Questioning Democracy: A Look at India 10 Years After The Gujarat Riots

Is Narendra Modi, the man who was responsible for India’s worst riots since independence, going to become one of the main candidates for the 2014 elections? Ten years after the deadly communal riots broke out in Gujarat, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government, with Narendra Modi as Chief Minister, continues strong, having won the past two state elections with over two-thirds majority. This raises two sets of puzzling questions: Why do voters continue to view Modi in a positive light, despite the knowledge that he colluded with state police to assume a passive role during the course of the riots? And how has the nature of party politics in India allowed such deficiencies in the democratic process to persist?

Sworn in as Chief Minister of Gujarat in 2001, Modi watched as a carnage was committed in broad daylight by Hindu mobs. Mobilized by the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP), a volunteer-based Hindu nationalist organization, a large number of Hindu mobs attacked and looted Muslim homes.  The precipitating event for these bloody massacres was said to be an attack by radical Islamists on a train containing VHP activists.

A 2011 report attested that two ministers sat in the police controls, remaining deliberately oblivious to the riots raging outside. Much earlier in 2003, a senior police officer and minister were murdered for having said that the police was instructed by Modi not to intervene.  This is not the only blot on Modi’s record as Chief Minister. Gujarat has also become infamous for its extrajudicial killings, commonly referred to as ‘staged encounters’, where the security forces in the state target ‘terror suspects’ even when they do not have a criminal record.

Despite this, in a poll conduced by India Today, one of India’s leading magazines, in February 2012, 24% voted that they wanted Narendra Modi as the next Prime Minister of India, with Rahul Gandhi, his nearest rival, getting 17% of the votes. This number is astonishing given that, in another online poll, Modi received the highest number of ‘no’ votes on The Times’  100 most influential people, making him the most disliked person on the list. How has Modi managed to gain such popularity despite the obvious doubts cast about him when he presided over the carnage in 2002? Much of his popularity seems rooted in economic performance. In 2008, the Tata Group, one of India’s biggest industrial giants came to Gujarat. This marked a turning point as it gave a positive signal to investors. Soon after, Ford and Peugeot also followed. This carefully crafted image of a state open to FDI, which focuses on improving the welfare of its citizens via economic growth, has its fair share of supporters.

The lack of accountability and failure to adhere to the rule of law which we see in Gujarat persists, I believe, due to the nature of the federal structure of the country and the demands of coalition politics. The latter especially has resulted in a highly fragmented party system, where parties are more interested in short-term goals at the expense of governance, accountability and even reputation. The federal structure of India has long been praised for its ability to give political space to constituencies that would not otherwise have received a voice in a unitary structure. But, this has come at a price. The two main national political parties – the Congress and the BJP –  have been unable to produce charismatic leaders in recent times. Combined with the rise of regional parties who are seen as pawns in building a large-enough coalition at the national level, it has resulted in a weak central government – a government that has to place a greater premium on short-term goals such as survival via clientelistic policies, rather than more broad-ranging reforms. These regional parties, in turn, have recognized their importance at the national level, and many of their leaders have now become powerful figures — such as Modi — and can successfully avoid orders coming from not only within their own parties, but also both the center and the Supreme Court.

Given all this, does the BJP have a good chance at getting a shot at power in the next national election? Though the past two elections have seen the Congress-dominated United Progressive Alliance (UPA) come to power at the center, there is a lot more skepticism about the ability of the UPA to deliver, especially in its second term. UPA has recently been plagued with problems of corruption, high inflation, rising fuel costs, and a depreciating rupee. If the defeat of the Congress in the March 2012 Utter Pradesh state elections (where 80 parliamentary seats and the votes of 200 million were at stake) is to be considered a yardstick to judge Gandhi’s performance, then the party is in trouble.

So what does this imply for Modi’s ambitions? If economic performance is the main reason that Modi continues to dominate, then many segments of society may have a lot to fear. However,  Modi generates polarizing reactions at three levels. First, at the intra-party level, there are more moderate right-wing politicians within the BJP who fear that Modi might alienate large segments of the population because of his emphasis on virulent Hindu nationalism. At the level of coalition politics, there are many regional parties (such as Nitish Kumar’s JD(U) and Mamata Banerjee’s Trinamool Congress), who would hesitate to ally with Modi, as a large chunk of their voters are Muslim. Finally, at the level of the national polity, voters would much rather see a moderate rightist leader head BJP than Modi. In fact, if Modi does succeed in becoming the prime ministerial candidate for BJP, one can be sure that the Muslim population and many other segments of the population will not only ally with the Congress, but will also pressure their regional parties into allying with the Congress.

So it remains to be seen – is India going to witness the onset of a capitalist government that perpetuates hatred against ethnic minorities, similar to Thaksin’s government inThailand? Or are the citizens once again going to place their faith in the Congress, forcing them to create a strategy based on reform and programmatic policies?

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