Modi’s Law

11 minute read
Alex Perry/Godhra

To twist his nation’s soul, Narendra Modi is first conquering its heart. He’s halfway through another 20-hour day on his “Journey of Pride” across the western state of Gujarat, India’s industrial powerhouse, and as everywhere, Modi is being mobbed. After a brief speech, he flops, sweating and exhausted, back into the passenger seat of his election campaign bus. The crowd won’t leave him alone, however. They reach in through the windows of the bus, heaping armfuls of orange marigold garlands and heady rose petals onto his legs. But his supportersfervent Hindus allaren’t taken with Modi because he is promising them lower taxes or better schools or more hospitals. Instead, Modi is appealing to a deeper core, calling on his supporters to ignite a fanatical faith in themselves and in the man they believe can lead them to national nirvana. As he surveys the hundreds jostling for one glimpse of him, one brush of his neat beard, even Modi is impressed. “Look at these people,” he remarks to a reporter. “They all want to touch me, hold me. It’s more than anything I could have dreamed of.”

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And more than anything India’s founding fathers could have imagined. To understand India’s politics today, and the highly combustible relationship between its Hindu majority and Muslim minority, you need to study, above all, the one man currently dominating one state. It was here, in the small Gujarati town of Godhra on Feb. 27 this year, that Chief Minister Modi was handed his mission statement when a mob set fire to a train, which resulted in 58 Hindu pilgrims being burned to death, sparking the worst religious riots the nation had seen for a decade. In the days and weeks that followed, Hindus armed with swords and barbed tridents rampaged through Gujarat. As Modi’s police force stood by, they torched Muslim shops, raped Muslim women, beheaded and disemboweled Muslim men, even cut an unborn child from the womb of one Muslim mother. According to human-rights groups, Hindus killed more than 2,000 Muslims and forced tens of thousands more to flee their homes. Now, back in Godhra where it all began almost 10 months ago, the 52-year-old Modi is well aware that his enraptured audience of thousands, packing markets and hanging from lampposts and rooftops, is sprinkled with these same looters, rapists and murderers. “Why are so many of you here?” he bellows. “Because the fire that burns in my heart is the same as the fire in yours.” For anyone missing Modi’s meaning, an overcome teenager in the front spells it out. “Kill the Muslim motherf_____s,” she screams.

Even the proudest patriot will admit that India’s boast of being a bastion of live-and-let-live harmony has always been something of a lie. Muslim frustration at discrimination and Hindu resentment of governmental assistance to minorities explode every few years in violence. But as the March riots raged on for weeks in Gujarat, they provoked particular alarm. While human-rights groups demanded Modi be tried for genocide, Hindu political parties, cultural groups and hordes of street demonstrators celebrated him as India’s great defender. From a political nobody, Modi was catapulted into the international limelight as the white-haired, bespectacled figurehead of Indian intolerance, a national Hindu hero. In headlines and debate, he instantly eclipsed all other leaders, even the Prime Minister from his own Bharatiya Janata Party (Indian People’s Party, or BJP), the moderate but aging Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Faltering from a lackluster record as head of the national coalition government in New Delhi, and from a series of local poll defeats that has left it ruling just three of India’s 28 states, the BJP rejected calls for the Chief Minister’s dismissal and instead announced snap state elections to capitalize on his winning notoriety. “He speaks directly to the people,” glows BJP general secretary Arun Jaitley. “He has become a folk hero.” Now the Dec. 12 ballot in Gujarat pits Modi against Shankersinh Vaghela, the candidate of the avowedly secular Congress Party. But the true choice is between two visions of India: imperfect but inclusive harmony, or strident, angry segregation. Both the BJP and Congress say their strategies for the 2004 general elections will be based on what some 50 million Gujaratis decide. For the BJP, it is a test of whether hate politics work and, as hard-liners see it, whether the party is being extreme enough. And for Congress, the result will determine if its platform of tolerance still has electoral merit. But with opinion polls hinting at a narrow Modi victory, supporters and detractors alike predict the Gujarati Chief Minister can only rise further within the BJP, perhaps to national government.

On the campaign trail, Modi’s message is that India, Hindus and Gujarat are all under attack. The persecutors? Terrorists, criminals, all Pakistanis (and President Pervez Musharraf in particular, whom Modi declares to be his true electoral opponent), Osama bin Laden, intellectuals, the media, “pseudo secularists,” communists and cow killers. He reserves particular venom for Congress leader Sonia Gandhi, the Italian-born widow of assassinated Premier Rajiv Gandhi. Her entire party sees the world through “Italian glasses,” he declares to loud laughs. But it’s an odd slight for a man who himself looks out from behind a pair of frameless Bulgaris from Milan. As the bus bounces over potholes into Gujarat’s flat, dusty plains, you begin to wonder how much of his own rhetoric Modi truly believes. All talk of Pakistan, terrorism and Hindus under threat vanishes in private. He sidesteps questions about official favoritism toward Muslims, a leading right-wing complaint. After vilifying madrasahs, Muslim lowlifes and the “Muslim-loving” Congress in his speeches, he even insists religion is not an electoral issue and plays down the violence that fueled his rise, declaring 98% of Gujarat unaffected. Perhaps most tellingly, though he speaks directly to the mob from the bus roof, he tries to shrink away from it, almost embarrassed, once he’s back in the bus. “It’s true, they are there, the Muslim haters,” he says, “but I welcome anyone who votes for the BJP. You can’t blame me for that.”

