There is something odd about the escalating row around Narendra Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions. First of all, it is curious that the man behind the build-up is Mr. Modi himself.
Over the past month, the Gujarat Chief Minister has chased after his detractors with the force of a typhoon, establishing his supremacy within the Bharatiya Janata Party, and making sure each conquest added to the chatter about his 2014 bid for Prime Minister. Mr. Modi first vanquished Nitin Gadkari who had mistakenly assumed that his dominion as party chief extended to Chhote Sardar. The result was the public humiliation of Sanjay Joshi whom Mr. Gadkari had appointed to a party post knowing he shared a bitter past with the Gujarat Chief Minister. Mr. Modi had Mr. Joshi removed from the post and the party, showing the party chief and his lieutenant who the boss was.
Spat with Nitish Kumar
Then unprovoked, he swung at Nitish Kumar, lampooning Bihar’s caste preoccupations and contrasting its backwardness with Gujarat’s material superiority. Of course, the Bihar Chief Minister wasn’t going to take the insult. A star in his own right, and the fulcrum around which the National Democratic Alliance is built, Mr. Kumar set the terms for who was and who wasn’t going to run for Prime Minister on the NDA’s ticket. Mr. Modi wasn’t because the candidate’s secular credentials were non-negotiable. Since then a full-fledged war has erupted between Mr. Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), on one side, and the BJP and the sangh parivar, on the other, over Mr. Modi’s eligibility to lead the NDA into the next general election.
Obviously, Mr. Modi’s larger aspirations are not going to go uncontested. Overawed as the BJP and its spiritual mentor are by Mr. Modi, they also know that his hegemony cannot be questioned and a party led by him will be a one-man show.
With all these complications, the question to ask is: Why is Mr. Modi so much in a hurry to settle who would be Prime Minister in 2014? Two years is an eternity in politics and it makes no sense to render yourself vulnerable so early in the contest. A more logical explanation is that Mr. Modi wants his national ambitions showcased for another election just months away — in his own State of Gujarat. A potential Prime Minister in a State Assembly election is a sure winner, and nowhere more than in Gujarat where the gaurav (prestige) of the Gujarati has been an unfailing electoral card.
It is not that Mr. Modi is under any grave threat in his home State. Indeed, with the Gujarat Congress acknowledged to be comatose, the Chief Minister ought to be home and dry. However, for the first time in many, many years, contrarian stories have begun to emerge from shining Gujarat challenging its status as a model for India as a whole to follow. In February 2011, economist Abusaleh Shariff established through multiple data that hunger levels in Gujarat were higher than in desperately poor Uttar Pradesh. He also showed that despite Gujarat’s bombastic claim as a red hot destination for Foreign Direct Investment, it was unsung Maharashtra that was the leader in this department.
In October 2011, the India Human Development Report released by the Planning Commission drew shocking attention to Gujarat’s child malnutrition levels : Gujarat ranked 13 among 17 States surveyed with 44.6 per cent of its children under five found to be malnourished.
The Economic Survey released ahead of this year’s budget placed Gujarat behind Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu in Per Capita Net Domestic Product (at current prices) for 2009-2010. Gujarat was also behind Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu on crucial indicators such as life expectancy, infant mortality and literacy rates.
Gujarat’s prosperity is not a myth but certainly Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu are better models, offering more evenly spread development and combining growth with impressive human development indicators. Mr. Modi has so far won elections on the strength of his personality. In his third electoral outing as Chief Minister, he needs to up the quotient with an X-factor which can only come from being seen as India’s next Prime Minister. The projection will drown out dissenting voices on the state of welfare in Gujarat while also silencing the rebel faction led by Keshubhai Patel. The Congress as usual will not know what hit the party.
Modi no Vajpayee
The 2014 contest will be far tougher. Mr. Modi’s nomination for Prime Minister is made difficult by two factors. Internally, there is already considerable unease over his intolerance — evident in the way he quashed Mr. Joshi for the rest of the party to watch and learn a lesson from. Vis-à-vis the NDA allies, his image is of a sectarian autocrat. Let’s face it. Mr. Modi is no Atal Bihari Vajpayee who was as much a champion of Hindutva as a man of lofty vision, breaking new ground on Kashmir and Pakistan. No other BJP leader could have pulled off a visit to Minar-e-Pakistan and as much is proved by Lal Krishna Advani’s failed attempt to imitate the veteran via an ode paid to Mohammad Ali Jinnah.
The Gujarat Chief Minister lacks even the acceptability of Mr. Advani who built the BJP brick by brick and commands a measure of loyalty even today when he is seen to have served out his utility.
A further complication awaits Mr. Modi. He is not out of the woods on the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom though the Supreme Court-appointed Special Investigation Team has filed a closure report in the case. Importantly, amicus curiae Raju Ramachandran has disagreed with critical parts of the report and recommended Mr. Modi’s prosecution under various Sections of the IPC. Mr. Ramachandran, also appointed by the apex court, held the brief to independently weigh the evidence and give his opinion. It is very rare for the Supreme Court to seek and obtain this kind of cross-verification.
It is evident that the highest court holds Mr. Ramachandran in some regard. It was on his suggestion that the court desisted from offering its own opinion on the SIT’s findings, though critics have read into this a judicial reluctance to comment on Mr. Modi’s culpability. Mr. Ramachandran’s concern was the principle of fairness. The Supreme Court “ought not to” express any view on “the merits of the case”, he argued, “as any finding by this Hon’ble Court … even prima facie, would be detrimental to the accused or the complainant.” Mr. Modi has not been judged guilty, nor has he been let off the hook.
Indeed, Mr. Ramachandran made sure the legal doors would be kept open for complainant Zakia Jafri when he set out the procedure for the trial court to follow with regard to the SIT’s closure report. In the event the trial court accepted the report and dropped proceedings against Mr. Modi and the 61 others named in Ms Jafri’s complaint, it would have to offer Ms Jafri an opportunity to be heard so that she could persuade the court to take cognisance of the offences she has listed.
In other words, even the best case scenario does not entirely favour Mr. Modi. Besides, even a cursory reading of the SIT’s closure report will establish that its conclusions have been tailored to repudiate its own initial findings. There is little explanation for why the SIT’s final report is so much at variance with its preliminary report which charged Mr. Modi with unconscionable indifference to the massacres at Gulberg Society and Naroda Patia.
The preliminary report noted that Mr. Modi attributed the revenge killings to the Newtonian law of action and reaction. The words were “too strong at a time when feelings were running high” and they “showed a measure of thoughtlessness and irresponsibility on the part of a person holding a high public office.” Further, “his implied justification of the killings of innocent members of the minority community read together with an absence of strong condemnation of the violence that followed Godhra suggests a partisan stand at a critical juncture when the State had been badly disturbed by communal violence.”
The final report admitted that Mr. Modi used the action-reaction sequence to justify the pogrom but curiously, bafflingly, endorsed the justification by arguing that the reaction in fact stemmed from the action.
Mr. Ramachandran strongly differed with the SIT’s final report on two key aspects. The presence of IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt at a meeting where Mr. Modi allegedly instructed the administration to allow revenge killings of Muslims and the role played by police officers M.K Tandon and R.B. Gondia whom the SIT’s preliminary report had charged with “running away” from the massacre sites of Gulberg and Naroda Patia.
Was Mr. Bhatt speaking the truth? Did Mr. Tandon and Mr. Gondia act on their own? The answers to the questions may well decide where Mr. Modi stands in 2014.