Many of his fans do not know it — especially the internet legion that reveres its NaMo — but lately, 60-year-old Narendra Modi has been reeling under substantial pressure.
He and his government are fighting four court cases relating to extra-judicial killings of mostly Muslim suspects; an accusation that he was somehow involved in the assassination of his former home minister Haren Pandya; and a state governor who appointed an anti-corruption ombudsman at a time when Modi’s once-spotless government is battling corruption allegations.
So, Monday’s Supreme Court pronouncement to send a crucial case of the 2002 riots back to a trial court delighted Modi. “God is great,” the Gujarat chief minister tweeted, two hours after the verdict.
You might argue, rightly, that this is no exoneration. But it is as good as one. Modi’s relief reveals he does not fear a Gujarat trial court, susceptible to his influence and bound to no time limit. A verdict might take a decade and could stretch indefinitely into appeals.
The news from Ahmedabad says Modi is now, finally, ready for a national debut. With Gujarat assembly elections next year, the likely gameplan is that Modi will lead the BJP to a fifth consecutive victory, hand the state to a successor and officially step into national politics.
When he does, Modi will find a direct opponent, 41-year-old Rahul Gandhi, not yet called RaGa by his decidedly less vociferous fans.
India may be a parliamentary democracy dependent on the suzerainty of a majority party or, increasingly, a coalition, but its urbanising, excitable people and expanding, hyper-competitive media now demand faces and personal battles, in the manner of US presidential elections.
The NaMo vs RaGa battle is coming in 2014 — and before that to your television screen. Though rising local chieftains could upset the hopes of either, there is little doubt that one of the two will play a pivotal role in creating or leading a new government, whether single-party or coalition.
Three recent polls on possible prime ministers clearly indicate a Gandhi-Modi race. RaGa is ahead in two, NaMo in one.
The problem for India is that a tussle between the two in today’s polarised times will probably lead to a race where regardless of who wins, India’s minorities may suffer.
Both Gandhi and Modi, after all, represent and lead legacies of blood in an era of a new, often ugly, nationalism.
In 1984, mobs urged on by Congress leaders butchered or burnt alive 2,700 Sikhs in Delhi alone over four days after Indira Gandhi was shot dead by her Sikh bodyguards. In 2002, mobs urged on by BJP leaders killed more than 1,200 Muslims over six days (though attacks continued later for about three months) in Gujarat after 58 Hindus were roasted alive in a train.
In both cases, the police either ignored or were complicit in the massacres. Investigations have been sabotaged, and senior leaders of both parties have evaded justice.
Last August, the Central Bureau of Investigation told the Supreme Court that the Delhi Police were conducting “sham investigations and farce prosecutions” to shield Congress MP Sajjan Kumar. In Gujarat, where more than 250 Hindus were also killed, most convictions have been of Muslims.
A concerned Supreme Court started monitoring ten cases directly in 2009; Monday’s judgement, perhaps reflecting new reluctance, was one of those, though the Supreme Court will continue to monitor the other nine.
Like Modi, the Gandhis have never apologised for the riots. Rahul’s father Rajiv famously said after the anti-Sikh pogrom: “When a giant tree falls, the earth trembles.” Both legacies lay bare India’s proclivity to reward orchestrated majority violence with electoral success.
In less than two months after the 1984 anti-Sikh riots, Rajiv Gandhi led the Congress to India’s largest-ever electoral victory, winning 401 of 508 contested Parliament seats. (Today, the party has 207).
Similarly, 10 months after the 2002 riots, Modi led the BJP to its biggest ever victory in Gujarat (the biggest ever win in that state was the Congress victory in — no surprises — 1984), winning 127 of 182 assembly seats. (The BJP has 122 seats today.)
In both elections, the majority Hindu electorate shrugged off revenge attacks on innocents and focused its attention on the root cause of rioting — Indira Gandhi’s assassination by her Sikh guards and the burning alive of Hindu activists by a Muslim mob in Godhra.
Despite its global rise, India still favours mob justice over the rule of law.
This is why we widely tolerate — even applaud — police brutality; why middle India will rise to back Anna Hazare but ignore Irom Sharmila; why we want Kashmir and Manipur to remain with India but could not care less about the Kashmiris or Manipuris.
India’s new nationalism demands conformity, not rebellion, and it will back only issues of self-interest; it proclaims all Indians are equal, while being blind to or condoning discrimination against minorities.
As the middle-class expands in number and aspirations — both material and political — its nationalism of self-interest will demand political subservience.
Narendra Modi realised very early that the middle class is growing, its soaring aspirations require good governance, and it will accept a strong, even autocratic, leader. Rahul Gandhi and the Congress are yet focused on old, paternalistic politics that promote handouts, loyalty and state munificence over efficiency.
This will change. No amount of Dalit homestays and parachute trips to troublespots will help Gandhi unless he engages with India’s new nationalism.
The election of 2014 is not very distant, but it is not as near as the BJP would like it to be in an age of instant opinions, shaped by 24/7/365 TV and susceptible to overnight change.
Expect bugles to sound soon in the great NaMo Vs RaGa battle.