The world’s biggest democratic exercise gets under way on Monday. If the pundits are right, Narendra Modi, leader of the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), will win the Indian general election by a country mile.
For the outside world, including both the European Union and the US, Modi is the man who has turbocharged the economy of Gujarat, the state he has ruled for 12 years, and who promises to do the same for the flagging Indian economy as a whole. He has also said he will act against corruption.
But nobody who, like me, was in Modi’s state 12 years ago and witnessed the carnage that took the lives of hundreds of Muslims in bloody, brutal and tightly organised pogroms can suppress a shiver of horror at the thought that this man may now be about to join the world’s top table.
Those scenes were reminiscent of the tit-for-tat massacres of Hindus and Muslims during Partition, and the mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Indira Gandhi. That this should happen in 2002 in a relatively prosperous and educated part of the country was profoundly shocking. No one ever succeeded in proving that Modi had ordered or encouraged the massacres. But many reporters noted the failure of police to protect Muslim communities against the mobs (pictured above).
These killings were as disturbing as Germany’s Kristallnacht, and for the same reason. Hostility to Muslims is in the bloodstream of the Sangh Parivar, the family of Hindu nationalist organisations to which Modi and the BJP belong. Inspired by European fascism and Nazism, the movement’s founding ideologist, Madhav Sadashiv Golwalkar, prescribed radically different treatment for Hindus – children of the subcontinent’s aboriginal religion, according to the theory – and those who subscribed to other religions.
According to Golwalkar, India’s minorities were suspect. “They are born in this land,” he wrote, “but … are they grateful to this land? ... Do they feel it is a duty to serve her? No! Together with the change in their faith, gone is the spirit of love and devotion for the nation.” The dominant theme of Hindu nationalism has been suspicion of and hostility towards minorities, Muslims in particular. The idea that Hindus enjoy an exclusive, mystical connection to “Mother India” is central. And as Europe discovered in the 1930s, the politics of hate is terribly potent in countries gripped by poverty or mass unemployment. When politicians’ promises of prosperity ring hollow, the quest for some group to blame becomes a seductive alternative.
Narendra Modi’s roots in the Sangh Parivar go deep. The child of poor shopkeepers, he became a quasi-monastic member of the movement as a young man, swearing lifelong fealty and celibacy. He has done nothing else in his life but work for and within Hindu nationalism. His choice of Varanasi to be his constituency bore out the depth of his devotion: for pious Hindus it is the holiest city in the world, where the devout come to die so they can immediately escape the cycle of birth and death and attain liberation. This week he again forcibly reminded India of that identity by raising the question of the slaughter of cows for export to Bangladesh – always an emotive issue for Hindus, for whom cows are sacred.
But on the most toxic question for a Hindu nationalist, the treatment of minorities under BJP rule, Modi has kept silent. He has never issued an apology for the massacre that took place in Gujarat on his watch, nor risen to journalists’ demands to go into detail about what happened. Instead he sticks to those grievances guaranteed to excite Indians of all ethnicities and religions and social classes: the faltering the economy, corruption the need to act tough with China and Pakistan. His calling card is his reputation for firm economic management in Gujarat – despite the persistence there of a large underclass. Whatever happened in the shadows he leaves well alone.
Modi’s success in escaping from his past reminds me of the similar achievement of Italy’s former deputy prime minister, Gianfranco Fini. The leader of the Movimento Sociale Italiano, the direct heir of Mussolini’s fascists, and in his youth quite as committed a political extremist as Modi, he spent his first decade as a sort of parliamentary leper: no mainstream politicians would have anything to do with him. But then he gave his party a neutral new name, the National Alliance, condemned anti-Semitism, visited Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and in 1994 entered Silvio Berlusconi’s first coalition government. A few years later his stock had improved so dramatically that this ‘post-fascist’ was regarded as a pillar of respectability compared with his boss.
Fini’s transformation was more dramatic than Modi’s. But both of these shrewd men have done precisely what was necessary to emerge from political no-man’s-land and take charge, while retaining their parties’ support. Modi has never accounted for the Gujarat pogroms, but instead in 2011 undertook a series of quasi-religious fasts as part of a “goodwill mission” to his state’s Muslims. In intention it was much like Fini’s visit to Israel.
They do what works. And in return, the parties they lead – which have done little to back their leaders’ sweet words with reforming actions – gain the glittering prizes of power.