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The spectre of Modi

October 01, 2012

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.