February 11, 2007, Hindustan Times,
Narendra Modi’s recent removal from the BJP’s central parliamentary board and the central election committee was greeted by the media and political commentators in the same way as one would look at a coup or the fall of a tyrant. Theories abound as to why the self-styled and ambitious Hindu hridaya samrat (Emperor of the Hindu heart) had incurred the wrath of Rajnath Singh and the leadership of the RSS. While Modi’s political fortunes within his party were being discussed, there was the delicious irony of Gujarat film distributors refusing to screen Parzania, a film based on the communal conflagration of 2002.
There is a disturbing lesson in all this about the way the media and the Indian middle-class perceive events in the country. In 2004, the Supreme Court had called the Gujarat government led by Modi a bunch of “modern-day Neros”, who were guilty of looking elsewhere when “Best Bakery and innocent children and helpless women were burning”. The judgment went a step further by commenting that these modern-day Neros were “probably deliberating how the perpetrators of the crime can be protected”.
While little has still been done to bring the instigators of the Gujarat pogrom of 2002 to book, the memory of these terrible riots seem to matter these days only to the actual victims and a bunch of human rights activists. The mantra of the middle-class is that what happened cannot be undone and, hence, we must move ahead. Move ahead towards what? To the regressive idea that taming, disciplining and chastising Modi is the business of the BJP and the RSS. This is an idea that even the Opposition party in Gujarat, the Congress, seems to have accepted.
Having accepted the idea that Modi is not a national ‘problem’, and having localised Modi’s agenda to Gujarat at one level, and his party at another level, it gives the Gujarat Chief Minister licence to further his jehadi Hindutva mission. Emboldened by this apathy and moral bankruptcy, Modi turns every criticism against him to his advantage. Every issue, from Narmada to the resettlement of riot victims, is branded by Modi as an effrontery to the people of Gujarat. He also manages to target Muslims by assuming the role of an inflamed nationalist, who seems to articulate issues such as terrorism, Pakistan’s role in promoting terror in India, Afzal’s hanging, the Sachar report, affirmative action for Muslims and internal security, without actually naming the Muslim community.
At some point after the infamy of 2002 was seen to be difficult to wash away, Modi’s spin doctors sought to project him as the sole champion of Right-wing economics. The Vibrant Gujarat summit in January this year was a step in this direction. It saw an influx of all the top corporate leaders flocking to Gujarat and extolling the virtues of Modi. One of them called Modi a “dynamic visionary”, while another unlikely admirer of the Gujarat Chief Minister went as far as to suggest that “you are a fool if you are not in Gujarat. The pragmatism and charisma characterised by Modi’s leadership has touched all of us”. The centrepiece of this summit was Modi’s promotion of SEZs which, in a corny turn of phrase, the ‘dynamic visionary’ explained stood for spirituality, entrepreneurship and zeal. In other words, reactionary Hindutva, technocratic-managerialism and hyper nationalism were the key concepts doled out at the summit.
It wasn’t merely the colour of money that sent top corporate bosses rushing to Modi. Their attitude partakes of the same middle-class affliction that views reality in neat compartments. In this way, the mind does not have to deal with complex moral issues. Even after the 2002 carnage in Gujarat, the Indian industry did not necessarily cover itself in glory. Jamshed Godrej and Rahul Bajaj had made references in a CII meeting in 2003 to the post-Godhra carnage in Modi’s presence. Modi had reacted by saying that the CII was doing injustice to Gujarat and challenged ‘pseudo-secularists’ to a debate on the situation in Gujarat.
Soon after this meeting, CII President Tarun Das met Modi and apologised to him for having “hurt his feelings”. As if this was not enough, the then Ficci bosses, Amit Mitra and A.C. Muthiah, went to Gandhinagar a week after Tarun Das’s visit and met Modi to declare “mutual trust in each other”. In an evocative phrase, the Federation of Gujarat Industries president called the post-Godhra carnage as “one such event” that had little bearing on the investment climate in Gujarat. This was in February 2003. The Vibrant Gujarat summit in January 2007 is merely the logical culmination of this indifference to justice and the rule of law.
All this confirms a hunch: education, refinement and wealth will always remain impervious to criminal irrationality. Delivering the Gifford Lectures in 1990, the philosopher, George Steiner, suggested that “refined intellectuality, artistic virtuosity and appreciation, scientific eminence will collaborate actively with totalitarian demands or, at best, remain indifferent to surrounding sadism”. He goes further to suggest that “resplendent concerts, exhibitions in great museums, the publication of learned books, the pursuit of academic research, both scientific and humanistic, flourish within close reach of the death-camps”. He could have added censorship, burning of books, banning of films and hounding of dissenters to the list. Modi’s Gujarat exemplifies this and more. It is a move to a new kind of medievalism, one that pursues a reactionary agenda with the help of technology and the middle-class fad of efficiency.
There is another reality out there which, of course, could upset Modi’s calculations. Hence, there is little discussion of the reverses suffered by BJP-supported candidates in village panchayat elections in January this year. And who knows, all the ‘vibrant Gujarat’ hype might meet the same fate as the India Shining campaign of 2004. It might even go the way of N Chandrababu Naidu’s Golden Andhra Pradesh dream, and dissolve into nothingness. Whatever be the fate of individuals, the victims of 2002 deserve justice so that we can call ourselves civilised.