Decoding Modi

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Photo: AFP
Photo: AFP

Ever since the BJP made him its prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi has been the focus of the fiercest political controversy that India has known since it became a democracy. The controversy has revolved around his sins of commission and omission during the Gujarat riots of 2002, and his so-called ‘Gujarat model’ for economic growth.

The murder, in horrific ways, of at least 750 persons, nearly all of whom were Muslims, following the burning of kar sevaks on the Sabarmati Express, was a turning point in Hindu-Muslim relations in India. Till then, it was axiomatic that the Indian State was secular, unquestioningly to be on the side of the victims no matter what community they belonged to, and would always endeavour to restore peace as swiftly as possible. The Gujarat riots, and their sequel, shattered this belief and sowed the seeds of Islamist terrorism that has sputtered to life sporadically in different parts of the country, ever since.

The Gujarat model has become the second focus of controversy because it is seen as an anodyne description, and therefore an endorsement of India’s crony capitalist state. The vast reach of this favour-swapping state, the way it has corrupted politicians and bureaucrats, has been in full view since the 2010 Commonwealth Games. The humiliation India suffered in the international press, and at the hands of the Queen of England, snapped some nerve of tolerance in the Indian public. Suddenly there were whistleblowers in the bureaucracy and watchdog bodies within the government found their teeth. Modi has made no secret of his partiality to industry and to Gujarati industrialists in particular. As a result, to the opponents of crony capitalism, he has become its exemplar.

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Stranger Than Fiction

Inferno The charred Sabarmati Express bogie, Photo: Tehelka
Inferno The charred Sabarmati Express bogie, Photo: Tehelka

Three events within a single week have traumatised the country in a manner not experienced since the demolition of the Babri Masjid a decade ago. These are the attempt to start the construction of a Ram temple in Ayodhya, the slaughter of passengers on the Sabarmati Express by a frenzied mob at Godhra, and the horrific ‘revenge’ killing of more than 600 Muslims in virtually uncontrolled reprisals all over Gujarat. Given their proximity, and the fact that all three relate to the vexed issue of communal relations, it is not surprising that much enlightened public opinion in India has linked all three events in a single chain of cause and effect and pinned the primary blame for the slaughter of innocent Muslims in Ahmedabad, and for that matter some of the blame for the killing of Hindus at Godhra, upon the Hindu revivalists of the saffron brigade.

It speaks volumes for the strength of secular sentiment in the Indian intelligentsia that despite being overwhelmingly Hindu, it is able to do so. But the interpretation is wrong. The three events were unconnected. Linking them together permits Muslims to plead extenuating circumstances for the murderers of Godhra just as much as ignoring the poison generated by the Ayodhya dispute permits Hindus to put all the blame for Ahmedabad and Mehsana upon the incitement provided by the murders at Godhra.

It is an inescapable truth that had there been no Ayodhya dispute, there would have been no kar sevaks travelling in the Sabarmati Express. There would, therefore, have been no altercation on the platform at Godhra. But that is about the only link between Ayodhya and the Godhra massacre. By no stretch of reasoning can an altercation with a Muslim tea stall owner, an ensuing fracas, abuse hurled at Muslims or Islam justify the roasting alive of men, women and children 1 km outside the train station at Godhra. Indeed, it is almost impossible to imagine how one act could even have set off the other.

To begin with, kar seva has been going on sporadically in Ayodhya for an entire decade. During all this time, kar sevaks have been going up and down the railroad from Ahmedabad to Ayodhya. There was nothing especially confrontational about the kar sevaks who had travelled back and forth in February. This did not mean that they were incapable of misbehaving, or getting into a quarrel with a tea stall owner — groups of young men travelling by train do so all the time, and the victims are by no means all Muslims.

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What Really Happened In Gujarat?

Pyromania Mobs set fire to vehicles and other belongings at the Khokhara locality in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002
Pyromania Mobs set fire to vehicles and other belongings at the Khokhara locality in Ahmedabad on 28 February 2002

As the tide of passion, soul searching and recrimination over Gujarat ebbs, it is becoming possible to look for answers to the question that has been tormenting all Indians since 1 March. “What went so horribly wrong in Gujarat that 750 people had to die (in addition to those killed at Godhra) and more than 100,000 had to be rendered homeless and destitute?” All of us know that the security of the Indian State in future years — in short, the safety of our children — depends upon our finding the answer. But till just a short time ago, most of us had despaired of finding one.

As the dust settles, however, answers are beginning to emerge. First, did the Gujarat government really do nothing to forestall a bloodbath that it could see coming or incredible as it may seem in retrospect, did it fail to anticipate the bloodbath? Till a fortnight ago, the general perception was the former. But since then reports like those of the National Human Rights Commission and the National Commission for Minorities have given a more nuanced picture of what actually happened. These have accepted the Gujarat government’s contention that it did foresee trouble and took precautionary steps to keep it in check, but was caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the mob fury that erupted on 28 February. The Gujarat government’s own account, given on 5 March, of how events unfolded is valuable because it lacks the element of hindsight found in media reports.

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What Modi Said In 2007

Transcripts from Gujarat CM Narendra Modi’s address at The Hindustan Times Leadership Summit held on 12 October 2007

Narendra Modi

On the Gujarat model

I disagree with the contradiction that we are trying to find in today’s topic of discussion: Regional Pride vs National Identity. I think it will create a negative line of thinking. In a country like India, if we think that no matter how the states perform, the country will be on a development path, then it is not possible. At the same time, it is also not correct to think that if the states focus all their energy on development, then it is a threat to the identity of the country as a whole. Both these systems complete and nourish each other.

The government at the Centre should support the state in those sectors that are its strengths, and help the state develop in those sectors where it is weak. If we develop this model of governance, then we can cater to those areas where our country is lacking. And if we support the strength of the states in a collaborative way, then we can make India a strong nation.

Nowadays, a “showcase model” is being followed throughout the world. Instead of talking about the development in the whole of China, the development in China’s eastern region is being talked about and marketed. At some point, New Delhi was also being portrayed as a model in our country. But due to its British legacy and it being a part of the political scenario, New Delhi as a model could not inspire the common man of this country. A similar attempt was made to focus on Mumbai, but it had its own constraints, and hence we stopped after reaching a certain point. So, across the world, when they spoke about India, they spoke only about New Delhi, and Mumbai to a certain extent.

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