Turning to Modi?

Print edition : June 29, 2012

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with BJP president Nitin Gadkari at the rally that marked the end of the party's national executive in Mumbai on May 25.-RAJANISH KAKADE/AP

The BJP's acceptance of Narendra Modi as its pre-eminent leader with an eye to the next general elections could vitiate the political climate.

Amidst the clutter of power struggle, infighting and turmoil in the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its cohorts in the Sangh Parivar, which get more intense and ugly by the week, a salient development stands out. This is the emergence of Narendra Modi as the party's pre-eminent leader and its likeliest prime ministerial candidate in the next Lok Sabha elections.

It would be no exaggeration to say that with the BJP's May 24-25 national executive in Mumbai the long contest for primacy within the second-generation leadership following the eclipse of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani has more or less ended with Modi as the winner.

That is the unmistakable message from the capitulation of the leadership of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh to Modi's aggressive self-assertion and his arm-twisting tactics demanding that his bete noire, RSS pracharak Sanjay Joshi, be thrown out of the national executive, which he was to attend as a special invitee. Modi threw down the gauntlet by defying the BJP leadership over many months and finally sending his security detail to Mumbai while making it clear that he would only attend the meeting if Joshi was dropped.

Modi, true to form, did not want to offer Joshi an honourable exit but insisted on rubbing his nose into the ground. The decision to expel Joshi was communicated to him by BJP national president Nitin Gadkari past one o'clock in the morning. Joshi was also forced to cancel a scheduled railway journey to Gujarat.

The RSS the BJP's progenitor, ideological mentor, political master and organisational gatekeeper was clearly party to the sacking of Joshi, a lifelong pracharak and a fierce Sangh loyalist. It revealed its pragmatist (read, opportunist) face and decided that discretion was the better part of valour: if Modi's ascendancy seems unstoppable and his pre-eminence unquestionable, so be it.

The RSS decides to indulge and cave in to Modi despite his terrible angularities and extreme individualism and his role as a sharply polarising figure who cannot shake off the stigma of 2002. It calculates that these disadvantages are outweighed by Modi's ability to inspire the party cadre through his demagoguery, his martial image, and his vicious war-mongering rhetoric.

Joshi is little known outside the Parivar and holds no public office. He does not seriously threaten Modi's career prospects. But he crossed Modi's path in the late 1990s, when he worked closely with then Gujarat Chief Minister Keshubhai Patel, took charge of the State BJP unit, and had Modi banished to Delhi.

In 2006, a scandalous CD allegedly involving Joshi surfaced. Although questions were raised about the CD's authenticity, Joshi had to resign as BJP general secretary and go into political exile.

Gadkari recently brought Joshi back into the BJP with RSS backing and appointed him the party's chief election organiser in Uttar Pradesh. In retaliation, Modi refused to campaign for the party in the five recent State Assembly elections. Modi thus defied the Sangh, something one does not generally do if one wants to get ahead in the BJP. The RSS, somewhat uncharacteristically, swallowed the insult. Then, before the national executive, Modi went for the jugular. He emerged triumphant.

The RSS leadership extracted only one concession from Modi: Gadkari would get a second three-year term as BJP president beyond 2012 through an amendment to the party constitution. This pre-empts the immediate possibility of Modi controlling the national party organisation as president. But whether it effectively acts as a restraint on him remains unclear.

Going by the thundering applause he received from party members at the public meeting concluding the Mumbai session, Modi's ascendancy as the BJP's supreme leader is uncontested. Not many missed the absence of Advani and Sushma Swaraj, the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, at the public meeting. Their boycott was a symbolic, but largely ineffectual, act. So was Advani's blog the following week implicitly criticising Gadkari and Modi, which was not even discussed when senior BJP leaders met in Delhi.

Modi has become the BJP membership's biggest hero to whom everyone must kowtow. But Modi also proved himself petty-minded, parochial, egotistic, viciously self-serving and vindictive. Whether or not this is compatible with the stature of a national leader, the RSS seems to have decided that Modi is the winning horse; he must be backed.

