Can Narendra Modi ever shake off the stain of the Gujarat riots of 2002? It’s been 11 years since those days and the Gujarat chief minister has won three consecutive assembly elections, making him the Bharatiya Janata Party’s most valuable asset. Gujarat has been peaceful since then and it has continued on its path of development and industrial growth. There are arguments about whether Modi is responsible solely or partially for this growth but there can be little doubt that Gujarat is a successful state as far as industrialisation is concerned, although its record as far as the human development index is concerned is not quite so rosy.
But is development enough to wipe out the stains of the past? Apparently not. Because the Gujarat CM just cannot escape from the ghost of those riots. His recent success at a BJP conclave was immediately offset by a public relations fiasco over an invitation to give the keynote address at the Wharton India Economic Forum. The prestigious event organised by students of the business school withdrew the invitation after protests by students and professors of the University of Pennsylvania, to which Wharton is attached.
Undoubtedly, organisers should have done their homework before inviting Modi to avoid this sort of embarrassment — to both the event and the chief minister. Modi’s charisma is offset by his controversial character. He is a messiah to some and an anathema to others. This is a cross which he has to bear not just because of his past but because of his inability to confront it.
The argument usually trotted out at this point is that Modi is not the only chief minister who was in power during terrible riots and the BJP not the only party so indicted. That is true. The Congress and the anti-Sikh riots of 1984 and the Shiv Sena and the Bombay riots of 1992-93 remain blots. But token gestures were made by the Congress in Delhi and in Bombay — where it headed the government when the Babri Masjid backlash reached the city.
Neither of those events happened in the new India however, under the full glare of television lights and the focus of the international media. Other riots have not gone on for months either, with the state government so apparently helpless.
Other governments have not had the ignominy of court cases being shifted out of their state because of fear of interference and lack of justice for victims. Other governments have not had the Supreme Court stepping in to monitor investigations. The list of transgressions is long and in the face of these setbacks, Modi has remained defiant rather than even pretending to be conciliatory.
In a strange or perhaps understandable way, Modi’s defiance increases his standing to his fans but diminishes it to his detractors. That’s not a winning position because all it means is that the converted feel happy but no new fans are gathered into the collective.
For many chief ministers, all this would be meaningless. Even Mamata Banerjee for all her strange and egotistic behaviour has cut her teeth as a street fighter and knows how the political and vote-gathering system works. Such public relations ploys as undertaken by the Modi camp might just seem like amusing asides from the great game of politics.
Having made a big deal out of Modi’s speech to students of the Shri Ram College of Commerce in Delhi last month, this Wharton video-conference was seen as another victory for a man looking to become prime minister.
Modi’s international image remains a problem, especially the reluctance of the United States to give him a visa. His relentless publicity machine becomes a stumbling block at times like this because he finds it very difficult to fly under the radar. The wages of publicity are both adulation and public humiliation as any Indian film star and cricketer knows.
The core problem remains for Modi though: The riots of 2002. All the perfumes of Araby didn’t help Lady Macbeth either.
Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona