Decoding Modi

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.

As election fever has mounted, Modi has become the focus of attack of all of the BJP’s opponents. The attack has intensified as one opinion poll after the other has confirmed that the BJP is indeed likely to form the next government. As a result, the story of the Ahmedabad riots and the Gujarat model have been reinterpreted over and over again until it has become impossible to separate truth from fiction.

Today, Modi is accused of not only failing to control the rioters, but of having instigated them to go on their murderous rampage. As for the Gujarat model, it has gradually been converted by Modi from a model for rapid growth into a model for expropriation of the poor by the very, very rich. Put Modi’s cynical disregard for Muslim lives, and Muslim sensibilities together with his open alliance with “Ambani and Adani”, and what do you get? The answer is fascism.

That this portrayal has enough truth in it to make it alarming cannot be doubted. But how much of it is true and how much a parody? With the BJP’s return to power and Modi’s chances of taking over as the PM becoming ever more likely, sifting truth from fiction has become a matter of supreme importance. But how does one go about doing this at the tail end of a poll campaign? Parsing his current statements and behaviour gives us few clues because everything he says or does is now tailored to what the voters would like to hear. Nor can we rely upon the assessments of his supporters, for they have mythified him as much as his opponents have demonised him.

One way of getting closer to the real man is to go back to what he said and did before the myth-making began. That is what we have tried to do in the pages that follow. The first, of the two essays that follow, reproduces the relevant portions of two articles that I wrote, on 14 March and 11 April 2002, that described what actually happened in Gujarat, starting with the burning of the Sabarmati Express carriage, till the end of the rioting that followed, one week later, i.e., two and four weeks after the killing began. While I make no claim to absolute truth, and doubt that such a thing even exists, these articles have the flavour of immediacy that we hope will help readers to make up their own minds about Modi’s degree of culpability. If it makes his current statements and, more important, his silences more understandable, then all the better. There is an old adage in journalism that the first journalist who gets to the site of a tragedy gets the correct version of what happened. Those who follow get reconstructions. To a considerable extent, I believe this holds true of news analysis as well.

The second essay is a translation of Modi’s own thoughts on the two key subjects — the Gujarat model and Hindutva. What distinguishes these from innumerable recent statements is the time when, and the circumstances in which he made them. Both sets of thoughts have been culled from a spontaneous, not always cordial, question and answer session with industry and political leaders at the Hindustan Times Leadership Summit. The date is 12 October 2007, i.e., at a time when choosing him as its PM candidate had not entered the minds of the Sangh Parivar’s leaders.

Readers are, once more, invited to make up their own minds about where Modi stood then, and stands now, on these issues, but two features of his exposition stand out. First, Modi’s exposition of the Gujarat model emphasised means, not ends. Unlike a previous Maharashtra CM’s frequent assertions that his goal was to make Mumbai another Singapore, Modi dwelt in 2007 on the methods of governance that he was employing in Gujarat to promote faster and more broad-based growth. These consisted of identifying agents of change and areas of weakness in the economy and society, assisting the former and using the powers of the state to strengthen the latter.

His opponents can point out, with considerable justice, that this has not prevented a widening of income disparities and a considerable disempowerment of the poor. But the difference is that if this is a consequence and not an intention, Modi may, one day, decide to rectify it.

Modi’s 2007 exposition of his concept of Hindutva is of crucial importance because it is almost indistinguishable from that of AB Vajpayee. He did not live up to it in 2002, but it does explain why he has, so often, claimed that Gujarat is among the safest states for Muslims to live in today. Publishing his views on Hindutva serves another purpose: it helps to remind him of what he must live up to, gives us a yardstick by which to judge his conduct. At this moment of flux in our society, that is the most that we can do.


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