Sarmila Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre
for International Studies, Department of Politics and International
Relations, University of Oxford.
Since 2002, when violence against Muslims racked the state of Gujarat in
India, its Chief Minister, Narendra Modi, has been tainted with the
allegation of complicity in a pogrom. Riots had occurred in Gujarat
before, but 2002 acquired a particularly dark reputation. Despite being
elected thrice as chief minisiter of Gujarat, Modi was widely believed
to have ruined his chances ever to lead the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)
at the national level. But a decade later Modi is leading the BJP's
2014 campaign as de facto prime-ministerial candidate.
political rehabilitation was predictable. Gujarat enjoys a reputation
for enterprise and commerce, independent of its politicians. While being
vilified on human rights grounds, Modi focused on building an image of
encouraging pro-business economic development. Money talks and public
memory is short. Within a short time, for business it was business as
usual in Gujarat. This may not have been sufficient to capture national
leadership, but the failure of the incumbent Congress-led government and
the lack of a rival within the BJP contributed to Modi's success.
If Modi wins next year, would India have elected an allegedly murderous anti-Muslim bigot as its leader?
visited Gujarat in early 2002 amid the still smouldering violence,
again mid-year and finally at the end of the year during the state
election campaign. For a better understanding of what Modi's rise means,
we need to remember what his goals were in Gujarat in 2002, what his
party represents, and the polarising electoral politics in India and
the Godhra train incident, in which dozens of Hindus were killed and
which triggered the anti-Muslim violence, happened in February 2002,
Modi had been chief minister of Gujarat for only about four months. He
had been dispatched to replace the sitting BJP chief minister, to stem
the slide in support. Before that Modi had been a party strategist, but
had never been fielded in electoral politics and had no experience of
governance. He had only a year to ensure BJP's re-election. As he put
it, he had come to play a "one-day match".
Modi's party has long been accused of whipping up religious conflicts to win votes. In his book The Politics of India since Independence, Paul
Brass observed that in 1990-91 the BJP and Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP)
played a significant role in deliberately instigated violence in north
India. In 1990 BJP President L K Advaniwent on a
"rathyatra" - a "chariot" procession - across several states,
triggering riots in its wake. Using religious mobilisation for political
ends, the BJP went from practically no presence in parliament in 1984
to becoming the second largest party by 1991.
the manipulation of incidents of violence for electoral gain is not
unique to the BJP. Brass found that it is a central feature of Indian
politics by the 1980s, with Indira Gandhi adept at the "politics of
Riding to power on violence is also an established practice elsewhere. Paul Collier found that
where the "bottom billion" lives, violence has been the predominant
route to power, and democracy tended to increase political violence.
Incumbents who wanted to remain in power found "scapegoating a minority"
a strategy that "worked". Steven Wilkinson has argued (in Votes and Violence: Electoral Competition and Ethnic Riots in India) that
it was not institutional weakness that explained the variations in
state response to riots in India, but instructions given by politicians
whether or not to protect minorities. When multiple parties compete,
minority votes have more value than where there are only two contenders,
2002 I found Godhra itself subdued during the campaign, while the state
election was fought in its name. T-shirts bearing a photo of the
burnt-out train had the slogan (in Gujarati): "We won't let our village
become Godhra." Godhra had become a concept, which had little to do with
the neglected town.
many people thronging to hear Modi during his campaign in 2002, he was a
hero. Some told me that the previous chief minister had been too
"soft"; in Modi they had found the "strong" leader they sought. The
charismatic demagoguery of Modi was on full display in that campaign. It
may not be obvious to those who have only heard him speak in slightly
halting English, but in 2002 I found Modi to be an immensely effective
orator in Gujarati. He played the crowds' emotions skilfully, and stoked
their prejudices with bone-chilling messages about "enemies of the
state". Modi's campaign was unabashedly "communal" - he campaigned as
though he was running against "Mian Musharraf", the military ruler of
neighbouring Pakistan, ignoring the Congress candidate who was actually
his opponent. The manoeuvre blended aggressive Hindu nationalism with
jingoistic patriotism for a potent, toxic mix.
his campaigning skills, it was astonishing that the BJP had not fielded
him in elections before. If such a politician had chosen to work for
all citizens, he could have done much good, and Muslims would have voted
for him too. But in 2002 Modi was focused on winning the "one day
match" he had come to play. To ensure sufficient consolidation of the
Hindu vote, he seemed prepared to write-off the Muslim minority
altogether. He did not need, or want, their votes.
elections are a different game, with numerous parties and the high
likelihood of another coalition. Modi has shifted focus to governance
and development. However, as Christophe Jaffrelot detailed in his work on
the Hindu nationalist movement, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS),
where Modi was "pracharak" (activist), was built on the stigmatisation
of "others". RSS leaders openly drew inspiration from European fascism.
A 'common' practice
there is nothing special about Modi, except that he seems more capable,
and more ruthless, than others. The use of violence for electoral gain
is widespread in the world and in India.
BJP was already in power in India from 1998 to 2004 and has been the
main opposition since. Former BJP Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee
had the image of everybody's favourite uncle, even though he too had
been an RSS "pracharak". So had L K Advani, former deputy prime minister
and home minister, who had undertaken the "rathayatra".
known for religious riots long before the BJP or Modi. The ugly truth
about India's democracy is that life is cheap here and Indian voters
have long been used by politicians as expendable pawns in their battles
may have anti-Muslim prejudices, but that did not seem to be his
primary motivation for failing to protect Muslims in 2002. Rather, it
seemed to be his single-minded focus on winning by manipulating the
Godhra incident and its violent aftermath to consolidate the Hindu vote.
He seemed callously indifferent to the fate of the victims of this
strategy. In this regard he has plenty of company in India and in other
countries. Many politicians who practise the politics of hate do not
necessarily hate any group personally as much as they incite their
followers. Yogendra Yadav - an Indian political analyst who has entered
politics -argues that
while Modi is not the only one to indulge in authoritarianism or
majoritarianism, multiple flaws of India's democracy appear to converge
if Modi let Muslims in his state die in 2002 to ensure victory through
Hindu consolidation, he would protect them if he needs Muslim votes in
multi-cornered contests, or if he is likely to win without resorting to
polarisation. Equally, if sacrificing some other group might better
serve his electoral purpose, perhaps they would be at risk rather than
The cold-blooded nature of these calculations is chilling.
Repugnant when practised by run-of-the-mill politicians, it seems
terrifying in the hands of a man of high-ability.
is no effective humanist opposition to this phenomenon in Indian
politics. The only bulwark might be the sheer heterogeneity of national
politics in India. Modi's rise may be a troubling prospect, but the
problem is bigger than Modi.
Bose is Senior Research Associate, Centre for International Studies,
Department of Politics and International Relations, University of
The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.