India needs Narendra Modi as PM to reinforce secularism

To demonise Narendra Modi as "the butcher of Gujarat" and "Maut ka Saudagar" (Merchant of Death) is as clever and catchy as that 10-year-old’s impromptu recitation on All India Radio, "Gali, Gali me shor hai, Rajiv Gandhi chor hai" (‘Rajiv Gandhi is corrupt’ is the cry in the streets).

In both cases, it was strong public perception that inspired such sentiments. Public perception is created when the same message is hammered by various sections of society and amplified through sustained reportage in the mass media. Thus, manipulating public perception is the objective of propaganda which is aimed at destroying the enemy.

As things stand today, neither late prime minister Rajiv Gandhi nor Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has been proved guilty of what they are popularly accused of. It is the courts in India which hold the final authority in convicting people and since there is no conviction against Rajiv Gandhi or Narendra Modi, we have no choice but to accept their innocence.

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. AP

It is entirely possible that these powerful politicians were successful in wiping out evidence against them, as would be expected of powerful politicians and political parties, especially in a country like India. A whole range of sitting MLAs and MPs, ministers, chief ministers, politicians and other powerful people could be accused of this. There is therefore no reason to hastily single out Modi as the kingpin of the 2002 post-Godhra riots or as the mastermind of the Ishrat Jahan encounter deaths.

Modi remains innocent of these accusations till the point that the charges are established by the investigating agencies and are proved in a court of law. Till such point, leveling the familiar charges against Modi would amount to playing into the hands of the propagandists.

Till today we don’t know about the truth of Narendra Modi’s alleged complicity in the Gujarat communal riots or the encounter deaths and therefore it would prudent to hold judgement on Modi.

In a recent article in The Times of India, Pavan K Varma, author, ex-diplomat and currently adviser to the Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, posed the question, ‘Can India can afford having a polariser for PM?’ One may well counter-argue that India actually needs a polariser like Narendra Modi to reinforce her secularism. The only way to free our politics from the bogey of communalism is to confront our fears and see Narendra Modi become prime minister.

Varma did not accuse Modi of complicity in the Gujarat riots or the encounter killings but suggested that Modi had marginalised Muslims in his own state. Can a multi-religious country like India “which is the cradle of four of the great religions of the world” and which has one of the largest populations of Muslims in the world, afford a person like Modi as prime minister, asked Varma. He stressed that the nation’s founding fathers sought to preserve “the vibrant plurality of India” not out of idealism but out of compulsion. That, the Modi government’s claims of good governance were questionable and that the inclusiveness of Atal Bihari Vajpayee was far more acceptable as under him “the BJP had begun to reconsider its narrow Hindutva orientation, in order to make the party’s appeal more broad-based and in congruence with the realities of India”.

Modi’s other limitations, according to Varma, are lack of expertise in ruling more than one state of India, “no experience of running a coalition, no reputation of a team leader, very little tolerance to dissent, and a muscular, unidimensional vision of India that excludes large segments of the citizens of this country.”

It is worth arguing that as India’s most powerful prime minister, Indira Gandhi too began with no expertise in running the country and her tolerance to dissent or reputation as a team leader are entirely questionable. Her cabinet was often depicted as a gathering of “yes men” with rubber stamp heads.

A leader can have his or her style of functioning; what matters are the results delivered. There is evidence to support Modi’s achievements as an efficient administrator and chief minister into his fourth term; to challenge this record wouldn’t be as easy as it is to brand him as the kingpin of anti-Muslim pogroms.

It is worth pondering whether Vajpayee would have approved of Modi as a prime ministerial candidate? If Vajpayee as prime minister allowed Modi to continue as chief minister in the aftermath of the Godhra riots, there is reason to believe that this secular face of the BJP would find Modi acceptable for the top post.

There is also no denying that Modi has his supporters among the Muslims in Gujarat and while this section is small, it cannot be considered insignificant.

India has had a history of communal violence since ancient times and the massacres and displacement during Partition were the worst in modern history. In recent times, the anti-Sikh riots of 1984, the ethnic cleansing of Kashmiri Pandits during the late 1980s and early 1990s and the communal clashes following the Babri Masjid demolition in 1992 and the Godhra train burning incident of 2002 take centre-stage. Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs suffered in these unfortunate clashes. Given the backdrop of frequent Hindu-Muslim clashes, it is noteworthy that no major communal riots have occurred since 2002.

The India of 2013 is different from the India of 2002. A mindset change is taking place and the youth of today—whether in the cities or villages—sees hope in entrepreneurship and self-employment. A prominent section among the Dalits is experimenting with Dalit entrepreneurship and the Dalit Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (DICCI) is receiving good support from industry and the Union government.

The people have seen through terrorism as a ploy to weaken India and create a rift among Hindus and Muslims. And yet, killing one another in the name of religion is the last thing on the minds of the people who see greater merit in pursuing peace and employment.

The anti-Modi hysteria and fear psychosis is being whipped up by political parties with sizeable Muslim followers such as the Congress, NCP, the Janata Dal (United) led by Nitish Kumar, Samajwadi Party led by Mulayam Singh Yadav and the Rashtriya Janata Dal led by Lalu Prasad Yadav. Playing the communal card is a time-tested formula for these parties.

There is no reason to fear that a rash of Hindu-Muslim riots will grip India if Modi succeeds at the national level. In fact, the best way to overcome our fears is to confront them head-on and for this larger goal, Modi needs to succeed at the 2014 polls.

Modi as prime minister will be the best test for Indian secularism. He will be forced to walk the extra mile, bend backwards to preserve and promote communal harmony and demonstrate good governance which he has been promising to the people.

The UPA which has been seeped in corruption faces no such compulsions. All it needs to do is raise its anti-Modi campaign to a hysterical, feverish pitch and enjoy power after winning the 2014 polls. It is time that India wakes up and gives an opportunity to Narendra Modi.

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