India thrives on absurdity.
An Italian-born Catholic widow is the de facto leader of the nation. In its most populous state of Uttar Pradesh, a young Chief Minister, newly-elected on a mandate of change, handed a known criminal the charge of the state’s Prison department. Early in the year, brouhaha erupted over the hurt thatThe Satanic Verses continued to cause Indian Muslims, preventing its writer Salman Rushdie from attending the Jaipur Literature Festival. Last week Rushdie freely delivered the keynote address at a prominent conclave in the capital.
That was possible because the ruling Congress, which had fomented the ruckus with an eye on Muslim votes, was too busy licking its wounds after a stinging electoral loss. Indulging in competitive communalism has been the Congress party’s rallying card for several decades now - Mrs Gandhi, party leader and India’s longest-ruling Prime Minister, was its champion. Even as she maintained the facade of a secular nationalist party she divvied up the electorate along religious and caste lines, pitching the Congress as the secular alternative to a fundamentalist Hindu party.
It was one way to capture votes of the myriad minorities that account for roughly 20% of India’s population. But other parties, especially regional, have wisened up to the game, and the Congress has lost a crucial support plank.
Additionally, the middle class Hindu voter, disillusioned with the governing Congress coalition not delivering on economic reforms, is seeking to fill the vacuum it perceives in Central leadership.
Enter Narendra Modi, featured on the cover of the latest Time magazine with a ratifying caption: Modi Means Business.
Mr Modi has governed Gujarat for ten years during which the state’s GDP has grown at 11%, earning it the moniker ‘India’s Guangdong’. It is no wonder then that industry loves him. Gujarat is also India’s most urbanized state and its middle class has benefited most from the growth story.
Frustrated with India’s endemic corruption and slow growth, people have begun to posit Mr Modi as the no-nonsense CEO who will fix India’s problems as Prime Minister come the next general elections in 2014.
A Gujarati friend emailed me snippets from the Time coverage: the iron fist of Mr Modi was waiting to ratchet up India’s GDP and lift millions out of abject poverty.
And yet, my friend added, neo-liberals such as myself with their belief in bumbling democracy were standing in the way of India’s economic galvanization that the business-minded Mr Modi would unleash.
Admittedly, I am cautious.
I grew up on the border between India and Pakistan, in a town suffused with stories of partition, which was declared a ‘hotbed of militancy’ during the Sikh separatist movement of the 80s, and went sullen after the 1984 anti-Sikh pogrom. It grew me up an old liberal who knows that there is no justification for communal carnage, whatever ‘Time’ it is in - 1947, 1984, 1992, 2002. Mr Modi oversaw the deaths of 2000 Muslims under his watch as the Chief Minister of Gujarat, and he remains unapologetic about that pogrom.
But in a country infamous for its Hindu rate of growth he has certainly struck a chord. Let’s examine therefore the acclaimed growth story and how it has worked for minority Muslims, who form 9% of Gujarat’s population.
Tehelka magazine bared the truth in a detailed report in October 2011. Urban Muslims are 8 times poorer than upper-caste Hindus in Gujarat, twice the national average. While it is mandated that minorities get 15% of priority sector lending, Muslims in Gujarat get 2-3%. Out of 52,260 scholarships that minority students should have got in Gujarat, none have been given. The Muslim share of bank accounts in Gujarat is 12% but their loan amount outstanding is only 2.6%, implying they do not get loans.
Mr Modi’s beacon shines selectively. Yet, there are those who argue that it is time we give him a chance to run the nation - how much worse can it get?
If Mr Modi is elected Prime Minister, it’ll be the first time that a person with such an ignominious human rights record has gained the high office.
The present government is justly blamed for its shoddy performance. But India hasn’t seen a riot in the last ten years.
India is an unnatural nation. That a country riven by multiple axes of conflict, as the historian Ramachandra Guha says, could be bound into one nation was absurd. Yet, India was founded on the idea of a common humanity that would thread our language-religion-culture-class-caste diversity. It is a moral idea.
That moral idea, shaped as “a sovereign socialist secular democratic republic”, is enshrined in the Preamble to our constitution. ‘Prime Minister Modi’ is inimical to that idea.
Mr Modi’s moral compass is clearly broken. It remains to be seen if India’s is.