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The road to power runs through prejudice

September 16, 2013

By projecting Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate last week, the central leadership of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has pronounced itself irrelevant.

Senior leaders like Sushma Swaraj and Arun Jaitley, leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, have gone along with the reported clamour from below that Mr. Modi is the “saviour” who can re-install the BJP in Delhi.

There have been objections from Mr. Modi’s one-time guru, the Karachi-born Lal Krishna Advani, but for now the BJP leadership is convinced that the Chief Minister, who presided over the state at the time of vicious riots against Muslims in Gujarat in 2002, is the man for the moment.

Mr. Modi himself seems to have few doubts that he can deliver India to the BJP, a political party controlled by the shadowy, avowedly anti-minority Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) based in Nagpur, central India.

His image of the development devta (god), who provides acres of land to industrial houses like the Tatas with a snap of his fingers, is much revered by corporate India. From the Tatas to the Ambanis, Mr. Modi is a darling of corporate India.

And, needless to say, he is also the darling of Television India – the agglomeration of news channels that has left no image unturned to “anoint” him as the BJP’s man for the top Indian government job.

Night after night, Mr. Modi’s many spokesmen and spokeswomen have embellished the devta image – of him as a man of action, as a man who can deliver. His own skills as a demagogue, of course, have been most helpful.

With the Manmohan Singh government struck by political paralysis until a few weeks ago, the macho Mr. Modi was projected as the new delivery boy of aspiring India in sharp contrast to a stodgy and unsmiling Prime Minister who seemingly has little to say.

Much has been written on the real story of Gujarat’s development record and the holes between promise and performance are as large as bathtubs. But that really doesn’t matter.

One fact that I came across is that 93 per cent of Gujarat’s urban local bodies don’t have any sewage treatment facilities – 158 out of the 168 local entities can’t treat their waste, instead they dump it in water bodies and open land.

In no way does this and other similar truths dampen the enthusiasm for Mr. Modi.

In December last year, before the Gujarat elections, I travelled to the state to figure out why Modi is so loved by some. The answer came from Dikubhai, a young man I met in a bus, who said up front that Modi would now move to Delhi to teach Muslims a lesson.

The words were spoken gently, without hatred. But they were nevertheless chilling. Basically, Dikubhai was saying that having taught the Muslims a “lesson” in 2002, Modi should now move to Delhi to give a new lesson nationally.

The conversation was scary, but it was the truth. There was no attempt to dress up prejudice as development. Mr. Modi’s supporters like him because he uses language they like against Muslims, because he hasn’t ever expressed any regret for the killing of innocent citizens under his watch.

The development myth built up around Mr. Modi is simply adulation for him allowing the killings of minority community members in Gujarat. The Chief Minister isn’t afraid to wear anti-Muslim credentials on his sleeve – for him the road to power is through prejudice.

The problem for Mr. Modi and supporters is this: if the politics of hatred returns to centre-stage like it did in the 1990s, big business and the India growth story will be the losers. What just happened in Muzaffarnagar in Uttar Pradesh is a pointer to what may benefit the BJP electorally.

The only way Mr. Modi and the BJP can march ahead is by polarising people and then hope for a rich electoral harvest. A party desperate for office, which needs 50 Lok Sabha seats from Uttar Pradesh to be in striking distance of power in 2014, finds that the communal virus remains its most potent electoral card.

Far from maturing into an acceptable centre-right alternative to the Congress, the BJP and Mr. Modi have taken an extreme turn to the right.

Taking diverse interest groups along, building bridges, engaging with regional parties, taking their concerns on board, treating citizens equally are all requisites for running the Indian Republic.

Since 1989, India hasn’t had a single Prime Minister who hasn’t had to accommodate the interests of other parties to govern. Running a coalition means carrying people along.

Mr. Modi just doesn’t fit the bill.