Our prime ministerial hopeful Narendra Modi has succeeded at one thing at least: dominating our public discourse. His only apparent competition is Rahul Gandhi and the kindest thing one can say about his remarks is that they are, well, eccentric.
But what is there to be impressed by Modi’s remarks either? He speaks in broad-based rhetoric, short on substance although high on volume and crudeness. If anyone really believed that this next general election was about development, then last week’s rally in Bihar should have put paid to that — it was all about attacking Nitish Kumar and Rahul Gandhi. Same old same old!
Is there any truth in the contention that Modi is flirting with ditching Hindutva: He wants toilets and not temples and he wants Hindus and Muslims to work together to beat India’s poverty? More realistically, what he wants, obviously, is to be rid of the taint of the 2002 Gujarat riots. And it cannot be forgotten that the RSS and the BJP’s views about Muslims are hardly secret and it is the RSS that pushed for Modi’s elevation. The practical answer for his strategists is that he cannot be seen as a Hindutva fanatic and has to present a more amenable Atal Bihari Vajpayee sort of face if the BJP wants to get the allies it needs to form a government at the Centre. Some Muslims will fall for this strategy, some will not. Many are upset with being seen as a vote bank; many are upset with the Congress for treating them in a cavalier fashion or taking their support for granted.
Yet, in all that has been written and discussed about the Gujarat riots of 2002, there are still questions that remain. Why did they last for so long? And why was this supposedly super-efficient chief minister unable to control or contain them. Regardless of his RSS background, Modi had a constitutional responsibility to the citizens of India, which includes Muslims, which he failed to fulfil.
On a personal note, I witnessed the post-Babri Masjid riots in Bombay and the 2002 riots in Gujarat. In both cases, there was official inaction and police complicity. But in Bombay, the riots ended in a week and the chief minister was sacked. In Gujarat, incidents went on for months. And as we know, the chief minister in question has apparently performed miracles in Gujarat as far as the economy is concerned. This was not immediately evident in the four years I spent in that state and not when I visited it again. In my experience — which started with the mid-1980s when I also lived there for a while — Gujarat was always a highly industrialised state, with an entrepreneurial mindset and some of the most resilient, hardworking people I have ever met. It is a myth, if there ever was one, that Modi invented the business acumen of the Gujarati. Take a look at Mumbai if you ever believed that. At least half this city’s backbone rests on the endeavours of the Gujaratis.
No, the blot on Modi is not just about the fact that he hates Muslims or that mainly Muslims died in 2002 or even the absurd accusation that activists and anti-Modi journalists exaggerated those figures. It is that the riots were allowed — I cannot find another word for what I saw — to carry on and Indian citizens were killed. It is that the state government was complicit in those killings and the destruction of property, in the kindest estimate because it did very little to stop them or catch those responsible. I am not exactly sure how the state government’s reaction to the riots fills anyone with confidence about the governance abilities of those who should have stopped them.
The legal saga of the post-riots cases is another minefield, perhaps unprecedented in India where the Supreme Court had to step in and castigate the state government for inaction. The rioters of 1984 and 1992 got away because the media, activists and legal and global scrutiny was not so strong in those days.
The growth model of Gujarat remains a sticky point too. States like Tamil Nadu and Maharashtra also show strong numbers. Human index figures are marginally better or worse in those states and sometimes miserable. The golden mean of industrial and humane development still eludes us. Even in Gujarat.
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