India is a strange country which loves report cards and clean chits, often mistaking certificates for truth. One is not surprised that many of our autobiographies sound like personal good conduct certificates. In recent times, we had a Special Investigation Team report into the Gujarat riots that claimed that Narendra Modi was not guilty of the riots. If the media were to be believed, the way is now clear for the BJP to anoint him unofficially as prime minister.
In these days of populist logic, media acclaim and corporate support, Modi is seen as a powerful man, a measured voice on India security and federalism and a darling of the World Bank for his leadership role in the Gujarat earthquake. Modi is heralded as the man who’s helped create Sanand in Ahme-dabad as one of the world’s greatest automobile hubs. Investment houses see him as a competent chief minister and Mr Development.
With all these certificates of competence one might ask, should one act of violence with which his name is associated act as a millstone around his political neck? Was Modi not articulating the emotions of many people when speaking of the riots that, “Every action has an equal and opposite reaction”? Was Modi as CM not merely being a barometer of majoritarian views? People might even claim that he has turned a new leaf and cite his sadbhavana campaign as a genuine search for peace and healing. Why then should I, one social scientist, play wet blanket?
My objections to Modi are aesthetic, ethical and political. First, the Gujarat riots were unique in the fact that it was the first time a state refused responsibility towards the victims of a riot. I am not talking about guilt about violence. I am talking of responsibility towards the victims of a disastrous event.
Second, Modi makes speeches that divide the nation along various lines: between English and Gujarati language; between Delhi and Gujarat; between the pracharak’s view and the Congress’ view. A PM should be a voice of unity. Yet this is a man who signals difference above all.
Third, as CM, he claims normalcy soon after the riots. Here is a CM who confuses ‘normalcy’ with ‘normalisation’ as an act of administrative fiat. He reduced the whole bureaucracy to silence by offering incentive schemes of extension to key officers. Harsh Mander, a former IAS officer and an advocate of the Right to Information Act, observed that the silence of the bureaucracy was one of the most disturbing facets of the 2002 Gujarat riots. It’s not that there were no dissenters. Modi’s attempt to dismiss Sreekumar, a top police officer, showed that he doesn’t tolerate a ‘responsible’ bureaucracy. Fourth, India is a plural society. It evokes pluralism that demands a special understanding of minorities. Modi inaugurated the sadbhavana yatra seeking a unity of society. Yet he lacks the ability to exchange dignities with a Muslim cleric. When offered a skull cap, he refused the gesture. The symbolism of the act was telling.
One does not need a saint as a prime minister. But surely, decency, tolerance, a care for minorities, a respect for dissent, a refusal to encourage violence and an attitude of openness are qualities a future PM needs. I wonder whether the competent Mr Modi fits the bill.
Shiv Visvanathan is a social scientist based in Gandhinagar
The views expressed by the author are personal