Even if Narendra Modi believes he was needlessly vilified for the riots, as PM aspirant, he could make a visible attempt at reconciliation.
Unless there are major undetected cross-currents the Narendra Modi wave seems all set to hit the shore as forecast. For a country that lost its moorings over the past few years and felt adrift because of the sheer listlessness of the men and women steering its course, this election, more than any before, is being fought on leadership as a central issue.
The wishy-washy ineffectual style of Manmohan Singh, the reticence and erratic interventions of Sonia Gandhi and the mostly abstract, platitudinous approach of Rahul Gandhi have all added up to create a gigantic appetite for a tangible, measurable strength of personality. It is this void in leadership that the Gujarat chief minister’s definitely more muscular and aggressive campaign has been successfully able to fill. Of course the backdrop of this leadership debate is corruption, scandal, inefficiency and poor communication. But no matter which way you break down the statistics of the much-debated Gujarat model, people backing Modi aren’t actually responding to data; they are validating what they believe to be a decisive and tough persona.
In other words, Modi’s manly campaign, down to the boast of the 56-inch chest, is the robust and toned alternative to the anorexic and diminutive quality of the incumbents. The abdication of leadership by the UPA and the somewhat fumbling articulations of the Congress vice-president have created a psychological gap; one that Modi has seized and converted into a political opportunity.
But as we wind down to the fateful day in May, now that the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate has presented himself as the Tough Guy that a leaderless country has been waiting for, why isn’t he more willing to show a softer, gentler side? In its previous stint in power, the BJP was able to offer a dualism of leadership style in Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani. Whether you saw them as the Good-Cop, Bad-Cop combination that all smart management tricks fall back on or as the Vikas Purush (Development Man) and Loh Purush (Iron Man) characters that their party colleague Venkiah Naidu cast them as, there was a yin and yang balance of perceived strength and softness.
With no Vajpayee to soften his angularities, it is imperative that if Narendra Modi wants to be seen as a more inclusive leader, he should now be willing to take his politics beyond the confrontational or the antagonistic. His acerbic and abrasive taunts at his principal rivals do make for better copy and a more interesting television watch than others but if he is the man to lead a country as diverse as India, sooner or later he will have to reach out to those who are wary of him — not just the large mass of Muslim voters, but also to fence-sitters across communities.
By focusing his speeches exclusively on issues of governance and economics, by declaring the Constitution as his sacred book, by studiously avoiding any mention of Mandir or Masjid — Modi has tried to keep his national campaign strictly non-controversial. But this is not enough. The weight of history combined with the lingering baggage of some ill-chosen, insensitive metaphors (the ‘burqa’ of secularism; the ‘puppy’ analogy for 2002) still make Modi seem unwilling to empathise fully. He must understand that the evolved modern man is expected to be both strong and sentimental without it being mutually exclusive.
If the 2002 debate is not to be endlessly bookended with 1984 or if it is not to be a self-defeating argument about a missing apology, there is a simpler way for Modi himself to take the national debate forward. Now that a local court has upheld the finding of the RK Raghavan-led Special Investigation Team (SIT) that there is no prosecutable evidence against Modi for 2002, instead of only brandishing the ‘clean chit’ as a vindication, the BJP’s prime ministerial campaign could go further and use this moment to reach out and meet with the riot victims.
As it is, many believe that had Modi simply done so earlier, the healing process could have started sooner. I remember, JS Bandukwala, the soft-spoken university professor in Vadodara, whose own house was ransacked by a mob in 2002 and whose daughter Umaima is married to a Gujarati Hindu, telling me this a few years after the riots.
“If the chief minister had just placed a gentle hand on the head of Bilqis Bano,” he said, referring to the young woman who was three months pregnant when she was repeatedly raped by a mob, “we would be able to build bridges faster.” Even if the Gujarat chief minister believes he was needlessly vilified for the riots by a hostile media, as prime ministerial aspirant who could soon be leading India, there’s nothing to stop him now from making a more visible attempt at reconciliation.
Similarly, it would only increase Modi’s stature if he were to distance himself vocally from the foul-mouthed misogyny of many of his online supporters whose statements can sometimes border on the violent. Many of these online diatribes are located within the larger culture of aggression that seems to be the dominant political style of the day, across party lines.
In the build-up of his campaign, Modi used a bellicose force very effectively to expose the weaknesses of the Congress. In the last lap, and especially as polls indicate that he may well be the next prime minister, this trademark combativeness could be tempered and moderated by some compassion. In any case, in the age of coalition politics Modi will have no choice but to be a consensus-builder. This may be a good moment to start that process and show that softness complements strength and doesn’t detract from it.
Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, NDTV
The views expressed by the author are personal