2007, Baroda, Reportage, Tehelka

How to Elect a Fascism

Narendra Modi has married progress to Hindutva with a diabolical brilliance the Congress has offered few answers to. SANKARSHAN THAKUR reports.First published in Tehelka on December 29, 2007

Mask of the Man
Mask of the Man

MR MEHTA told me a simple and quite stunning thing: To understand Gujarat, understand Gujaratis first, there is nothing that matters more to them than dhando and dharma, business and religion. Would it be in that order, Mr Mehta? Quite, he said, what dharma are you going to do on an empty stomach? But please understand this carefully because a lot of you don’t, Gujarat is what Gujaratis make it, not what people like you want it to be, don’t fit our image to the requirements of your frame.

It had begun with a casual remark on the flight from Delhi to Vadodara, but slowly turned into a long and blunt discourse on understanding Gujaratis. “So you are one of those people,” he had said, with no wish to veil his sardonic tone, “You will go to Gujarat and tell the world what a terrible place it is, what a terrible people Gujaratis are.”

But terrible things have happened in Gujarat.

And a great many good things too, why does everyone ignore that? We are the country’s most prosperous part, everybody is happy. Not everybody, there are lots of people who are terribly unhappy, they have suffered, they are denied justice, they live oppressed.

Oh, only a small part, and that happens everywhere, injustice is everywhere. And why do you only always talk about them? Muslims are only a small part of Gujarat. But they are part of Gujarat and they live like second-class citizens.

Then they are free to leave, this is a free country, go away. There are many others in Gujarat, why do you not talk about them? Most people are prosperous and happy, nobody talks of them, they are Gujaratis too, why is nothing said about how they are, what they think, how they want to run their lives, what they think is right? You cannot tell us what is right and wrong, we must judge what is right for us.

Killing thousands of people and denying them justice cannot be right.

Of course not, I am not supporting what happened in 2002. And I probably know more about what happened then than TEHELKA has reported and the likes of Teesta Setalvad scream about. But these things happen, they happen everywhere, not just in Gujarat, people react, political parties react and often the reaction is violent. It happened in your Delhi in 1984, nobody goes on and on about it. Why do people go on and on about 2002, as if that is the only thing that happened in Gujarat? Many other things have happened, nobody talks about them. Do you know we have not had a single riot since 2002? And do you know why? Because it was made clear to Muslims we will not put up with nonsense any more, they were taught a lesson and they remain reined in. Peace has been achieved.

And at what cost?

That is not important, what is important is that there have been no riots, what is important is that Gujaratis are prospering and are happy. Gujarat is not Muslims alone, Gujarat is many, many more people. Why does nobody talk about them? We are not man-eaters, but we are entitled to our likes and dislikes. It is important to learn what we think, what is right for us.

And what is right for you?

But don’t you know already?

You will know
soon, and you will stay say it is wrong, that electing Narendra Modi is wrong. Can’t you see the fallacy of it all, telling the people they are wrong, telling Gujaratis they are wrong, they voted wrong, is that not anti-democratic?

Hitler was elected too, and we all know what he did. So are you telling me you agree with what the Jewish nation is doing in the Middle-East? I might agree with it, but do you

That’s an entirely different context, history has moved.

This is a different context too, but people like you will not understand because you don’t want to, you will impose the will of a small minority on the majority. But why? Is that not wrong too? Don’t try to preach to Gujaratis what to do, which way to go, they know well enough, and they will let you know soon.

YOU DON’T ask in the cities and towns. It’s a waste of time, unless, of course, Modi worship is music to your ears. The most diehard Congressman, the most optimistic liberal will tell you that — pointless asking about in the cities and towns, barring a few pockets of Leuva Patel rebellion in Saurashtra, they are all quite Modified.

Urban Gujarat is a partitioned demography presided over by the smug Modi smile, architect extraordinaire of fractures. Everywhere you go, you see the neon-lit eruption of seething frontiers mined with malevolence: distilled prejudice and hatred, often bilious flashes of anger, always displays of distrust and suspicion, of vile and vicious myth — the first thing a Muslim child is taught is how to slaughter a cow, Hindus are bent and devious, that is why they produce the best spinners. Bigotry begets bigotry, there’s little to choose between one kind or the other. But divides have their uses, especially at election time. Modi has reason to wear that smug smile, on his face and on the millions of China-made masks his propaganda machine has blitzed the state with. He has the greater bigotry behind him in urban Gujarat, there’s no arguing with that.

