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HomePoliticsGujarat Election 2017Merely angry, Left-secular activism can’t defeat Modi

Merely angry, Left-secular activism can’t defeat Modi

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By choosing fury over fact, delusion over reason, passion over politics, Modi’s enemies — beginning with the Congress — make Gujarat politics a one-horse race.

This ‘Writings on the Wall’ article by Shekhar Gupta was first published ahead of the 2012 Gujarat assembly elections.

What gives Narendra Modi such invincibility? Shall we call it a self-defeating conspiracy of the faithful? The entire community of Modi haters and baiters, political rivals and ideological questioners has driven itself into a hole, creating its own delusions and believing them. The only beneficiary in the process is the man they are fighting: Modi.

In more than a decade, the Congress has not politically challenged him, except through some brave civil society activists. But activists cannot defeat him politically or persuade his voters to change their minds. That is the job of politicians, not activists. Only lazy, defeatist political parties outsource such responsibility to civil society. Further, activists are usually single-issue people. Finding fault with everything Narendra Modi has done or claims, or simply calling it a fallacy, shows poor political judgement. Modi, in turn, spins it to his voters as an insult to them. Modi’s rivals keep talking to the media, courts and fellow believers. Nobody is talking to the voters of Gujarat.

Surely, Modi has given reason to truly secular Indians to be angry. But you cannot design a political response to him like that, by dismissing him as all evil. The other problem is, if you say that all his claims of growth and development are rubbish, then why are Gujaratis voting for him? Can you then go on to also hail the same people for the religious tolerance and liberalism that is said to have ruled their land pre-Modi? One accusation against Modi is that he is only a marketing person. But his rivals also need to realise the essential principle of marketing, that nothing fails more spectacularly than an obvious lie, no matter how passionately you state it. That is why, as we saw in part one of this series, the Congress questioning of Modi’s claims on power supply and industrial growth falls flat, and works in his favour.

Further, once you fall into this trap, you begin to invent and perpetuate your own convenient mythologies. That is why you ask a Congressperson their chances, and you are told, the cities are his, but in the villages we are very strong. So this will be a real fight. This overlooks the fact that Gujarat is our most urbanised large state — it qualifies, in fact, to be called rurbanised. Second, it presumes the villages are doing badly under him. But you do not check out the facts. Or check-dams, for that matter.

If the walls along the big highways are all of modern factories, you see “walls” of an entirely different kind in the drier parts of rural Gujarat, particularly in the regions with slopes and inclines, such as the tribal districts bordering Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. These walls are much smaller than those of the factories, and blank, too, but they tell you a story nevertheless.

Mostly dry Gujarat learnt to build check-dams early on, in fact, in the Congress era. But lately, these have multiplied. You want to check yourself? You do not have to drive through Gujarat. On a clear day, on a flight from Delhi to Mumbai, particularly in the post-monsoon months, look out of the window as the plane crosses Rajasthan into Gujarat and the landscape is suddenly dotted with so many watery specks. These are the check-dams that are now transforming Gujarat’s rain-fed agriculture zones. Ditto for the Narmada.

The Congress party governments built it. But now its leaders mention it only in passing. If they make a big deal of it, it plays straight into Modi’s hands. Because he can then remind his voters that, for years, the Central government has been “sitting on the file” to allow him to raise the height of the dam to its planned and pre-approved height of 138 metres including the gates (from 121 metres) and thereby depriving Gujarat of so much water and power. Once again, the Congress leadership has a familiar problem: you use civil society activists as your commandos, so how can you overrule their Luddite opposition to dams and organised irrigation?

So this is how it works: You are entitled to your philosophical and ideological views. But why must the Gujaratis vote for them?

This is the essential challenge also for the liberal, secular intelligentsia, not excluding us journalists. This newspaper (The Indian Express, which I edited 1995-2014), for example, has been in the forefront of exposing many of the more significant 2002 cover-ups and won one of its three IPI (International Press Institute) Awards for this. For nearly 11 years now, its editorials have only attacked and questioned Modi. How can we, as modern, liberal Indians, accept the brazenness with which a politician with as dodgy a record as Amit Shah is fielded in this election?

But should our journalists confine themselves to still covering the riots of 2002? Do we take note of the intervening decade of governance and politics, or not? This is not an argument about moving on. Far from it. This is an argument about professional diligence in journalism, as well as academia and, indeed, politics. Modi’s detractors, including most of us in the media, have allowed our judgement to be led by our views on what we see as the “core” issue with Modi. The Congress has lazily taken the cue. The Congress has not tried to put together a five, even a 10-year plan to defeat him. That’s why I call it a conspiracy of the faithful. Together, all of Modi’s detractors have helped to make Gujarat’s politics a one-horse race.

Moving on is a popular phrase among Modi’s intellectual and corporate supporters. Except that the advice is targeted at the victims of his essential politics. The Sikhs have moved on after the killings of 1984, so why not the Muslims of Gujarat, goes the argument. Questioning the comparison of 2002 with 1984 in terms of sheer numbers (3,500 Sikhs were killed then, compared to 1,000 Muslims now), I had once written (‘Pot’s blacker than the kettle’, National Interest, April 6, 2002, that as somebody who covered those riots as a reporter in Delhi, I was now sure that if live TV coverage had existed then, there is no way the government and the police would have gone on colluding with the mobs for 72 hours, and most of the 3,500 lives would have been saved. It followed, therefore, that a thousand Muslims killed in the full glare of OB vans is a thousand too many killed in 2002. Further, at least the Congress has repeatedly expressed regret for 1984. The BJP on 2002? Modi?

So, there is no way Gujarat’s Muslims are moving on. But they are making a reassessment of their lives. And you find evidence as you walk through Juhapura, home to 3 lakh Muslims on the outskirts of Ahmedabad and one of the largest minority ghettos in India. I rendezvous with long-lost writer friend Suketu Mehta (he wrote a stunning portrayal of Mumbai in Maximum City, and is now working on his new one on New York) at Crescent School.

And from the moment I step in, I find a few of my stereotypes busted and more questions raised than answered. Could it be, for example, that in the collective liberal mind, we have been guilty of packing Gujarat’s Muslims also in a fixed, closed box, just as we have done with Modi?

The school is run by a father-son duo. Nazirkhan Pathan retired as a district and sessions judge and his son, Asifkhan, a school teacher, had these couple of acres in what has now risen as one of the more prosperous neighbourhoods of Juhapura. They had the option of building one more modern and expensive apartment building here, rubbing shoulders with several others. But they chose to build a modern school instead. It is, indeed, a ghetto school, make no mistake about it. Only two of its 1,200 students are Hindu, and so are only two of its teachers. But how their faces light up as they talk of them, particularly the two women mathematics teachers, who commute from faraway Hindu localities. They are even more proud of them than their “smart”, Educomp-enabled classrooms. You see Islamic motifs here and there. But this is a co-educational school, holds karate classes and loves science. Read the message on the walls. One tells you the history of internet. The other, in a chart written by two students, explains why we feel cool when we sweat in summer.

There is also, inevitably, global warming, a bit of sport, one explaining how Google acquired its name, many messages of patriotism and, on a wall on the top floor of the three-storey building, portraits of great national leaders. Nehru, Gandhi, and of course, Dr A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, are there. But there is one so faded with seepage that you can’t identify it from the outlines that survive. Who is this, Jinnah? “No, no, sir… this is Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose,” says Asifkhan, more in amusement than alarm and then adds a matter-of-fact afterthought, “Jinnah, Advaniji can keep.” Juhapura, by the way, is a part of Advani’s Lok Sabha constituency.

Are the Khans angry about 2002, or are they moving on? Of course, they want the guilty punished. But they also want better lives for their fellow Muslims. The current grievances are more relevant: no paved roads, no municipal water, no garbage collection, nothing. It is as if these lakhs of people have been left to fend for themselves.

Suketu also introduces me to Zahir Janmohamed, a freelance writer of Gujarati extraction, but American upbringing and citizenship. Zahir was trapped in the maelstrom of 2002 while on a kind of discover India visit, as a student, to his native Gujarat. A former US Congressional aide, advocacy director for Amnesty, he is now writing a book on the aftermath of the riots. He and Asifkhan walk me across the main road to meet some nomadic Muslim minstrels whom the Khans are trying to resettle. Zahir speaks with a sensitivity, realism and maturity so rare in these divided zones. “This place confuses me,” he says. “What is it? People call it the Gaza Strip but that isn’t true, because there is no occupation. It is totally free.” But it is free also in the sense of being ungoverned.

He takes me to Siddiquabad, a new sub-ghetto built by a Tablighi businessman to resettle some of the poorer victims of the Gulberg Society massacre. Zahir explains clinically, but poignantly, how the victims continue to be victimised in different ways. The apartments they have been given are much smaller than what was promised. Again, no paved roads, no drainage, no garbage collection, no clean water. But you can’t but notice the fact that the finest new constructions are two mosques that stand next to each other, a dirt track in the middle, and a crummy resettlement housing colony sprawling around them. He explains how, at fundraisers overseas, people just say so many mosques were destroyed in the riots, and money pours in to build more mosques. So little comes in for what these people really need. “Sometimes,” says Zahir, “I can hear four azaans at the same time.”

