May 31, 2020
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Out, Damned Spot!

Absolution for Modi? Maybe a visit to the Ajmer dargah could help.

Out, Damned Spot!
Illustration by Sorit
Out, Damned Spot!

Narendra Modi may have got a clean chit from the sit in the Gulberg society case but this is a small peg on which the case for and against Modi rests. By itself this peg means very little. So what can he do to redeem himself? Can he outlive his past? Narendra Modi should do what Pakistan’s deputy attorney general, Muhammad Khurshid Khan, did as penance. On his visit to India, Khan spent hours cleaning and shining devotees’ shoes at a Delhi gurudwara as penance, so upset was he by the killing of a Sikh man by a Taliban group in Pakistan two years ago. Modi needs to make a gesture of spectacular repentance and apology for 2002.

To some extent, there has been an apology for the Sikh riots from the Congress party. Manmohan Singh is the prime minister partly because of this. Modi can in fact learn from the Gandhis. The Gandhi dynasty, after the Sikh riots, has ensured great security for itself by apologising for the violence, because they know and understand the transience of power. They know that desperate people cannot be stopped by security. So they have shown humility and bought their security.

If I was Narendra Modi’s psychotherapist, I would have told him: my dear friend, if you wish to play a larger role in national politics, you need to reflect. You cannot go directly from the chief minister’s office in Gujarat to the prime minister’s office in New Delhi. Buy peace in the interregnum. He should go to a dargah. Go to Ajmer Sharif and apologise. The Khwaja is supposed to be benevolent and very forgiving.

But politically it is a different kind of game. Even if Modi wins all the cases and goes scot-free, the stigma of the riots will not go. The stigma will remain. Neither these cases, nor his internet presence, or being on the cover of Time, will matter in the long run. In Modi’s case, even without analysing his personality, one can say that his chances of being a major presence in national politics in India are doomed by his past. He can make space for it only by a very abject apology and by really, truly giving a public demonstration of his ability to renounce and disown his past self. By that I mean not only an apology but also making a special effort to build bridges with the Muslim community in Gujarat. He can do that by taking special remedial measures for the families affected by the riots.

The 1984 anti-Sikh riots were larger than the Gujarat riots, but they were not televised. There too justice came very late, actually much later than it is coming in Gujarat now. But because it was not televised, perhaps because people did not see the riots themselves but only read about it, there was some distance. In the case of the Gujarat riots, that distance is not there. So, unlike Maliana or Meerut or the Sikh riots, or any massacre for that matter, the Gujarat riots, are etched in the minds of a very large number of people. And every person who has seen that considers themselves a witness to that riot.

Yet, Modi is seen as a tough, no-nonsense leader and celebrated by Corporate India. In that context, does he have a future? Personally, if you ask me, an occasional slip is alright to indicate your abject sycophancy to a successful political administrator, but this dream of the Tatas and Ambanis of emerging as India’s Krupps will be shattered. (The Krupps in Germany were a 400-year-old dynasty and the largest company in Europe at the beginning of the 20th century; they were later prosecuted for war crimes and complicity with the Nazis, their companies were dismantled after WWII). This dream will not go very far because regimes always change and what you gain in Gujarat by playing footsie with Narendra Modi, you lose in other parts of the country.

Even in the BJP, Modi has many detractors who think that on the basis of that one riot he has become the heartthrob of Hindu nationalists. You may ask, if Modi is not entirely acceptable in the BJP, is there any other acceptable face in the party, like Atal Behari Vajpayee? Vajpayee was a different kettle of fish; he was an inclusive man. To run an inclusive society, you first have to be an inclusive person yourself. You cannot be one of those highly-placed professionals living an isolated life and then pretend to be inclusive. You become an inclusive person because you have traversed the trajectory of life in a particular way; you have been exposed to particular experiences; you have had some empathetic and compassionate understanding of people you have met in your life. It is almost an accident to have a person like Vajpayee as PM. I consider him one of the great prime ministers of India.

But the BJP is basically a democratic party because it is not bound to any particular dynasty. It is bound to formations like the RSS and the VHP and I doubt whether they can dare to flout their wishes very much. Yet, unlike the Congress and other parties, they are more open. The BJP can produce a new crop of leaders. In the Congress, the future is open except the top post and the top post is flopping. Yet nobody has any doubt about whom the top post ultimately belongs to in the Congress—as in the RJD or DMK or AIADMK.

Modi fits the description of the cult of the ‘dictatorial democratic’ leader. In politics, masks do work. If you wear a mask long enough in politics, it becomes your face. But I am afraid that Narendra Modi has not even worn the right mask. I may applaud his administrative skills but I cannot applaud his intelligence and his long-term vision. I say this because riots have been engineered by many politicians. Riots primarily are a professional job, professionally handled by politicians. But all politicians, when promoting riots, take certain precautions. They do not as blatantly use the riot as a campaigning device to win elections, then gloat over the killings and create a whole atmosphere of hysteria which then can be beamed to the whole country and seen by millions.

After Gujarat, riots have become politically very expensive in India. And now you will see a decline of riots not because of better ethics or because Indian politicians have suddenly become saintly or because Indian laws have become strict. I do not believe that this Communal Violence Bill that activists advocate will make any difference. Or the Jan Lokpal bill. India has no shortage of laws. I am following the legal cases against Modi and the riot cases because I want to see where they go as that gives an inkling of how much the system is complicit and how much it is not.

(As told to Saba Naqvi and Prarthna Gahilote)

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