By Sunanda K.Datta-Ray
Jun 11, 2013
An unshaven, weasel-faced young man stares soulfully from the feature pages of almost every newspaper I open. A plump, unshaven man grimaces and gesticulates from the screen almost every time I switch on the TV. The first, I am told, is an up and coming Bollywood actor paying through the nose for the package coverage offered by many major dailies. The second is the best Prime Minister India has yet to have, according to the team of advertising agents masquerading as journalists who were ceaselessly projecting Narendra Modi long before Sunday’s Goa anointing.
I can only admire the dexterity with which these publicists harp on the United Progressive Alliance’s undeniable sins of omission and commission to promote their employer as the only alternative. Thanks to them, I could listen to his passionate denunciation of the horrendous torching of the Sabarmati Express in which 58 people (including 25 women and 15 children) were burnt alive. The charred train still displayed at Godhra station is a mute reminder of the outrage. But they haven’t distributed any recording of Modi similarly condemning the ensuing bloodbath in which at least 800 Muslims were butchered. All that a BJP leader would say when the question of an apology came up in one of Sunday evening’s TV programmes was that the parliamentary board would consider it when the time came. Eleven years have gone but the time hasn’t yet come!
The difference in Modi’s response to the two atrocities must be stressed not to criticise him but to draw attention to the reasons for his appeal even outside the saffron fold. If there is “a groundswell building up in his favour”, as Arun Jaitley says, it isn’t because there are no power cuts in Gujarat villages. In fact, L.K. Advani wasn’t the first to throw cold water on Modi’s boast of promoting economic growth. Human development statistics of matters like child education and nutrition had already belied the claim. But this didn’t matter to Kolkata’s elite Calcutta Club members who gave Modi a standing ovation. They were honouring the man who demanded a uniform civil code, meaning Muslims should lose the protection of their special personal laws.
It’s this national mood that causes concern. Attempts to bridge the educational and social gulf between Hindus and Muslims that the Sachar Committee exposed at once provoke resentment. Reports of a silent invasion from Bangladesh, Muslim refusal to accept the family planning campaign (when there was one), special rules regarding waqfs, suspected Middle East funding for the proliferation of mosques and separate personal laws feed Hindu nervousness about the demographic future. That might explain a multinational executive with a Muslim name — a Westernised young man with a foreign wife — finding it difficult, as he told me, to rent a flat even in enlightened Kolkata.
All this warns of the threat of another partition, this time of the spirit and not necessarily the body. As Nehru realised, majority communalism is a dangerous phenomenon. Just as Sartre saw France’s Jewish question as a gentile one, Nehru saw the Muslim question as a Hindu one. He knew that India can’t be governed without minority cooperation. So did Gandhi. The Mahatma didn’t espouse the Khilafat cause because he loved a remote, obscurantist, monarchical institution, but because Indian Muslims had to be kept happy.
The same political logic accounted for Advani’s visit to Pakistan in 2005 and probably Jaswant Singh’s book, Jinnah: India-Partition-Independence. I once asked the late Sikandar Bakht why he was in the BJP but Atal Behari Vajpayee shrewdly shut him up.
Big business feels Modi will provide more opportunities. The riff-raff of the Shri Ram Sena and Bajrang Dal who burn missionaries and raid parties and discos may hope for freedom under him to indulge in their criminal viciousness. But the BJP managers who keep harping on Modi being their “tallest” leader calculate he alone can increase the BJP vote beyond the 18.8 per cent gained in 2009. The economic achievements they trumpet provide a cover for the more compelling argument that he alone can guarantee the majority community’s security. That makes sense even to non-saffron voters.
That’s why Ania Loomba, who teaches English at Pennsylvania University, was among those who objected to the Wharton School inviting Modi for the India Economic Forum in March. “We were concerned that this conference would help contribute to his efforts to sanitise his government’s record”, she explained in an interview printed in the Kolkata weekly, Frontier. “Specifically, his government’s actions and inactions during the communal violence in Gujarat in 2002 which devastated the state’s Muslim population, and whose worst excesses have still not been redressed.”
The objection was to the Gujarat chief minister trying “to recast himself as a ‘developmentalist’ with a strong economic record”. Loomba’s scepticism was evident long before Advani compared Modi’s Gujarat to its detriment with Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
Every election campaign committee needs a chairman. Modi isn’t the first in the job. That doesn’t automatically make him the NDA’s prime ministerial choice or guarantee an NDA victory next year. But the media didn’t make such a hullabaloo over previous incumbents because the party didn’t treat them like men of destiny. Sensing the national mood, the party knows that the image of Modi the developer pales beside the glowing image of Modi the apostle of Hindutva. He didn’t create the mood but he rides it. The more he does so, the greater the danger of India being plunged one day in another holocaust such as Germany suffered. Publicity is oxygen for others besides terrorists.
Sunanda K.Datta-Ray is a senior journalist, columnist and author