Recently, at a book release in New Delhi, a famous news editor recalled an informal conversation with the former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee immediately after the 2004 elections. He quoted Vajpayee as saying that “Narendra Modi would offer prayers in a mosque five times a day if he senses a chance to become India’s Prime Minister.”
When Narendra Modi’s blog post appeared last Friday evening – in which he indirectly expresses anguish about Gujarat riots of 2002 for the first time in more than a decade – Vajpayee’s jestful comment started ringing in my mind. This is the first direct attempt by the hardcore Hindu right-wing leader to reach out to India’s minority Muslims since he became the Chief Minister (CM) of Gujarat in 2001.
The 2002 Gujarat riots claimed more than 1000 Muslim lives. After eleven years of deafening silence on the matter, Modi, who now happens to be the prime ministerial candidate of the main opposition party in India, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), spoke about the incident that has come to define his political persona. In a blog post, Modi exonerates himself from any wrongdoing and claims that he reacted “more swiftly and decisively to the violence than ever done before in any previous riots in the country.” He further writes that “‘Grief’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Misery’, ‘Pain’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Agony’ – mere words could not capture the absolute emptiness one felt on witnessing such inhumanity … This is the first time I am sharing the harrowing ordeal I had gone through in those days at a personal level.”
Modi is often blamed by his critics for not doing enough to control the pogrom that claimed many lives in the early part of 2002.
The 64 year old Hindu right-wing leader never entertained any questions about the communal riots. He would refuse to respond to journalists and even walked out of TV studios if any question related to 2002 was asked during an interview.
Even six months ago in an interview with an international news agency, he refused to give a straight answer to a direct question about the infamous riots which came to define his image as an anti-Muslim figure and made him a mascot for hardcore Hindutva types. Some of the remarks that he made during the course of the interview stirred controversy and his critics slammed him for not showing any pain or remorse at the tragedy.
Why is Modi now using words like “‘Grief’, ‘Sadness’, ‘Misery’, ‘Pain’, ‘Anguish’, ‘Agony'” – all with capital letters – more than a decade after the fact?
The move was precipitated by a lower court’s verdict in Gujarat that cleared Modi of any wrongdoing in the 2002 riot case. The court upheld a Special Investigation Team (SIT) report which exonerated Modi.
In a television interview, political commentator Ashok Malik noted that “Modi is trying to reach out to minority Muslims whose support is crucial in forming a government in New Delhi. By writing the blog post, he is trying to make amends with the largest minority in India. He will not succeed in wooing all the Muslims and liberals. He will, however, succeed in convincing a few.”
Political parties in India reacted as expected, with the BJP welcoming Modi’s blog post and blaming Congress for running a malicious campaign against their prime ministerial candidate. The ruling Congress however called it “political opportunism.”
When The Diplomat contacted Zakia Jafri, one of the victims of the Gujarat riots, whose husband was burnt alive by rioters, and asked her for her reaction to Modi’s blog post, she termed it “an insult to the victims and their families.” She added that “this man used the state machinery to subvert justice at each and every stage and never demonstrated any remorse either in word or deed for the tragedy that took place under his very nose. Now through his post, he is portraying himself a victim of malicious campaign … this is an abuse of the sensibilities of the victims.”
Vinod Sharma, the political editor of The Hindustan Times calls Modi’s “anguish” too little, too late – an insult to those who had to suffer for more than a decade. In an interview with The Diplomat, the veteran journalist says that “the Gujarat leader is trying to emotionalize the whole situation by presenting himself as a victim. Even if he was not responsible directly for the riots he, as a head of the state, had a vicarious responsibility to own up to the failure of his government. Through the blog post he is trying to navigate the debate and shift the focus away from his past deeds which we need to scrutinize very closely. How can we allow a politician with such a past to become the prime minister of the country?”
For the last one year there has been a systematic attempt on the part of the Modi campaign to refurbish his image from that of a hardcore Hindutva leader to something more moderate, with a focus on his economic achievements. There has been constant attempt by his supporters to highlight his accomplishments in the development of Gujarat – Modi made the state a leading economic hub within India.
The image-building exercise got a further boost in September this year when he was declared the prime ministerial candidate for the BJP. In his public rallies, there has been a very concerted effort to tone down any anti-Muslim rhetoric and showcase the image of a tolerant leader working for the welfare of all communities. It is in this context that Modi developed the slogan of “India first.”
Friday’s blog post is one more exercise in image building by attempting to reach out to Muslims. Muslims constitute 13 percent of India’s population and continue to play a decisive role in the victory of more than 120 parliamentarians out of 545 in the Lok Sabha. Modi understands that despite a strong anti-incumbency wave in the country against the ruling Congress, the BJP cannot capture power unless it has the backing of India’s minority communities, something he can’t accomplish unless he presents the face of a moderate leader.
This image makeover is also necessary to attract potential coalition partners. The BJP knows that on its own the party has but a slim chance of forming a government.Modi commands the image of a Hindu hardliner, which alienates certain regional parties. By wooing Muslims, the Gujarat strongman wants to be perceived as an inclusive figure.
But at a time when there is a palpable sense of distrust among voters against established political parties and their hollow tokenism, Modi’s Muslim outreach might backfire on him and his party. The success of the rookie Aam Aadmi Party or Common Man’s Party in the New Delhi assembly elections is a case in point.
Social activists like Javed Anand, who has been fighting for the welfare of the Gujarat riot victims for more than a decade, question the timing and intent of Modi’s blog post: “In the last ten years the Chief Minister of Gujarat never visited any of the refugee camps for the victims; he made no attempt to rehabilitate the hundreds of people who lost everything in that tragedy, and he never tried to reconcile the two communities in his twelve years in office. How can he expect us to trust him and his anguish?”
After the recent success of the BJP in the assembly elections, Modi sees a win at the polls next year within the realm of possibility. He no longer wants to be the prisoner of his image. Therefore, it’s very much possible that as the election campaign for India’s general elections ramp up, Modi will not hesitate in pandering to Muslim voters to seek votes for his party.