As this week’s column is about Narendra Modi, a person who evokes strong responses from both fans and critics, let me start with two qualifications. First, even though it was the Special Investigation Team (SIT) summons to Modi (to interrogate him about a case relating to the Gujarat riots) that prompted this piece, I do not share the media euphoria: that the summons is a victory for Indian democracy, etc. Call me cynical but I doubt that the SIT is going to do Modi much damage.
Secondly, I have strong views on Modi: I think he is a mass murderer. Equally, many of his followers and supporters have views that are as extreme — in the opposite direction. I am not going to change their minds. And they are not going to change mine. So, this Sunday, let’s move away from the tiresome Modi debates that routinely clutter the internet and dominate political discourse.
My concern this week is less about whether Modi is a hero or a villain and more about his political trajectory. In 2003, after the dust had settled, many political observers took the line that Modi was now on track to become prime minister. It was not just his supporters who took this position. Even many of his critics regarded his inevitable ascension as a tragic eventuality. Now, eight years after the riots, several things are clear. One: Modi is almost exactly where he was in 2002. In political terms his career has not advanced by even an inch. In 2002, he was a powerful chief minister of Gujarat and an icon for a section of the Sangh parivar. In 2010, that is still where he stands.
Two: he may still be prime minister one day. In a country where H.D. Deve Gowda can become PM, anything is possible. But nobody regards it as inevitable any longer. Modi’s chances are no greater than, say, Sushma Swaraj’s or Arun Jaitley’s. In fact, he may be less acceptable than either Swaraj or Jaitley.
Three: the stigma that clung to him in the aftermath of the riots has not faded. Despite his achievements as an administrator and despite the little kisses blown at him by captains of Indian industry, he is still viewed through the prism of the 2002 riots. He remains a deeply divisive figure and is still something of an international pariah, liable to be denied visas to many democratic countries.
So, here’s my question: why did Modi’s career never take off in the eight years that followed the riots? Why is he still no more than what he was in 2002 — to quote India Today — a ‘hero of hatred’?
Part of it, of course, has to do with the riots. They were so horrific that we still remember them vividly. Even if you do not believe that he was complicit in the massacres and accept the apologist formulation — he did his best but public anger was too strong — you are still left with this contradiction: how can this man be hailed as a strong chief minister and one of the greatest administrators of our times if he can’t even stop his citizens from being massacred in the streets?
But this is not the full story. There have been thousands of riots in India since Independence. And yet, the stigma has never clung to politicians for so long.
In the Bombay riots of 1993, the Shiv Sena did most of the fighting and killing. The Sena did not attempt to deny this — it was even proud of its role. When Mani Ratnam’s Bombay was released, Bal Thackeray objected on the grounds that the Thackeray character in the film was shown to regret the violence. “I regret nothing,” the Senapati declared. “My boys took revenge on behalf of Hindus and I am proud of what they did.”
And yet, when we discuss Bal Thackeray today, those riots are hardly ever mentioned. In contrast, no discussion about Modi is complete without reference to the 2002 riots.
Even political demonisation does not necessarily last forever. In the late 1980s, when L.K. Advani went on his Rath Yatra and whipped up Hindu sentiment, he became a hate figure for many secularists. After the 1992 demolition of the Babri Masjid, that characterisation could well have stuck.
Instead, the stigma lifted quite quickly and now, when we talk about Advani, we hardly ever mention the Rath Yatra or the demolition or even treat him as some dangerous, divisive figure.
So, why is it so different with Modi? Why is his image still trapped within the events of 2002?
The reason is simple: this is the way Modi wanted it.
There is a natural tendency in Indian politics to gravitate towards the centre. For instance, L.K. Advani sought quite deliberately to shake off the Rath Yatri image and to be accepted as a moderate leader. Even Bal Thackeray eventually distanced himself from the Bombay riots and the Sena provided five years of stable government to Maharashtra soon after.
Modi’s career has been the exception. Though he came close to losing his job over his role in the riots, he expressed no regrets and admitted to no misjudgements. At the next election, far from seeking to heal the wounds caused by the riots, he exploited them, making inflammatory speeches and seeking to subliminally link Indian Muslims with Pakistan and ‘Mian Musharraf’.
That performance ensured that he became typecast as a divisive figure. Even so, many people believed that he would use the following term to emerge as a more consensual leader. They were wrong. By then, Modi’s fan club had begun to portray him as the pride of the Hindus, a strong leader who stood up to pseudo-secular hypocrisy, Muslim communalism, etc. And he revelled in the image.
That is pretty much where things stand today. Nobody denies that Modi has charisma and demagogic skills. But he has become a prisoner of his image, playing the Hindu Fuehrer for adoring fans while leaving the mainstream cold. In public, he comes off as arrogant and unbending; as unwilling to do any introspection about what went wrong in 2002 let alone express any regrets. Nor can he now reach out to India’s Muslims without risking the wrath of his core constituency.
Modi’s supporters say that this is fine. In 2014, India will have tired of 10 years of Congress and will look to a strong, assertively Hindu leader. They could be right. But I very much doubt it. Not only do Indians instinctively prefer a centrist leader who promises peace and stability (one reason why Modi has minimal impact when he campaigns outside of Gujarat) Modi will have to first win over the sceptics in his own party and then attract allies. None of this will be easy as long as he is a prisoner of this image.
Modi’s failure to hit the national big-time reminds us that even if a politician has the support of the people of his own state and of a vocal hardcore of devotees across India and the internet, that counts for little in national politics.
In the final analysis, Indians don’t want to hate. They want to be united. They want peace. And they want to look ahead not behind.
The views expressed by the author are personal.