Human beings do not move on from tragedies like that. They learn to survive, and rebuild lives. Zahir introduces me to Mohammed Arif, who lost his parents and three siblings in Gulberg and now runs a motorcycle repair shop. Is he angry? He says, what’s the point being angry. Does he want people punished for what happened? Of course he does, but if only, for the moment, his family’s quality of life could be made a little better here. We are also joined by Mohammed Sajid Malik who recognises me from TV and reads the same litany of woes: paved roads, water, garbage collection. And what does he do? “I am a 3D animation specialist,” he says, and before we can decode what that means, he explains, “exactly what another agency has done for Modi (holographic campaigning) for his campaign.”

Modi and Gujarat defy simpler generalisations. Such as the idea that communalism in Gujarat rose with the arrival of Modi, and before that it was a state of perfect secular tolerance. If the BJP hasn’t lost power ever since it first seized it in 1995 in the state, through four chief ministers (Shankersinh Vaghela, Suresh Mehta, Keshubhai Patel, and now Modi seeking his third term) there may be something peculiar about Gujarat.

I learnt my lesson two decades ago when, while working for India Today, I travelled to the state often to launch the Gujarati edition of the magazine in the Navratri month of 1992. The magazine immediately picked up circulation and was soon touching the one-lakh mark. Within a couple of months, the Babri Masjid was demolished. India Today responded editorially with righteous anger, and we are still proud of that stance. The English edition’s headline was, “A Nation’s Shame”. In Gujarati, it was “Deshna Maathanu Kalank“. As the cover was going to print, the marketing head came and said if we went with that headline in Gujarat, the edition would soon shut down. He was overruled.

He was also vindicated, and almost immediately. There was an avalanche of letters, postcards, inland covers, everything (these were still pre-internet days). We were described as Islam Today, Pakistan Today and worse. Agents and vendors refused to pick up the magazine. Circulation declined and settled in the unviable twenties. Eventually, the edition was shut down. It was the only language edition of India Today to shut down. And the Hindi edition, with exactly the same headline, increased circulation. Now, how do you explain that?

Is there something about Gujaratis that makes them particularly angry people? In a recent pan-India opinion poll conducted by NDTV, one of the questions was if India should have better relations with Pakistan. In Punjab, 72 per cent people said yes, and in Haryana, 80 per cent. In Rajasthan the number was 42. And in Gujarat? It was just 30, the lowest in the country. What is it that makes Gujarat our angriest border state?

Communal politics did not start here with Modi, nor will it go away if he loses power. There has to be a reason why all three contenders, Modi, Vaghela and Keshubhai, were schooled by the RSS. May be there is something sui generis about the phenomenon of Gujarati insecurity and resentment.

As it must be with the phenomenon of Modi. You watch him, in his 3D, hologram avatar, at Dharanidhar, a genteel, Jain-dominated neighbourhood in Ahmedabad’s Ellisbridge constituency. People, mostly well-to-do professionals and businessmen, wait seated comfortably in a park, for the show to begin. Here, Modi will only be talking to his own. But his candidate is opposed by Haren Pandya’s angry widow, Jagruti, on Keshubhai’s GPP ticket, and who runs her campaign with mutineers from the Gujarat units of the RSS and VHP. In the adjoining Maninagar constituency, where Modi contests, his Congress opponent is rebel police officer Sanjiv Bhatt’s wife Shweta, and her campaign is being almost exclusively run by leftist NGO activists, many of them members of the CPM. Keshubhai’s GPP has not fielded a candidate here. And its workers, the same rabble of RSS and VHP deserters, is helping her as well. So Modi fights for his third term, in a manner of speaking, with Left, Right and Centre. No wonder he has had to invent a 3D version of himself. We need to get used to it. Chances are, it will be playing at a political theatre much closer to us soon enough.


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  1. Long winded article trying to project congress party as some alternative ,60yrs they ruled India we got independence and were better off than South Korea, China and a host of other nations where are we standing today compared to them, why nothing is said about the brazen minority appeasement done by Congress in the name of secularism. The Hindus were hounded from Kashmir not a word of protest by the liberals, what about the countless scams of the Congress. The Congress party is being lead by a moron who in the words of the eminent legal luminary Ram Jethmalani is not fit to be even a clerk or a peon in his office. Are you seriously asking us to vote for this fraud party. Plz for once think about the nation and call the Congress what it is a corrupt crony rotten party that is a parasite on the nation

  2. Long blathering article. “Congress has repeatedly expressed regret for 1984” – you mean crocodile tears – has any Congress neta been punished? Of course not – they just leave it to lackies like Shekhar Gupta to make up fake news to sanitize Congress and its so-called “sekoolar” image. The ordinary public know better than to believe such lies.

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