Voting for Order
The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) victory in India’s general election was hailed as a critical juncture for the country’s economy – some going as far as to state that it ‘remakes our world.’ While predicting the future of India’s may be an invigorating task, we should take notice of the more immediate implications of these elections: the installment as Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy of a man with murky links to an anti-Muslim pogrom.
For those not familiar with the events, a brief explanation is called upon here. In September 2001, the ruling BJP in the western state of Gujarat suffered a twin defeat in a crucial by-election. Faced with an impending defeat, the party leadership called upon Narendra Modi, a life-long member of the Rashtriya Samyamsevak Sangh (a paramilitary Hindu nationalist organization), to take over the post of Chief Minister. Then, in February 2002, 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed inside a burning train in the Gujarati town of Godhra after an altercation with Muslims. While responsibility for the train fire remains intensely disputed, Modi supported the nationalists’ call for an unconstitutional general strike and ordered the dead bodies to be brought to Gujarat’s capital Ahmedabad, where they were displayed publicly.
According to Human Rights Watch, the next morning thousands of Hindu activists took to the streets of the capital equipped with an assortment of weapons and lists of Muslim homes and businesses. This enabled them to locate their targets with precision. In the following three days, over a thousand Muslims were killed and roughly 200,000 displaced. Reports describe the gruesome nature of the attacks: women and girls were gang-raped and set on fire, the wombs of pregnant women cut open and their fetuses burnt alive, children shot at gunpoint by police officers. Mass gravesites sprouted throughout the city of Ahmadabad. For his part, the otherwise hands-on Modi refused to deploy the soldiers until twenty-four hours after they arrived in the state. On March 1st, the day the first army contingents arrived in the capital, Modi stated that the “(t)he five crore (50 million) people of Gujarat have shown remarkable restraint under grave provocation,” referring to the Godhra incident. Eventually, Modi called an early election for October 2002, in which he celebrated his first electoral victory.
Opinions about the riots remain sharply divided. Modi and the Gujarati government deny holding back the army, instead presenting the violence as a spontaneous and uncontrollable popular outburst. However, both the Human Rights Watch and the National Human Rights Commission of India (NHRC) have concluded that Modi and state government officials were complicit in the violence. Leading India experts in US academia agreed (also here, and here) that the incidents constituted an Anti-Muslim pogrom designed to raise the salience of a majoritarian Hindu identity in the eve of state elections. Compelled by the evidence in March 2005, the US Department of State imposed a rare visa ban on Modi – a ban that was overturned earlier this year ahead of the national elections.
Over recent years, criminal prosecutions have resulted in the arrest and conviction of over 200 individuals, among which Maya Kodnani, a BJP member of the state assembly and a former minister of Modi’s cabinet. The soon-to-be Prime of India, however, has refused to accept any responsibility or even sorrow for the suffering of Muslims under his administration. In 2009, the Indian Supreme Court asked a Special Investigation Team (SIT) to investigate a criminal complaint against Modi, filed by the widow of a Congress Party state legislator killed during the riots. For three times – 2011, 2012 and 2013 – the Court absolved Modi of culpability in the riots saying there was insufficient evidence to prosecute him. This enabled Modi and his supporters to claim of having received a ‘clean chit’ from the country’s Supreme Court.
The exoneration came just in time for the 2014 national elections. Despite the Congress party’s unsuccessful attempts to portray Modi as a dangerous xenophobe, the BJP was able to brush aside accusations related to Gujarat riots in the campaign trail. Rather, economic growth, job creation and control of inflation dominated voters’ concerns. No wonder then that Modi announced in his victory speech that he is ready to return this love ‘in the form of development.’
So are the riots water under the bridge? Probably not, at least for the 69 per cent of the electorate who did not vote for the BJP in this election. Still, the 31 per cent who voted for Modi constituted the BJP’s highest vote share ever. Even Muslim-dominated constituencies, such as Chandni Chowk in Delhi, have come round to electing a BJP member of parliament. Moreover, the combined vote share of the BJP and the Indian National Congress (INC), the two main parties in Indian politics, was a meager 51 per cent. This means that repudiation of Modi’s alleged role in the riots did not translate directly into an anti-Modi wave. Have the riots been forgotten amidst a sea of economic aspirations?
My impression after spending the past few months conducting field research in India on ethnic politics is that Modi’s role in the 2002 riots is far from forgotten. In my conversations with a cross-section of Indian society, from rickshaw drivers to policy experts to the urban middle classes, discussions about Modi inevitably turn on the riots. But, while most think Modi does not deserve a ‘clean chit’, many see this as a point to his advantage. For, whereas a ‘clean chit’ would expose his incompetence as a state administrator, his complicity makes Modi a fearsome and resolute political leader. And for many voters, Modi’s enforcer persona offers a quality that seems utterly necessary in Indian politics: the capacity to impose order.
From this prism, contemporary India looks an awful lot like Samuel P. Huntington’s account of a rapidly modernizing society. On the one hand, urbanization, Huntington’s chief measure of modernization, is now taking place in India at a faster pace than ever: according to the latest Census data, between 2001 and 2011, the urban population grew 3.4 per cent – higher than the 2.3 per cent in the previous decennial. There are now over 53 urban agglomerations in India with a population over one million, compared to 35 in 2001. On the other hand, the Congress Party, one of the two institutions Huntington credited for India’s political stability, seems to have lost the capacity to govern. This also matches Huntington’s description of institutional decay during periods of intense modernization: “Most societies, even those with fairly complex and adaptable traditional political institutions, suffer a loss of political community and decay of political institutions during the most tense phases of modernization” (Huntington 1968: 86). Ultimately, from the fall in the Rupee’s exchange rate, to crime, to the consecutive corruption scandals, there is a sense amongst the electorate that India has grown unruly under the Congress.
By contrast, Modi certainly looks like someone who can govern. But before joining in the buoyant bandwagon, we must be wary about how Modi chooses to govern. In fact, based on the logic of ethnic violence, we should not be surprised to find out that Modi’s nationalist side has been subdued in this election: he had anti-incumbency on his side. Yet, this may well change once the electoral field becomes competitive again. And as the attacks on the Indian consulate in Afghanistan on May 23 demonstrate, there will be then no shortage of opportunities to pull the trigger.
By Diogo Lemos, PhD Candidate in Political Science, GWU. Diogo is currently in India conducting field research on ethnic politics in urban areas under a Sigur Center summer field research grant.
The views expressed in this blog post belong to the author and do not reflect the opinions of the Rising Powers Initiative.