‘We fight because the greatest casualty of Modi’s governance is democracy itself’

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Girish Patel
Girish Patel,  Photo: Kadambari Zacharia

Election results suggest many Gujaratis are happy with Narendra Modi. There are others in the country who see him as a governance model. There are even many Muslims perhaps who want to forget the horror of 2002. Why do you think it’s still important to resist Modi? And how do you read these 10 years?
First, I don’t accept that a large number of people in India admire Modi’s governance. This idea may have arisen because of the misinformation and publicity, which goes on continuously in Gujarat. But the fact is, we are resisting Modi not only because of the 2002 riots but because his governance itself is dangerous for the country. There are four or five important aspects.

One, he exploited the 2002 Godhra train burning, used it for his own purposes and communalised the whole of Gujarat society and state. When that had served its purpose and consolidated him politically, he took the stand that he wants to forget the riots, as if nothing had happened. Our resistance is based on the resolve that we will not allow you to forget because this was not an ordinary riot. Unlike earlier riots in Gujarat, this was institutionalised and conducted with state collusion.

It is important to understand that Modi established himself as a dharmarakhshak mahodaya (a protector of the faith); then he tried to establish himself asvikasmuni (a development saint). This was to the liking of the Gujarati middle and upper-middle class. But people forget that Gujarat was a highly developing state earlier also; he has merely accentuated that process.

Why do you think his governance model needs to be resisted?
There are five or six characteristics of his governance that pose a great danger to our Constitution and to the idea of India our founders envisioned. Firstly, for him, democracy means only elections. His whole focus is on how to win an election. He has no concept of constitutional politics or democratic politics. Secondly, for him, democracy means majority rule and, in the name of the majority, he thinks he can do anything, even defy the Constitution, the courts and other national authorities. According to him, electoral majority legitimises all unconstitutionalities. Thirdly, he has completely identified himself as the State. He has personified the State. He says, I am the state of Gujarat, and that’s how he has concentrated all powers in his hand.

The greatest casualty of Modi’s governance, therefore, is democracy itself. His Cabinet has no writ; it is merely a chief ministerial system of governance. The legislature is not functional, the administrative body is completely subordinate, the police is in his hands and, even in the lower judiciary, a substantial number of members are under his control. He has snuffed out all voices and dissent even in his own party. Modi is dangerous even for the BJP because he has destroyed the party in Gujarat.

The other disturbing aspect is that he has completely personalised the system of governance, made it highly individualised. He doesn’t want any intermediaries. The result is he talks to people from just one point of view. Some might think this is a very good thing, but to eliminate political parties, to eliminate intermediaries, and the various layers of democracy is very dangerous. The other dangerous thing is he has started the theocratisation of Gujarat society in subtle ways. He does not just celebrate Hindu leaders; he identifies himself with them very cleverly.

In what way?
If you look at recent ads, you will see two photos, one of Swami Vivekananda and another bigger one of Modi, both in exactly the same posture and clothes. He is turning Gujarat into a Hindu State, as he calls it, and you have to live there on his terms or as a second-class citizen. The biggest emphasis of his governance model is on urban infrastructure and industrialisation. Industrialists are happy; they find him pliable and accessible. He allows no interference. But in effect, what Modi is developing is an authoritarian model. The urban middle class might be happy but the resistance from poor and marginal sections is increasing. He talks about social justice but thinks distributing alms to some is social justice.

How has the society changed under him?
Modi has completely homogenised Gujarati society. He does not believe in inclusion. For him, Gujarat is five crore people who don’t talk of inequality, the hierarchical structure of Gujarat society, Muslims, Dalits or Adivasis. They are all just nuisances. This is why we continue to call Modi a fascist and we will continue to warn the country to take care of this man. He should not be allowed to project himself as a politician of an all-India stature.

His defence would argue that his successive poll victories tell a different story.
It is wrong to believe Gujaratis accept him in large numbers. Sometimes, election results do not necessarily reflect people’s opinion. In the 2002 election, for instance, which was held after the riots, he got only 50 percent of the votes cast. If you look at the total electorate, 65 percent voted and out of this, less than 50 percent voted him. In 2007 also, only 50-51 percent votes were there. So one must remember, despite his propaganda, half the people in the state do not accept him. This is why we still have hope. There are just a few of us and we are not well organised; this is the problem of all social movements in the country. But still, resistance is there.

