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The spectre of Modi


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HANG me publicly if I am found guilty, implored Gujarat’s chief minister, Narendra Modi. He who has incessantly maintained that the state’s 2002 riots were a mere natural reaction, man conforming to the laws of physics so to speak, was now suddenly seized of the enormity of the tragedy.

Quick though he was to disavow any personal omission or commission, he now portrays himself as saviour rolled into victim. General elections in India are due in the spring of 2014, but could happen sooner. Poll after opinion poll shows Modi the hands-down choice for prime minister. In a presidential system, victory would be a cinch, but in India’s messy parliamentary democracy, Delhi is still far.

When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) last ruled India, at its helm was Atal Behari Vajpayee, a moderating influence in a mostly rabid party. The party tolerated him because of his mass appeal; he returned the compliment, spurning the Hindutva brigade and trusting only other moderates.

Vajpayee reached out to Pakistan, signalling to India’s Muslims, often caught in the subcontinent’s crossfire, that he wanted to put their travails behind. He met a kindred spirit in Nawaz Sharif, and later, ironically, in Pervez Musharraf. By the time Vajpayee demitted office in 2004, so mushy were he and Musharraf that the latter was keen that the former continue playing an official role in India-Pakistan ties. In the meantime, Modi would pull out his Musharraf card, paint him as Count Dracula, and promise to slay him. After the 2002 riots, he had become a household name in Pakistan.

Whoever wins Pakistan’s upcoming federal elections, paramount power in dealing with India is expected to reside in the country’s security establishment. Military heads come and go, but institutional memories remain. If Modi takes India’s reins, can Pakistan overcome its scorn to interact civilly with him? Conversely, how will he handle Pakistan?

Modi is prone to frequent rushes of blood. During the last decade or so, India-Pakistan relations have often gone to the brink, only to be pulled back by sane heads. In Modi though, Pakistan would be dealing with an Indian leader the likes of whom it has never seen. In case of a 26/11-like strike, he could ratchet up the rhetoric to an unbearable shrillness.

As Pakistan contemplates its appetite for Modi, his own party, the BJP, is mired in consternation. Eight years in the wilderness have made coffers dry and throats parched for power. But the road to Delhi remains convoluted as ever. Modi is their only mass leader; L.K. Advani registers in the low single digits in national opinion polls, others even worse.

While Modi electrifies the Hindutva base, he antagonises key allies. With him at the helm, the BJP could well cross the 150-mark in a 550-seater parliament, but would hobble to put together a governing alliance. Bereft of him, they could well be propping up a smaller party.

The dilemma is not lost on the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the BJP’s parent body, where organisational decisions are dictated. Modi has been asked to mind his language, against India’s Muslims, Pakistan, and his political opponents, and present a conciliatory image. In return, people openly aligned against him are being weeded out from the party.

The RSS is betting that a kinder, gentler Modi would pull in enough seats where recalcitrant allies would have no option but to rally behind. The strategy chafes key BJP leaders, who know that while Muslims traditionally skirt their party, nothing would galvanise them en masse as Modi as mascot. Muslims comprise over 20 per cent of the electorate in a 100 parliamentary constituencies. Non-BJP parties would gang up to clean up their vote, scuppering the BJP. It is a sobering thought.

Sobriety not being its middle name, the RSS expects the Hindutva brigade to neutralise any Muslim-inspired loss. That may well be true, but a deeply polarised India would emerge, potentially isolated not just by Pakistan, but by much of the Muslim world. And with Afghanistan on a powder keg, and India so dependent on the Middle East for oil and jobs, can it afford to become another Israel? Business needs to be transacted, and interests taken care of.

Modi is unlikely to flip his genome, so much could depend upon his advisers, but who they are remains a mystery. He has touched a chord in the Hindu psyche, and will not allow anyone else to come close to playing conductor.

Vajpayee kept the RSS out of his inner circle, but Modi is part of its sanctum sanctorum. Therein lies a conundrum. Can someone steeped in an ideology outgrow it, or at least become somewhat palatable? He could take a leaf out of Nawaz Sharif’s book. Long seen in India as a hawk, a protégé of Ziaul Haq, Sharif inexplicably turned turtle and sought better relations with India.

Modi’s attempts at a makeover come across as ham-handed, because while prime ministership clearly beckons him, he pretends otherwise. India deserves better from a potential premier. Modi must directly address the millstone pressing around his neck: what would be his approach to India’s Muslims? Additionally, how does he view Pakistan? In the absence of new revelations, current perceptions foster worst-case planning. South Asia has enough problems as it is, without adding Armageddon to the mix.

The writer is a freelance journalist.

The views expressed by this writer and commenters below do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.

