The two faces of India's new Prime Minister

By Mubasshir Mushtaq, Monday, May 26, 2014

Narendra Modi has tried to shed his 'divisive' image but is he really a changed man?

Narendra Modi has tried to shed his 'divisive' image but is he really a changed man?

NEW DELHI – Controversial, pro-business, hardline, nationalist, patriotic, divisive, strongman. All of these terms have been used to describe Narendra Modi, the man being sworn-in as India's prime minister on Monday. Since his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) confirmed victory in India’s parliamentary elections on May 16, Modi has intensified his efforts to be seen as a changed man, a moderate leader. That has not done much to allay the fears of civil rights groups, activists and minorities in India who are worried the country is inching towards what they describe as "fascism" and "majoritarian nationalism." Modi has not abandoned his core support, instead tailoring words for their audiences, nor has he distanced himself from past inflammatory statements.

BJP and its allies seem to have consciously presented two versions of Modi. There is the Modi that intends to allay fears that his premiership will lead to greater communal tension and inequality, and another Modi that ensures his hardcore right-wing, Hindu nationalist support base is not lost. That has opened up a debate on what exactly Modi’s leadership will mean for India’s minorities, democracy and neighbors.

– Modi and minorities

For three days in February 2002 riots between Hindus and Muslims tore through western state Gujarat – only months after Modi became the state’s chief minister. Sparked when a train carriage carrying Hindu pilgrims was torched, the violence killed up to 2,000 people -- most of them Muslim. In the aftermath, allegations ranging from negligence to complicity were leveled at Modi; he has dodged but never conclusively shaken them off.

The riots are the primary reason that Modi is often described as “controversial” but they affected more than his image. They are also the reason minorities, Muslims in particular, are wary of India’s new prime minister. Retired professor Juzar Bandukwala is one of those who view Modi with suspicion -- his own house was attacked during the riots.

While Modi spoke of governing for the whole country during his victory speech, Bandukwala says Modi’s rise to power has relied on partnership with a collection of hardline Hindu nationalist groups including Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Vishwa Hindu Parishad and the militant Bajrang Dal.

“He used the VHP and Bajrang Dal to cause havoc against Muslims in 2002. He knew that the fastest way to rise within the BJP was to show that he can teach a lesson to Muslims,” says Bandukwala. He points out that Modi once said his only regret about the riots was that he could not handle the press effectively but that during the election, friendly media helped him. “His language was often crude, his charges were frequently bogus. But the media was with him all the way.”

During the election campaign, Modi and his partners were embroiled in controversy about statements accused of inciting communal tension. His ally Praveen Togadia was accused of using hate speech when he was recorded telling Hindus to forcibly repossess any Muslim-owned houses in Hindu areas. Modi himself raised the issue of religious identity when, in a rally in eastern state West Bengal, he said he would welcome “Hindu refugees” from Bangladesh but not “Muslim infiltrators.” Shortly afterwards, more than 30 Muslims were killed in northeastern Assam state, which borders Bangladesh.

“Had Modi been an Islamist leader, the West would have reacted very strongly,” Bandukwala says. “But today the one country that will support Modi is Israel. This helps in India's links with the US … but by that same token it hurts Modi's acceptance in the Muslim world.”

Ram Punjyani, an activist from the All India Secular Forum, says Modi’s campaign had an anti-Muslim undercurrent, linking Muslims not just to immigration but also issues like the exporting of beef, which concerns many devout Hindus. Punjyani says BJP took advantage of “communal polarization”, mostly succeeding in areas that have witnessed communal violence or terror attacks.

“While on the surface the development myth has won over large section of electorate, it has taken place in areas which have in the past seen bouts of violence,” he says. “Maharashtra, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar and Assam have seen massive communal violence in the past.”

In contrast, BJP’s claim that it will reinvigorate the economy did not take hold in West Bengal, Kerala or Tamil Nadu; areas which have been relatively free from communal violence.

– Modi and neighbors

One of Modi’s first actions after being declared prime minister-designate was to invite all neighboring countries, including rival Pakistan, to his oath-taking ceremony. One of his first actions after he is sworn-in will be to hold bilateral talks with Pakistan’s Nawaz Sharif on Tuesday. Considering Modi’s nationalism and often abrasive attitude towards Pakistan the move has been hailed a positive sign by many observers. Bandukwala however, says Modi’s Pakistan policy will be a lot of “show and bombast.”