‘Modi doesn’t believe in inclusion. He is turning Gujarat into a Hindu state, as he calls it, and you have to live there on his terms or as a second-class citizen’

What do you see as some of the triumphs and failures of the resistance?
The Nanavati-Shah Commission has been a huge disappointment. After crores of expenditure, it has not been able to find out the simple truth known to everyone in Gujarat. However, the recent Lokayukta judgment and the Gujarat HC order on the state’s duty to rebuild minority religious sites destroyed in the riots are steps in the right direction. In both these cases, there were strong strictures passed against Modi. His government had argued that rebuilding these would be a violation of secularism. This is the most preposterous argument. To kill thousands of Muslims is not a violation of secularism, but to build religious places destroyed by him is. So, according to me, overall, I think the Supreme Court could have taken a firmer view. The existing criminal law may not be able to cover his activities, but that does not mean he is not guilty. In international law, a principle is being developed, namely the liability of the head of state. In Gujarat, there are a number of instances where the finger points to him. But unfortunately, the law is always in some kind of a compromise. The courts also fail at some crucial moments. This is a case where the court’s activism should have been extreme.

In what ways do you think the judiciary has lacked in these 10 years? How has it made resistance more difficult?
The whole judicial process is so slow. I’m a lawyer, I know. One of the purposes of law is to cool you down. You come to a lawyer with a petition, after five years, you are so cooled down, you are not interested anymore. But this was not a case where you should have allowed that cool down period. The courts should have expedited the matter.

But when there are riots and the government takes the side of one group, the criminal justice system cannot work. This is a real challenge for the courts and even Parliament. What should be done in such a situation? The police is in the hands of the government, so is the prosecution. In the lower courts, the judges come from the same society and are naturally coloured by the same prejudices. Legally, there are two major challenges. One, how to make criminal law effective in such situations? Secondly, how do you make the heads of states directly liable for whatever happens in the state?

Legally, as you say, it may be difficult to nail Modi conclusively. So what do you feel the resistance has achieved?
Suppose there was no resistance, people would have forgotten everything. That’s what happens after every riot. And then it happens again. I understand people ultimately like normalcy. Even the Muslims here have gone back to normalcy. In fact, some people may not like it that we are continually reminded of all this. But the significance of the resistance is that it has continued to keep the real culprit in focus. It has not allowed Modi to project himself as a leader who is democratic and believes in social justice or is secular. He is not able to canvas for votes in UP and Punjab. That is the achievement. We have to keep in mind that India wants a truly democratic state and this man is a danger to that.

What are the signs of hope you see?
The Lokayukta judgment — I appeared in that case — has condemned him very strongly. In fact, the third judgment completely exposes Modi’s character. Similarly, the second judgment given, about the places of worship issue — I think if anyone wants a judgment that holds Modi directly responsible, it is this judgment by Chief Justice Bhattacharya, where the court has stated that the government failed. It said its non-action or negligence was responsible for the riots. You want only that, because the chief minister would not personally be in the place of violence. He would be at his own house. Therefore the only liability that can be imposed is whether he could have controlled it or not. And the high court points out that this could have been controlled. Failure to control is the basic principle of criminal liability of a government in international law.

The other real problem in Gujarat was that it has never had a people’s movement from the ground. To an extent, Gandhi was responsible for this, because he diluted the whole people’s resistance. Though he organised people, there was no strong movement here of Dalits or Adivasis or other backward classes. As a result, there is no strong movement that could have divided Hindu society in Gujarat. Now a number of movements are beginning to start in Gujarat. Modi’s own MLA is resisting one of his development projects in Kutch.

Have you felt personally changed in these 10 years?
I was myself an object of attack some years ago. Two people came to my house and said you better stop all these activities otherwise you will be in trouble. They said you are a Patel, which is why we are allowing you to go. That is the only time when Patelism came to my rescue. (Laughs) By involving myself in this struggle, I think I continue to be alive and angry. I’m 79. I’ve always been known as an angry young man. The youth has gone but my anger has remained. It has kept me active and involved and I’m doing something I’ve always believed in, right from my childhood.

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