Now that India’s Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has settled on Narendra Modi, a top right-wing politician and chief minister of western state of Gujarat, as its prime ministerial candidate for the next year’s crucial elections, commentators across India and beyond are looking at the emerging political circus with inquietude.
Modi is likely to face a stiff challenge from Rahul Gandhi, son of former prime minister Rajiv Gandhi and the expected candidate of ruling Congress Party of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. India will elect a new parliament on May 31, 2014.
Many commentators in India are calling Modi a divisive face of a major party of the world’s largest democracy. B.G. Verghese of the Centre for Policy Research, in New Delhi, said Modi’s rivals in the BJP were happy to see him make the running “as they don’t want to reveal their hands” but he ultimately has too many enemies. “Moderates are suspicious of him and he has many enemies even within the Gujarat BJP itself… They feel he is a divisive force in the party and in the community,” Verghese told AFP in April this year.
The ghosts of the carnage in his fiefdom of Gujarat a decade ago have returned to haunt the charismatic but highly controversial leader’s prime ministerial ambitions. Many Indian hold him responsible for the 2002 Gujarat pogrom in which over 2,000 men, women and children from Gujarat’s Muslim minority community were systematically killed. Modi denies any involvement in the carnage.
But he remains toxic in the eyes of many in the Muslim and Christian minorities who now fears he could bring his communal political agenda to the national level. Muslims account for 13% and Christians about 3% of India’s population.
The United States denied Modi a visa in 2005 over concerns about his role in those riots. His planned keynote address via video conference at the Wharton India Economic Forum of the University of Pennsylvania last March was canceled after the invitation triggered a strong protest among some members of the college community.
Modi’s anointment became possible despite early opposition from top party hawks such as L. K. Advani, leader of opposition in the lower house of parliament, the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj and Murli Manohar Joshi. However, right-wing Hindu hardline groups such as Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), India’s top proponent of Hindutva, hectically lobbied for him.
Modi is popular among India’s business community and ever growing middle class, largely because of his pro-business policies and his credit for Gujarat’s economic boom. Gujarat has enjoyed impressive annual growth rates of 10-12 percent since 2007. Some of its cities have benefited from major development projects such as metro systems.
According to according to an Economic Times/Nielsen opinion poll published on September 6 and reported by Reuters, almost 75 percent of top Indian business leaders said they wanted Modi to lead the country, while only 7 percent expressed support for Rahul Gandhi in the same spot. So Modi’s political credentials have much to do with his economic genius as well. But his economy management-techniques have not yet been able to put to rest the fears of communal politics.
Many Indian commentators are expressing fears that Modi’s closeness to Hindu fundamentalist right-wing organizations is bound to impact his political agenda. In an article in The Times of India, Dileep Padgaonkar did not mince words to expressed such fears and expectations of Hindu nationalists from a prime minister Modi.
The focus will also be on the doublespeak of the RSS. Beyond the confines of the Sangh Parivar, few bought its claim that it only promoted ‘cultural nationalism’ and provided ‘ideological guidance’ to the BJP. But the manner in which Mohan Bhagwat, the RSS chief, and his deputies intervened on Modi’s behalf should debunk these claims once and for all.
What this overtly political involvement means in practice will be evident in the weeks and months ahead. Along with his development mantras, Modi will have to convince the RSS that he would seriously address its pet causes. These include the construction of a Ram temple in the disputed area in Ayodhya, the abolition of Article 370 of the Constitution – that gives a special status to Jammu & Kashmir – and the adoption of a Uniform Civil Code.
A return to the Hindutva agenda not only has the potential to trigger communal violence in the country but would also undermine Modi’s recent and rather bizarre overtures to the Muslim community. Not that he is likely to lose any sleep over this grim prospect. He doubtless calculates that those voters who aren’t enamored of Hindutva have had enough of vote-bank politics. They won’t stomach any longer the shenanigans of Kashmiri separatists, the murderous activities of Pakistan-backed militants, the bigoted fatwas of mullahs, especially those relating to women, and the anti-Hindu rants of the likes of Akbaruddin Owaisi.
Modi’s anointment has not just brought delighted his supporters but also his opponents. The Congress Party would make sure that Indian voters are not blinded by Modi’s economic promise and that they don’t forget 2002 Gujarat carnage. Congress’ arsenal may not end here. It will also accuse Modi of being an extremist warmonger who could undermine India’s quest for improving relations with its neighbors, particularly Pakistan.
But Modi for now seems to be trying to prove that he is no bogy. Within 48 hours of his anointment, he had a largely conciliatory message for India’s arch-rival neighbor — “don’t confront India but wage a war against poverty and illiteracy.”
Modi’s this rare posture earned him an adulatory editorial from The Pioneer, calling it “dignified and mature”. But these postures still seems not enough to put to silent his critics. Sitaram Yechury, a Politburo member of Communist Party of India(M) and member of Rajya Sabha (India’s upper house of parliament), summed up these sentiments in an article published in the Hindustan Time.
The BJP’s PM-hopeful invokes the name of Sardar Patel, at the drop of the hat, as the unifier of modern India. Thus, seeking to (mis)appropriate that legacy. India’s integrity has never been confined to its territorial unity alone. The country’s soul rests on the continuous unfolding of the idea of India which is based on the strengthening of the bonds of commonality that run through our immense socio-cultural diversity. India’s integrity can never be furthered by seeking to impose any form of uniformity — religious, linguistic, cultural, etc, — upon its rich diversity. Any attempt to do so will perilously endanger our unity and integrity.
It is precisely this that was attempted in the 2002 communal pogrom in Gujarat. The country today is asked to endorse the extension of this Gujarat model for the whole of India. If this is the case, then what is in store is not vikas but vinash (havoc). Young India has no dearth of leaders, what it needs is a vision. If this is the RSS/BJP vision, then being forewarned must mean being forearmed to preserve and consolidate modern India.