“He cannot be too soft, as that is one issue that may break him from the RSS,” he says. “He may want to move on Article 370 that governs Kashmir’s links with India. But here too he faces the fanatical fury of the Taliban in Pakistan.”

Another neighbor, China, is also watching Modi closely. Chinese state media responded angrily last week to widely-made comparisons between Modi and Japan’s nationalist Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who was elected with a similar economy-boosting mandate. Abe has followed an aggressive China policy but Chinese media was eager to say that Modi will help resolve, not re-open, Sino-Indian border disputes.

“Improved links with Japan can help India, but no Asian country would join India, in case of a direct war with China,” says Bandukwala.

Modi's statements about immigration from Bangladesh has increased worries that he will alienate a government that has remained close to India in recent years but there is no initial sign that Bangladesh's politicians have reacted badly to Modi's victory. Both the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina and opposition leader Khaleda Zia were among the first to congratulate Modi.

– Modi and democracy

Apart from Modi’s stance on minority communities and neighbors, many activists are fearful that Modi’s victory will change the nature of India’s democracy. They say that beneath a media-laid veneer of inclusive development, the religiopolitical Hindutva ideology’s hate politics is “alive” and “thriving.” Noted human rights activist Manisha Sethi of Jamia Teachers Solidarity Association says Modi's success poses a "very, very real" threat of rising “fascism.”

“Those who say otherwise should only look at how the media has crumbled," Sethi says. "There is no reason to believe that every other institution of Indian democracy would withstand an assault.”

She says Modi’s governing of Gujarat was often discriminative, pointing towards India’s Supreme Court’s acquittal on May 16 of six Muslim men accused of the 2002 Akshardham temple attack which killed 30 people. Lower courts had sentenced some of the men to death for their alleged role.

“This is an indictment of the institutionalized prejudice which was practiced as state policy under his (Modi’s) leadership,” says Sethi, highlighting that a series of cases were brought under counter-terror legislation and touted as conspiracies to assassinate Modi. “These cases were central to the crafting of his image as the Hindutva icon. But is anyone listening? Not one TV channel ran a story on this significant judgment.”

Social activists are of the view that freedom of speech will be curtailed under Modi’s government, giving rise to intolerance of dissent. The 81-year-old award-winning south Indian writer U. R. Ananthamurthy was reportedly sent a ticket to Pakistan on May 13, and asked to leave the country a day after the election result on May 17. Ananthamurthy, a bitter critic of Modi, had said at a book launch in September 2013 that he did not want to live in a country ruled by Modi.

Writer and activist Subhash Gatade also says there is an element of fascism in the way India’s democracy is shifting away from the multicultural, secular model set under the country’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. “The manner in which democracy has started looking like majoritarianism is ample proof that there would be a paradigm shift from the Nehruvian model,” he says. “We should understand that a exclusivist project - like the RSS and its affiliated organizations - does not have to keep on hammering their world-view continuously. People know their message.”

– A changed man?

When voting finished on May 12, Modi wrote on his blog that India should “look ahead.”

“It is a time to connect with each other. Lets place people over politics, hope over despair, healing over hurting,” he wrote, in an apparent attempt to convince India that as prime minister he would not be the harsh, combative personality he is reputed to be. On results day, he again spoke about governing not just for his supporters but for the whole country. Shahid Latif, editor of India’s largest Urdu daily Inquilab says there are signs that Modi, though arrogant, “seems to be a changed man.”

“During the recent election campaigns, Modi was more aggressive towards the Congress party-led alliance government and Gandhi family holding them responsible for everything from inflation to slow growth and from poverty to the corruption but was cautious enough not to speak directly against Muslims or other minorities as he used to do earlier,” says Latif.

He says now that Modi has his “coveted” prime ministerial post the task will be to show he can be trusted and can deliver on his promises to boost development for everyone. “It will be a challenge of sorts for him, as he spoke about the poor and got favors from the corporate world,” Latif says.

Gatade, who is considered an authority on the Sangh Parivar collection of Hindu nationalist groups, says however that Modi, who started his political life in the hardline Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, is no changed man.

“Yes, his language has definitely changed supposedly to look more inclusive and appear not vindictive,” Gatade says, but points out that many BJP members can and will try to repackage themselves as “inclusive” to achieve their political goals.

“Modi might have spoken in a vindictive manner about neighboring countries supposedly to impress the voters but when he has to sit for any meeting then things do not remain that simple,” says Gatade. “I am definitely worried about the future of India and its people. But that does not mean we give up. We will have to continue our fight at different levels.”

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