Wilfull blindness: The art of misreading Parrikar on Modi

The blind cannot see, but wilfull blindness seems important to many people, including sections of the media. A case in point is the interview given by Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parrikar to The New York Times that talks, in passing, about 2002 and Narendra Modi’s responsibility for it.

What got picked up and highlighted – with much tut-tutting by card-carrying secularists – was Parrikar’s statement that 2002 was a blot on Modi’s record. This part of his statement was, in fact, a tiny portion of the interview and it reads: “It (2002) should not have happened, the administration should have clamped down on any violence, [If I were in his place] I would have ensured…but Modi was new to the job as chief minister. It was a blot on Modi’s career…”.

The question is: was Parrikar really criticising Modi or merely stating facts as he saw them?

I suggest that this is what anyone would have said, when asked the same question. Who would say 2002 was a great thing to happen? Who would not assign some responsibility to whoever was at the helm at that time? Even Modi has said if he was guilty of anything, “please hang me.

The misreading of Parrikar’s argumental thrust shows how vulnerable we are to our own biases. In a short interview of seven questions published by the NYT, even the balancing parts of the answer to the same question got de-emphasised. And the more important parts of the Q&A, including parts referring to Modi and his popularity, got lost in the heat and dust generated by the singular focus on 2002.

Thus, The Times of India chose to headline the interview, “Gujarat riots blot on Modi’s career.” DNA chose to tomtom Parrikar’s alleged boast that he would have done better than Modi in 2002. Firstpost didn’t manage anything different either. The Indian Express offered better balance: even while highlighting the "blot" part of the statement, it emphasised Parrikar's point that Modi need not apologise.

Parrikar has only endorsed Modi not criticised him. AFP

Parrikar has only endorsed Modi not criticised him. AFP

Consider how the NYT itself headlined the item: “A conversation with: Goa CM Manohar Parrikar”, in the India Ink  section of its website. (Read the full NYT interview here).

Now, let’s read some more of what Parrikar actually said about 2002 while answering the same question about the post-Godhra riots. He begins by specifically saying that Modi cannot be blamed for it fully, and that he does not even need to make an apology. “Administrative failure does not mean everything is blamed on one man, Narendra Modi. What happened then was unfortunate, but that does not require his apology, it requires his correction and he has done that. There were many reasons why people lost control in 2002 after the dead bodies (of Hindu pilgrims from an earlier attack)] were shown on TV.” (Italics mine)

More importantly, Parrikar is not coy in calling a spade a spade and points out that people believe in targeting Modi because they are afraid of his popularity. He said: “People who oppose him do so because they fear him.”

And just in case you think this is par for the course, Parrikar, in his previous question, makes no bones about the fact that Modi is the man to lead the BJP to victory.

Asked about his own candidature and the BJP’s prospects in 2014 given that it does not have too many allies, Parrikar first rules himself out and then suggests that Modi may, in fact, swing a huge majority for the BJP. He said: “There is a 5 to 6 percent vote swing in favour of the BJP, and if you map our party’s demographic, then we have the possibility of winning in 330 to 340 seats (above the 272 majority mark, and enough to ensure Mr Modi as prime minister).

Does this sound like Parrikar is baiting Modi, or that he is in the anti-Modi camp? A more interesting headline for the Parrikar interview would have been “Goa CM predicts 330 seats for BJP in 2014”. That would be saying something new, not the tired old accusations about 2002.

Parrikar also explains why the mood may be swinging towards Modi: “Today the scenario in the country is a (Congress party-led) regime that is not delivering, a regime where the prime minister (Manmohan Singh) is seen as a lameduck. The government has to be pragmatic and get things done, but this government is incapable of doing it, it’s in a perpetual state of suspension. In these circumstances, particularly young people see an alternative model in Modi, and if they want him as prime minister they will have to elect his local representative….I believe a national mood is forming to put the BJP in power and Modi as prime minister.”

An even more interesting headline, in fact, would be about what Parrikar thinks about the term “Hindu nationalist” – a term for which Modi was routinely pilloried.

Parrikar was asked: “You are seen as the moderate face of the Hindu right, but where do you see yourself ideologically? Are you a Hindu nationalist?”

His reply: “I am a perfect Hindu, but that is my personal faith, it has nothing to do with government. India is a Hindu nation in the cultural sense..A Catholic in Goa is also Hindu culturally, because his practices don’t match with Catholics in Brazil, except in the religious aspect, a Goan Catholic’s way of thinking and practice matches a Hindu’s. So Hindu for me is not a religious term, it is cultural. I am not the Hindu nationalist as understood by some TV media – not one who will take out a sword and kill a Muslim. According to me that is not Hindu behaviour at all. Hindus don’t attack anyone, they only do so for self-defense -  that is our history. But in the right sense of the term, I am a Hindu nationalist.”

In short, when Modi says he is a Hindu nationalist, we think the worst of him, but when Parrikar says more or less the same, with different nuancing, he is a moderate Hindu, a secular Hindu.

The media has also been busy reporting how there is an anti-Modi camp comprising LK Advani, Sushma Swaraj and Shivraj Singh Chouhan of Madhya Pradesh, but the last-named anti-Modi camper has already tweeted that he does not oppose Modi’s candidature.

As for the other two, they make a psychological difference to the BJP’s internal dynamics, but will have no veto on the party’s final decision on naming Modi as its PM candidate, or impact the party's poll prospects. The national mood, as Parikkar explains, is about Modi, and even if Advani campaigns against Modi, it won’t dent the BJP. People will see through the game of trying to suddenly glorifying Advani, once seen as the villain of 1992, just to spite Modi.

The only people whose views count are those of the BJP's chief ministers, who worry not about Modi’s prime ministerial ambitions, but his early projection, which will then reduce their own stature in their poll-bound states. Remember, Chouhan, Vasundhara Raje and Raman Singh are fighting highly local battles, and conversion of the vote into a national referendum on Modi does not help them at all.

Or, at least, they think so. The media is unable to see what they are really trying to say, and imagines that there is a huge anti-Modi plananx inside the BJP. Sure, there is resistance, but this is the resistance of the weak and irrelevant. Papers tigers were not meant to roar. They will melt away sooner than you can say Narendra Modi.

LIVE