Dr Modi & Mr Hyde

Updated on Nov 08, 2007 08:58 PM IST

While the 2002 Gujarat riots have become a cause celebre for the secular establishment, 1984 has not acquired the same profile, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

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On the very day that Lalu Yadav marched to the Prime Minister’s residence demanding Narendra Modi’s arrest in the wake of the Tehelka sting exposé, a small group of Sikh widows were protesting at the capital’s Jantar Mantar on the 23rd anniversary of the anti-Sikh riots. One eye on the TV cameras, the other firmly on the Muslim vote, Lalu was making the headlines. The widows were yesterday’s story. While the 2002 Gujarat riots have become a cause celebre for the secular establishment, 1984 has never quite acquired the same profile.

On the face of it, the anti-Sikh riots were far more horrific than the post-Godhra violence. More than 2,700 people were killed in 1984, as per the official death toll; in Gujarat, it was a little over a thousand. The 1984 riots have seen just 13 convictions; in Gujarat, the fast-track courts have already convicted more than 15 persons in different cases. The 1984 riots occurred in several high security areas in the heart of the national capital; the 2002 violence spread more thinly to parts of rural Gujarat as well. As a powerful recent book, When a Tree Shook Delhi, confirms, senior Congress politicians, including Union ministers, were actually present on the streets, allegedly leading the mobs in 1984; in Gujarat, the direct evidence against Modi’s cabinet members is still based principally on police phone records. While then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee did make some token attempt to distance himself from the Gujarat rioters, it took a Sikh Congress PM in 2005 to finally accept that 1984 was a “national shame”, and that the truth had never come out. Rajiv Gandhi’s statement that “when a big tree falls, the earth shakes” is recorded history; Narendra Modi’s “action-reaction” comment was officially denied.

Why then is Modi such a hate figure today for the secularists while Rajiv Gandhi, then Home Minister Narasimha Rao and the entire top Congress leadership have escaped public censure? The answer might unlock not just the Modi enigma, but also the content of Indian secularism, and perhaps indicate just how much India has changed in the last two decades.

Firstly, in 1984, the Indian judiciary was perhaps a little less adversarial towards the politician than it is today, and certainly less proactive in driving the political agenda. There was no Supreme Court as willing to directly indict the political leadership as it is today — Modi was likened to Nero by former Chief Justice V.N. Khare; in 1984, the Supreme Court would have probably seen such a remark as a transgression of judicial authority.

Secondly, human rights activists were perhaps far less organised in 1984 than they are today. The ability to create a sustained moral and legal pressure on the system, to network with other NGOs and to cultivate the media is perhaps far greater now than it was in 1984, although many groups like the PUCL and PUDR as well as the Nagrik Ekta Manch did embark on processions and fact-finding missions. A Teesta Setalvad can actually become a rallying point for those seeking justice in a manner that was perhaps not possible 23 years ago.

Thirdly, and most crucially, the 2002 riots were the first in the age of round-the-clock ‘live’ television. Gujarat was India’s first television riot. There was remarkable journalism done in the 1980s (as also after Ayodhya), but somehow, the power and sanctity of the written word cannot match the impact and immediacy of the television image. Whether it was the visuals of street carnage five years ago or the voices of Sangh parivar footsoldiers bragging about their ‘achievements’ with chilling candour, the audio-visual image has the ability to confirm, even magnify, the gravity of the crime in a way that, at times, even the finest prose cannot. The television camera reduced the mental and geographical distance between the Gujarat riots and a national viewership in a manner that the newspaper in 1984 could not. It also, especially in the context of a paralysed political class, became the ‘real’ opposition, questioning and challenging the Gujarat government’s claims to be a non-partisan upholder of the Constitution.

Ironically, what the dramatic television images also did was transform Modi into a larger-than-life figure. From a relatively anonymous pracharak who had never fought an election, he was now either the hero or villain of hate politics, depending on one’s ideological leanings. Modi, in fact, brilliantly used the media exposure to create the spectre of a confrontation between himself and the so-called ‘anti-Hindu’ English language media. The sharp rhetoric in public speeches, the intimidatory tone towards journalists and even the recent walk-out from an interview were designed to position himself as a macho hero who was being targeted by an ideological media. Indeed, by pigeonholing the non-Gujarati media in particular as ‘enemy number one’, Modi was able to cultivate a sense of ‘us’ versus ‘them’ within his core constituency. As a result, far from being apologetic about the post-Godhra violence, he was almost dismissive of the criticism. This seeming lack of remorse at the violence has only added to the polarisation: the critics demonised him, and his supporters valourised him as a Hindu hriday samrat.

In a sense, Modi has become symbolic of the Hindu-Muslim faultlines that exist in our society, a symbol of the darkness within. Those faultlines run far deeper and are far more central to identity politics than the Hindu-Sikh divide of the 1980s could ever have been. The divide of the 1980s was a temporary eruption, occasioned more by political mismanagement than any fundamental shift in attitudes between members of the two communities. The scars of 1984 could be healed with time, because the origins of the Hindu-Sikh tension were not based on historic resentments and popular prejudices.

By contrast, and rather uncomfortably, 2002 seems part of a more sustained campaign of hate, prejudice and violence between Hindus and Muslims, one which tapped into a wider constituency in Gujarat and beyond. Which is why there isn’t a greater sense of collective outrage at the behaviour of those caught on camera detailing the worst possible crimes against humanity. Which is also why a substantial section of the rank and file of the BJP, a party whose rise in national politics was spurred by the growing communal divide, seems to have endorsed Modi’s brand of politics.

Interestingly, the original patent to this type of militant Hindutva politics belonged to Shiv Sena chief Bal Thackeray. Like Modi in 2002, Thackeray too was unapologetic about his actions during the 1992-93 Mumbai riots. In fact, he went a step further than Modi when he openly said “he was proud of his boys”. Both Modi and Thackeray revelled in their image as authoritarian political bosses who would tolerate no internal dissent. Like Modi, Thackeray too has attempted to create an ‘enemy-like situation’ with the the English language media, one designed purely to reinforce his stature as the ‘supremo’ among his supporters.

The difference is that while Thackeray had little to offer beyond the demagoguery. Modi, as Chief Minister, has chosen a ‘Hindutva-plus’ model, one in which a fierce commitment to ideology is matched by an equally aggressive commitment to economic growth. While Thackeray has often been dismissed as an eccentric rabble-rouser, Modi enjoys the stature of being a focused, workaholic CM.

So, while sociologist Ashis Nandy may have come out of a meeting with Modi 10 years ago and warned a colleague that he had met the country’s first “textbook fascist”, industrialists who shared a dais with him at the Vibrant Gujarat celebrations last year admiringly described him as a “growth-oriented, highly motivated chief minister”. Perhaps, it’s this dualism — Dr Modi and Mr Hyde — that lies at the heart of the Modi phenomenon. Not only does he appeal to the desire for greater material progress, but his existence is perhaps a symbol of a hidden alter ego, a doppleganger that undoubtedly still exists in many Hindu hearts. Modi says in public what many may say in private. A centuries-old, unsaid prejudice that still has not been properly confronted and cauterised is Modi’s secret weapon. It makes him more electable. And also more feared.

Rajdeep Sardesai is the Editor-in-Chief, CNN-IBN

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    Rajdeep Sardesai is senior journalist, author and TV news presenter. His book 2014: The election that changed India is a national best seller that has been translated into half a dozen languages. He tweets as @sardesairajdeep

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