Election 2014: A tale of two silences
“Chaos is a ladder” – Game of Thrones
On May 22, 2004 a quiet, simple and dignified man was sworn in as the thirteenth Prime Minister of India.
His government, a hastily cobbled together alliance calling itself the UPA took charge of India and over the next ten years proceeded to run it into the ground. They did it with a combination of well-meaning populist measures, incompetence and above all, unprecedented corruption. I remember a sad but hilarious newspaper article during the 2010 Commonwealth Games that toilet paper was being invoiced for 4000 Rs a roll – roughly 80$ at the time. Representatives from the government attempted to explain away the astronomical and intellectually insulting sums as “management charges” but short of someone wiping your butt in person, I failed to see the value of 80$ in a roll of toilet paper. If someone in your house went out and bought a roll of toilet paper for 80$, you’d probably have a long chat with them later that evening. You’d try to understand why they’d do something so utterly brazen and insane. I expected the same sensibility from Manmohan Singh, the steward of the UPA government. Instead what we got was silence. It was when I read the article about the toilet paper that I realized this government is nothing less than a cancer. India had become a global laughing stock and Manmohan observed with silent calm. His ministers ran amok, filling their own pockets, rampaging funds meant ostensibly for the disenfranchised, but Manmohan observed with silent calm. He became a punching bag on social media. His silence was rumored to have replaced the gold backing the Rupee and yet, Manmohan remained silent.
On 27 February 2002, the Sabarmati Express, carrying sevaks returning from Ayodhya started to pull away from Godhra junction but was halted. What followed remains contentious but it’s very clear that 58 innocent people were burned to death and consigned to a grave of twisted metal. The next day, hell broke loose. The 2002 Gujarat Riots (or Pogrom as many refer to it) are now permanently etched in the nation’s mind as angry Hindu mobs burned Muslims, children and disemboweled pregnant women (a third of the victims in this horrifying and senseless episode of violence were also Hindus). Babu Bajrangi, the best known personification of a turd, proudly bragged on camera about killing Muslims by throwing them into pits and chucking burning tires onto them. He also invoked brave Maharajas of yore as he wound through his nauseating and repulsive tale. He and a witch called Maya Kodnani now languish in life imprisonment.
In 2006, I covered Ahmedabad and north Gujarat as part of a sales training stint. The person helping me cover a particularly communally sensitive area became a close friend and we often hung out together after work. One day, as we covered a sales route dotted with burned out shells of shops, I asked him what had happened. That evening he narrated his tale. After the Godhra incident, he’d received a call the next morning letting him know that something was being planned and he should keep himself and his sales crew ready for “action”. Panicked, he called all the Muslim shopkeepers on his route and asked them to clear out. Then he destroyed his SIM card. He refused to tell me what happened after that but he told me he still manages to sleep at night safe in the knowledge that his calls saved many lives, even though their businesses were destroyed. I asked him what the Police did. He shook his head and said they stood by and literally encouraged the mob to go about its business. I listened, stunned. He shook his head forlornly and asked me to forget about it. He personally didn’t think it went as high up as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, a gentleman called Narendra Damodardas Modi, but the situation had gotten so out of hand that even Modi would’ve found it difficult to curb. Nonetheless, what emanated from the Chief Minister’s office were some platitudes but mostly resounding silence.
The silence has continued for a decade. Modi was interrogated about his role in the riots by a Special Investigative Team at the behest of the Supreme Court. He was exonerated. There’s a famous Karan Thapar interview in which he’s quizzed about his role in the riots and he takes a sip of water and walks off, leaving a flummoxed Karan Thapar to deal with the ensuing silence.
Meanwhile, his star has continued to rise over the course of a decade, driven by the well-earned perception of having kept Gujarat on the road to economic prosperity and even accelerating that momentum. Nonetheless, rumors continue to swirl of discrimination against Muslims in his state but Modi has remained silent. More than a decade has passed since Godhra and activists continue to exhort Modi to own up, confess or express regret. He remains silent, and with good reason. There is absolutely nothing left to gain by expressing regret other than a negative association with the riots and creating a perception of weakness.
And weak, he’s not.
Modi is an interesting study in perception management. Measured, stoic, formidable and forceful in his speeches, he can own the crowd with his personality. He’s also aided in this endeavor by a ruthlessly efficient coterie of advisors and an endearing story of humble beginnings. He’s the polar opposite of Manmohan Singh, now perceived as a henpecked marionette, dancing to the orders of his Italian-born controller, Sonia Gandhi. Modi is a welcome breath of fresh air for Indians sickened by the nepotism and inefficiency of the UPA Govt. Modi has deliberately played up his role as an economic magician because that’s his strong suite. He promises a heady elixir of economic stimulation and infrastructure development through pro-business policies and an efficient bureaucracy. These aren’t empty promises. He has Gujarat to offer as proof. Many analyses have attempted to knock down Gujarat as only “one of the high-performing states in India, outdone by Maharashtra” but in all honestly, a performing state is a performing state (and I will weep blood at the prospect of Sharad Pawar as India’s PM).
Modi also brings two significant pieces of baggage to his candidacy – his links to the RSS and his ardent supporters.
The RSS has always been an awkward association for the BJP which, during election time, seeks to distance itself from the pro-Hindutva garbage spewed by RSS functionaries. I think it’s a testament to the true secular fabric of India that the BJP feels compelled to adopt a more moderate stance during election season and Modi is no exception. Again, his silence about the RSS and Hindutva during his campaign is interesting.
Then there are his supporters. Modi fanboys are dreadful, especially online. Masters of abuse and rhetoric, they’ve driven Ram Guha to the verge of insanity and frequently show up in Twitter mentions and Facebook comments with crude messages of hate, bigotry and misogyny. Unfortunately these elements are increasingly feeling empowered as the Modi juggernaut gains momentum. I wonder if Modi will continue to maintain his silence if these neanderthals were to embark on a victory rampage. I mean, these are folks who are investing in creating a mind-melting personality cult through Modi slogans and comics. How rational do you think they are?
At the same time, I’ve also interacted with normal, well-meaning folks who support Modi for the welcome change he is compared to the current government (please don’t tell me that a candidate is unequivocally perfect. It’s always in comparison to someone else). These people (and I count my parents, friends and good folks I follow online among them) are confronted with an ever increasing barrage of opposition questioning their moral choices. Every day, op-eds and open letters condemning Modi appear and every day his star continues to rise. This isn’t coincidence, this is a tradeoff of priorities. There’s significant moral ambivalence to Modi’s story but it’s clearly not as much of an imperative as the need to save pride and incomes. And I’m no one to judge this tradeoff, especially if it’s a moral one. It’s also interesting how Modi alone has been consistently tagged as communal although this litany of riots proves that the political class in general is fairly unconcerned about the lives of others.
And so it’s in the juxtaposition of two silences that the story of this election emerges. Indians are tired of of a silence that signals weakness and humiliation. Indians want to reclaim their pride with a man who understands how to manage his silences like a genius.
As of this writing, it appears that sometime in May 2014, a quiet, simple and dignified man will be sworn in as the fourteenth Prime Minister of India.
(My piece on AAP and some important disclaimers are available here.)
(Edit: Some blogsplaining seems to be necessary. I will not vote for Modi on moral grounds. The reasons are mentioned in the post. At the same time, I’m also trying to understand the factors which allow so many of us to move past those uncomfortable choices and rationalize. Hence, the post is a compilation of factors that are seen as positives for Modi, which make rationalizing easier. Such rationalization isn’t necessarily wrong. And I don’t have the right to impose my morality on others, but I can use it to make personal decisions.)