Okay, I know I am a little ahead of the event. Like it or not, Gujarat’s controversial son, Narendra Modi, or NaMo, is the next Prime Minister of India. Unless some catastrophic event intervenes in his march to New Delhi, the numbers, and as many among his followers believe, the stars, are aligned on his side. Let’s leave the distant stars from the equation (though some Bollywood stars do figure prominently on the BJP deck), and look at plain numbers – almost all pre-election polls indicate that BJP would emerge as the largest party and that the coalition that they lead under the banner of NDA will garner at least 230 seats in India’s parliament. Same polls indicate just half or less than half that number for Congress and its current allies.
Of course, Modi himself recently asked the people to give him 300 seats, in which case, he will ’empower India’. That’s not going to happen. In a parliament with 543 seats, he needs 273 for a majority. As the party with the largest number of MPs, he is likely to be called to form the next central government in India. And let me assure you, when that happens there will be many parties, most of them regional or caste based, that will be climbing aboard the NaMo train.
To many in India as well as here, Modi’s ascension to the top job is troubling, given his Hindutva background. Nobel Prize winning economist, Amartya Sen, is among a score of intellectuals who have rejected him as unworthy. I am not so sure where these voices come from.
I guess the criticism that he faces comes from one single incident in his political career – the Gujarat riots of 2003 in which, following the killing of Hindu pilgrims traveling on a train, the state erupted in a frenzy of anti-Muslim violence which consumed a few hundred innocent souls, a majority of them belonging to the Muslim community. Modi’s opponents accuse him of doing little or worse, encouraging the killing. Several court decisions since then have exonerated him from direct responsibility. Again, investigations and trials that followed the original incident and the riots, have indicted members of both communities – Muslims for setting fire to the train carrying Hindus, and Hindus in the wanton killing of Muslims.
True, in any modern Western society, an incident of this nature would’ve brought the government down, forcing the politician in charge into the shadows of ignominy. But this is India we are talking about, where politics has been so tainted with criminality and corruption that no party or leader can assume a holier than thou stance.
Before Gujarat, there was the Bombay Riots in 1992/93, following Babri Masjid demolition in which over a thousand people were killed, both Muslims and Hindus. No one blamed the then Congress government in the state and its leader for the tragedy. And before Bombay, there was the infamous Delhi Riots in 1984, following then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi’s assassination, in which thousands of Sikhs were deliberately targeted and killed. The government of the day and the leader, Rajiv Gandhi, was not subjected to constant legal scrutiny or opprobrium from the media and civil societies in the years that followed.
So let’s accept India is still not there yet, in terms of its social development and cohesion. In that vast land of a million minorities, and a billion frustrations, small eruptions will continue to occur, some bad, some terrible. Against this backdrop, I don’t think it’s quite right to deny Modi India’s most important job.
There is also the need to look at his record in his home state of Gujarat since 2003. There has not been a single Hindu-Muslim riot under his raj. Better still, Muslims are among the most advanced in terms of economic activity. Of course, a Gujubhai, whatever colour or god or diet, is the quintessential businessman, and he would do well wherever in the world he resides, as traditional wisdom goes!
Modi is touting the “Indian’ line these days more than the ‘Hindu’ line. You have to read the works of the original Hindutva proponents in the early days of RSS to understand how big a departure is that from the indoctrination that he had once received as a young man. There is no doubt that the old leaders of the movement were fascists who believed in majoritism and would revel in final solutions like ushering in a 100% Hindu society. Today though, they are perhaps more ‘patriotic’ toward India, an India or Bharat Mata as they would like to describe her, whose children defy any attempt at standardization! It was a bad idea then, and now, it’s not just bad, but a dumb thing to say in modern India. Muslims are not a separate entity within India, but integrated completely into its social fabric though some political parties, Congress and others, have traditionally treated them as a section to be wooed for votes by working on their perceived ‘wounds’. If you really want to play the victim card, then there are any number of disaffected groups, beginning with millions that are branded low-caste. Today’s India belongs as much to Ranvir Kapoor as to Aamir Khan. I was quite impressed when Modi once said that the (holy) book that he goes by is the Indian Constitution, a fine piece of work that, its lead author being Dr B R Ambedkar who belonged to India’s untouchable class.
Modi is a pragmatist. He talks of India first, which is an easier sell to the youthful voters who are brimming with hope for the future as that country’s own growth story picks up momentum. Even if, as some critics suggest, Modi is persuaded by some of his more ‘extreme’ friends to slip into a form of fascism, let me assure, it will be a very very short chapter in history. I know there are sections that harbour nothing but hatred for the ‘other’ within BJP and worse, there are millions within the party, who easily give in to prejudice.
To cite an example, a few months ago, a Hindu seer named Shoban Sarkar’s claimed that 1,000 tonnes of gold lay buried beneath the ruins of the 19th century Raja Rao Ram Bux Singh fort. Apparently, the long gone Raja himself had appeared to him in a dream and told him that. As it happens only in India, its Archeological Society jumped in to investigate, prompting Narendra Modi to retort that the Congress government, instead of bringing back the black money stashed abroad by Indian citizens, is busy digging for gold. Within days, however, he softened his stance by giving a pass or sorts to the ‘seer’. By the way, the gold dig turned out to be, as Modi correctly read, an absolute waste of time.
Modi also seems to be an agnostic when it comes to astrology. Though Modi is known to be in touch with many of them, he seldom asks for his own reading. Tejas Mehta, owner of a US-based stem cell company, who pursues astrology as a hobby, is among them, and he told the Economic Times in an interview: “He listens carefully and respects the subject as a Vedic science. But unlike many others, I have never found him seeking information on his personal fortune.”
As Modi gains in stature and respect, and picks up more experience nationally, I have a gut feeling that a few extremists will not succeed in setting him up for a fall. Recent events point firmly in that direction. The Sri Ram Sene (Lord Ram’s Army) leader from Bangalore, who showed off his great courage, by attacking innocent young women in a pub, as he declared drinking as unHindu, was recently refused admission to the BJP.
In the run up to the top post, however, Modi still feels the need to please his core supporters and does press the right ‘buttons’ depending on who is before him, like his attack on cow slaughter when he is talking to UP’s Yadava community, though Muslims-eating-beef has never really got any traction as an electoral issue in UP in the past. After all, he is still the Hinduvaadi at heart, but India will change him as it is changing the BJP itself. Strange things happen when enough time elapses. People forget that the Democratic Party in the US that gave that country its first Black president has had its day in the sun as a racist party that fought against anti-slavery initiatives during the Civil War. Who knows someday a Muslim will become the Prime Minister of India under BJP?
India today faces bigger challenges far bigger than the threats posed by beef-eaters or pub-going females. Voters are excited because they hope the new kid on the block will bring in better governance, root out corruption and yes, above all, fast track the development agenda. In his favour is the recent history of the UPA government that set new records in lethargic policy-making and corruption. Almost anyone can do better than that, and people’s expectations from Modi is much higher. A majority would have helped. But even without it, Modi is set to change the political landscape of India for good.
by BINOY THOMAS
Editor-in-chief (Weekly Voice, Toronto, Canada)