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India: 10 years after Gujarat riots - Narendra Modi, the BJP and democracy

by Christophe Jaffrelot, 27 February 2012

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Indian Express, 27 February 2012

The Modi Message

10 years after riots, what his ‘Vikas’ means for him, the BJP and democracy

Ten years after the 2002 carnage, in spite of repeated attempts by the Supreme Court and the determination of the victims as well as (suspended) policemen, NGOs and media persons, justice has not been delivered and reconciliation between Hindus and Muslims has not taken place in Gujarat. Whatever happens to Chief Minister Narendra Modi legally, he has already been held guilty on several counts, regarding violence of an unprecedented magnitude since Partition; he has not punished the policemen who let the massacres take place. On the contrary, they have been promoted; he has not given Muslim victims and their kin the compensation to which they were entitled and he has never apologised to the Muslim citizens of his state. In spite of that, he remains the strongest political leader of Gujarat and may also become an all-India leader.

“Vikas” is the most commonplace explanation for the popularity of Modi. After the massacre, he needed to change his image by promoting economic development and good governance — and he did, even if the performance in agriculture remained poor. His agenda as a Vikas Purush helped him get the support of the corporate sector, as evident from the praise the most influential businessmen of India dispense him during the yearly “Vibrant Gujarat” functions. The middle class also appreciated his policy: in 2007, the richer the voters were — and the higher they were in the caste system — the more they voted for the BJP.

Modi benefited equally from the weaknesses of his opponents. Not only did the Congress have no strong leader, but there was no caste-based party likely to divide the Hindu vote like in UP and Bihar.

He has asserted himself in the public sphere in a paradoxical manner. Not only has he personalised politics in Gujarat — he claims, the populist way, that he is in direct contact with citizens on email or via cell phones — but the more the Centre painted him as “a merchant of death”, to use Sonia Gandhi’s phrase, the more he projected himself as the spokesman of all Gujaratis. In short, he has been defending “his” people while his state is “unjustly” stigmatised from outside.

Last, but not least, fear has become a pervasive feeling in the state. This politics of fear has been epitomised by a record number of fake encounters in which most of the victims were supposed to target Modi himself. As a result, a dozen policemen and politicians are being prosecuted today (incidentally, the role model for governance that Gujarat is supposed to be has a record number of senior policemen and BJP members — including former members of government — behind bars or on bail). But the politics of fear also concern IAS and IPS officers who keep looking over their shoulder as they speak with you.

The most striking aspect of this “success story” lies in the marginalisation of freedom. The supporters of Modi admitted it candidly the last time they voted for him in 2007. A CSDS survey of early November 2007 showed that 34 per cent of the interviewees (and among them 37 per cent of BJP voters) considered that Modi’s style was “dictatorial”. But 48 per cent of those who disapproved of his “dictatorial style of leadership” were ready to vote for his party (whereas among those who approved of this style, 61 per cent were about to do the same). It tells us something about the state of democracy in Gujarat, a place where the consensus of Beijing (that Modi visited recently) applies more than anywhere else in India: economic growth prevails above liberty.

Gujarat is an exception in many ways.

Historically, the conservative variety of Gandhiism that has prevailed there has prepared the ground for Hindu traditionalists (V. Patel, K.M. Munshi, G. Nanda, M. Desai) and inhibited the rise of the lower castes on the political scene. Today, Gujarat is one of the states in India where Dalit parties are the weakest and cannot counter Hindutva forces in any way. This is also a state combining religious orthodoxy (as evident from the popular — convenient — demand for vegetarianism and prohibition) and the cult of money in unmatched proportions. The assertive middle class that dominates the urban setting today is largely the by-product of this peculiar alchemy.

However, one may argue that much of the middle class of the rest of India also shares the same political culture. This is why in many national opinion polls Modi is voted the best chief minister of India which makes him a natural candidate to the post of prime minister.

However, he may not fit in that role for three reasons.

The middle class remains in a minority — and even more so in the democratic game, given its low turn-out in elections — and the rest of society may not support him to the same extent. More importantly, this is the era of coalition politics. Even if Modi were the prime ministerial candidate of the BJP, other components of the NDA may object, especially parties which have Muslim voters like the JD(U). Already, Nitish Kumar has refused to allow Modi to come to Bihar for canvassing.

Modi may not be a natural leader, even for the BJP — in spite of the fact that the party may badly need him at the time of election. The party knows that it could win power only when it had at its helm a widely acceptable man, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Moreover, the RSS itself is allergic to politicians with such a strong personality for whom the organisation does not come first but second at best.

For all these reasons, Modi may remain confined to Gujarat. Incidentally, the fact that the Congress has not fought him there in a very determined way suggests that not only does it have no strong local leader but also that the party prefers to leave him safe in this state so that he doesn’t step out into the national arena.

As a Gujarat phenomenon only, Modi tells us something of today’s Indian democracy. In some states, regional bosses are in a position to appear as incarnations of “their” state and defy national institutions — including the Supreme Court. Today, this new brand of federalism finds its most accomplished expression in Gujarat; tomorrow, it may be the case in Maharashtra with Raj Thackeray.

A weak Centre, due to the decline of the Congress and the absence of majoritarian parties, has been good for decentralisation and federalism. But it has also given new space to state leaders who may not comply with the rules of the game any more.

Christophe Jaffrelot, author of ‘The Hindu Nationalist Movement and Indian Politics’, is a senior research fellow at CERI, Sciences Po, Paris


The above article from Indian Express is reproduced for educational and non commercial use