The baggage that comes with Modi

April 20, 2014

The baggage that comes with Modi

Respect for democracy does not always translate into an affinity for the results that it produces. And such is the allure of the power of decision-making that human beings are deeply interested in choices, particularly political choices, made not just by ourselves but by others too.

As India went to vote, the name of Narendra Modi generated debate throughout the Indian subcontinent and indeed much of the world. What kind of India will Pakistan and the world see under Modi? How will he deal with Pakistan? What about the treatment of India’s minorities--particularly religious minorities? Even the Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen went to the extent of making a public statement that made clear his concerns in case Modi is elected prime minister.

Before going any further, it is important to acknowledge a few realities. It speaks volumes about Modi’s charisma that he seems to have eclipsed the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Instead of Modi being seen as BJP’s candidate, the world now sees BJP as Modi’s party. It is Narendra Modi versus the Congress.

True that personalities matter in our part of the world but neither BJP’s nor Congress’s prime ministerial candidates have had such an all-powerful influence on an election -- or the debate surrounding it -- in recent memory. And an individual’s baggage is easier to deal with than that of a political party.

In a democracy, you need not persuade the public that you are the best option in absolute terms. You just need to be seen as an option superior to your rivals. And when the BJP targets the economic performance of the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government, citing Gujarat as a model of high growth and the man who led the province might just be enough to knock out the Congress. In a world where India is increasingly proud of its potential and existing economic strength, a poster-child for high economic growth and development is not easy to dismiss for voters.

It also goes to India’s credit as a vibrant society that there has been no shortage of questions regarding the kind of economic growth that Modi oversaw in Gujarat and promises for all of India. True, the growth in Gujarat is no model of improving the lives of the poorest but how relevant is that to the middle class that is promised jobs in a burgeoning corporate industrial and commercial sector? How often does the elite care, in any country, as long as corporations are doing well? Voters, for better or worse, are selfish. And political parties bank on this. One must not ignore the existential while imagining the normative.

For many in Pakistan, questions remain about Modi’s role in the Gujarat pogrom. As a matter of political and intellectual engagement, one may very well be interested in the issue of rights and security for particular groups in another country. But we are not Modi’s direct audience. People in India, however, have continued asking tough questions of him. When it comes to politicians, suspicions of wrong-doing command just as much capital as actual proof. Modi knows this.

But he also knows that making too much of Gujarat makes the Congress look weak.

Of course, one can never make too much of tragedies like Gujarat. But that is true for sentiment, not political campaigns. You can overplay your hand and, yes, Modi supporters are right to point out that a human tragedy should not be used for political capital.

The hard fact is that Modi has been cleared of any wrong-doing right up till the Supreme Court of India. But Modi realises that this will never be the end of the matter. He has accepted that he will never be (maybe never wanted to be) the poster child for minorities’ rights. Minorities’ rights activists will never love him but that is not his audience. He just needs to be seen to be doing enough to highlight the colours in the rainbow that is India. He has made the classic argument in return. "I am now in people’s court", he reiterated last week. That is the only vindication he cares about. It might be enough to get him into office.

And should every voter in India be expected to vote out of concern for minorities’ rights? There will be those with a particularly strong civic sense and those who will see Modi’s apparent nonchalance towards human tragedy as damaging to the fabric of India as a polity. But they will be few. And you cannot fault voters for what matters to them.

As a Pakistani, I remain unsure what to make of concerns voiced in Pakistan over a potential win for Modi. How well have we treated our own minorities? How often has the Pakistani voter chosen leaders that speak of minorities’ rights? When has that ever been even a real issue in an election campaign?

True, none of that is reason for India to abandon its principles of secularism and largely peaceful co-existence between fascinating varieties of faiths.

But are we not reading a bit too much into things?

If Modi’s mantra is economic growth then, surely, on a national level he has reason to be careful to avoid actions that will damage India’s image or the principles that India stands for. He will have enough of a selfish motive to do so.

Our concern should be welfare of all Indian citizens and not just Indian Muslims. In viewing Modi from a Muslim-centric lens we ourselves might be guilty of the very communalism that we claim to stand against.

Gujarat was tragic because humans suffered -- not just because Muslims suffered. As a citizen of Pakistan I have no way of knowing how well a the Congress government would have handled a similar situation. If you go back to the 1980s, Sikh voters would have a lot to say about the Congress.

Our concern should be the discourse promoting religious fanaticism in the region -- not just individual instances of it.

And how will he act towards Pakistan? Expect Modi to be a hardliner, and to issue far more threats than the Congress, towards Pakistan when it comes to issues like terrorism. But I also expect him to have far more political room than the Congress to push for more trade with Pakistan. In whispers, Indian and Pakistani businessmen are hopeful of better cross-border economic ties under Modi. For the leftist, Modi is a conservative yet for some he espouses elements of a liberal in the "classical" sense (think 18th century) -- promising limited government.

Whether or not to vote for Modi is not our choice to make. Our interest in the choice is of course legitimate and genuine. But have we in Pakistan been guilty in our analysis of Modi of focusing too much on some things and not enough on others? I would answer in the affirmative.

But if I am wrong and if Modi meets or exceeds expectations of his doubters, there will be no greater tragedy for India. It will be heart-breaking for those of us who love and admire India’s diversity and its potential. What is worse, India will be a lot poorer for it.

The baggage that comes with Modi