Modi, law-and-order and Hindutva

Gujarat CM Narendra Modi has successfully cultivated the image of a no-nonsense, law-and-order enforcing politician among Gujarat voters. This image of Modi as a strong, decisive leader is what his BJP supporters hope will help him establish a foothold at the national level.

Modi’s role in the 2002 bloodshed continues to divide Gujaratis and Indians in general. While he remains repugnant to a large number of people, particularly Muslims, human rights activists and educated urbanites with liberal or leftist leanings, many others in the Hindu majority view his actions in 2002 favourably. Negative attitudes towards Muslims remain firmly anchored among Gujarati Hindus. Many feel that they, and not only the Muslim minority, are the true second class citizens of India because of the fringe fanatic rightwing brainwashing that Muslims are appeased.

Muslims often “stepped out of line,” prior to 2002, we often hear, demanding and receiving exceptional treatment by politicians who felt the need to placate them on the basis of perceived injustices carried out by the Hindu majority. That changed when Modi came to power in 2002, they say. While no one will openly condone the bloodshed of 2002, many Gujarati Hindus feel that Modi “put Muslims in their place.”

The BJP continues to echo these themes in its national political stance, especially over issues such as Hajj subsidies, the Muslim civil code, the singing of Vande Mataram, or other such religiously sensitive concerns.

Modi continues to support a Hindutva agenda in the state, with the recent passage of amendments to the state’s anti-conversion law being seen as a concession to his supporters on the Hindu right. Both supporters and critics of Modi confirm that the state government continues to use administrative tools to marginalize and ghettoize the Muslim minority.

At the same time, most interlocutors tell us that Modi cannot gain anything more by openly pursuing an aggressive Hindutva agenda. He already has the backing of those who applaud his firm stand against Muslims, and he risks alienating swing voters in Gujarat by being too openly communal. Modi understands that, outside of Gujarat, his role in the 2002 riots has damaged both his reputation and that of the state and the country at large.

He also realizes that outbreaks of communal violence in Gujarat will harm both his chances in the state and his stake of projecting himself as a national leader, and hence he has given law enforcement agencies clear instructions to act swiftly if violence breaks out, we have been told.

Several interlocutors cited Modi’s rapid reaction to the communal rioting in Vadodara in May as proof of his new strategy. Modi allowed federal army troops to establish order, and he even visited hospitalized Muslim victims of the riots in an attempt to portray himself as a leader of all Gujaratis.

Views remain divided on whether Modi’s leadership style will help or harm him if he enters national politics. In public appearances, Modi can be charming and likeable.

By all accounts, however, he is an insular, distrustful person who rules with a small group of advisors. This inner circle acts as a buffer between the Chief Minister and his cabinet and party. He reigns more by fear and intimidation than by inclusiveness and consensus, and is rude, condescending and often derogatory to even high level party officials. He hogs power and often leaves his ministers in the cold when making decisions that affect their portfolios.

His abrasive leadership style alienated much of the state BJP leadership in 2005. He was able to quell their subsequent rebellion by branding them as corrupt opportunists who were angry because he denied them the tools of political patronage and corruption. Modi enjoys the support of most MLAs in the state because they understand his popularity with voters. His leadership, however, style has created many enemies within the state party.

Meanwhile, Gujarat High Court fixed April 22 for the next hearing on whether Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi should be summoned by the Nanavati-Mehta panel probing the 2002 communal riots in the state. Petitioner Mukul Sinha of Jan Sangharsh Manch concluded his arguments and counsel for the state government sought time to argue the matter.

Appearing before the bench comprising Chief Justice S.J. Mukhopadhaya and Justice Akil Kureshi, Sinha said that the court had the jurisdiction to direct the commission of inquiry to quiz the chief minister. The court earlier asked both the parties as to whether it could direct a commission of inquiry in any manner.

Sinha said that questioning of Modi, other ministers and police personnel by the commission was essential as failing to do so would defeat the purpose behind the inquiry. Sinha earlier moved an application before the Justices (retired) Nanavati-Mehta inquiry commission to summon Modi and others over their alleged role in the riots. 

This article appeared in The Milli Gazette print issue of 1-15 April 2011 on page no. 10

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