Incorruptible Modi: Why the WikiLeaks blooper is BJP’s fault

The WikiLeaks “endorsement” of Narendra Modi has blown up on the BJP’s face.

A burst of tweets from WikiLeaks has denied that Julian Assange ever did anything of the sort.

Narendra Modi. AFP

Narendra Modi. AFP

Here’s the BJP’s Muktar Abbas Naqvi in full damage-control mode:
The nation does not need a certificate from Julian Assange or WikiLeaks about Modi, and neither does Modi to win the elections. What the people want is just good governance.

Fair enough. Indians often rightly complain about the disproportionate attention given to every bit of foreign attention – a Time cover, a New York Times editorial, and now a WikiLeaks mention.

But then those who complain vociferously turn around and go gaga whenever they see anything vaguely positive about them from the same Big Bad West. Narendra Modi has not been shy about tomtomming crumbs of supposed approval from WikiLeaks.

Modi’s own blog went to town about it.

Talking about WikiLeaks cable about him Shri Modi on Tuesday mentioned, ‘WikiLeaks cables are accurate. I am glad to learn that America admits Modi is incorruptible’…. He noted cable mentioned him fairly and said he was a ‘good Indian leader’. He said, ‘to say a person in non-corrupt is one thing but the report that America has sent mentions me as ‘un-corruptible’ based on interactions with people’.(The blog chose to bold that last bit presumably to draw even more attention to it.)

That bit of self-aggrandisement has led to the latest social media embarrassment — the striking black and white poster with a picture of Julian Assange and the quote attributed to him “America fears Modi because they know that he is INCORRUPTIBLE.” It was apparently originally created as satire but over-excited BJP leaders happily shared it around as detailed by this blog on Outlook. That’s drawn the quick and sharp Twitter smackdown from WikiLeaks for this “this fake #Modi endorsement”.

WikiLeaks is a big raw dump of classified data, a mishmash of cables with all kinds of opinions, rumours, speculations. It makes for fun reading because it gives an insider’s view into what normally inscrutable diplomats might be really thinking. But it’s not the voice of an oracle. Cherrypicking within that grabag of opinion and gossip for a gold seal of approval is a fool’s errand. Now the BJP has ended up with egg on its face for three simple reasons.

Assange did not say it Julian Assange is no authority on India. First off, to quote him to bolster Modi’s credibility in India is ridiculous. It’s even more laughable because Assange did not say it and Modi supporters including BJP office bearers passing the photo around did not bother to check. WikiLeaks has since tweeted that the “incorruptible” quote actually comes from Gujarat Congress leader Manohar Singh Jadeja. And even there Jadeja did not call him “incorruptible”. He said that in Gujarat “even Muslims are now supporting him because he is viewed as someone who is incorruptible and can deliver the goods.”

Corruption is all in the eye of the beholder According to the Indian Express, BJP national vice-president Purushottam Rupala and state party spokesperson I K Jadeja have been over the moon about what the WikiLeaks supposedly leaked. They said in a press release "The government which has denied Modi as Modi now finds him as one with strong political willpower, an able administrator as well as the only non-corrupt, no-nonsense politician of India."

One should look before one press releases. Nowhere does WikiLeaks give Modi the “incorruptible” chhappa he and his supporters are boasting about. At one point it says “Modi has successfully branded himself as a non-corrupt, effective administrator, as a facilitator of business in a state with a deep commercial culture, and as a no-nonsense, law-and-order politician who looks after the interests of the Hindu majority." But then the same cable goes on to say that “big-ticket corruption” is alive and well in Gujarat even if Modi has managed to purge “petty corruption at the mid- and lower levels of the bureaucracy.” It quotes a journalist as claiming that large sums flowed into BJP’s party coffers, for example, when Reliance wanted to expand its refinery in Jamnagar. The cable openly admits that those claims could not be verified but given an Arvind Kejriwal’s penchant for Ambani-Adani crony capitalism histrionics, what’s to prevent AAP from giving these claims the “WikiLeaks seal of approval” as well? Does the BJP really want to spend its energy on a Wikifight for the sake of a crumb of perceived praise?

Opening a can of worms The BJP has now drawn more attention to the rest of the report. It’s effectively opened up an ugly can of worms. In that same WikiLeaks, Michael S Owen, the American Consul-General in Mumbai also had this to say about Modi’s leadership style.

In public appearances, Modi can be charming and likeable. By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person who rules with a small group of advisors…He reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory to even high level party officials. He hoards power and often leaves his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios.

That sounds like exactly the kind of leadership style that does not work if you are the head of a large, unwieldy and diverse coalition as opposed to a Gujarat. The BJP can dismiss Owen’s assessment as biased, ill-informed and uneducated. But it cannot have it both ways - brandish the positives as gospel truth and dismiss the negatives as inconsequential and biased.

In fact, there is actually something in the WikiLeaks cable that directly addresses the qualms many have about Modi and communal relations. The consul-general is clear that he does not think Modi will “apologize or back down on the violence of 2002.” But he also agrees with another Congress leader’s 2006 assessment that communal harmony would actually improve in Gujarat because Modi knew that a recurrence of anything like 2002 would doom his national chances.

Owen writes:

Ironically the man most hold accountable for the communal violence of 2002 may now be the most ardent defender of communal harmony, at least on the surface.

Obviously the BJP cannot come out and say this because it would be digging up the ghosts of 2002 which it wants kept firmly out of sight. But this is really much more of a pragmatic “endorsement” of Narendra Modi than dressing up other people’s quotes about the incorruptible Mr Modi.