The Special Investigation Team (SIT) report on Narendra Modi's alleged role in the Gulbarg massacre held no particular surprises. As widely discussed previously, the SIT report held that there was no 'prosecutable evidence' to proceed against Modi and his fellow co-accused in this particular case. Naturally, the much-anticipated report has set off a political maelstrom in the media: His supporters see it as the final vindication of Modi’s innocence while his opponents have sworn to pursue the legal case against the Gujarat chief minister to its logical conclusion.
In this highly charged debate, it is imperative to separate the legal case against Modi from the political case. As I have argued elsewhere,
However, instead of accepting the findings of a duly constituted investigative body, many have attempted to put the SIT itself on trial. It appears that their faith in the legal process may not be as unshakable as they have repeatedly claimed — especially if it yields results that they find unpalatable. In fact, lambasting the legal system in India and labelling it fundamentally unfair to the poor and the marginalised seems to become an element of faith among the Left-liberal section of the Indian polity and civil society. Even the argument that SIT has 'ignored' important testimonies is fallacious. Any investigative and judicial process rests on weighing competing narratives and evidences; mala fide intent is not proven merely because the ultimate verdict favours one particular narrative over the other.
Finally, the legal options for Modi's critics have hardly closed. They can certainly contest the SIT's findings in a judicial forum, but casting aspersions on an investigative body constituted and monitored directly by the Supreme Court is hardly appropriate.
Naturally, Modi can and should be confronted politically. It can be reasonably argued that Modi's administrative and moral failures in 2002 make him an unsuitable candidate for the highest office in the land.
Instead of launching a calumnious campaign against SIT chief R.K Raghavan, Modi's opponents should let the judiciary adjudicate on the SIT report. If the SIT has indeed ignored important evidence—as critics like Teesta Setalvad allege—then surely the Supreme Court can be trusted to take the SIT to task and order a fresh investigation. Retaining faith in India's institutions is of paramount important and is a concern Modi's opponents would ignore at their own peril. After all, it is the same SIT which recently secured the conviction of 23 accused in the Ode massacre case.
But as the judiciary evaluates the SIT report, the political battle continues unabated. Modi’s supporters see the SIT report as a golden opportunity for the Gujarat strongman to finally emerge in the national spotlight. They believe that only Narendra Modi can confront Rahul Gandhi and lead the BJP to victory in the 2014 general elections. But can Modi finally lay the ghosts of 2002 to rest merely because he has won an important legal battle? Writing on the Indian National Interest platform, blogger Pragmatic perfectly captures the Modi dynamic:
Let me explain how. Mr Modi may never get around to be acceptable to a majority of people in a diverse country like India. No politician in India is, whether it be a Nitish Kumar or a Naveen Patnaik. But unlike Mr Modi, a Nitish or a Patnaik are not unacceptable to a vast majority of people. People may not vote for them but they are not going to come out to vote against them. It is not the case with Mr Modi, as the Time poll clearly shows. A Nitish Kumar in a similar internet poll may have got only 30-35% of the Yes votes that Mr Modi received but the No votes for Nitish wouldn’t have been more than 10-15% of the No votes that Modi got. This is Mr Modi’s handicap.
That in essence is the conundrum his supporters consistently ignore. Indubitably, Modi has passionate followers but he has even more aggressive opponents and there is no evidence yet that his supporters constitute anything more significant than a vocal and loud minority. Many even argue that because Modi has been so consistently vilified over the years, that he may even emerge as a figure deserving sympathy. It is hard to believe that even Modi would buy this vast leap into sophistry but on such fond hopes politics in India is conducted.
The closest approximation for Narendra Modi is senior BJP leader and former home minister L.K Advani. To Advani goes the 'credit' of constructing a political movement around the Ram Janmabhoomi agitation; he was easily Hindutva's tallest leader before Modi usurped his throne. Advani, of course, faced a lot of criticism for his role in the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent communal polarization whose apogee was perhaps reached in the Gujarat riots. Yet, Advani was slowly able to rehabilitate his image to the extent that he was the unanimous choice as the prime ministerial candidate of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) in the last general elections. Even leaders like Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar, who baulk at even sharing a stage with Narendra Modi lest their pro-Muslim image be damaged, accepted Advani as NDA’s leader. Advani gave multiple media interviews during the elections but one would be hard pressed to recall an interview in which the issue of the Babri Masjid merited anything beyond a perfunctory mention.
Can Modi replicate his mentor’s model and construct a less antagonist relationship with his critics? While impossible should never be part of the political lexicon, Modi faces an exceedingly uphill battle for multiple reasons. First, the difference in their personalities: While Modi can frequently appear coarse and unsophisticated (Miyan Musharraf), Advani retained a suave and urbane facade. Perceptions matter in politics and listening to Modi one frequently gets the impression—rightly or wrongly—of a visceral distaste for Muslims. Second, 6th December and its bloody aftermath were a series of events and it was hard to link them to a single person. Modi, on the other, was the face of India's first televised riots. Third, Advani benefited tremendously by being closely associated with former Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee with his moderate and inclusive image. Indeed, it is to Advani's credit that he abdicated in favour of Vajpayee during BJP's Mumbai convention. Advani understood that the moderate Vajpayee was far more likely to be acceptable to the regional allies BJP desperately needed if it was to be a serious contender for power at the centre. Modi, on the other hand, is egotistical and dictatorial, and it is highly unlikely that he would be able to display Advani's sagacity and wisdom of 1995. Finally, Advani worked hard at his image rehabilitation even describing 6th December as the saddest day in his life. He also benefited from fortuitous circumstances.
Finally, many argue that Narendra Modi should apply a healing touch to help the unfortunate victims of the riots achieve some sort of closure; they further argue that such a policy of rapprochement would likely benefit Modi politically as well. While there is little doubt that a healing touch is required, it is utterly naive to believe that it would bring any political dividends to Modi. His legions of political opponents are unlikely to find him acceptable merely because he expresses regret for the riots—10 years late. In fact, they are more likely to see it as a sign of weakness and move in for the kill. And as far as his supporters are concerned, what they find most endearing about Modi is his take no prisoners approach. An apology is unlikely to make them happy either.
As Advani's example shows, the path to political rehabilitation is long and arduous. It is only likely to be tougher for Narendra Modi.
Rohit Pradhan is a Fellow at the Takshashila Institution and blogs at Retributions.nationalinterest.