Great speeches are alright, but it’s still difficult to buy the Narendra Modi 'transformation’ story. The difficulty level in assessing this story goes up sharply when the great Hindu joint family converts an ancient religious function to a political theatre to promote his case and when he promises a visiting European Union delegation that 2002 won’t repeat in Gujarat.
Senior BJP leader LK Advani’s transition from Hindutva hawk to senior statesman was much more believable and acceptable. At this point, not many independent political observers who have been critical of him earlier would grudge him being elevated to the status of Atal Behari Vajpayee in the nation’s political pantheon. Modi, on the other hand, remains open to questions. A lot about him is still unclear.
Why is it so? Well, it’s the past, and the past does not mean 2002 riots and the years following the tragedy. It goes much deeper. Anti-Modi intellectuals generally render their argument weak by making 2002 as the reference point while judging Modi.
It’s his past that makes Modi open to many interpretations, none entirely correct or incorrect. And the interpretations vary to a great extent depending on where one places him in time.
The observer following him since the days of the Ayodhya Ram Mandir movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s through the Gujarat riots of 2002 to the Gujarat elections of 2007 would always be suspicious of him. Here’s a pracharak, who, riding pillion on VHP leader Pravin Togadia’s two-wheeler, travelled the remotest villages in Gujarat to deliver the message of Hindutva for years.
As the Ram Temple movement gathered momentum and venom, he played the role of the perfect organiser, managing Advani’s massive pan-Indian road show among others and ensuring that the Hindutva heat, and hate, penetrated deep into the state.
At this point there was little to distinguish him from a Togadia, or a Uma Bharti or a Sadhvi Rithamabara. All made aggressive, flamboyant speeches and unabashedly contributed to the rising communal passions. In the process, all of them had carved strong identities for themselves as Hindutva hard liners, if not hot heads.
In the course of time, as Modi shifted into politics, sensing opportunity for himself at the top, he was intelligent enough to cash in on the solid Hindutva base he had created for the BJP in Gujarat along with people like Keshubhai Patel, Sanjay Joshi and Togadia in Gujarat.
Now, cut to 2002. Did anyone ever ask the question: Why has the blame for the riots of 2002 stuck to Modi and refuses to go away? Gujarat is no stranger to communal bloodbaths and it has been witness to riots under different governments and different leaders at different points in time. There have been failures of governments to contain riots earlier too. Why only Modi gets so much attention for his lapses?
No, it’s not the 'secular’ media or the hyperactive civil society going at his jugular. It’s his past that robs him of the benefit of the doubt and makes him the perennial suspect. If there are allegations of omission and commission against him during the riots, for many, these could be true. It’s the perception. And it’s the creation of Modi himself.
That’s one reason – there are many others - he won’t inspire trust in people who have been following him since the last two decades by 'transforming’ himself. The fact that he is backed so aggressively by the Hindutva groups for the prime minister’s job only reinforces the lack of trust in him.
Will he be able to take these groups on and follow a secular, liberal agenda that the country needs? Gujarat was a different story, but would the Hindutva groups allow him to ride roughshod over them again? Slim chance. The support of these groups should be an early warning signal for him.
Now, let’s come to the other time zone. People following Modi ever since the 'growth miracle’ in Gujarat started hitting the headlines from 2005 and thereabouts, would have a different perspective of the man. This was the time Modi was trying to live down his hard line Hindutva image and shift the talking point to something else more neutral and secular. It had to be economy, a subject so dear to the Gujaratis.
Soon, he was resorting to brilliant propaganda and clever public relations exercise to make the entire Gujarat economic success story exclusively his own. He was making a whole new bunch of people forget that the growth story he had so successfully appropriated had a history and context too and he as by means its only architect.
He has been a success so far. It shows in the number of his believers in the media and elsewhere. There’s nothing to be judgmental about it though. It’s only proper that an intelligent leader with ambition would reassess himself over time and re-project himself before the public.
In Gujarat, the concoction of Hindutva and claims of development has worked well. In the pan-Indian context, they need to be separated. There’s no sign yet that Modi has a plan in this direction.
However, coming back to the core question, is the transformation for real? Well, there be no single way to understand it. Modi renders himself to so many interpretations. Your final view depends on what you buy.