There is a buzz around Narendra Modi wherever he goes these days. The jauntiness of his stride reflects reality: his campaign to become Prime Minister of India has gained momentum. He has rhetorical skills, although nothing that approaches the heights of political oratory that Atal Bihari Vajpayee could attain at will, with practised effortlessness, over the decades. The Gujarat Chief Minister even has charisma of a kind, which appeals to a sizeable section of India’s urban middle classes and youth.
More important, with Mr. Modi’s nomination for the top job in the land, the stock of the Bharatiya Janata Party has strengthened in the political marketplace. It does not require much psephology to see that this significant change in the mood of voters is in inverse proportion to the move towards junk stock status that the Congress has managed to achieve after being at the head of a coalition for nearly a decade. The ruling party has managed this through the bankruptcy of its socio-economic policies and its unmatched levels of corruption. Every public opinion poll that matters puts Mr. Modi and his party in the lead, with some surveys suggesting that the National Democratic Alliance, which at this point has only three constituents — the BJP, the Shiv Sena, and the Shiromani Akali Dal — could win more than 190 of the 272 seats needed to constitute a Lok Sabha majority. No wonder the Congress wants opinion polls proscribed.
In States where the BJP has a mass political base, which mostly means Hindi-speaking and western India, the organisational and propaganda machinery of the Sangh Parivar, the Hindu Right, has gone into top gear a full half-year before a general election is due. There is an air of aggressive anticipation and flexing of muscle by the most fanatical organisations, and the extremist elements, of the Parivar. They are the would-be enforcers of the anti-constitutional and un-Indian Hindutva agenda in a country of enormous diversity, which includes the world’s third largest population of Muslims (after Indonesia and Pakistan), estimated to be in the region of 170 million. In States and regions where the BJP has nothing like a mass political base, which means the whole South other than Karnataka and much of eastern India, there is a sense of curiosity about a political figure projected by Hindutva propagandists, with significant backing from corporate India and sections of the urban intelligentsia, as ‘Vikas Purush.’ This ‘Man of Development’ is supposed to have made ‘Vibrant Gujarat’ an irresistible model for future India.
There are of course doubts about the Lok Sabha seat predictions, based on no science at all, that the pollsters manage to conjure up from credible survey findings on voting intentions and projected party shares of the popular vote. There must be some angst in the Modi camp about the political implications of one survey projection that in the sixteenth Lok Sabha the BJP and the Congress together would fall short of a simple majority of seats. That suggests the possibility of a combined and relatively stable post-election front of regional parties coming to power, with support from the Left and, quite likely, from the Congress as well. Another question that reportedly worries some BJP strategists is whether the Modi campaign has ‘peaked’ too early in the electoral game.
Politically aware Indians know how the Gujarat Chief Minister got to this point. The most important factor behind this heartening awareness is the broad alignment of democratic and secular political opposition to the RSS-shaped policies and persona of Mr. Modi that has formed across the country during the dozen years he has been in office. A massive amount of material, including fresh evidence surfacing in the courts and emerging from the testimony of senior police officers and civil servants, is now available on the horrors of the Gujarat pogrom of February-March 2002: the precise sequence of events; the deliberate instigation of communal violence, reminiscent of the July 1983 anti-Tamil pogrom in Sri Lanka, through allowing the display of the bodies of kar sevaks and their families killed brutally on the Sabarmati Express as it approached Godhra; the fuelling of hate politics and the neutralisation of the police, not by negligence but as a matter of communal statecraft and realpolitik at the highest levels of the State government; and the material assistance and cover provided to the organisers of the pogrom and to the frenzied mobs let loose to murder, rape, torture, loot, pillage, and intimidate so as to ‘teach Muslims a lesson’ and get away with it.
