Thursday, August 11, 2011

The stench from Gujarat

A state known largely for its economic prosperity. A people known for their entrepreneurial spirit. Everything about Gujarat on the economic front is perfect. Gujarat continues to grow at more than 12% per annum – ahead of the country’s 8-9% figure. The Chief Minister of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, has been continuously rated one of the best performing CMs in the country. Even in the recently conducted CNN-IBN poll, Modi is rated in the top five CMs in the country. Why then, instead of the sweet smell of perfume, is this stench coming from this wealthy state?

I know Gujarat very well, having lived there for more than 20 years. Gujarat is a very prosperous state. The roads in Gujarat are probably the best in the country. Infrastructure in cities like Ahmedabad is way better than in even in Delhi/NCR. There is no power shortage. With the Narmada waters now coming to Ahmedabad, there is no shortage of drinking water. NRIs vote for the economic success of Gujarat by committing not thousands, but lacs of crores of investments every time Narendra Modi holds an investors meet. This explains why Narendra Modi has been elected three times in a row and is now in his 12th or 13th year as CM. My reading of the state tells me that at present, no one can dislodge Narendra Modi from the Chief Ministership. And yet, instead of everything being hunky-dory, there is so much stench that is coming from the state. People outside of Gujarat compare the state with Hitleresque Germany. Persecution of Jews has been replaced by the persecution of Muslims. Anyone who squeals on Modi is considered to be against the “asmita” of Gujarat. There is no room for any voice of dissent. There is no allowance for anyone censuring Modi. Modi is almost like Satan personified.

The biggest hit to anyone as a result of this image of Modi is to Modi himself. It’s hardly surprising that Modi is a total pariah outside of Gujarat. No one wants to touch him, except for the most “kattar” Hindu ideologues, for whom he is God. Nitish Kumar – a staunch BJP ally and CM of Bihar – was clear that he didn’t want Modi anywhere in Bihar for poll campaigning. If Modi has any aspirations of becoming the PM – as industrialists and die-hard BJP supporters want him to – then his imagery is going to come in the way of it. For most people outside Gujarat, Modi is anathema. Modi stands for all that is wrong with Hindutva. The posterboy for the hardliners is the most hated figurehead for the moderates.

The other person who has lost enormously by association with Modi is Advani. For years, Advani’s closest ally was considered to be Vajpayee. Yet, post Modi’s ascent to power in Gujarat and within the BJP, Advani’s closest ally was no longer seen to be the moderate and visionary Vajpayee. Suddenly, it was Modi. Modi got Advani elected from Gandhinagar. In the early days, Modi stuck his neck out for Advani. Later again, so much of Advani’s stature came from Modi. But Advani could never make it to PM. Advani was given the title of “Loh Purush”, but rather than it indicating a strong character, it became a huge burden for Advani to carry around. The hardliner image that this Loh Purush tag gave to Advani made him unacceptable to BJP’s allies. No surprises then that Advani has been at pains to show the moderate side of his personality. But herein lies the trap. In the world of marketing, it is called “falling between two stools”. He is no longer a moderate like Vajpayee; and he no longer a toughie like Modi.

The Muslims of Gujarat have been persecuted to no end. After Godhra, more than 150 Muslims from areas nearby the station were arrested under suspicion of having caused the train fire. Very few people may remember this, but a few months back, 90 of these were acquitted of all charges and released. They stayed behind bars for 9 years for no crime committed by them. Who is going to give them their 9 years back? Even the courts in Gujarat are tainted by the stigma of communalism. There is so much demand for Gujarat riot cases to be transferred out of the Gujarat HC.

But why limit this discussion to the Godhra riots only? We can talk of the brutal murder of Haren Pandya, a BJP leader who had ambitions stronger than Modi himself. I had seen Haren at close range. He was a college-mate of mine though much older in age. He was the firebrand BJP leader who rose to fame right in front of my eyes. When Haren Pandya was brutally murdered, it was not surprising that many fingers were pointed at Modi. Till date, Pandya’s father accuses Modi of having murdered his son. Why not talk about the Sohrabuddin fake encounter case, which eventually got Modi’s hand-picked Home Minister, Amit Shah in jail. Whatever the credentials of Sohrabuddin, it was the way that the matter was treated by Gujarat that raised the hackles of level headed people.

It’s really sad that a liberal and modern state like Gujarat has to suffer the ignominy of its CM’s US visa application being rejected repeatedly. There would be very few world leaders who would be meted out this treatment. What must be irking Modi is that every other family in Gujarat has someone or the other in the US. It is the Gujaratis who have made several towns in New Jersey look and feel like neighbourhoods “back home”. And yet, for Modi to visit the US is impossibility. Not only has Modi tarnished his own state’s image, he has also tarnished the image of India – a country known for its tolerance. How strange it must feel to the world that the state that gave birth to the world’s biggest proponent of non-violence – Gandhi – also gave birth to a man who comes closest to being described as Hitler anywhere in the world. Modi’s supporters like to compare him with Sardar Patel – but even if his administrative skills are as brilliant as Patel’s were – he will never be able to match up to the grand gujarati of the Indian freedom struggle….

There is simply no point in targeting the cops who are the whistleblowers in the Godhra case. They are whistleblowers and even the BJP is fighting for protecting whistleblowers in the Lokpal Bill. Forget this, Modi and the BJP owe an explanation to the nation as to why there is no Lok Ayukta in Gujarat in spite of the BJP being in power for the 3rd time in a row. The BJP must be worried about Modi. On the one hand, he is one of their strongest leaders. On the other, he’s becoming a burden. Having lost another strongman Yeddy in Karnataka, is it now going to be Modi’s turn to go? Is the Supreme Court going to implicate Modi? Will a hugely popular Modi be forced to step down from power under strictures from the highest court of the country?

One thing that’s clear to me as someone who knows Gujarat so well is that the Gujaratis are extremely proud of Modi. Any adverse commentary on Modi draws the ire of the entire Gujarati community. The same reasons that make Modi unacceptable outside Gujarat make him invincible within the state. Gujaratis are business minded people as everyone knows. They are happy to trade with Muslim traders – as long as the business is good. Yet when it comes to their own social proclivities, they tend to be anti-muslim. It is this sentiment that Modi has latched onto. It’s almost like the business community of Gujaratis has “outsourced” the handling of this sentiment to Modi. And Modi is smart enough to build on this. One remembers how an ad suddenly surfaced in one of the Ahmedabad papers before the state elections…..exhorting Muslims to unite and vote against the BJP. This obviously was exploited by the BJP to unite the Hindus behind Modi. There was rampant suspicion that the ad was planted by the BJP itself. Brilliant strategy but devastating consequences for society.

The real truth is that Gujarat doesn’t need this bad name. Modi doesn’t need this bad name. He is a very able administrator and he’s doing some awesome work. He doesn’t have to take this harsh Hindu stance. Even without that, he will rule for another few terms. Modi is a real tiger. For the benefit of all, let’s hope he can change his stripes….

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