First Person | Making Over Modi

The weight of 2002 is not the only thing that goes against the Gujarat CM

Ghazala WahabGhazala Wahab

No other Indian politician in recent past has engineered his image change in such a public and ambitious manner as the three-term chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi: The man who famously justified the week of communal carnage in February-March 2002 by invoking Newton’s law of motion, ‘every action has an equal and opposite reaction’; the man who is fighting court cases pertaining to the Gujarat man-slaughter as an accused; and the man to whom the US would not give the Visa because of his human rights record.

In his first two terms, Modi did not care about what others thought of him. But once he rode home victoriously the third time, completely emasculating the state opposition parties, it was only natural to expect that his eyes would start to look beyond Gujarat. And why not. In politics nothing succeeds more than electoral success, and perhaps, no other political leader in India currently can match Modi’s success. Only two things hold him back: the millstone of 2002 carnage and his very sincere RSS background. While he cannot do anything about the RSS (and its very vocal narrow nationalism), he has been trying to both, remove the millstone from around his neck, as well as lift himself up on the shoulders of economic and industrial development in Gujarat.

He has been doing this in several ways, both discreet and public. His office has created a multi-lingual (Hindi, English, Gujarati, Sanskrit and Marathi) website dedicated to him, which uses the oxymoron, ‘practical dreamer’, to describe him. The website underlines his vision, carries his speeches and showcases his achievements, thereby putting him in the league of visionary leaders. Another website called Gujarat Riots exonerates him and his government from any culpability. The website features ‘17 myths’ about the riots, which basically cover most of the charges against Modi personally and his government.

His more public efforts involve inviting Indian industry leaders to Gujarat for various functions, where either they are felicitated by Modi or they felicitate Modi or they together felicitate somebody else.

Whichever be the case, warming up to Modi’s presence, these industry honchos then proceed to praise Modi’s leadership in no small terms. The latest to do so was chairman, Reliance Industry Ltd’s Mukesh Ambani, who also wears the hat of being the chairman of Pandit Deendayal Petroleum University (PDPU) in Gujarat. At the recent convocation ceremony, Modi was the chief guest. Once through with congratulating the students, Ambani turned towards Modi. He said, “Narendrabhai Modi has made India and Indians proud by putting Gujarat on the global map. Gujarat is blessed to have an inspiring leader like you. The impact of your leadership has been felt on all-round development of the state… and the world has taken note of this.”

A year ago, his younger brother Anil had been equally effusive. As was Tata Son’s Ratan Tata, who was grateful beyond words for getting the land in Gujarat to build his ambitious Nano after the fracas in West Bengal. Not surprisingly then, the biggest votary of Modi has been India Inc., which understandably finds the Gujarat model of development unprecedented.

Given that despite his three-day fast as part of Sadbhavna Mission, Modi has not been able to live down his bloody reputation, his biggest hope is India Inc. But can industrialisation alone lead to sustained and equitable growth, particularly in a country rife with inequities? For the Indian industry, in a hurry to reap the benefits of economic liberalisation, the answer would be yes. But for those who look at human development, unless the growth is just and fair, its neither sustainable nor desirable.

The rapid industrial development in Gujarat is not only unequal, it is creating pockets of discontent. And here I am not talking of communal pockets at all, which is a completely different story. On several social and human development indexes measuring hunger and literacy (reports by Reserve Bank of India), Gujarat figures way below less economically developed states of India.

Economic inequalities aside, the second flaw in the Gujarat model of growth is social inequalities. A substantial part of the state population — and not just Muslims — believes that it will never get equal opportunities because of their religious persuasions. Some also believe that forget equal opportunities, they will be discriminated against in education and employment. Maybe these perceptions are misplaced, but as long as they persist, a significant part of the population remains disaffected and outside the developing mainstream. When a significant portion of your people remain discontent and believe that they will not get a fair hearing ever, can the country be secure?

Finally, the cross of 2002. Many analysts say that if Modi apologises he will have greater acceptability. Maybe he will. Maybe the wounds will heal over time. But can Modi and his ilk change the way they have been brought up to think? Can they genuinely come to believe that one community does not have greater rights over others? Can they genuinely believe that India is not a Hindu but a multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-ethnic society? Can they genuinely stop asking all Indians to own up and take pride in their Hindu past? I don’t think the image makeover will help.


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