Is India’s Potential Prime Minister Driven by Prejudice?

November 27, 2013 by  


Narendra Modi’s use of the 2002 Gujarat violence in electoral campaigning is not an isolated case.

By Sarmila Bose

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Sectarian tensions in Gujarat state, like elsewhere in India, have been used for political gains [Reuters]

Since 2002, when violence against Muslims racked the state of Gujarat in India, its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, has been tainted with the allegation of complicity in a pogrom. Riots had occurred in Gujarat before, but 2002 acquired a particularly dark reputation. Despite being elected thrice as chief minisiter of Gujarat, Modi was widely believed to have ruined his chances ever to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) at the national level. But a decade later Modi is leading the BJP’s 2014 campaign as de facto prime-ministerial candidate.

Modi’s political rehabilitation was predictable. Gujarat enjoys a reputation for enterprise and commerce, independent of its politicians. While being vilified on human rights grounds, Modi focused on building an image of encouraging pro-business economic development. Money talks and public memory is short. Within a short time, for business it was business as usual in Gujarat. This may not have been sufficient to capture national leadership, but the failure of the incumbent Congress-led government and the lack of a rival within the BJP contributed to Modi’s success.

If Modi wins next year, would India have elected an allegedly murderous anti-Muslim bigot as its leader?

Sectarian beginning

I visited Gujarat in early 2002 amid the still smouldering violence, again mid-year and finally at the end of the year during the state election campaign. For a better understanding of what Modi’s rise means, we need to remember what his goals were in Gujarat in 2002, what his party represents, and the polarising electoral politics in India and other countries.

Modi’s campaign was unabashedly “communal” – he campaigned as though he was running against “Mian Musharraf”, the military ruler of neighbouring Pakistan, ignoring the Congress candidate who was actually his opponent. The manoeuvre blended aggressive Hindu nationalism with jingoistic patriotism for a potent, toxic mix.

When the Godhra train incident, in which dozens of Hindus were killed and which triggered the anti-Muslim violence, happened in February 2002, Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat for only about four months. He had been dispatched to replace the sitting BJP chief minister, to stem the slide in support. Before that Modi had been a party strategist, but had never been fielded in electoral politics and had no experience of governance. He had only a year to ensure BJP’s re-election. As he put it, he had come to play a “one-day match”.

Modi’s party has long been accused of whipping up religious conflicts to win votes. In his book The Politics of India since Independence, Paul Brass observed that in 1990-91 the BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) played a significant role in deliberately instigated violence in north India. In 1990 BJP President L K Advani went on a “rathyatra” – a “chariot” procession – across several states, triggering riots in its wake. Using religious mobilisation for political ends, the BJP went from practically no presence in parliament in 1984 to becoming the second largest party by 1991.

However, the manipulation of incidents of violence for electoral gain is not unique to the BJP. Brass found that it is a central feature of Indian politics by the 1980s, with Indira Gandhi adept at the “politics of crisis”.

Riding to power on violence is also an established practice elsewhere. Paul Collier found that where the “bottom billion” lives, violence has been the predominant route to power, and democracy tended to increase political violence. Incumbents who wanted to remain in power found “scapegoating a minority” a strategy that “worked”. Steven Wilkinson has argued (in Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India) that it was not institutional weakness that explained the variations in state response to riots in India, but instructions given by politicians whether or not to protect minorities. When multiple parties compete, minority votes have more value than where there are only two contenders, like Gujarat.

In 2002 I found Godhra itself subdued during the campaign, while the state election was fought in its name. T-shirts bearing a photo of the burnt-out train had the slogan (in Gujarati): “We won’t let our village become Godhra.” Godhra had become a concept, which had little to do with the neglected town.

To many people thronging to hear Modi during his campaign in 2002, he was a hero. Some told me that the previous chief minister had been too “soft”; in Modi they had found the “strong” leader they sought. The charismatic demagoguery of Modi was on full display in that campaign. It may not be obvious to those who have only heard him speak in slightly halting English, but in 2002 I found Modi to be an immensely effective orator in Gujarati. He played the crowds’ emotions skilfully, and stoked their prejudices with bone-chilling messages about “enemies of the state”. Modi’s campaign was unabashedly “communal” – he campaigned as though he was running against “Mian Musharraf”, the military ruler of neighbouring Pakistan, ignoring the Congress candidate who was actually his opponent. The manoeuvre blended aggressive Hindu nationalism with jingoistic patriotism for a potent, toxic mix.

Given his campaigning skills, it was astonishing that the BJP had not fielded him in elections before. If such a politician had chosen to work for all citizens, he could have done much good, and Muslims would have voted for him too. But in 2002 Modi was focused on winning the “one day match” he had come to play. To ensure sufficient consolidation of the Hindu vote, he seemed prepared to write-off the Muslim minority altogether. He did not need, or want, their votes.

Logically, if Modi let Muslims in his state die in 2002 to ensure victory through Hindu consolidation, he would protect them if he needs Muslim votes in multi-cornered contests, or if he is likely to win without resorting to polarisation.

National elections are a different game, with numerous parties and the high likelihood of another coalition. Modi has shifted focus to governance and development. However, as Christophe Jaffrelot detailed in his work on the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), where Modi was “pracharak” (activist), was built on the stigmatisation of “others”. RSS leaders openly drew inspiration from European fascism.

A ‘common’ practice

Perhaps there is nothing special about Modi, except that he seems more capable, and more ruthless, than others. The use of violence for electoral gain is widespread in the world and in India.

The BJP was already in power in India from 1998 to 2004 and has been the main opposition since. Former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the image of everybody’s favourite uncle, even though he too had been an RSS “pracharak”. So had L K Advani, former deputy prime minister and home minister, who had undertaken the “rathayatra”. Gujarat was known for religious riots long before the BJP or Modi. The ugly truth about India’s democracy is that life is cheap here and Indian voters have long been used by politicians as expendable pawns in their battles for power.

Modi may have anti-Muslim prejudices, but that did not seem to be his primary motivation for failing to protect Muslims in 2002. Rather, it seemed to be his single-minded focus on winning by manipulating the Godhra incident and its violent aftermath to consolidate the Hindu vote. He seemed callously indifferent to the fate of the victims of this strategy. In this regard he has plenty of company in India and in other countries. Many politicians who practise the politics of hate do not necessarily hate any group personally as much as they incite their followers. Yogendra Yadav – an Indian political analyst who has entered politics – argues that while Modi is not the only one to indulge in authoritarianism or majoritarianism, multiple flaws of India’s democracy appear to converge in him.

Logically, if Modi let Muslims in his state die in 2002 to ensure victory through Hindu consolidation, he would protect them if he needs Muslim votes in multi-cornered contests, or if he is likely to win without resorting to polarisation. Equally, if sacrificing some other group might better serve his electoral purpose, perhaps they would be at risk rather than Muslims. The cold-blooded nature of these calculations is chilling. Repugnant when practised by run-of-the-mill politicians, it seems terrifying in the hands of a man of high-ability.

There is no effective humanist opposition to this phenomenon in Indian politics. The only bulwark might be the sheer heterogeneity of national politics in India. Modi’s rise may be a troubling prospect, but the problem is bigger than Modi.

Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.

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