The Modi business

Mr Modi’s politics has evolved not because his soul has undergone a transplant... The reason is more down-to-earth and mundane.

Depending on how you saw him, George Wallace was one of the most colourful, charismatic or controversial politicians in the turbulent America of the 1960s. A native of Alabama, in the racially divided south of the country, he began life as a liberal but lost his first election because his opponent successfully projected him as somebody out of tune with local (white) convictions and prejudices. Wallace then adopted a harder persona and was elected the Democrat governor in 1963. Eventually, he was to serve four terms as Alabama’s highest-ranked public official.

In his early terms, Wallace was a segregationist, the nasty face of Jim Crowism. He opposed the civil rights movement, shrugged his shoulders at racial violence. In one chilling incident, four black schoolgirls were killed when a bomb exploded outside a church in the city of Birmingham. Was Wallace guilty of this bombing? No. Did he feed upon the mood? Yes.
Wallace was loved by his people, demonised by those he dismissed as “pointy-headed pseudo-intellectuals”. He was America’s 1960 version of the Narendra Modi of 2002. The only difference was his adversaries took him on politically, not by legal subterfuge. There was no American equivalent of Teesta Setalvad. Wallace’s rival party did not prop up activists and propaganda machines to project him as being directly responsible for, for example, the horrific killings of those schoolgirls in Birmingham, which he was certainly not.
The evolution of Wallace’s politics — the afterlife, as it were, of his polarising career in the mid-1960s — was equally noteworthy. In 1983, Wallace was elected for his final term by a surging black support. He had made his peace with the community, was one of the African-American citizen’s biggest champions, and offered blacks an unprecedented quantum of jobs in his administration. He still attacked the liberal-Left, this time for being anti-religion and pro-big
Today, Wallace is dead. The Wallace coalition — old white Southerners, now mobilised by Baptist churches and joined by religious blacks — is very much alive. In 2004, it helped George W. Bush win a famous victory.
Why did Wallace change from, frankly, racist to integrationist? He reacted to market conditions. He realised the political framework had evolved, the popular pulse was different, and sought to tailor his politics to new realities and to a “new South”.
The Wallace of 1963 was defeated not by legal means — or by hyperventilating talking heads hurriedly recounting mid-20th century German history — but by the wondrous nature of democracy. This is a system that ensures you cannot ignore some of the people all of the time. It forces evolution upon a politician, any politician.
The Wallace story is worth citing in a week in which the Special Investigation Team (SIT) appointed by the Supreme Court to study 10 egregious cases of violence in Gujarat in 2002 — and also make an assessment of the response of chief minister Narendra Modi — has submitted its report to the trial court. After the trial court has accepted or rejected the report, there will no doubt be an appeal to the Gujarat high court and finally the Supreme Court. As such, legal closure is some distance away.
The SIT report is in a sealed envelope but media leaks have already happened. If these are to be believed, the SIT has found no charges of conspiracy, deliberate acts of omission or commission and personal culpability against Mr Modi. This would be on expected lines. Two previous probes, too, have found no truth in the charges groups of activists have levelled against Mr Modi.
So will the matter end once and for all? Should the courts exonerate Mr Modi, will his critics take a deep breath and move on — as he has from those rhetoric-laden days of 2002? “Moving on” does not mean no justice should be done. It does not mean the 59 Hindu pilgrims killed on that train in Godhra and the 1,200 odd Gujaratis, many of them Muslim, murdered in the violence that followed should be forgotten or that their killers should not be tracked down and punished. It does mean, however, that the investigative, legal and judicial process must be carefully separated from manipulation and misuse.
Mr Modi’s politics has evolved since 2002. This is not because his soul has undergone a transplant or he has had some spiritually transformative experience. The reason is more down-to-earth and mundane. As a pragmatic politician, Mr Modi has long realised a summer’s emotions — emotions he did not manufacture but did exploit — cannot sustain him forever. As such, he has expanded his appeal — to good governance, economic growth, welfarism, the politics of aspiration, with dollops of Gujarat identity.
It is telling that the politics of Gujarat 2002 is not recalled by Mr Modi. He has no use for it, just as the George Wallace of 1983 had no use for the politics of 1963. Rather the politics and tragedy of 2002 has become a force of sustenance and a career opportunity for the motley bunch of celebrity-activists who have made an industry of the hate-Modi campaign. If he were to disappear off the face of the Earth tomorrow, they would be orphaned and out of business. Mr Modi is an exceptional politician; his opponents pray for his long life.
As such, it has become the interest of such groups to perpetuate 2002, not as a horror that must never happen again but as a self-serving enterprise. They will never allow it to die because that will leave them bereft of a
perverse professional identity.
Already there are signs of the next stage of this cynical project. R.K. Raghavan, former director of the CBI and head of the SIT, is recognised as a retired police officer of unimpeachable integrity. He was chosen by the Supreme Court for the Gujarat inquiry. So far nobody has doubted his credentials. Now the rumours and the whisper campaigns have started: of his supposed bias, of his alleged corporate connections. In the coming week, expect these to intensify.

The writer can be contacted at

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