacy of Dr Ambedkar in a foreign land where Gandhi and Nehru have been celebrated much to the neglect of others. Modi would definitely look to scale up this occasion from an event to an epic renaissance of Dr Ambedkar’s legacy.

Shourie wrote ‘Worshipping False Gods’ in 1997 when Modi was not even in the reckoning for the position of Gujarat chief minister. We have no means to find out what Modi felt then about the book. But today, this author is absolutely convinced that Modi considers Shourie’s critical account of Dr Ambedkar as an exercise that should have been avoided. Modi is not alone in the BJP-RSS family to think that Shourie’s book was nothing less than sacrilege. Contrary to what the critics of RSS love to think (that the Manusmruti-loving, casteist, and Hindu hegemon RSS secretly celebrates ‘Worshipping False Gods’), the RSS leadership firmly believes that Shourie should not have attacked Dr Ambedkar the way he did. Years back when Dalit activists were protesting against the book and even Shourie was manhandled at an event in Mumbai, then RSS spokesperson M G Vaidya had told this author that Shourie’s book was ‘wrong, unfair, and unnecessary’. Vaidya, a prolific newspaper columnist and author himself, questioned the basic argument Shourie makes in the book—that Dr Ambedkar was no freedom fighter and he in fact actively worked against the interests of the freedom struggle led by Mahatma Gandhi. “Both Gandhi and Ambedkar had distinctly different constituencies, priorities, and socio-political motivations. How can Shourie question Dr Ambedkar’s commitment to the cause he was fighting for?” Vaidya had said when controversy over the book was raging across India.

Lest Shourie’s supporters and the advocates of freedom of speech misconstrue this as a case for a ban on his book, let there be disclaimer—the author has read the book and wants it to be available to everybody who is interested. But it is critically important to study the negative impact the book may have made on a huge Dalit population which considers Dr Ambedkar a messiah. The book in a way corroborated the Dalit apprehension that Dr Ambedkar was still a pariah for the established and dominant political ideologies.

More importantly, the author of the book was long identified as a Right-wing sympathiser, a sort of Hindutva intellectual and a scourge of the pseudo-secular gang. The book was exploited by the Congress and the Left parties in later years when Arun Shourie became more involved in the BJP-NDA affairs as a Minister. Vajpayee, a great liberal who saw the obvious merit in Shourie, may have decided to ride out the storm but Modi’s politics and popular appeal demand that he handle Shourie with absolute caution. Like Vajpayee, Modi also perhaps appreciates the efficiency, honesty, and intellectual quotient someone of the class of Shourie could bring to his cabinet. But to Modi and his politics which is definitely well beyond the Vajpayee era, Shourie also brings with him his inconvenient liabilities associated with his image as the author who ‘insulted’ Dr Ambedkar.

Shourie’s book and the controversy it triggered also have to be seen in the context of the RSS-BJP’s relation to the Dalit constituency over the years. In essence, Dr Ambedkar’s conversion to Buddhism in 1956 was a rebellion against the oppressive Brahminical order and hegemony of the upper castes within Hinduism. As it was a moment of great liberation for Dr Ambedkar and thousands of his followers, it also marked a paradigm shift for Hindutva and Dalit political movements. The two schools took divergent paths and the symbolism of this great divide is located in Nagpur where the RSS is headquartered and Dr Ambedkar converted to Buddhism. Ever since this fault line was nearly formalised, it has been an uphill task for the RSS and later the BJP to even open a dialogue with the Dalit school and re-orient their politics to gain acceptability among the Dalit and oppressed classes.  This process has confronted great difficulties from time to time but it has made commendable progress. Shourie’s book struck at the very soul of this moment to say the least. It is this liability that Shourie carries and Modi is aware of.

It may be instructive to take a look at the BJP’s allies in the current NDA regime and also in some states. Dalit leader Ramdas Athavle’s Republican Party of India (RPI) is part of the NDA and fought the Lok Sabha elections and Maharashtra elections with the BJP. The NDA has Ram Vilas Paswan’s Lok Janshakti Party in its fold. The Bharipa-Bahujan Mahasangh, another Dalit party in Maharashtra headed by Dr Ambedkar’s grandson Prakash Ambedkar, has publicly commended the Government of Maharashtra for its effort to buy the Ambedkar House in London. The BJP government in Maharashtra is in the process to build a memorial to Dr Ambedkar in Mumbai. While these are obvious things, there are greater things happening on the ground. All of this represents the aggregating politics the BJP should be doing to truly become the default party of choice for all Indians. The RSS itself demonstrated that it had come of age and evolved into a modern organisation when it threw its weight behind a backward class leader called Narendra Modi to help the BJP win a maiden absolute majority in parliament. The same Narendra Modi, as the Prime Minister, should have genuine reservations about working with someone like Shourie who wrote ‘that book’.