In most other states, that could be cause for comfort to the adversary — how far can a party with an urban base go, after all? But in Gujarat, that Indian truism stands upended. Close to 60 per cent of Gujarat is urban or semi-urban today. Thirty cities with populations in excess of one lakh, thirty other towns that have more than 50,000 people. A city hasn’t ended when a town begins and where the town tapers off and you are announced into a village, you must often gape — metalled streets, concrete housing, water, electricity, satellite TV, drainage and, fairly routinely, an NRI-fed stretch of ultra well-being: ATMs, air-conditioning, food courts that offer a vegetarian carnival. “The last few years have been great,” says Sudarshan Vyas, “Strong leadership and good governance have given people like me a stake in coming back and investing. This is what we have always needed.” Vyas has come back from the United States to his oncehumble village near Anand in central Gujarat to vote Modi. “This place is a sea-change from what it used to be, I can be in Ahmedabad in less than an hour, the roads are so good, and there is constant electricity so I can provide my old parents all the worldly comforts they can have. What more do you want?” Pointless querying Vyas about Gujarat’s Muslims; he’d tell you much the same things as Mr Mehta: Modi has made Gujarat safe and profitable for us, who cares what happens to the rest?

“Urbanisation is happening at a brisk rate in Gujarat,” says social scientist Achyut Yagnik, “and Modi has cleverly married the logic of Hindutva to the interests of that notion of prosperity to the exclusion of all else, that is the bedrock of Modi’s support base.” In that sense, Modi’s appeal isn’t very dissimilar to the alchemy of nationalism and progress Nazism once sold. Many have come to believe that Modi’s hard and heavy-handed Hindutva is the only insurance against disruptions that would imperil dhando. It’s a belief that holds good for the big industrialist and the small cornershop owner alike. “I’ll get to work only 20 days out of 30 if Modi is gone,” says our taxi driver, “There will be clashes and curfews every other day, we will sit idle and lose money. Under Modi nobody feels encouraged to disrupt life, that is what is good about him, strong man, no nonsense permitted.”

It is a myth, of course, that Modi is the fount of all of Gujarat’s visible prosperity, but it is a myth he has been able to sell well, it is a myth popularly believed, it is a myth that has become babble on the tongues of the thousands you meet wearing Modi masks. You don’t need Modi to announce any more that his five years in power have been better than the 45 years of the Congress, every other person you come across will tell you that until you begin to go numb with the truth of the myth. “Look at the Sensex,” argues a hosiery merchant at his till in Dahod’s chaotic hub, “Would the Sensex go so high without Narendrabhai? Think about it.” Popular election- time rhetoric has little time for analysis or history. With those that have convinced themselves of the Modi magic, it is pointless arguing that Gujarat has always been a relatively prosperous state, that Modi inherited a sound economic base, that Gujarat is also reaping the rewards of the buoyancy in the national economy.

And those that could have credibly challenged the myth did not. The Congress joined the argument too late and when it did, it did so with unstrategised dissonance. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh arrives in Gujarat singing a song of liberalisation and of his party’s “big role” in the well-being of Gujaratis. His partymen are still extolling Nehruvian socialism. In the tribal heartland of Dahod, where the Congress is meant to be doing extremely well, party leaders are chanting the Indira mantra. “Modi is the party of the rich, the Congress is the party of the poor,” says Jaisingh Dangi, Congressman and tribal sarpanch of Mota Hathidra. “The poor, they are all with us, you will see, Indiraben had given us the right slogans.” But who remembers Indiraben anymore, you wonder. “The old kakas all remember Indiraben,” Dangi announces enthusiastically. But this campaign is not about the kakas. Garibi Hatao seems no longer a resonant cry in these parts, it’s swung on Amiri Badhao; the local grocer is playing the satta-bazaar on his mobile.

The Congress campaign lumbers from blunder to blunder, utterly uninspired by selfbelief. Its tagline for the poll is a skittish response to Modi’s “Jeetega Gujarat”. It reads“Chak de Gujarat”. Most of its talking points are reactive rather than proactive and they achieve more for Modi than for the Congress.