Comments (20) Closed

xeroxus Oct 01, 2012 03:48pm
Modi may be more popular than other individual leaders but india does not have a presidential system.his party has to win constituencies where people are split between caste,religion,pro development,linguistics etc.If individual popularity did matter,manmohan singh wouldn't be prime minister for two terms.People who you interact with and who swear by modi's charisma may still not vote for his party if the candidate is not from the right caste By the way,even on the issue of individual popularity you are not correct as modi does not have any pull on those voters who vote on caste lines and that includes almost all of UP and bihar urban and rural.
Akmal Qabal Oct 01, 2012 12:43pm
Leadership is all about bold decision making, many politicians will make the right noises but lack the courage to implement their design once in power. Pakistan and India need strong leaders who make bold decisions against corruption and nepotism. And be in a position to take a lead in moving the Indo-Pak relations forward. Our region is going through a very crucial stage and we need strong leadership.
NASAH (USA) Oct 01, 2012 06:32pm
Hitler and Mussolini were also great administrators they also performed economic miracles for their countries -- they also ran their trains on time -- and then they ran their trains over the people -- Modi is no exception. Modi as prime minister will be an unmitigated disaster for a diverse democratic nuclear armed progressive country like India. So please quit building him up through the back door.
Jay K Raman Oct 01, 2012 04:04am
Modi is no fool. He is a competent, honest and nationalist. He knows very well, that India cannot progress without taking her Muslims with her. Extreme politicians become sober and moderate once they come to power. It was Nixon, the arch anti communist who built bridges between USA and China. Next to Vajpayee Modi may usher in the best time in Indo Pak relationship, even solving the Kashmir imbroglio.
kamran mohammad Oct 01, 2012 07:36pm
how does having a moderate attitude towards pakistan affect the indian muslim sentiments as mentioned by the writer in case of vajpayee`s tenure hold true....
Pavas Ambashta Oct 01, 2012 01:07pm
You know what is the problem of majority of journalists? They pay much attention to theproblems of the politicians and political parties than those of the common people..Sad but true..
Achiiles Oct 01, 2012 05:58am
Article conveys some sense, but it could be written in much clearer and error free English.
Sauron Oct 01, 2012 05:29am
Whatever be Modi's failings, India's Choice of a leader should not be based on how the Muslim world would react. This is for India to decide.
Siddharth Oct 01, 2012 05:43pm
I work in Mumbai in the corporate office of a private-sector bank called IndusInd. I like discussing politics with people and that is how I know about rest of the folks there. I quite disagree with you that Modi support is widespread in cities. If that were true, that would have translated to BJP votes. In fact the BJP ruled states in India hardly have any urban areas, Karnataka (Bangalore), Chhatisgarh (none), Madhya Pradesh (none), Himachal (none), Goa (none) Gujarat (that's a totally different story and quite disconnected with the rest of India I think). So that's it and I doubt Modi was a factor in even these. Well you might say some people of late have bought his development card, frankly I don't think that'll last any long either. His idea of development is lop-sided (of malls and highways mostly). Things like social equality, justice and education he doesn't understand. I don't think India will ever buy what he says, it might have worked in Gujarat, not in other states. Plus he is boasting all the time about his achievements, I smell a rat right there.
Md Imran Oct 01, 2012 07:25pm
Its the so called "urban moderate elites" like you who have put that puppet and the high priestess from Italy in power who are running India , and everything it stands for, into the ground. As for the author, why would any Indian care about what Pakistanis think about Modi ? If he is the best bet ( and one look at his home state GJ would convince you he is ), then India will vote for him. Maybe the author ought to move across the border and experience the "true democracy" being fought between 2 families, one intelligence agency and the new entrants in black coats !
Zimbo_Indian Oct 01, 2012 02:18pm
You are small minority. All middle class Indians that I know are highly impressed by Modi.
Arpit Oct 01, 2012 02:46pm
Dude.. chill! Tooth and nail.. first stop corrupt Congress government .. the mother of all corruption.. who have not even left the country resources ~~ I am ready to bed on Modi given his track record on development. Courts have declared him innocent so then who are you to judge him! Get a life and contribute something positive to society rather than just rhetorics!
Siddharth Oct 01, 2012 05:05am
I am Indian on a Pakistani site :) Is the author talking of facebook polls here. Are they even done seriously and do they even count. Will rural and small-town India (of Dalits, lower-caste Hindus) where most electorate lies support Modi, highly unlikely. Remember India shining, anybody!! Will 15% Indian Muslims support him, you know the answer. Will urban liberals like me support Modi, I will fight tooth and nail to stop Modi even be seen near Delhi. Half the people in my office can't stand him, a couple support, rest don't care. I am done.
Zen Oct 01, 2012 11:17am
Which office do you work in Siddharth? I interact with a lot of urban centers as part of my work and in my experience Modi support is widespread in urban India. I do not know about the villages you may be right there.
sarvesh Oct 01, 2012 02:27pm
Writer is a fool living in his dream. Modi bastion is fashion in India. Gujarat have long history of communal riots..nothing new abt it, his image is being tarnished coz he is most popular leader in India, Politician wants their share of Muslim votes, for them Modi is easy target. Mr Modi is a good administrator,the way State Gujarat set development standard is outstanding, development is visible ,Since he is biggest political rival against Dynasty rule of corrupt pseudo-Gandhi.....every where in the world media,works on govt. do't go with media view.....It's 2012...and since last 10 years law and order in the state is better than anywhere in India.
mohanster Oct 01, 2012 04:29pm
Which office do u work in - The Indian National Congress?
Shri Oct 01, 2012 07:52pm
The author seems to be lost in his own thoughts. This is not for muslims alone to choose who will be India's PM and there is a world exists beyond Pakistan. I would back good relationship with all the neigbhours, including Pakistan. But do not belittle non-muslims when it comes to choose PM.
Akhilesh Oct 01, 2012 06:59pm
Well said...
Zen Oct 02, 2012 04:25pm
Well my experience is completely opposite. The BJP has always being strong in the Urban centers and Modi is very strong in the same areas. Gujarat is completely urbanized and it is no surprise that the COnrgess has not won an election there in the last 24 years. I spend a lot of time in Mumbai,Bangalore,Delhi and Hyderabad and Modi support is pretty rabid among the office going people.
Akhilesh Oct 01, 2012 07:01pm
you hit the nail on its head