Can Modi do an Advani?

The Special Investigation Team (SIT) report on Narendra Modi’s alleged role in the Gulbarga massacre held no surprises. As reported previously, the SIT report held that there was no ‘prosecutable evidence’ to proceed against Modi and his fellow co-accused in this particular case.  Naturally, the widely anticipated report has set off a political maelstrom with Modi’s supporters seeing it as  a vindication of their man’s innocence while his opponents have sworn to pursue the legal case againsthe Gujarat chief ministert to its logical conclusion (Read: Modi behind bars).

Much has already been said about this affair so I will restrict my self to  afew brief comments.

First, as I have argued elsewhere, it is important to separate the legal case against Modi from the political case.

However, instead of accepting the findings of a duly constituted investigative body, many have attempted to put the SIT itself on trial. It appears that their faith in the legal process may not be as unshakable as they have repeatedly claimed — especially if it yields results that they find unpalatable.

In fact, lambasting the legal system in India and labelling it fundamentally unfair to the poor and the marginalised seems to become an element of faith among the Left-liberal section of the Indian polity and civil society. Even the argument that SIT has ‘ignored’ important testimonies is fallacious.

Any investigative and judicial process rests on weighing competing narratives and evidences; mala fide intent is not proven merely because the ultimate verdict favours one particular narrative over the other.

Finally, the legal options for Modi’s critics have hardly closed. They can certainly contest the SIT’s findings in a judicial forum, but casting aspersions on an investigative body constituted and monitored directly by the Supreme Court is hardly appropriate.

Naturally, Modi can and should be confronted politically. It can be reasonably argued that Modi’s administrative and moral failures in 2002 make him an unsuitable candidate for the highest office in the land.

Instead of launching a whispering campaign against SIT chief R.K  Raghavan, Modi’s opponents should  let the judiciary adjudicate on the SIT report. If the SIT report has ignored important evidence—as critics like Teesta Setalvadhave alleged—then surely the Supreme Court can be trusted to take the SIT to task and order a fresh investigation. Retaining the faith in India’s institutions is of paramount important and is a concern Modi’s opponents would ignore at their own peril. After all, it is the same SIT monitored by the same Supreme Court which recently secured the conviction of 23 accused in a separate case.

But as judiciary evaluates the SIT report, the political battle continues unhindered. His supporters see the SIT report as an opportunity for Modi to finally emerge in the national spotlight and lead the BJP in a made-for-headlines battle with Rahul Gandhi in the 2014 general elections. But can Modi finally lay the ghosts of 2002 to rest merely because he has won an important legal battle.? Fellow INI blogger Pragmatic perfectly captures the Modi dynamic:

Let me explain how. Mr Modi may never get around to be acceptable to a majority of people in a diverse country like India. No politician in India is, whether it be a Nitish Kumar or a Naveen Patnaik. But unlike Mr Modi, a Nitish or a Patnaik are not unacceptable to a vast majority of people. People may not vote for them but they are not going to come out to vote against them. It is not the case with Mr Modi, as theTime poll clearly shows. A Nitish Kumar in a similar internet poll may have got only 30-35% of the Yes votes that Mr Modi received but the No votes for Nitish wouldn’t have been more than 10-15% of the No votes that Modi got. This is Mr Modi’s handicap.

That in essence is the dynamic his supporters consistently ignore. Many even argue that because Modi has been so consistently vilified over the years, that he may even emerge as a sympathetic figure. It is hard to believe that even Modi would buy this vast leap into sophistry but on such fond hopes politics in India is conducted.

The closest approximation for Narendra Modi is L.K Advani. To Advani goes the ‘credit’ of constructing a political movement around the Ram Janambhoomi agitation; he was easily Hindutva’s tallest leader before Modi usurped his throne. Advani, of course, faced a lot of criticism for his role in the Babri Masjid demolition and the subsequent communal polarization whose apogee was perhaps reached in the Gujarat  riots. Yet, Advani was slowly able to refurbish his image so much so that he was the unanimous choice of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) as its prime ministerial candidate in the 2009 general elections. Even leaders like Nitish Kumar who baulk at even sharing a stage with Narendra Modi to protect their pro-Muslim image accepted Advani as the NDA leader. Advani gave multiple media interviews during that time but it is hard to recall an interview in which the issue of the Babri Masjid merited anything beyond a perfunctory mention. In fact, they were mostly softball conversations in which Advani even managed to emerge as a benign patriarch.

So can Modi replicate the Advani model? While impossible should never be part of the political lexicon, Modi faces an exceedingly uphill battle for multiple reasons. First, the difference in their personalities: While Modi can frequently appear coarse and unsophisticated (Miyan Musharraf), Advani retained a suave and urbane facade. Perceptions matter in politics and listening to Modi one frequently gets the impression—rightly or wrongly—of  a visceral distaste for Muslims. Second, 6th December and its aftermath were a series of events and it was hard to link them to a single person. Modi, on the other, was the face of India’s first televised riots. Third, Advani benefited tremendously by being closely associated with former prime minister A.B. Vajpayee with his moderate and inclusive image. Indeed, it is to Advani’s credit that he abdicated in favor of Vajpayee during BJP’s Mumbai convention. Advani understood that the moderate Vajpayee was far more likely to be acceptable to the regional allies BJP desperately  needed if it was to be a serious contender for power at the centre.  Modi, on the other hand, is egotistical and dictatorial, and it is very much unlikely that he would be able to display Advani’s sagacity and wisdom of 1995. Finally, Advani worked hard at his image rehabilitation even describing 6th December as the saddest day in his life. He also benefited from fortuitous circumstances. His description of Jinnah as a secular person may have turned the Hindu Right against but almost by default endeared him to the media liberals who lionized him for taking on the RSS.

One final thought: Many editorials today have asked Narendra Modi to apply a healing touch arguing that it would bring closer to the victims of Gujarat riots and even help him politically. While there is little doubt that a healing touch is required, it is foolish to believe that it would bring any political didvidends to Modi. His legion of political opponents are not likely find him acceptable merely because he expresses regret for Gujarat riots. In fact, they are more likely to see it as a sign of weakness and move in for the kill. And as far his supporters are concerned, what they find most endearing about Modi is his take no prisoners approach.

As Advani’s example shows, the path to political rehabilitation is long and arduous. It is only likely to be tougher for Narendra Modi.

DISCLAIMER: This is an archived post from the Indian National Interest blogroll. Views expressed are those of the blogger's and do not represent The Takshashila Institution’s view.