Narendra Modi is trying very hard to show that he has turned. He has been meeting Muslim intellectuals – and even hugging them! – to prove that. He is also trying to show that he is not autocratic, but believes in discussions, debates, differences in viewpoints and the like. Well, two stories in the papers today offer Modi a chance to prove himself. One is that of VHP hooligans vandalizing an art exhibition featuring Pakistani artists. The other is about 5000 villagers protesting against the Modi government’s decision to give away agricultural land (wrongly calling it revenue “wasteland”) to Maruti for setting up its plant there. Will Modi seize this opportunity?
Will he deploy his state’s police to ferret out the VHP’s trouble makers? And show them that there is no place for vandalism, no matter who the perpetrators? Or will he just put up a sham search, and forget the issue, giving friendly VHP a happy escape? He is accused of doing the VHP’s bidding in 2002, when he allegedly looked the other way after the Godhra incident. Does he have it in him to take on the VHP now? There is the temptation to just take advantage of the sentiment against Pakistan, especially in a city like Ahmedabad. He can project going easy on the VHP as proof of his “hardline” policy against the neighbor. His PR machinery can exploit this to the hilt. After all, in today’s surcharged political environment, who cares for a little liberal cultural mindset, a little fineness in differentiating between troops and artists? It’s a great opportunity to flaunt “nationalism” right? So what will he do?
And what about the protestors whose lands have been forcibly acquired by Modi’s government? In any other state, the government would have put a temporary stop to the project and started an enquiry.The government would hear the protestors out, maybe sweeten the monetary offer, search for alternate land for them…...something/anything that is expected in a democratic set-up. Or will Modi make Maruti a prestige issue? After all, some time back, when it decided to set up a plant outside its base in Haryana, and in Gujarat, it helped Modi show how Gujarat was more pro-industry than that Congress-ruled state. So how will Modi tackle these protests? In his trademark autocratic style or a new democratic way?
Just as a benchmark to measure Modi against, consider the recent protests against the Koodankulam nuclear power plant in TN. A bunch of protestors, numbering perhaps less than a thousand, held up the opening of the plant for more than a year. And this, when the plant was already completed; and when Rs 14000 crores had already been invested. Even as most of us fretted against the Center’s seeming dilly-dallying, and the state’s CM played politics (even though her state was ti be the biggest beneficiary), the central government deployed one negotiator after another to pacify the crowds. Even former President APJ Abdul Kalam was sent to meet them and reassure them that the plant was safe. The courts had the time to intervene too, hearing out one PIL after another. And even though there were clear signs that the protestors were being funded by external forces for their own reasons, the central government went through the painful, slow, frustrating process of trying to get everybody on board. It did not crush the agitation. This is how things work in a democracy. Things move slowly, but everybody is part of the decision.
Having set the benchmark, lets ask again: What will Modi do with these protestors? Will he have the patience to go through this democratic process? All his rabid supporters will no doubt want him to steamroll the protests and move ahead. That’s good governance after all, right? Taking quick decisions, and not letting anyone stall the work, is his style right? That’s how the Chinese do things, right? They decide on a deadline, and they deliver, no matter what? And Modi is like the Chinese, no? No, make that better than the Chinese. Not like the feeble West Bengal Left Front politicians, who couldn’t keep the Tatas in their state (and who he happily netted as well)? Not like the lame Maharashtra Congress/NCP leaders who are still negotiating with land owners at Jaitapur for setting up India’s biggest nuclear power plant right? Modi likes to project himself as decisive, right? Like Sardar Patel. His word is the writ of the state. Once Modi says something, consider it done. That’s his word to industry right? That’s why all corporate honchos like him right? So what will Modi do?
These two challenges will come in handy for Modi if and when he ascends the PM’s throne. He will realize that what worked in Gujarat, may not work outside. People outside Gujarat are a lot more politically conscious. Modi figured the pulse of the Gujaratis – his hardline stance against Muslims is a result of that – but the pulse of people outside pounds to a different beat. People have a voice. They want to be heard. They will not be cowed down. If it takes time, so be it. As and when, and if, Modi realizes this, and learns the lesson, he will understand why every state in India cannot grow as fast as Gujarat. And then, he may start to appreciate why the performance of other states, who hold democracy up – like Maharashtra, Haryana, Bihar, AP, Delhi, Orissa and others – is so credible. Why their growth, albeit a little slower, is so much more “inclusive”. It may puncture his development agenda a bit, but it will bolster his acceptability quite a lot.
The real truth is that Modi is so far used to a particular autocratic style in Gujarat. Muzzle the minorities. Brutalize Pakistanis. Condone VHP’s aggressive Hinduism. Trample farmer rights in the name of big industry. This style unfortunately doesn’t work outside Gujarat. This is a golden chance for him to change it….