Resistance within

Modi's anointment is unlikely to go unresisted in the Parivar. An editorial in the BJP mouthpiece Kamal Sandesh and an article in the RSS' Panchajanya a few days after the national executive criticised Modi for his style. But it is unclear whether such attempts will halt his ascendancy.

Modi's elevation has little to do with the fact that he was recently exonerated by the Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court under former Central Bureau of Investigation director R.K. Raghavan for the massacre of 69 people, including former Member of Parliament Ahsan Jafri, in the Gulberg Society case. Nor does it have much to do with Gujarat's much-touted development under Modi's dynamic stewardship.

Rather, it is attributable to the BJP's internal dynamics, its electoral calculus, and the fact that Modi brings big-time money with him. Every major industrial magnate, from Ratan Tata to Anil Ambani, and from Mukesh Ambani to Sunil Bharti Mittal, not to speak of home-grown businessmen such as Gautam Adani and Karsan Patel or of all important industry lobbies and chambers of commerce, has lavished praise upon Modi and bought into his Vibrant Gujarat and Swarnim (golden) Gujarat campaigns. Modi in turn has rewarded them with sweetheart deals.

In doing so, the captains of industry have given the go-by to all considerations of the rule of law and ignored the fact that Modi has blood on his hands from the butchery of more than 1,000 Muslims in 2002.

Ten years ago, there was some criticism of Modi from business representatives such as Tarun Das of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and Mumbai-based industry executive Deepak Parekh. The criticism became increasingly muted as the CII faced total ostracism from the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government and was crippled in its role as a lobby group. Now, for many years, criticism has given way to hyperbolic encomiums to Modi as an inspiring leader with whom Gujarat is blessed, whose flawless execution of Gujarat's development model deserves to be emulated everywhere, making Modi the ideal next leader of India.

Mediocre development record

In reality, Gujarat's social development record is at best mediocre. Gujarat is a misgoverned State with unflattering macroeconomic indicators, including a higher per capita debt-ratio than many States. In social sector spending as a proportion of total public expenditure, it ranks a lowly 19 among 21 major States. As many as 74.3 per cent of Gujarat's women and 46.3 per cent of its children are anaemic. Agrarian distress has driven thousands of farmers to suicide.

The official Human Development Report (2004) points out: Gujarat has reached only 48 per cent of the goals set for human development. Its gains in literacy, education, health, nutrition, welfare and social security are much lower than its gross domestic product growth rates. Although it is Number 4 among all States in per capita income, it has fallen to No. 6 in education and No. 9 in health. Gujarat's sex ratios are well below the national average.

Contrary to lofty claims, and despite high tariffs, Gujarat's power supply situation is poor. As I noticed during a recent trip to Mundra in Kutch, where a huge 4,600 MW private power station exists and another 4,000 MW plant is coming up, there are frequent electricity cuts.

If Big Business has certified Gujarat as the ideal investment destination despite this, the BJP, at its national executive, tried to whitewash Modi's appalling communal record by showering praise upon his fraudulent sadbhavna mission among Muslims, who have in effect been politically disenfranchised in Gujarat.

The Mumbai conclave thus took forward a process begun at the April 2002 national executive in Goa, which killed all hope that the NDA would dismiss Modi for the anti-Muslim pogrom. In Goa, Vajpayee cast off his moderate mask.

He made a disgraceful 180-degree turn from condemning the pogrom and equated Islam with aggression and terror in his infamous Lekin aag lagayi kisne? (Who started the fire?) speech. He thus sanctified Modi's nauseating action-reaction rationalisation of the massacre.

In Mumbai, Modi was celebrated as Gujarat ka sher (the lion of Gujarat). The Sangh Parivar is looking for a quasi-fuehrer, the Supreme Leader, behind whom BJP cadres can rally in a warlike formation no matter how incompatible such bellicosity is with democratic processes and how it vitiates India's social and political climate.