The latest is a poll ad with a picture of Masood Azhar emblazoned on top, the Congress’ way of trying to embarrass Modi on the handling of the Kandahar hijack. But that’s grist to Modi’s mill; he’s able to turn it around to telling effect. “There was a time when Mahatma Gandhi’s photographs used to appear on Congress posters, now they have Masood Azhar.” The crowd is in splits. This is Borsad in central Gujarat, traditionally Congress territory, home to Madhavsinh Solanki, former chief minister, and Bharat Solanki, current state Congress boss. But fifteen minutes of Modi demagoguery and you would not believe Borsad had never returned anyone but a Congress candidate since Independence. The man is almost Lalooesque on stage, casting a spell on the crowd with a rich weave of colloquialism, hyperbole and sarcasm until he has begun to command it like a puppeteer.

“They are calling Gujaratis murderers, tell me are you murderers?”

NO!“They are calling me a murderer, tell me am I a murderer?”

NO!!“You elected me last time, tell me did you elect a murderer?”

NO!!!“Have you ever heard a corruption charge against me?”

NO!!!!“They say I have 250 pairs of clothes, tell me should I be walking naked?”

NO!!!!! And rapturous laughter.

Modi flags are fluttering. Men wearing Modi masks and Modi shirts are doing mock victory laps in the crowds, waving, cockading, Modi-style. This is the Laloo Yadav of 2000, playing on hurt provincial pride, turning the “jungle raj” slogan against him upside down. So is Modi exhorting Gujaratis to send a response to all those who’ve been criticising Gujarat. “They say horrible things have happened in Gujarat, have horrible things happened?” NO!!!!!!!

You’d worry to your bones if you were a Congressman at a Modi show. You’d worry even if you were BJP, for this campaign has been the foundation ceremony of a separate entity: the Modi cult. His masks, his posters, his slogans, Modi, Modi, Modi all the way. The Sangh and the BJP are not used to such individualism, they work with cadres and command flows top down. Modi hasn’t seemed to care. “He has bypassed the party and the Parivar and gone straight to the people,” says a senior Ahmedabad journalist. “So much so that Advani has seemed to want him more than the other way round. And if he wins this one, the BJP will have a serious problem on its hands.”

You can sense what he is riding on all across Gujarat — the oppressive power of the excess of numbers. The subtext of these elections is not the idea of equality, it is the affirmation of the hegemony of the many over the few. Modi has refused even to acknowledge the minority, leave alone woo it. “Nobody talks about the Muslims,” says Prakash Karan, a retired engineer. “Nobody discusses what happened or is happening, nobody is interested, as if it was a closed chapter, it is suffocating. I have known people who fear to utter a word against Modi in public, there’s a frightening conspiracy of silence. If you are for Modi, you shout it out from the rooftops, if you are against, you merely listen.”

NOT FOR nothing does JS Bandukwala, probably the most celebrated and articulate survivors of Gujarat’s poisoned flames, go around preaching forgive and forget. Not for nothing is Usmancha, vendor of luscious kebabs in Ahmedabad’s Bhatiargali, arguing it is better Modi comes back to power.“Aur lafda nai hone ka, aur pitai nai khane ka, dhanda karna hai ne, chup se baitho, paisa kamao, zindagi chalao (don’t want more trouble, don’t want to be hit again, stay silent, earn your buck and get on with life).” Usmancha’s friend, wizened, white-bearded, is nodding assent. “Kya fayda? Modi aane se hi aman hai, sabko pata hai kaun kitne paani mein hai, hum to akliyat hain na (what’s the use? It’s better if Modi comes back, everybody here knows who stands where, and after all we are in a minority).”

Tridip Suhrud, one of the few liberal and forthright voices you come across in Gujarat, would still pin hope on those who do not speak, or speak out. “There is a section that does not like Modi, wants him out, but they are silent, it is time they spoke.” Suhrud himself has been speaking out at every forum he can find but he can sense the absence of resonance. Last week, members in the audience of a live TV show protested his presence on the panel and shouted him down. Retired police officer RB Sreekumar, who has been exposing the Modi administration’s partisan excesses in 2002, had to be escorted out of another show under guard. “In many senses, Gujarat has become a terrible place,” Suhrud says. “Even in Ahmedabad there are very few people you can talk to, and few whom you can reason with.” So, much as Suhrud and his like may hope, they themselves are proclaiming minority status in Modi’s Gujarat. And waiting, in desperate hope, for silence to speak.

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