I am running below a piece that I wrote in 2002 for a column in India’s Business Standard newspaper, where I suggested that Narendra Modi had the makings of India’s next big leader – and spoke good English. This links with my post today on this blog (click here) and a Times of India article today.
Bystander column July 26 2002
The challenge of Mr Modi
By John Elliott
I was away in London during April and missed the horrific detail of a lot of Gujarat’s riots and killings. But when I got back and read the newspapers, it seemed to me that – like it or not – India had, in Narendra Modi, a new potential national leader. Unlike most politicians, the Gujarat chief minister was arguing passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a strong public speaker and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan – and, whether one liked it or not, he had a commanding presence (some call it ego). To a bystander, he looked like a logical heir for L.K.Advani.
Friends and contacts told me I was wrong. How could a man who had presided over such ghastly bloody carnage ever win popular respect and a wide following? Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. So Mr Modi had no future and, I was assured, was likely to be sent away to some remote corner of the RSS offices in Nagpur.
I visited Gujarat at the end of May and there I heard the same sort of message. Mr Modi, I was told, was being cold-shouldered by ministers in the state government, was lying low, and would soon to be out of office and the political limelight. One of the state’s senior ministers who, according to newspaper reports, had been responsible for leading some of the savage attacks, even came to my hotel room to tell me that he had been maligned and was innocent – and that Mr Modi was an egocentric self-publicist who had used the Godhra aftermath to build his personal political platform but was now isolated and about to go.
I have only met Mr Modi once – before he went to Gujarat as chief minister – when we shouted at each other (as, it seems, one is expected to do) on Star TV’s Big Fight programme. He wouldn’t stop bellowing out his single-minded message in decibels that the sound system fortunately muted for television viewers, and I was trying to ask a question – all of which got lost in a fade-out for adverts. At the end of the programme, we laughed and he asked if he’d spoken enough in English (regrettably I do not speak Hindi) for me to know what he was on about. He hadn’t, but that didn’t matter because it was obvious anyway – strident Hindutva and, in the context of the programme’s subject, anti-Muslim rhetoric. I came away with the impression of a driven and (sometimes) charming politician – a potent mixture for a political leader.
Now Mr Modi has made his pitch by calling on Gujarat’s electorate to endorse his management of the state during the carnage and return him to power. He has dared the Election Commission to let him have early polls in Gujarat so that he can cash in on his (widely deplored) leadership – and pre-empt a Congress revival under its new state chief, Shankersinh Vaghela, who combines both local roots and inside knowledge of how the BJP works. This is a politically understandable move, but it is also a gamble for a man whose potential as a national leader would probably be dashed if he loses.
Significantly Mr Modi has been backed by Mr Advani who, speaking in the Rajya Sabha on Wednesday, even praised his performance as chief minister during the riots. The BJP is arguing that democratic elections will clear the air and enable the state to move on with a newly elected assembly. But that ignores the risk that early polls will stir up simmering communal tensions at a time when there are still unresolved issues – such as who set fire to the train in Godhra that killed 58 Hindu pilgrims and started the violence. In addition, at least 12,000 Muslims who lost their homes are still in refugee camps and thousands of others have not returned home. That itself would lead to potential unrest as well as denying many of the people a vote.
Understandably, the risk of such violence – and human rights violations in Kashmir as well as Gujarat – is causing concern abroad, especially in the US and UK where politicians have to reflect the views of their increasingly significant Indian communities. India will therefore be watched closely in the coming month, especially if it appears that the timing of elections in Gujarat supports the motives of politicians like Mr Modi, whose stance strikes horror in the minds of people across the world. The question that will be asked is whether this election will produce a new potential national leader – and whether that will indicate the future of the BJP and of India.