BJP's best chance

The RSS probably gambles that the BJP's best chance lies in making a concerted thrust against the Congress, which is on the defensive although Modi's leadership will alienate Muslims and impel them to rally behind the Congress. It also believes that many potential allies who are supposedly allergic to Modi could fall in line with his leadership, depending on how many seats the BJP wins in the next elections.

During 1998-2004, numerous avowedly secular parties, barring the Left, Mulayam Singh's Samajwadi Party and Lalu Prasad's Rashtriya Janata Dal, joined the NDA and tolerated affronts to secularism and the rule of law. That long list includes the Bahujan Samaj Party, the Trinamool Congress, the Telugu Desam, the Biju Janata Dal, the Asom Gana Parishad, the National Conference, the Janata Dal (Secular), the Janata Dal (United), the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam, the Rashtriya Lok Dal and the Lok Janshakti Party, besides NDA core allies such as the Shiv Sena and the Akali Dal, with whom the BJP has run State governments.

Here, the BJP's weaknesses in relation to the Congress lack of inclusive political appeal and voter support (which has never exceeded a fourth of the national total), upper-caste bias, and poor attraction for Muslims and most Dalits become its strengths vis-a-vis the regional parties.

The Congress is present almost everywhere as these parties' main rival. Therefore, they find it expedient to ally with the BJP, which is openly opportunistic about joining hands with anyone while promising to keep aside its own trademark, sectarian Hindutva agenda. However, the BJP has over the years succeeded in advancing its programme, making Hindu communalism appear moderate and acceptable to the upper-caste upper-class elite, and imposing its will upon the allies.

This last happened in respect of the RSS-BJP's unilateral, secret decision to conduct the nuclear tests in May 1998, about which the allies were not informed, let alone consulted. For instance, Defence Minister George Fernandes was not told about the tests until the morning they took place.

The BJP's refusal to act against Modi provoked some protests from the allies, but only the Lok Janshakti Party walked out of the NDA. Even the JD(U)'s Nitish Kumar, who has kept Modi at a distance in his native Bihar, failed to speak out strongly against the pogrom or order an inquiry into the Godhra incident as Railway Minister.

This time around, however, Nitish Kumar is in a much stronger position and likely to keep away from the NDA if Modi becomes its top candidate. But the Parivar reckons the loss can be made up through parties such as the AIADMK, with whom Modi has an excellent relationship.

In 2002, Modi escaped political punishment for the massacre, and was re-elected. Since then, India's justice delivery system has failed to bring the culprits of the pogrom to book. The latest setback is the SIT's effort to let Modi off the hook in the Gulberg Society case. This defies credulity and insults intelligence.

Complicity, if not collusion

The Hindutva mobs could not have killed at will without the complicity, if not collusion, of the State police, which in turn would not have played the role it did without encouragement or at least a nod from the top. This was documented and confirmed by more than 30 citizens' inquiry committees, including some comprising eminent jurists and international academics.

Several police officers and bureaucrats have corroborated the account, which says that Modi deliberately transported the Godhra victims' bodies to Ahmedabad to provoke Hindu-communal violence. Even more pernicious, Modi told senior officials on February 27, 2002, to allow Hindus to vent their anger.

The SIT strenuously tries to falsify this account by deviously introducing ambiguities while relying solely on those who collaborated with Modi. It discredits the testimony of police officer Sanjiv Bhatt on the February 27 meeting. The SIT contradicts its own preliminary report, which maintained that Modi adopted a discriminatory attitude towards the victims and watered down the gravity of the situation; two of his Ministers turned up at police control rooms to direct operations.

The SIT's final report also ignores the logical analysis and further investigation suggested by Raju Ramachandran, the Supreme Court-appointed amicus curiae. It rejects the eminently sensible suggestion that Bhatt be put in the witness box to determine the veracity of his account. Worse, it says Jafri provoked the mob that dismembered and burnt him alive. Such viciously prejudiced reports are unbecoming of a halfway civilised society.

A high priority for all secular forces in politics and civil society is to expose and isolate Modi.

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