Beyond Wharton: Can Modi continue to ignore his critics?

The controversy surrounding  the Wharton India Economic Forum's 'disinvitation' to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is getting curiouser and curiouser. The unlikely beneficiary of the vacuum created by Modi's absence - or, should one say, virtual absence, since he was only going to be 'beamed in' as a video  image - is newbie politician Arvind Kejriwal, who has been offered a platform, such as it is, to hold forth with his economic worldview.

For Kejriwal, the curious twist of circumstances may seem a propitious metaphor for what he wishes to do in the political space in India: fill in the vacuum created when the 'big elephants'  fight. In the Delhi Assembly election, he is looking to do precisely that: ride the anti-incumbency factor against the Sheila Dikshit government, which the BJP appears not to have capitalised on as well as it ought to  have.

In any case, it  will be interesting to see how Kejriwal tailors his somewhat unrefined economic worldview - which seems calculated to out-Left the Left, so to speak - to an audience that, by its own admission, has a sneaking admiration for the "Gujarat model" of development under Modi. The contrast between the 'Modi model'  and Kejriwal's still-nebulous (and completely untested) developmental philosophy couldn't have been starker, and it's a fair bet that even in his absence, the 'idea of Modi' will hover over the Forum proceedings like an astral spirit.

Modi's critics will likely target him more virulently from here on. Reuters

Modi's critics will likely target him more virulently from here on. Reuters

In that sense, as Firstpost noted on Monday, the back-and-forth over the invitation to Modi has only played to his political advantage by allowing his party leaders and supporters to project him as a free-speech martyr who is being hounded by "wine-sipping limousine liberals" in the US who are completely disconnected from the emerging developmental discourse back in India. On television talk shows on Monday, BJP spokesperson Nirmala Seetharaman and party worker Kiron Kher were at their hectoring best, making repeated, forceful interjections against the initiators of the move to disinvite Modi from the Wharton Forum proceedings.

Even some of Modi's critics in India have been compelled to acknowledge that the disinvitation reeks of churlishness, and that Modi deserved to be heard - and perhaps have his record in office challenged.

Modi himself has not responded to all the chatter surrounding the Wharton Forum's about-turn. That's entirely in line with the image he has projected in recent years of someone who cares not one whit for the sustained criticism from his detractors - because he has a job to do. His vocal army of online supporters too portrays Modi as a sort of stately temple elephant on its perambulations, which will not allow itself to be perturbed by the excitable exertions of roadside canines.

It's a strategy that has worked well thus far, not least because Modi's critics - in the political space as well as in the media - haven't done a credible job of nailing him more forcefully to the riots of 2002 or even of stripping him of his developmental halo. If anything, it is the NGOs who claim to be working to secure justice for the riot victims who stand discredited today as money-minting operators from whom the victims themselves now want protection (as this report establishes).  Even the efforts to deny Modi any credit for having advanced Gujarat's development suffer from the convenient shifting of goalposts and the wilful overlooking of data that doesn't fit in with prejudicial hypotheses.

There are those who will, therefore, argue that Modi has nothing to account for for his government's role at the time of the riots of 2002. After all, he has been elected thrice over in Gujarat, each time with a convincing majority, and, more importantly, maintained communal peace for over a decade, a remarkable record in the State.  And, in any case, they point out, no riot in recent decades in India has resulted in as many convictions as the one in Gujarat.

Yet, as columnist Aakar Patel (who believes that the 'disinvitation' to Modi was an overreaction) pointed out on a CNN-IBN talk show, the backlash that Modi faced from left-liberal academicians in Ivy League US universities is symptomatic of what Modi can expect to face in the next  year or so as he spreads his wings to go national. Just as Modi is starting up his engines and is being embraced by his party, so too are his detractors, all over again. Even in the event that Modi becomes Prime Minister, reasons Patel, he will likely face protests wherever he goes. (That's true of virtually all elected leaders from around the world, though.)

And, of course, that has been compounded by the perception that Modi hasn't adequately addressed his government's inability to control the 2002 riots earlier than it did, or the allegation that it was complicit in the riots. In any case, the charges relate not just to 2002; even more recent Supreme Court observations - some as late as in 2012 - have called the Modi government  to account for going after police officers who have been trying to establish the government's culpability in the riots.

Modi's dilemma is that in the decade gone by, for all the visceral opposition he has faced, he has been able to persuade larger numbers of Indians that the campaign against him is motivated. He perhaps reckons, as do his supporters, that 2002 is a closed chapter and any move on his part to address it now would change the narrative that he has structured over the past decade, which is focussed on his record of development and governance.

In the end, it's a political calculation that Modi and his party need to make. For now, they seem to have reasoned that the caravan can proceed at a stately pace unmindful of the roadside critics. But the efficacy of that approach may be tested more virulently in the year ahead.