It is all but inevitable that Narendra Modi will become the most powerful person in India. The youth, middle classes and urban poor have increasingly lined up behind him, with the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) a seemingly distant competitor for their hearts and minds. Ground reports suggest Amit Shah’s meticulous exploitation of the polarised electorate in Uttar Pradesh seem to have paid off in submerging petty caste identities. And as the Varanasi road show proved, the Modi wave is not all a media spin – or it is a media spin done exceedingly well. All the while, the chief rival, the Congress, is on a rout under a wholly unremarkable leader.
Moreover, Narendra Modi undeniably has better credentials than either Arvind Kejriwal or Rahul Gandhi. For one, as Modi himself noted on Friday in Gonda, “he was born poor, whereas Rahul Gandhi was born rich with a golden spoon”. Otherwise, his administrative experience is enormous. He has been behind the BJP’s most formative poll victories since the 1980s and its most electorally successful state – Gujarat. Even if the Gujarat “model” or “miracle” is more fiction than fact (which it is), it still remains an example of a state run fairly well, save for unresolved 2002 post-Godhra riots.
It is hard not to appreciate the ease and tenacity with which the ‘Modified’ BJP has managed this campaign and the past decade’s astounding image turnover; or – if you are a diehard liberal – panic at the prospect of an alleged mass murderer on Delhi’s throne. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that some aspects of the Gujarat “model”, and Modi’s political life, may clearly not be fit for India.
Political training in a communal cockpit
The slander against Modi by liberals for discarding family and wife is largely spineless – there is nothing freedom-loving about berating someone for leaving a marriage he never gave his consent to. However, the slander dealing with his communal past is equally substantial. Long before the Godhra riots, Modi sharpened his political mettle in a Gujarat that was a cockpit of communal violence and a “laboratory of Hindutva”.
For at least two decades prior to the Godhra riots, Gujarat was regularly subjected to communal conflagration of the worse kind. The original Modi wave – when Modi rose from serving tea to an RSS pracharak to becoming the organising secretary of regional BJP units – occurred against this backdrop. The middle and upper-middle castes and classes were increasingly disillusioned thanks to the Congress’s KHAM electoral strategy which isolated caste Hindus, and the 1981 conversion of Meenakshipuram Dalits to Islam, which energised the already panic-stricken “cultural nationalists” (the Sangh Parivar). Such discontent provided the perfect opportunity on which to build a political Hindutva coalition through the Sangh Parivar’s political arm, the Bharatiya Janata Party.
Thus, the first notable success of the BJP – in the Ahmedabad Municipal Corporation (1984) – was engineered by Modi. Other successes largely dealt with organising yatras – including an extremely well organised Ekta Yatra for the now sidelined Murli Manohar Joshi – and solidifying the Hindutva wave in Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and other states in the north. In other words, Modi was more often than not the key organiser behind the electoral rise of Hindu nationalism, and not the “Vikaas Purush” teeming with brilliant ideas of boosting economy or infrastructure.
The incendiary speech-maker
About a week ago, in a tweet directed at Praveen Togadia’s ‘hate speech’, Modi derided the petty “well-wishers” of the BJP for “deviating the campaign from the issues of development and good governance”. Yet, has “development” and “governance” always been the bedrock of Modi’s electoral campaign? At this instance, it is interesting to note his pitch to Gujaratis for the Assembly elections following the post-Godhra riots.
Modi’s 2003 Gujarat Assembly election campaign was based more on the wounded – and revanchist – Hindu Gujarati pride than any promise to build roads or provide electricity. This is evident from the series of incendiary speeches he made over the course of the campaign. In Vadodara, Modi loudly denounced the then-Election Commissioner, James Michael Lyndoh. The manner of underscoring Lyngdoh’s Christian heritage while denouncing his stance towards Gujarat, seemed to label “James Michael Lyngdoh” as an ‘outsider’. Similarly, in Becharji in September, 2003 he noted that the BJP in power could bring “water in Sabarmati during the month of Shravan… when you [Congress] are there, you can bring it in the month of Ramadan”.
The CEO of a divided society
Ahmedabad is today one of the many cities experiencing expedited growth and improved infrastructure. Someone visiting the city after a span of five years can easily appreciate the cleanliness and the smooth bus corridors. Yet, a traveller grazing through its broad roads hoping to traverse from the railway station to the hotel sector of Ellis Bridge may abruptly trudge upon broken streets and decaying neighbourhoods. This is where the Muslim community lives.
Although Gujarat the state is marketed to the world as the Guangdong of India, where doing business is easy, foreign investment is rife and manufacturing is booming, few exhibit its polarised society. The post-Godhra violence created an enduring rift between the communities, and one would meet more than a few middle-class Hindu men, who would discreetly thank Modi for “teaching Muslims their place in society”. Today, Muslims usually live packed in ghettoes across its cities, with usually poorer human development indicators.
Couple this with a hyperactive illiberal social sphere – in particular, laws and civil society organisations that seek to prevent any inter-religious discourse – one would rather not have Modi replicate the Gujarat Model in India. For instance, the extremely illiberal Freedom of Religion Act, which essentially disallows something as fundamental as religious conversion without the permission of the local bureaucrat, provides a free rein to the likes of Bajrang Dal to harass Hindu-Muslim couples.
If and when Modi does accede to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), he must be clear as to the type of Gujarat “model” he is offering us. If it means renewing the sagging manufacturing sector, improving conditions for business and at the minimum leaving the issues of culture and minorities untouched, then perhaps Modi’s accession is good for India. But if Modi will seek to resign himself to cheap Hindutva symbolism and let his right-wing cronies run amok, then India will be far better without him.
Narendra Modi has steadfastly stuck to the former model in his speeches – even though his close associates have not – but the question remains: can we trust him?
Akshat Khandelwal tweets at @akshat_khan.