Byline | MJ Akbar | March 31, 2002

Why Modi deserves

Narendra Modi has done enough by now to win the highest honor that a nation can give. Not our nation. What the chief minister of Gujarat truly deserves is the Nishan-e-Pakistan.

There are at least two Indians who, to my knowledge, have received this high honor from Islamabad, the late Morarji Desai and Dilip Kumar.

Neither served the interest of Pakistan remotely as much as Modi has done in the last four weeks. For Modi has been trying to destroy the idea of India as a nation in which every citizen is equal irrespective of his faith. He has provided the evidence that was once offered only as argument.

That is not the only major favor that Modi has done to Pakistan. Till he started his lynch-mob response to the cruel tragedy of Godhra, all the negative focus of South Asia was concentrated on Pakistan and the state of terror that had been spawned by the state of Pakistan, to use a depressing pun.

Modi has, in a space of days, taken Pakistan off the world's front pages and replaced it with Gujarat. Suddenly, the stories of violence and state-sponsored terror are all coming from Gujarat, each day's tragedy focused through television cameras. If President Pervez Musharraf has not yet sent a thank you letter to his benefactor in Ahmedabad, then the president is remiss.

The television camera has existed through all the stages of the Ayodhya movement, from its revival by Rajiv Gandhi, misled by Arun Nehru, to the searing Rathyatra of L.K. Advani, to the demolition of the Babri Mosque in December 1992, to the riots and bomb blast that followed.

But television as a news-force did not. Television news was still what Doordarshan chose to show you, and it did not choose to show you very much. Zee was still an incipient dream of Subhash Chandra, offering fresh lines in entertainment that would eventually grow with extraordinary speed to become an empire. Star was but a faint glow over a Hong Kong sky, searching for a focus on India. CNN existed, but more in theory than in fact as cable had not yet begun to chain the living room to the box; BBC was still getting its act together. Channels like Aaj Tak and Sahara were not even conceived. E-mail did not exist.

Modi's Gujarat has happened after the media revolution, when every story can become world news in a way that is unprecedented. Modi has shamed India before India and before the world. He has unhinged a crucial element in India's sense of itself as a civilized democracy, and offered every television viewer an image of anarchy wreaking havoc with the wolfish help of a chief minister gone berserk.

That image walked across the world, through the clearing house of American media, even as newspaper journalists confirmed its footprints with detail and analysis that created whirlpools of shock. The shock was not about the violence itself; no one is so naïve as to believe that any society can eliminate the horrors of internecine conflict. The shock was the daily sight and sound of a chief minister justifying lynch mobs, finding excuses for a pogrom and telling blatant lies that were broken up and exposed by reporters.

As if death, arson and revenge were not enough, Modi laced each day with another mental and emotional shock that pandered to the worst aspects of inhuman nature. He valued tragedy on different scales, offering what might be called a two-price theory for death: A Hindu life was worth twice the life of a Muslim. Even to write this seems obscene. Man has not been fortunate enough to create equality among the living but at least there used to be some comfort taken in the fact that death left us all equal. Even that has changed. No responsible Indian has ever thought in this manner through all the horrors that we have witnessed in our nation since its bloodied birth. No Indian can. No Indian will, for such thinking lies outside the ethos, culture and civilization of my India.

Modi belongs to a political party, the BJP, which calls itself more Indian than any other: I doubt if any such communal valuation ever occurred to Prime Minister A.B. Vajpayee or Home Minister L.K. Advani or Human Resources Minister M.M. Joshi, to name the triumvirate at the top of this political hierarchy. Less dramatic perhaps, but of a piece with the twisted thinking that dominates Modi's politics, are the lies that he has been using ad lib and at random and to everyone, including his own leaders about matters such as relief and rehabilitation.

What is it that makes Modi do what he has done? It cannot be politics alone. He is not the first Indian politician to have played politics with communal riots. That list is long and cuts across political parties. The conventional idea is that he was handed Gujarat at a time when the BJP had lost its moorings, and is doing what is necessary to reconsolidate the Hindu vote. The operative word here is "necessary". For that becomes a subjective interpretation.

Cynicism comes naturally to a politician. Perhaps that is a natural defense mechanism in a difficult job. Cynicism is a non-partisan characteristic. Modi is not a cynical politician. Cynicism implies a degree of indifference, and Modi is not indifferent to anything. He is passionate in whatever he does. But his preferred passion is hatred. This is what makes him unique: He actually uses hatred as a political weapon, and employs both subtle and crude means to provoke a similar passion among others. You can see the difference in his eyes; there is gloat floating in them. This is why it is especially dangerous to leave power in the hands of a man like him. It is almost implicit that anyone who has been soaked in the RSS version of Indian history has acquired a deep sense of grievance against Muslims, but Modi is not the only graduate from the RSS school. You do not see this intense, Nazi-type hatred in either the attitude or the behavior of others from this school; the political stance, even when it is acrid, does not become a personal vendetta against a community.

The Gujarat carnage does not stop because Modi does not have the desire to stop it. In one sense he is helpless, because the vengeful emotion that controls him is far more powerful than any other competing force, even suggestions he may be receiving from his own periodic bouts of good sense. The desire to "punish" Muslims just a little more, to "teach them one last lesson" in some unknown village, to spread the political poison to yet another corner before supplies are curtailed becomes irresistible. Where murder has been prevented by the arrival of civil society, pettiness takes over. Officers who have done their duty and shown that there is an India that can keep hold of its values through the haze of blood are transferred. Relief to refugee camps is held back so that hunger may revive dried tears.

Hatred generates far greater energy than love; that is one of the tragedies of human existence. Love is warm blood; hatred is cold blood. If you need a vehicle for your hate, Mr. Modi, direct it at the evildoers who are guilty; no one will stop you from bringing the guilty of Godhra to justice, and let them rot in their own hell. But to hate the innocent is depravity.

No government can prevent an incident, however evil it might be. Perhaps an instant reaction is also unavoidable. But the margin of error disappears after that. One of the first instructions given to a civil servant during training is how to stop a mob. There are instances in Modi's Gujarat itself where civil servants have done their duty because their conscience was above the signals of hate they were receiving.

One serious difficulty about using hate as policy is that at some point it begins to consume the perpetrator. Maybe Modi does not understand this, heady as he is with life-and-death power; what is surprising is that Vajpayee refuses to see what is obvious. He is of course being told what Modi wants him to hear; that this politics of revenge has made Modi into some kind of hero, and that this "heroism" will deliver votes. If Mr. Vajpayee believes this then he does not believe a single line of what he himself has written as a poet.

Strange coincidence. Just as I had written the last sentence, a colleague entered my office and handed me an agency story. It was the text of a new poem by the prime minister, written in Nainital.

Geet nahin gata hoon. / Benaqab chehre hain / Dagh barhe gehre hain / Toota tilism aaj / Sach se bhay khaata hoon / Geet nahin gaata hoon. / Lagi kuch aisi nazar / Bikhra sheeshe ka shahar / Apnon ke mele mein / Meet nahin paata hoon / Peeth mein churi-sa chand / Rahu gaya rekha phand / Mukti ke shaano mein / Bandh jaata hoon. / Geet nahin gaata hoon.

I cannot sing a song. The masks are off; the wounds are deep; the mystery is gone; I am afraid of truth; I cannot sing a song. The eye is evil; the city of glass is shattered; even among my own I cannot find my love. The knife in the back is like a moon, and Rahu has crossed the line; instead of salvation I find myself in shackles. I cannot sing a song.

You have felt the pain, prime minister. You must now give the India we want back to us Indians.