Agreed, Narendra Modi is a polarising figure. But like all clichés, it has zero explanatory value, offering little insight into the Modi phenomenon. What it does, rather, is to induce a kind of schizophrenia in the public consciousness about a man who, apparently, is two different people. But Modi isn’t two people—the Modi who spoke of empowering women at the FICCI Ladies Organisation (FLO) forum on Monday is the same person was the chief minister (CM) of Gujarat when scores of Muslim women were raped and killed in the communal carnage of 2002.
The enthusiasm for Modi among those who subscribe to the Hindu supremacist ideology is understandable. But there are many who pay lip service to religious equality and yet assert that Modi is no longer the political animal that was the CM of Gujarat in 2002; they would have you believe that he has magically transformed from a communalist demagogue into a clean, decisive politician who would offer leadership, integrity and good governance. Well, here’s the thing: this is nothing but a self-serving delusion.
If there is one essential quality of a true leader, it is the ability to inspire trust. Look up any article on leadership in the Harvard Business Review—and see if you can find a piece that does not list trust as an essential leadership trait. Given Modi’s track record, an obvious question to ask would be: Can India’s minorities entrust their safety and well-being to a man who refuses to take responsibility for the communal carnage that took place under his watch as Gujarat CM? This question did not come up at FLO and I haven’t heard it being asked of Modi at any other industry forum either, which is odd considering that both business and communal riots take place in the real world, and this is a question of effective governance.
Am I saying that Modi can never be trusted as a national leader? Not really. He can still establish himself as a great leader who can be trusted to provide good governance. But there is only one way to do it: by taking responsibility for his failure in 2002. How does he do that? He needs to, at the very least, empathize with, if not apologise to, and seek the forgiveness of, the riot victims’ families. But we know right away that he never will do anything like this, which is why it comes up less and less these days. (In fact, a Modi apology has become such a laughable notion for so many that it was presented as an April Fool’s joke by a news portal last week.)
The very moment we accept that Modi has never acknowledged the 2002 riots as a failure on his part is the moment the good governance argument in favour of Modi stands exposed for what it is: a lie. It can either be true or false that Hindu supremacist violence is good for business. If we go by the ‘success story’ of ‘Modi’s Gujarat’, then it must be true that violence against minorities has been good for development as we have defined it. At any rate, it does not seem to have had a negative impact on business growth—otherwise influential sections of India Inc. would not be pro-Modi.
So if, as a businessman and/or a decent human being, you want Modi on the national stage, then you have to acknowledge either that A) you are indifferent to the fate of the minorities; or B) you really believe they deserved what came their way in Gujarat in 2002. Since neither of these positions is compatible with the political and social values of respectable public discourse, which still holds that murder of minorities is bad, you have no alternative but to turn schizophrenic in order to be able to believe that Modi will be good for business and also protect minorities.
It is a testimony to how far the mainstream national consensus on Modi has shifted, and how successful Modi’s image managers, Apco, have been in disassociating Modi from his past, that today you can barely bring up 2002 without being branded either a Congress stooge or a ‘commie’ or just a spoilsport bore. But take away the schizophrenia, and the reality stares you in the face: the Modi of 2002 is the Modi of 2013, and he is fully capable of ‘allowing’ again what he ‘allowed’ in 2002. How can we be sure of this? Two reasons: one, it has worked for him; two, he has gotten away with it, so far.
Many commentators point out that India is not Gujarat; that Modi has ‘evolved’ as a leader, and can never do as PM what he allegedly did as CM in 2002. But that’s precisely how schizophrenia works—it forgets, and then alters reality to fit the delusion. By endorsing Modi for a national role, we are communicating a simple message to the man: your central government can do in the future what your state government did in 2002, and we, as a nation, won’t hold you to account, just as we’ve not held you to account for 2002.
Consider: some thirty years after the Holocaust, Israel was still sending out death squads to hunt down Nazi war criminals. Germany still does not want to forget its Nazi past, which is why it has a Holocaust museum. We, however, are in a hurry to forget what many respectable forums have termed ‘genocide’ even though it’s been barely 11 years.
Maybe all the perfumes of propaganda will finally wash away the black spot of 2002 from Modi’s record. After all, it was the same Modi whose government revised the state’s higher secondary school textbooks to glorify Hitler instead of condemning him. But George Santayana’s oft-quoted dictum has been proved true by history many times over: “Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it.” There is only one way to make sure India does not repeat 2002: keep harping on it.