Much as I would like to borrow from this season’s style and write an ‘open’ letter to Narendra Modi, the Gujarat chief minister would probably make it a point to throw my missive straight into the bin. Since the torching of the Sabarmati Express nine years ago and the horrific riots that followed, Modi has triumphantly and aggressively shunned all contact with those who were sharply critical of him and his administration for permitting a shameful breakdown of justice and accountability in 2002.
As a journalist who reported the riots from the ground on the stretch between Godhra and Vadodara and pointed out— like many others — the complete absence of police intervention, I have earned the permanent ire of Modi and his legion of followers. If anything, in a perennial ‘othering’ of anyone who is less than adulatory of him, Modi has not just sneered at criticism — he seems to have enjoyed every moment of the polarising impact he has on people. Perhaps he understood long back that the very criticism that made his ideology unpalatable to so many Indians simultaneously consolidated the following of his supporters. To that end, Modi has always loved having an Enemy.
It’s no surprise then that when Modi first swept the Gujarat elections after the riots, some of his supporters quickly turned Victory into Rage. They turned their energy on all of us stationed outside the party headquarters in Ahmedabad and sought to physically thrash us into meekness. By now, in the public imagination, We, the English Media, had become the hostile outsiders and Modi’s narrative had managed to successfully equate all criticism of him with criticism of the Gujarati people. Subsequently, Narendra Modi has resolutely refused to speak to me and a few other journalists for nine years.
One would think over the years, as Modi evolved into a super-efficient administrator whose record on economic governance was lauded even by his fiercest critics, he would have tried to recast his image and shed the divisiveness associated with him. Ironically, a contrarian Modi only embraced the aggressive avatar he had built for himself in 2002 closer and closer, virtually refusing to permit a softening of the edges. A series of electoral victories helped him cock a snook at a defeated opposition. And he quickly understood that the more there was criticism of him outside Gujarat, the stronger he would get on his own turf.
Therein may lie a pyschological glimpse into why re-invention and reconciliation may be so difficult for Narendra Modi. For a man who gets his thrills from going to battle and winning, calling a truce is intrinsically tough. While it is correct to argue that a Fast by its very nature is not necessarily the prerogative of the apolitical, it is also worth understanding that this gesture from Modi comes only in the backdrop of perceived victory in the Supreme Court. Once again, it is rooted in the mindset of a politician who appears to have a primal need to fight and win.
The copycat response of the Congress has only exposed its own bankruptcy of ideas. To see a former BJP leader- turned- Congressman Shankersinh Vaghela play catch-up with Modi by going on his own competitive fast is to understand why Modi still rules Gujarat.
But now Modi is confronted with a deeper philosophical question. Does he want to be the chief minister of Gujarat for the rest of his life or a pan-Indian leader with national acceptability and the ability to build consensus across party lines. India’s politics can be both presidential and local, and thus a national leader by the very definition must have resonance in both the mohalla and the country. It’s the reason AB Vajpayee remains the NDA’s most popular leader years after he has exited active politics.
Notwithstanding our misgivings over reducing the Fast as a metaphor for protest to a political farce, Modi has every right to his own political strategy. But if this three-day fast for ‘communal amity’ is symbolic, we must explore its messaging. Is this a beginning of a new-look Modi or is it a public relations blitzkrieg by a man accustomed to defining victory vis-a-vis Enemies, real and imagined?
Why did Modi not, for example, reach out to the riot-affected families still awaiting justice and emotional closure? Could he not have expressed regret for the violence that took place on his watch? Could he not have thought out-of-the box and offered to visit the families — Hindus and Muslims — of those who were killed in 2002? Could this fast not have been accompanied by gentle remorse instead of proud assertiveness?
There are people like Professor JS Bandukwala who have spoken movingly and tearfully on national television about their readiness to accept such a gesture of healing. I remember interviewing Prof Bandukwala and his young daughter Umaima, amid the ruins of broken glass and wood in their ransacked home in Vadodara. A mob of 300 men had descended on a home that had always stood for progressive liberal thought. Umaima was to marry a Gujarati Hindu, and both father and daughter spoke of how their lives had been saved by their Hindu neighbours. This gentle, gracious, soft spoken man has repeatedly underlined the need for closure, imploring Modi to help his community do so with a sense of honour and justice. So, could Modi not have written a letter, for instance, to Prof Bandukwala inviting ideas for a truth and reconciliation commission?
As has often been said in other states like Jammu and Kashmir, reconciliation without justice is only half the truth. But reconciliation is often about new beginnings as well. The question is not whether Modi can shed his history. The question is: Does he even want to?
( Barkha Dutt is Group Editor, English News, NDTV )
The views expressed by the author are personal