TIMELY MEDITATIONS- The SIT report clears all legal obstacles to Modi's career
There are politicians who acquire fame because of the media; there are others who thrive in public life despite it. In recent times, few politicians have been the subject of sustained scrutiny and unrelenting media hostility as the chief minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi. Ever since Gujarat was gripped by large-scale communal rioting following the arson attack on kar sevaks returning from Ayodhya by the Sabarmati Express in February 2002, Modi has been relentlessly pilloried by an alliance of activists, leftists, liberals and the media for his supposed role in the disturbances. Indeed, in certain circles it has become obligatory to describe him as a 'butcher' or 'mass murderer', and to banish him from membership of the human race.
So, it was last Tuesday when the findings of the report of the Supreme-Court-appointed special investigations team were made known to a magistrate's court in Ahmedabad. No sooner was it known that the SIT had found no evidence to recommend the criminal prosecution of Modi in the Gulberg Housing Society killings than a vocal section of the media began giving full play to the activists who had doggedly pursued the case. The English-language TV that has taken paid-up membership of the jihad against Modi couched its indignation over the SIT findings with broad hints that the report had wilfully overlooked evidence.
The disappointment over this most recent failure to 'nail' Modi is understandable. Ever since he turned the tables on his opponents by equating the vicious personal attacks to the vilification of Gujarat, the opponents of the Gujarat chief minister have more or less abandoned serious attempts to defeat him in an electoral encounter. Instead, the anti-Modi campaign has concentrated its energies on getting judicial strictures passed against him and thereby disqualifying him from the electoral battle altogether.
The legal battles were complemented by a larger campaign to project Modi as an extremist, not only within his own party but in society. After the US decision to deny him a visa, the anti-Modi campaign sought to portray the chief minister as a narrow-minded and self-centred bigot. Even if Modi reigned supreme in Gujarat, he would be regarded as a pariah in the rest of the country and, indeed, the world.
The campaign yielded some results. In the election of 2004, for example, a subterranean mobilization using the imagery of the riots in the Muslim clusters of northern and eastern India was responsible for the en-bloc minority vote against the National Democratic Alliance. Today, the argument that the presence of Modi would trigger a monumental gang-up of disparate forces opposed to him is preventing the Bharatiya Janata Party from giving the chief minister a larger role in national politics.
There was another unstated agenda. Writing in the Guardian in November 2005, shortly after President George W. Bush had appointed a number of conservative judges to the American supreme court, the American feminist writer, Naomi Wolf, had argued that Washington society would blunt the rough edges of their proclivities. The judges, she wrote, "are people who live in and cannot help but respond to the bigger cultural shifts of their time. I believe in the power of this cultural shift around us to move even the judiciary: institutions are made up of human beings, and no one likes being looked at with contempt at dinner parties."
The fear of being shunned socially does affect professional decision-making. In a polemically astute study of "how the Left lost its way" published in 2007, the British journalist, Nick Cohen, addressed a larger question: why is the media guided by the herd instinct? Citing a study by the Columbia Journalism Review on why reporters practice self-censorship, Cohen arrived at an interesting conclusion: peer pressure. "What matters to most people in work is the status accumulated by the approval of colleagues. If the pack is howling off in one direction, very few journalists want to break ranks and head off on their own."
A reason why a recent Time cover featuring Modi (in its Asia edition) and favourable reports by the Sydney Morning Herald, Brookings Institute and Washington Postgenerated so much chatter was the domestic media outrage over foreign journalists defying the prevailing 'groupthink'.
So sustained has been the political and media onslaught against Modi that lesser beings would have wilted. The irony is that far from destroying Modi politically and reducing him to the fringe status of, say, Alabama's George Wallace or France's Jean Marie Le Pen, he is being increasingly seen as the Indian equivalent of Vladimir Putin — loathed and despised by some but hailed as a necessary strong man by others. If opinion polls are any guide, his appeal outside Gujarat is steadily rising.
Modi's ability to survive this sustained ordeal owes considerably to his ability to gradually shift the terms of discourse. There is little doubt that in the assembly election of 2002, held barely nine months after the bloodletting, Modi projected himself as an upholder of an assertive Gujarati Hindu identity. However, since that election, he has focussed single-mindedly on economic growth and improving the quality of governance in the state. His no-nonsense style, ruthless attachment to efficiency and his reputation for incorruptibility has been contrasted to a political class that has yet to fully grasp the implications of economic resurgence on public life. Without his tangible achievement in making Gujarat the fastest growing state of the Indian Union and his ability to translate that success electorally, Modi would have been a pushover in the face of the very powerful forces pitted against him.
Modi did not confront his detractors headlong over the 2002 riots; he chose to outflank them by creating a parallel constituency based on his awesome record in governance.
If the SIT report has the potential of ending all speculation over the personal culpability of the chief minister in the riots, its timing could not have been more opportune. The post-riots inquisition has not influenced the polls in Gujarat since 2002 and the assembly election scheduled for the end of the year will probably be no different. Society in Gujarat is inclined to look upon the 2002 events as a nightmare that must not be allowed to recur. There is a perception that old wounds must not reappear and vitiate the atmosphere. By refusing to compartmentalize the Gujarati people into communal blocs, Modi has played to this general desire to move on and focus on livelihood.
However, the SIT report is calculated to play a role outside Gujarat. First, it is certain to lead to a clamour within the dispirited BJP to accord a greater national role to Modi after he once again proves his mettle in Gujarat later this year. Secondly, with Manmohan Singh floundering and Rahul Gandhi yet to demonstrate his leadership skills, the Indian Establishment has begun to scour the landscape for a leader with the capacity to check drift and address governance in a purposeful way. Modi's name as the man India awaits is already being spoken in hushed tones. If it is now demonstrated that there are no legal obstacles to his political career, it is entirely possible that the whisper could become an echo — in the same way as Vajpayee's did after 1996.
This is not to suggest that the formidable opposition to Modi will wilt. On the contrary, we may witness a hardening of positions and an increase in the decibel levels of shrillness — sure signs that those who once dominated the discourse are now threatened and vulnerable. Sooner rather than later, the media too will begin to hum a different tune.