The need for a strong storyline often leads the media to jump the gun.
On Monday, when the Supreme Court said it would cease monitoring the Gulbarg Society case, all it was saying was that the case can now resume on the basis of the final report of the Special Investigation Team (SIT) headed by former CBI director RK Raghavan.
The lower court will now decide if Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi should be a co-accused in the Gulbarg Society case, where a former Congress MP, Ehsan Jafri, and scores of others were killed by a Hindu mob bent on arson and murder. The Gujarat court will now decide on his fate based on the evidence presented by the SIT, and the comments made on it by the amicus curae, Raju Ramachandran. While SIT said there was no provable case against Modi, the amicus curae apparently felt there were some holes in SIT's analysis.
However, the big questions being raised on TV shows were not about how the case would proceed, but whether Modi had won in the Supreme Court and whether it would now aid his prime ministerial ambitions. Modi himself did not contribute to clarity when he tweeted "God is great," and his party claimed the Supreme Court's decision as a "vindication" of Modi, proof of his innocence.
Whoa, slow down.
It’s simply too early to jump to these conclusions, for Modi still has to win many political and court battles, several hurdles to cross. Even if he does cross them, he has to win the battle for public perceptions before he can claim to be a real contender for the country's top job.
There are several ifs and buts to this. If the lower court allows the SIT to charge-sheet him, Modi’s image will take a knock and he will be fighting like any other common criminal. If it does not, that still leaves him with his current dented image.
The second 'if' relates to the next Gujarat assembly elections in 2012. Everyone is assuming that he will win it, but anything can happen between now and end-2012. If things go wrong in the court battle, or something else happens to dent Modi's popularity (corruption cases unveiled by the Lokayukta, a major terror strike in the state), he may see his overwhelming majority waning.
To retain his prime ministerial ambitions, he will not only have to win the assembly elections, but win it big. If he merely hangs on by the skin of his teeth, even the BJP will opt for a different candidate. No one can hope to be PM if he can't deliver votes from his home state.
That’s when Modi will face the third big 'if'. Will he still be seen as someone who can pull a diverse coalition together, given his divisive image? This hurdle cannot be crossed unless we recognise two big Indian realities.
One, the public will always hold the BJP to a higher standard of secularism than any other party because of its ideological moorings in Hindutva. For the same crime, other parties will not face the same kind of demonisation by the media and rival political formations. This is why a Manmohan Singh apology for 1984 is well accepted, but not an LK Advani apology for what happened in Ayodhya in 1992. This is why even if Gujarat’s Muslims are doing better than Bihar’s or Bengal’s, no one will take this as evidence of Modi's secular attitude.
Secondly, the real truth probably is that Modi is a Hindu Jinnah: secular to the core, but not above using the communal card for the sake of political power. Indians want to believe that Jinnah was communal. Advani's secular certificate to Jinnah only hurt him. In the case of Modi, the secular mafia wants to see him as communal. This is why Modi gets no credit for running Gujarat without any communal incidents over the last decade (after 2002) while the Left Front's attack on Muslims in Nandigram and Bihar's pathetic treatment of Muslims under Lalu Prasad earn them no opprobrium.
Modi faces an additional issue — a self-created one. He has completely misread the need to reinvent himself. In recent years, he had made a shift from macho Hindutva (which brought him to power) to becoming a development messiah. This may be important, but Modi’s reinvention cannot happen without a direct reference to 2002. His reinvention has to relate to the events of that year because Gujarat is now the reference point for all discussions on communalism.
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This may be a trifle unfair, but one can’t quarrel with reality. Godhra and Gulbarg Society happened in the TV age; 1984 and Bhagalpur did not. The Gujarat visuals and trauma can be replayed till there is closure. Godhra happened during the BJP’s watch, not Congress’. Hence, it is doubly foolish for Modi to presume it can be wished away by playing the development card.
Worldwide, Islamic radicalism now finds as much sustenance from the Gujarat narrative as anti-Americanism and the Palestinian cause. Gujarat has become a rallying cry for South Asia’s Muslims, and there is no way one can wish this away in secular India’s competitive vote-bank politics.
The Modi dilemma can thus be put simply: the same thing that wins him Hindu votes in Gujarat costs him nationally when the Muslim vote consolidates against him (and the BJP). To be a vote-merchant, Modi has to win a disproportionate share of the Hindu vote – which anyway does not exist outside Gujarat – to counter the potential consolidation of the Muslim and minority votes against him. This is not just improbable, but totally undesirable, given the obvious danger it can pose to national unity and community relationships.
So, even if the court cases against him fail to nail him, Modi is not a credible candidate for the prime ministership in 2014. Unless, two other things happen.
Option One is for Modi to build a direct relationship with Gujarat’s Muslims by apologising for what happened in 2002 and taking constructive blame for it. Even assuming he did not, as IPS officer Sanjiv Bhatt alleges, ask the police to turn a blind eye to the killing of Muslims post-Godhra, no one will believe him since he "benefited" from the Hindu vote consolidation after the riots and continued to gain from it even in 2007.
The only other way an unrepentant Modi can gain is if there is a huge catastrophe of the 9/11 kind just before the next election. In such a scenario – god forbid – there is a chance that people will look for a strong leader, and Modi automatically fits the bill. But even so, there is no guarantee he will win on his own, since there is still the problem of attracting coalition partners and regional players with their own minority vote banks to attend to.
Option One is clearly the only viable one for Modi. But here’s the dilemma: if he apologises in advance of a court victory, it will seem like he is admitting to his failures and strengthen the cases against him. If he does not apologise, he will continue to be vilified and face an even more intractable public image among minorities by 2014.
Updated Date: Sep 13, 2011 19:06 PM