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30 December 2012

Narendra Modi and India

RESULTS of the elections to the Legislative Assembly of Gujarat were long awaited because Chief Minister Narendra Modi had acquired considerable notoriety over the last decade. He had presided over the pogrom of the Muslims of the state in 2002, an offence for which the US State Department still refuses to grant him a visa to that country.

Modi has expressed no contrition and made not the slightest effort to make amends for the loss of 2,000 lives. Not only that, he went on to consolidate the Hindu community’s support by what can only be described as a campaign of hate. That accomplished, he began asserting his independence from his party, the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) central leadership and its mentor, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS).

Having won his first assembly election in 2002 after the pogrom and the next in 2007 on a similar stance, he made a bid for victory in 2012 on the platform for the BJP leadership in the 2014 general election in order to ultimately emerge as prime minister of India. It was not the Muslims and the secularists alone who waited for the poll results with bated breath. So did the BJP’s leadership and the RSS cabal. Since independence few elections to a state assembly have been watched with such keen interest as the polls in Gujarat.

On paper the results declared on Dec 20 would suggest that Modi’s rise has been checked. In a house of 182 seats he won 115 seats, two short of the tally in 2007. The Congress won 61 seats, two more than it won in 2007. However, even as results were being declared, printed placards surfaced declaring Modi as the next prime minister. They were obviously printed well in advance for the predicted victory.

Modi himself emerged in public and, in a rare performance, eschewed Gujarati to declaim triumphantly in Hindi, the national language. The symbolism was not lost on the BJP’s leaders. His supporters predict that the 2014 general elections to the Lok Sabha will witness a straight fight between Narendra Modi and Rahul Gandhi. At 62, Modi can face reverses more than once as he pursues his ambition.

The crucial question is what do his politics portend for the future of India’s polity? He claimed: “The entire election was fought here on the plank of development. Gujarat has endorsed the plank of development and has voted accordingly.” Both claims are false. He freely exploited the communal factor, and his speeches were laced with attacks on Manmohan Singh, Sonia Gandhi and others in coarse language. He accused the prime minister of selling out Sir Creek to Pakistan. Not one Muslim was awarded the party’s ticket for the polls.

Modi was a hard-core RSS pracharak (volunteer) who was seconded to the BJP. In 2001, he was sent from the BJP’s headquarters in New Delhi to Gujarat to replace Keshubhai Patel as chief minister.

The burning of the train at Godhra in 2002 provided an opportunity to whip up hatred towards Muslims. A pogrom followed.

The hatred persists. From mixed localities Muslims have moved into ghettos. Politically they are marginalised. So deep is the demoralisation that a few significant sections of Muslims decided to make peace with Modi.

In the run-up to the 2007 elections Sonia called him a “maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death). During the recent polls however, none dared attack him along those lines as it would have alienated the Hindus who back him. Muslims constitute 10 per cent of the total population. The BJP won in 24 constituencies which had more than 15 per cent Muslim voters. In nine seats with 25 per cent or more Muslims, the BJP won seven, including one in which they had a 60 per cent majority and another in which they had nearly 50. The number of Muslims in the assembly is down to two from five in 2007.

The contest was between a Congress afraid to fight for secularism, let alone for redress of Muslim grievances, and a BJP which is increasingly communal. A minority community has some leverage in a multi-party contest, very little in a polity divided on religious lines. If Modi launched a sadbhavna (harmony) campaign last year it was not to woo the Muslims but to project himself as a moderate on the national level. During the campaign he firmly refused to put on a skull cap presented to him by a Muslim while accepting all manner of other caps which were offered to him. The message was driven home forcefully.

Modi’s false claims on development have been exposed thoroughly. Gujarat ranks 14th and ninth respectively in men’s and women’s rural wage rates among the country’s 20 major states. The network of super highways, which impress some, cannot conceal the awful state of roads in the interior and the abject poverty that is the norm there. Meanwhile big business has rallied behind Modi.

The BJP leaders in New Delhi had no say in the award of party tickets nor were they assigned a role in the election campaign. It was Narendra Modi’s show entirely and exclusively. Therein lies his greatest strength and greatest weakness. He has undoubtedly emerged as a powerful regional satrap but has in the process alienated some in the BJP and the RSS, their allies in the National Democratic Alliance — especially the Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar — and very many across the country.

In 2013 there will be elections to five state assemblies. Will Modi campaign in any of them? For that matter will he tour the country to project himself as a ‘national’ leader? In that event what will be the country’s response? If he manages to win significant popular support outside Gujarat, will the BJP adopt him as leader, as in 1990-1992 when L.K. Advani launched his Hindutva hate campaign?

In 2014 India will battle for its soul once again. As before it is certain to triumph for the hate campaign is assured of failure. The souffle cannot rise twice.

By A.G. Noorani, an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

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