New Delhi, September 30: From the moment Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi announced his so-called Sadbhavana mission, it was clear that the political conversation and media discourse would be dominated by theatrical gestures and acts of meaningless symbolism.
Looking to repair his image damaged by the 2002 riots, Modi’s fast had Muslims as prominent displays while Vishwa Hindu Parishad rabble rousers with whom Modi has enjoyed a rather chequered relationship were kept at arm’s length. And then the expected happened. A small-time Muslim cleric attempted to adorn Modi with a skull cap and was politely declined. The cleric grandly declared it an insult to Islam itself and expectedly captured media headlines.
In the eyes of his detractors, Modi was confirmed as a Muslim-hater and his outreach to the Muslim community was a sham. For all practical purposes, Modi was back to square one.
In a way Modi’s latest travails are entirely unsurprising. In India the political discourse has traditionally been dominated by symbolism where gestures substitute for serious policy debates.
Recall, for instance, the hullabaloo over austerity a couple of years back. In a country where even the political leadership readily acknowledges massive leakages in welfare programmes and where the aam aadmi government happily subsidises the chronically loss-making Air India , the debate on government finances was reduced to whether Rahul Gandhi was traveling cattle class on his poverty tours!
Therefore, it was entirely on the cards that Modi’s fast would be railroaded by a false controversy over skull caps.
What this rather inane sideshow really underscores is the principal challenge Narendra Modi faces: His detractors simply don’t believe that he is a changed man. Much as Modi may attempt to wipe away the memories of 2002 riots with talks of sadbhavana and inclusive governance, his alleged complicity in the riots ensure that he remains under a perpetual shadow.
The riot cases currently in court are likely to drag on for years, if not decades, and even if Modi is exonerated in all pending investigations, it is unlikely that it will have a significant effect on his political fortunes.
After all, who of the powerful ever gets convicted? At least, that is what his detractors would argue. Since 2002, Modi has attempted to move beyond the terrible riots and has concentrated his considerable energies on delivering good governance; there is little doubt that Gujarat has one of the most efficient state governments in the country.
Under Modi’s stewardship, Gujarat has attracted massive investments and his government has faced no major corruption scandals. And of course, he has comprehensively won two consecutive state elections.
But it is Modi’s misfortune that his best efforts have yielded little dividend outside his core constituency. Outside Gujarat, he enjoys limited political traction and in some electorally crucial states like Bihar, he remains virtually persona non grata. And obviously there are limits to Modi’s outreach: He has to guard his flanks from the right as well and clearly a skull cap is a bridge too far.
Modi’s supporters are frequently frustrated by this as evidenced by their rather vitriolic online commentary. What of Rajiv Gandhi’s equally odious role in the 1984 massacre of Sikhs in Delhi, they ask? Rajiv Gandhi’s image has long since been rehabilitated, and the 1984 riots barely merit a footnote in the reams written on Gandhi.
The Congress party, of course, believes that Rajiv Gandhi ushered India into the 21st century while studiously ignoring the contributions of the likes of former prime minister P V Narasimha Rao.
There are perhaps three principal reasons for this dichotomy. First, the 2002 riots happened in an era of cable news and were virtually live telecast to national audiences while in 1984, Doordarshan monopolised the airwaves and its news coverage was extremely slanted and had only a nodding acquaintance with reality.
Second, Muslims are, of course, a much more potent political group while Sikhs are largely restricted to one state and simply don’t enjoy the same degree of collective political power. It is doubtful, for instance, if Nitish Kumar would have been as bothered if the Gujarat riots had targeted Sikhs.
Third and perhaps most importantly is the different perceptions of Gandhi and Modi among the liberal intelligentsia and opinion makers. Most liberals instinctively believe that Modi is the devil reincarnate who deliberately allowed Muslims to be butchered during the 2002 riots; Rajiv Gandhi, on the other hand, really wasn’t communal, but simply inexperienced and broken by his mother’s terrible assassination. He simply wasn’t up to the task.
One was a crime of cold clinical precision, the other, at worst, a crime of passion.
Who will the jury more easily forgive? That Gandhi was young, good looking, and belonged to the most storied family in Indian politics certainly was no handicap. Politics is unfair but then so is life.
So this is the virtually intractable challenge Narendra Modi, and in turn, the BJP faces. Despite L K Advani’s constant machinations, Narendra Modi is easily the BJP’s tallest leader — a darling of the cadre and committed supporters — but is virtually unelectable as prime minister.
Modi carries so much baggage that not only would he scare off potential allies, but it is virtually guaranteed that any election campaign led by Modi would be reduced to a debate on the Gujarat riots.
So what are Modi’s options? He could of course choose to express contrition for the Gujarat riots. Even this mea culpa is, however, unlikely to help his political fortunes. For his detractors it would only be an affirmation of what they have long believed: That Narendra Modi orchestrated the riots to benefit from communal polarisation and advance his political career.
Modi could choose to restrict himself to Gujarat but he appears to be too ambitious a politician for such narrow geographical confines.
The best political course available for Modi would then be to position himself as the king-maker in New Delhi. Let the Jaitleys and Swarajs struggle for political supremacy while Modi can be the power behind the throne. Unencumbered by concerns about his electability, Modi could then freely articulate his vision for development and force good governance back into the national conversation.
In short, he could play the Sonia Gandhi card. In a country so enamoured with symbolism, that may yet prove to be a political masterstroke.
Will Modi bite the bullet? The jury is still out on that, but whatever option Modi exercises may well decide the course of national politics for the next decade.
Rohit Pradhan is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution, a think-tank on India’s strategic affairs.