Against such a background, news media coverage, springing from a long democratic tradition and rooted in factuality, has acted as a professional antidote to the ‘Vikas Purush’ propaganda. What this news coverage, which is accompanied by some analysis and a generous supply of outspoken comment, has done is constantly to remind hundreds of millions of Indians that Mr. Modi is a highly divisive figure, with a special notoriety rooted in his and his government’s role in 2002. Thanks to the media and the dedicated work of several civil society organisations, neither democratic India nor the world at large is likely to overlook the fact that the deep social wounds inflicted more than a decade ago are still festering. For one thing, there is plenty of evidence of the continuing immiseration and ghettoisation of Gujarat’s Muslims, who constitute a little over nine per cent of the State’s population.
The politically aware also know where true accountability for 2002 lies. They know that, in sum, the role played by Chief Minister Modi and his government was to enable the worst communal carnage India has suffered in the past quarter-century, and thereafter to subvert justice in every way conceivable, until the Supreme Court of India intervened in game-changing fashion to uphold the law and the Constitution. They know, further, that ‘Vikas Purush’ has been unrepentant, refusing to apologise for the pogrom, only conceding provocatively, with breath-taking insensitivity combining with a defensiveness in the face of the criminal law in process, that if “someone else is driving a car and we’re sitting behind, even then if a puppy comes under the wheel, will it be painful or not? Of course it is.”
What is assured is that 2002 as a legal, political, and moral problem will not go away in the conceivable future. The problem could only become more complicated, domestically and internationally, were Mr. Modi to become Prime Minister. It is surely significant that aside from the Congress and the Left, several regional parties, including an important erstwhile BJP ally, the Janata Dal (United) led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, have come out in spirited opposition against such a prospect. The more astute among these political adversaries have made it clear that their opposition is not so much to an individual as it is to the world-view and set of policies that the individual represents.
The broad front of domestic political opposition to Mr. Modi’s policies and persona is bolstered by his unenviable international status: he is not quite persona grata , to put it mildly, in the comity of nations. The U.S. denial in 2005 of a diplomatic visa to the Chief Minister of an investment-friendly Indian State — a considered decision taken under a law that makes a foreign government official who was responsible for, or who “directly carried out, at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom” ineligible for the visa — highlights this aspect of the problem.
1984 & 2002
From time to time, Parivar spokespersons have aired the complaint that ‘double standards’ are adopted by the news media and ‘pseudo-secular’ politicians and intellectuals when it comes to judging 1984, when an estimated 8,000 Sikhs were massacred, and 2002, when the death toll was ‘just over’ a thousand. The comparison, although not the complaint, is valid. The underlying argument, that one monstrous wrong neutralises or cancels out another, is morally repugnant and politically beyond the pale.
An interesting question arises at this point: So why has Mr. Modi not apologised for the 2002 pogrom? Why has he not learnt from the precedent set by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh who, although he was in no way accountable for the carnage of Sikhs in 1984, had “no hesitation in apologising to the Sikh community… [and] the whole Indian nation because what took place in 1984 is the negation of the concept of nationhood enshrined in our Constitution.” It is true that the Prime Minister’s public apology, which was made in Parliament on August 12, 2005, fell far short of a ‘truth and reconciliation’ exercise. Nevertheless, as a moral and political gesture, it contrasts positively with Chief Minister Modi’s unrepentant and unreconstructed stance.
There is a strategic calculation behind the BJP prime ministerial candidate’s position on what happened in 2002. It is that this benighted chapter in contemporary Indian history appeals reflexively — ideologically and emotionally — to the Parivar and feeds naturally into its core communal agenda. By all accounts, after a decade of ideological confusion and political disarray within the Parivar, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh has decreed that the BJP’s focus, for mobilisation as well as national governance, must be on core Hindutva. There is no objection of course to bringing in the development theme, the ‘Vikas Purush’ narrative that beguiles corporate India and appeals to cohorts of voters disillusioned with Congress policies. But the focus on core, irreducible Hindutva, with its panoply of disintegrative issues, symbols, and campaigns, including ‘Ram Janmabhoomi’, must not be blurred.
It is this unbreakable genetic connection between 2002 and the present that makes it clear that a Modi prime ministership would be disastrous for democratic and secular India — where the Constitution’s most important commandment, that nobody is more or less equal than anyone else, can be honoured in principle as well as in practice.