India: Narendra Modi is nothing to fear


Narendra Modi delivered a convincing victory for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in the Gujarat elections Thursday, winning an unprecedented third consecutive term in a nation where elections are nearly always decided by the "anti-incumbency" factor.

But even as international media focuses on the increased likelihood that the BJP will choose him as its prime ministerial candidate in 2014 (Telegraph, LA-Times, WashPo, Globe&Mail), and his local detractors decry his victory as a disaster for democracy and suchlike, the truth is that his victory presents as many problems as it does solutions for the BJP.

As the Hindu newspaper points out, his presence on the ticket would by no means assure a win for the party, and could actually hurt its chances. And even if Modi was installed as India's prime minister, his presence in the nation's most important chair would quite likely speed, rather than slow, the BJP's move away from the polarizing ethnic politics of "Hindutva" that it first used to rise to prominence in the early 1990s. (This would cast Modi as the BJP's "Nixon in China.")

A controversial figure

For most readers, it goes without saying that Modi remains a controversial figure. In February of this year, a special investigation team mandated by the Supreme Court filed a closure report after finding there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him on charges of conspiracy and complicity in the deadly Ahmedabad riots of 2002, in which more than a thousand people were killed. But that has not put a rest to the belief among a large segment of the media and the public that he in some ways contributed to the carnage, or ended attempts to prosecute him altogether.

In the immediate aftermath of, the riots, which occurred during his first term in office, Modi was widely accused of delaying the police response to the violence, which was exacerbated by "workers" of the BJP and affiliated organizations. (In August of this year, a former minister in Modi's 2002 government, among others, was convicted and sentenced to 28 years in prison for her role in the massacre of 97 people during the violence, as GlobalPost reported).

The most convincing support for this perception stemmed from claims made by (now suspended) police officer Sanjeev Bhatt, who accused Modi of instructing bureaucrats and top cops to allow Hindus to vent out their anger against Muslims before taking action. K Chakravarthy, who was then Gujarat director-general of police, said Bhatt was not present in the meeting where the alleged instructions were supposedly given, while another senior police officer backed Bhatt's version of events in an affidavit to the Supreme Court, according to the Hindustan Times. (Bhatt's testimony was dismissed by the special investigation team, 

Whether or not he played any such role in the riots themselves, initially, Modi appeared to have little sympathy for the (mostly) Muslim victims of the violence, which was sparked by the burning of a train car in which Hindu pilgrims were traveling. And his speeches during the period immediately following the carnage sometimes bordered on the inflammatory, such as when he referred to the relief camps housing Muslims displaced by the violence as "child-breeding centers" in October 2002.

A coalition killer?

What that means for the BJP is that Modi would likely galvanize its core supporters, inspiring party cadres to beat the bushes and drum up voters in the way that Obama's popularity with Democrats helped assure his victory -- which is even more important in Indian elections than it is in the US. At the same time, however, his selection as the party's PM candidate would likely drive away key alliance partners such as Bihar's Nitish Kumar of the Janata Dal (United) -- currently the fifth largest presence in India's parliament. His popularity with the BJP core would be mirrored by the visceral dislike of party workers from the Congress and the Left front, making it easier for those parties, too, to mobilize the troops and thence drum up voters.

"The first sign that [a Modi campaign for MP] would be no plain sailing was provided on Thursday itself by a key BJP ally, the Janata Dal (United)," the Hindu reported Friday.

"Its Gujarat state leader Vashist Narayan Singh declared that though the victory would strengthen the BJP as a party at the national level, the JD(U) was clear that the candidate for Prime Minister should have a secular image," the paper said.

"Considering how divisive his personality cult has been within his own political party, his authoritarian father image and his inflexibility and vengeful treatment of political rivals, he seems already a dinosaur for coalition-era politics," commentator Harish Nambiar wrote in the Economic Times.

Tamed by victory?

It is also clear that Modi has been, and would likely be again, tamed by victory.

Repeatedly during my time in India, experienced poll watchers have explained that violent rhetoric and Hindu-on-Muslim political violence generally declines when the BJP is in power, simply because whipping up hate is a strategy for gaining power, but disastrous for governing once you have it. Modi has for that reason kept a lid on violence in Gujarat for the past decade, notwithstanding some insensitive remarks along the way.

Meanwhile, though human rights activists and Congress supporters portray the leader's shift away from Hindu-vs-Musliim rhetoric as subterfuge to make himself more viable as a candidate for PM, in some sense his unknowable "true feelings" don't matter a jot if they don't affect his actions. And while various reports suggest, rather convincingly, that life in fast-growing, efficiently administered "Vibrant Gujarat" has not gone as swimmingly for Muslims or Dalits as it has for Hindus of the state's dominant trading castes, it would be tough to find an Indian state where that is not the case. 

In that context, presumably, there are three parallel objections to his possible selection as the BJP's PM candidate--(1) that no matter what the special investigation team has said, he is guilty of abetting the massacre of a thousand-odd people, and therefore should not be rewarded with the nation's highest office (2) that he is only pretending, and once he is installed he will unveil a program to turn secular India into a Hindu state, as was once, if it is not indeed now, his organization's express aim or (3) the BJP's ideology of Hindutva is itself a kind of proto-fascist ethnic nationalism and any help they get is a bad thing.

Wherever you fall on those items (real or fictitious, good or bad), only the first is really relevant. It's true that if Modi can make it the PM's chair, he will have officially escaped any repercussions from the 2002 riots. Not only will he have won three consecutive terms as Gujarat's chief minister in their aftermath, he will have succeeded in putting them behind him to become PM, and (presumably) forced Washington and others that have refused him visas or shunned him at public functions to eat crow.

But it is unimaginable that he will suddenly reverse course, or whip off his mask, and unveil some devilish program to unleash more Hindu-Muslim violence or relegate Muslims to second-class status -- simply because there is not enough political support for those ideas. If anything, in fact, the momentum is moving in the other direction.

As writes, what Modi's victory, this go-around, in Gujarat suggests is that the "new India" of aspirations may at last become a factor in elections. More than Hindutva versus the problematic, Congress-style secularism, his candidature would pit the promise of development and economic opporunities for anybody who can grab them against the old-style patronage- and entitlement-based campaign rooted in putting up candidates of the right castes in the right constituencies, and doling out job quotas or presenting social welfare programs not because they're needed (which they are) or will work (which they don't) but because they will secure voting blocs.

"The success of Modi’s campaign pitch of reaching out to the aspirational sections of society, eschewing the politics of religious or caste identity, holds enormous significance for the economic and political discourse as it will likely be framed for the 2014 elections, but the Congress doesn’t appear to have got the memo," FirstPost points out. "It is still stuck in the backward-looking politics of entitlements and populism and caste and religious identity, whereas Modi has demonstrated that India’s politics is aspirational, and that unlike in 2004, when the Congress succeeded in ambushing the India Shining campaign, ‘development’ and ‘economic reforms’ aren’t dirty words anymore."

I could well wind up on the wrong side of history here, but I'll say it anyway: For all those reasons, there's no reason to fear a Modi campaign for prime minister--though there might be a case for some moral outrage.

For years, the BJP has been flirting with reinventing itself as India's Republican party -- right to the Congress Party's left -- and distancing itself from the most divisive elements of Hindu nationalism. The fearful suggest that Modi would be a step back into that camp, which could indeed be the case. But there's also a pretty big possible upside: If anybody can make the BJP bigger than its Hindu nationalist roots, it's the guy whose Hindutva credentials can't be questioned.

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