Slip, sliding away

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After the Naroda Patiya verdict, Narendra Modi’s chances of becoming prime minister have receded

By Vir Sanghvi

Bumps ahead Modi remains an untested entity beyond Gujarat’s borders
Bumps ahead Modi remains an untested entity beyond Gujarat’s borders
Photo: AFP

THREE SIGNIFICANT events over the past few weeks have interrupted Narendra Modi’s progress towards his cherished goal of becoming prime minister of India. These events do not necessarily make his candidacy a non-starter but they suggest that there are many more obstacles in his path than Modi and his supporters like to believe.

The first and most significant of these events has been the conviction and sentencing of Maya Kodnani and Babu Bajrangi for their role in the Gujarat riots. The judgment demolishes the claim often advanced by the Modi camp that there is no evidence to support the allegation that the BJP or the state government had any role to play in the mass slaughter.

But the verdict goes even further: it proves that the massacres were directed from on high within the Sangh Parivar and were not random acts of violence by foot soldiers. In 2007, TEHELKA’s Ashish Khetan caught the perpetrators of the massacres gloating on camera about the rapes they had committed and the innocents they had slaughtered. They admitted that not only did the police look away but that political leaders had encouraged the mayhem.

Even as the evidence accumulated, the Modi government suppressed, dismissed and ignored it. Investigations were sabotaged and the murderers were protected. Maya Kodnani was even rewarded with a ministership. Those who dared raise their voices were slandered or set upon by crazed Internet mobs. Modi’s supporters kept repeating that there was no proof linking him personally to the massacres. But there was, in fact, more than enough proof of culpability: in 2002, Modi was also home minister in charge of the police force that closed its eyes as blood flowed down the streets of Gujarat. And since then, his government has done everything possible to stall fair investigations, sidelining or persecuting officials who asked inconvenient questions and promoting policemen who participated in the cover-up.

It is a measure of Modi’s attitude to the massacres that not only has he refused to apologise to the victims or to admit any culpability, he has constructed his career on the graves of those who perished. In the election that followed the massacres, far from expressing remorse or seeking to heal wounds, he sought to link Indian Muslims with “Mian Musharraf”. Even today, his core supporters are those who believe in an aggressive Hindutva ideology and argue that nothing untoward occurred in Gujarat in 2002. Modi, they say, has nothing to apologise for.

The second event may, at first, seem like an advantage for Modi. A nationwide poll commissioned by NDTV suggests that were an election to be held in the current climate, the BJP would get more seats than the Congress. And among BJP voters, Modi is the preferred prime ministerial candidate, far ahead not just of Sushma Swaraj but also of LK Advani.

But the problem with this poll result — from Modi’s point of view — is that it makes the prime ministership a subject of immediate concern within the BJP and the NDA. While the likes of Advani and Swaraj have reason to be upset, NDA allies and more importantly, potential allies, are the ones who are really panicking.

Which brings us to the third significant event: the declaration by Nitish Kumar that he would have no hesitation in quitting the NDA if Modi is the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Moreover, far from advancing Modi’s candidacy, the BJP’s Bihar supremo, Sushil Modi, has gone on record to say that it is Nitish who will make an excellent prime minister.

The BJP knows that even if the figures thrown up by the NDTV poll hold, it will need to find another 130 or so MPs to get anywhere near a majority in the Lok Sabha. But if the prospect of Modi as prime minister so terrifies Nitish, then think of the impact it will have on prospective alliance partners. Would Naveen Patnaik support a government headed by Modi? Would Mamata Banerjee, who was once a member of the NDA, even consider returning to the fold? Could Mayawati ever win any Muslim votes if she offered any kind of support — even from outside — to a government headed by Modi? After the Naroda Patiya judgment, can any party that claims to be secular really support a Modi candidacy?

Till the late 1990s, the conventional wisdom held that the BJP could never come to power at the Centre because 1. It did not have the all-India presence required to win a majority on its own and 2. It was a political untouchable that nobody would align with.

When the BJP finally became acceptable in 1998, it was largely because of the personality of AB Vajpayee, who not only refused to implement a Hindutva agenda but also made no secret of his contempt for Hindu fundamentalism.

MODI IS the antithesis of Vajpayee. Hindutva is his core agenda. If he abandons aggressive Hindu nationalism then he loses his followers. And so, by declaring Modi its prime ministerial candidate, the BJP could well turn itself into a political untouchable again.

Within the BJP, there are two schools of thought on how to approach the issue of Modi and the prime ministership. One view is that all allies fall in line once a party has the numbers. According to this view, the BJP needs 160 or so seats to be able to dictate terms. If it gets these numbers then the allies will have no choice but to accept the BJP’s terms — even if these terms include Modi.

By declaring Modi its PM candidate, the BJP could well turn itself into a political untouchable again

Proponents of this view argue that the only way the BJP can ever get these many seats is by aggressively projecting Modi as its leader. Modi’s charisma will win the party the seats it needs to call the shots by effectively consolidating the hardcore Hindutva vote.

There are two flaws with this theory. The first is that even with 160 seats, the BJP may still be unable to find allies if the likes of Nitish persist with their opposition. In 1996, the BJP won 161 seats but it still failed to find enough allies to reach a parliamentary majority. And that was with the consensual, more acceptable Vajpayee as leader! So, how would a Modi-led BJP fare much better? (When the party finally took office in 1998, it won 182 seats, a figure that seems hard to reach in today’s climate.)

The second flaw is that this theory may well overestimate Modi’s national popularity. We know that he is popular in Gujarat and we know that he is the choice of committed BJP supporters. But is he a votewinner at the national level? Will the uncommitted middle-of- the-road voters who the BJP must necessarily win over want Modi as prime minister? Or will they feel — with echoes of the Gujarat massacres still reverberating through the courts — that he is too divisive a figure to lead India? Nobody knows. So far, Modi has never been tested at a national level.

A second school of thought within the BJP now quietly concedes that Modi is not the consensus figure needed to construct a coalition. So, while there may be votes to be won in some areas on the basis of Modi’s charisma, the party must recognise that once the results are in, no coalition can be built around Modi.

Far better, therefore, to drop the idea of a Modi candidacy and to allow the Gujarat chief minister a say in choosing the new prime minister (assuming the NDA gets that far) and key Cabinet ministers. Modi may well be content to support a consensual leader like Arun Jaitley and to accept influence from behind the scenes as a substitute for formal power.

The next General Election is still over a year away. And in politics, that is the equivalent of many lifetimes. So yes, things could change by 2014. But as of now, it is hard to see how Narendra Modi could get to be prime minister. And as the events of the past few weeks demonstrate, he is now even further away from the goal he so cherishes. The ghosts of those who perished in Gujarat in 2002 have come back to haunt him.

(The views expressed in this column are the writer’s own)

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