Ekta Hosts Panel Discussion on India's New Prime Minister

Hira Humayun '17 Contributing Writer 

Smith’s South Asian students’ association, Ekta, held a panel discussion on India’s new Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Nov. 18 and his potential to unify South Asian countries, named.

The event began with moderator Professor Pinky Hota introducing the panelists. Speaking at the event were Trinity College’s Vijay Prashad and Smith’s Elisabeth Armstrong and Andy Rotman. Prashad is professor of South Asian history and international studies at Trinity; he has also authored 16 books and writes for multiple South Asian newspapers. Armstrong, professor of study of women and gender here at Smith and is working on a book that deals with the All India Democratic Women’s Association. Professor Rotman teaches religion and has also authored two books.

After Professor Hota thanked the panelists and Ekta for making the event possible, Afreen Gandhi ’15 delivered a speech introducing Prime Minister Modi, his background, the controversies surrounding him and what his position could mean for South Asia. She explained Modi’s role as member of the Bharatiya Janata Party, and Chief Minister of Gujrat for 14 years before being elected in 2014. Modi, she explained, came to power with an image of an incorruptible, efficient leader with a new take on economic development, through one of India’s most expensive campaigns. He promised a business-friendly style of governance and attempts to improve relations with other South Asian countries.

Professor Rotman was the first of the panelists to speak and began by explaining Modi’s appeal to the Indian population which initially brought him into power. He explained that since the colonial era in India, “business people ran the city,” and the state was on the outside and was resisted. There was a large predominance of wealthy industrialists with strong religious ties which prevails even to the present day. In these circumstances, Rotman explained, Modi seemed likeable, especially since he “positioned himself slightly outside the state,” focusing on economic development. He appeared to cater to Indian society’s densely entangled mixture of religion and economic commitments. Modi appeared as a strong figure. “Folks don’t trust the state to provide for them, but somehow they trust Modi,” Rotman said.

Next to speak was Professor Armstrong. She spoke about foreign policy in relation to women’s rights and interrogated Modi’s role as a unifying actor, such as, “unifying to whom, and to what ends?” Armstrong went on to mention the series of gang rapes that took place in India and the “instantaneous” Indian women’s movement response that followed. “The BJP joined the protest,” she continued, adding that the party demanded the death penalty for the criminals. However, she argued, the death penalty is not a women’s movement demand in India. She questioned the idea of the death penalty as a punishment and asked whom it would really be valuable for by pointing out that the imposition of a death penalty could deter women from reporting cases of sexual assault within the family, knowing a family member could be sentenced to death if reported. Armstrong concluded with some comments on the linkage of women’s bodies to honor in many parts of India. “How is the BJP building its support for its governance on these regressive social forces?” she asked.

The last panelist to speak was Professor Prashad. He started off with some jocular comments about Modi’s “fifty-six inch chest” which evoked much laughter from the audience. He went on to talk about his skepticism of the BJP and Modi as a unifying figure, and expressed his vehement contempt for the BJP president, Amit Shah, saying “he should be in jail.” He did however concede that Modi’s unification efforts extend to using Hinduism to unite countries with predominantly Hindu populations: “He wants to play up the Hindu connections between Nepal and India.” Still, Prashad said that this is not the best tactic. He called Modi a “symbolic character” and a “master of generating political symbols for his base,” and even deemed Modi’s invitation to Prime Minister of Pakistan Nawaz Sharif a mere symbolic gesture. “Bangladesh is not going to be unified by this guy,” Prashad said.

The panel ended with a question and answer session in which the panelists first asked one another questions and then took questions from audience members. “I think the panel was very informative and Professor Prashad was hilarious and honest. Professor Armstrong also brought in a very different perspective,” Ekta Social Chair Aamena Gilani ’17 said.

Arundhati Saikia ’17 said, “At a college like Smith, where we promote global education, an increasingly global figure like Modi is important and I think because the panelists each had such different backgrounds, they were able to offer interesting and unique perspectives on Modi.”