Even if Modi is just acting the part of a Hindu fanatic, there’s no doubt he is ridingand stokingHindu nationalism for political gain. The danger is that once Modi and the BJP hard-liners mount the tiger of hate politics, they cannot get off or, worse, cannot control it. BJP insiders admit that without any significant achievements for Modi to point to, either in Gujarat or across the country, his one hope lies in terrifying and cajoling Hindus into voting for the party that vows to jealously protect them, and them alone. Says childhood friend Jasud Pathan, a Muslim and a BJP organizer: “His job is to save the BJP, to save the government. And the only way to do that is to say these things about Muslims.”

Modi grew up in Vadnagar, a small town of 40,000 in the semiarid scrub about 200 kilometers from the Pakistani border. In many ways Vadnagar, like much of the rest of Gujarat, encapsulates the best of India. It is prosperous and progressive, a place where parents bring up their children as vegetarians and teetotalers and dreaming of being managers in the state’s western industrial belt. In its bazaar, Hindus and Muslims mix freely as neighbors and friends. There is little here to nurture hate in a young Hindu. But the people of Vadnagar remember two things about their most famous son. His startling abilities as an actor, taking lead roles in school plays and once writing and performing a one-man show. And his almost fanatical devotion, from the age of five, to the BJP’s parent organization, the secretive Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (National Volunteers Party, or RSS). Modi’s 86-year-old mother Hiraben recalls that her son couldn’t wait for the moment each day when he could change into his RSS cadet uniform of khaki shorts, white shirt and black cap and snap out smart salutes to a saffron flag. “He’d get up at 4 a.m., say his prayers and do the exercises the RSS had shown him,” she says. It was this same focus that would see him leave Vadnagar at 17 to study politics in Gujarat’s main city, Ahmadabad, returning only oncejust for a day30 years later. Embracing the spartan life of the devotee, he left his family and took nothing with him, not even his wife, Jashodaben, to whom he had been married as a child.

At university, Modi quickly joined the RSS’s student wing. At the time, the RSS and its fledgling political wing the BJP were on the fringe of India’s political scene. By 1984, the BJP had only two seats in Parliament. All that changed in the late 1980s with the advent of Indian TV’s first big hit show, Ramayana. The serialization of the legend of the god-king Rama set new lows for wooden acting and dismal special effectsand surprised everyone when it became a smash. Modi, by then a BJP press officer, wasn’t the only one who noticed. Party leaders Vajpayee and his hard-line No. 2 Lal Krishna Advani (now Deputy Prime Minister) saw an opportunity to put on a show of their own. They took one myth, that Rama had been born on the site of a once glorious temple at Ayodhya in northern India, and turned it into a rallying cry for all Hindu patriots. One of the cornerstones of the Hindu nation, read the press releases Modi distributed, had been lost when 16th century Islamic Mughal conquerors built a mosque over the temple’s ruins. The demolition of the mosque and the restoration of the temple was henceforth the core concern of virtually every Indian. A nationalist tide of wounded pride swept India. Tension between Hindus and Muslims soared. RSS membership hit 4.5 million, and the BJP burst onto center stage. In December 1992, in a spectacular demonstration of religious fervor, a crowd of Hindu demonstrators broke down fences protecting the mosque, climbed onto its three domes and, within hours, tore it apart brick by brick. It was a lasting lesson in the power of political theater.

In the event the BJP loses in Gujarat, many observers reckon that the national government will suffer a heavy and perhaps fatal blow. (“I give them only three months,” says a prominent Gujarati industrialist.) Advani in particular, as Modi’s champion, is expected to stand or fall with his protEgE. And for Vajpayee, a loss, for which he would be blamed by hard-liners irked by his moderating restraints, would be as bad as a win, for which these same hard-liners would take the credit. But for the country, the consequences of an upset could be little short of disastrous. With obvious mischief, Pravin Togadia, the firebrand international head of the s’s religious arm, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (World Hindu Council, or VHP), warns that what little control the BJP, or even he, exercises over the Hindu mob would evaporate if Modi were to lose on Dec. 12. “It will mean people are no longer prepared to defend themselves against Islam democratically,” he states. “The masses will take the law into their own hands; there will be civil war.” As the mascot of the far right, Modi benefits greatly from such political blackmail. “This is the start of something,” he says, gazing out at the crowds swarming around his campaign bus. “You can’t ignore this. It’s beyond a dream. This will sweep all India.” But as he speaks, you can’t tell if Narendra Modi really believes this. It could be just another act.

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