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  • The Response to Banerjee is telling

    Posted On October 27, 2019

    By Karan Thapar

    I know it’s a provocative question but I believe it’s one that needs to be asked: are we a gauche and graceless people? Do we have no idea of what should be spoken and what should be suppressed and never expressed? In the foolish belief we have a right to say what we want we often blurt out the silliest things.

    Believe it or not, this is how two senior leaders of the Bharatiya Janata Party greeted the arrival of Abhijit Banerjee to India. He came within days of winning the Nobel Prize for Economics but leading ministers and senior officials of the BJP were not just unimpressed but critical and often, in the most vulgar personal terms, downright rude.

    Am I exaggerating? Have I used hyperbolic language where, perhaps, gentler phrasing would be more suitable? Or am I more or less spot on? Judge for yourself.

    First, at a press conference, the Minister for Commerce and Industry, Piyush Goyal, was not just dismissive but judgemental of Abhijit Banerjee’s association with Congress’s NYAY scheme. In case you’ve forgotten, it was a promise to give Rs. 6,000/- a month to the poorest 20 per cent of the Indian population. “Abhijit Banerjee won the Nobel Prize. I congratulate him.” Goyal began. “But you all know what his understanding is. His thinking is totally left-leaning. He had praised the NYAY scheme effusively but the people of India totally rejected his thinking.”

    Apart from the fact that may not be true – not least because the logic of the PM Kisan Scheme is not dissimilar to NYAY – it’s also a silly thing to say. The people of India did not vote to endorse Banerjee’s thinking. Actually, if they are made familiar with his thinking they would in all probability warmly embrace it.

    This was just a gauche and graceless statement. It certainly doesn’t befit a minister. In fact, it reveals more of Goyal than Banerjee. I would add it diminishes Goyal.

    However, Goyal’s foolishness was swiftly exceeded by the sheer crudity of his party’s National Secretary, Rahul Sinha’s comment: “Those who have foreigners as their second wife are only getting (the) Nobel. I don’t know if that is a condition to get a Nobel or not.”

    I haven’t met a single person who thinks this is an intelligent or morally justified thing to say. Everyone I read it to simply squirmed. Many are BJP supporters. They cringed like everyone else.

    Goyal may have embarrassed his government but Sinha certainly brought shame to his party. Yet what I found particularly surprising is that neither did what politicians so often do – claim they were misinterpreted or quoted out of context and use that as a cover for their lapse. If the Prime Minister had not stepped into the breach the situation would have been truly distressing. On Banerjee’s last day in Delhi Narendra Modi met him and tweeted his pleasure in doing so. “Excellent meeting with Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee”, Modi tweeted. “His passion towards human empowerment is clearly visible … India is proud of his accomplishments.” That would have comforted Banerjee who had by then said the BJP’s personal criticism was upsetting. But it doesn’t exonerate Goyal and Sinha.

    So, now, can you see why I began the way I did? Are we a gauche and graceless people who simply don’t know what to say and when to leave illiterate thoughts unexpressed? Or are the majority of us appalled by what I’ve just recounted?  If we are we need to make unambiguously clear that these are not our values and this is not acceptable behaviour.

    Yet it wasn’t always so. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was prime minister when Amartya Sen, one of his sharp and outspoken critics, won the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1998. The PM immediately conferred the Bharat Ratna and gifted Sen a free pass to travel first class on Air India for the rest of his life. It’s sad that Vajpayee’s admirable example has been forgotten by men who consider themselves his political heirs. I wonder what he would think of their behaviour?

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