Why 2002 Gujarat riots still matter

Narendra Modi of the BJP is leading the India polls but many say he is biased against minority Muslims.

If someone had told me five years ago that Narendra Modi would be favourite to win India’s 2014 elections, I would have advised them to stay on their meds. It was inconceivable that the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) would even nominate him.

The Gujarat state chief minister had a reputation as a recalcitrant authoritarian, and was disliked by many within his own party. His unabashed commitment to ‘Hindu nationalism’ was viewed with suspicion by India’s vocal middle class and he seemed to lack strong political patrons. By all accounts, Modi was a wild card for voters and the BJP.

But that was a very different country to the one going to the ballot box today. That was the India before GDP growth slumped from an annual nine to below five percent. It was before the ruling Congress-led government became embroiled in multi-billion dollar corruption scams, and before tens of thousands of ordinary people took to the streets to demand an end to graft.

It was also years before a 23-year-old physiotherapy student was gang-raped and murdered in the country’s capital, New Delhi, brutally exposing the apathy of the country’s ruling elite, and their failure to fulfill their most basic responsibilities.

In this climate of economic gloom and political disillusionment, Modi has risen as the Messiah. His authoritarian tendencies are now interpreted as efficiency, his commitment to right-wing Hindu ideology as healthy patriotism.

Hotspot for investment

He is credited for Gujarat’s robust GDP and its enviable infrastructure. The coastal state has one of the lowest unemployment rates in the country and the region is a hotspot for domestic and foreign investment. In the past few years, Ford, Tata Motors, Maruti Suzuki and Peugeot Citroen have all opened plants there.

Modi critics do say that his growth policies have only helped the rich get richer, while further marginalising the poor. Debt also remains a major concern, but still, on several indicators the state is doing very well.

His aggressive courtship of the business community and his focus on living standards has paid off. In September 2013, Nielsen and the Economic Times published a poll that showed 74 out of 100 corporate leaders in India backed Modi as the next prime minister. Latest opinion polls show him galloping ahead of his opponent Rahul Gandhi from the ruling Congress Party. Many Indians see Modi as the no-nonsense technocrat who can return dignity, prosperity and good governance to their country.

But every politician has an Achilles’ Heel, and Modi’s is the Gujarat riots. In February 2002, four months after he first became the state’s chief minister, bloody communal clashes erupted. They were triggered by the death of almost 60 Hindu pilgrims in a train fire in Godhra, reportedly started by a Muslim mob.

In the days and months that followed, more than a thousand people were murdered in revenge killings by Hindu mobs, as entire police units refused to respond. An overwhelming majority of those killed were Muslim.

Victims, activists and even a senior police officer have accused Modi of culpability, alleging that he specifically asked security forces not to intervene. A Supreme Court ordered investigation concluded in 2012 that there was not enough evidence to prosecute him, and Modi has denied responsibility, saying he did all he could to stop the violence.

Human rights concerns

Still, the riot is a conspicuous shadow that hangs over Modi, one the BJP has worked hard to disperse.

“People have moved on,” said Prakash Javadekar, a BJP spokesman, during our recent interview in New Delhi. The Party views any query about the episode as being politically motivated, and part of a Machiavellian campaign to discredit their candidate.

“Nobody talks about Bhagalpur where 1000 Muslims were butchered. Congress chief minister was there…Nobody talks about earlier Gujarat severe riots where thousands of Muslims were killed. Nobody talks about that. Such a partial discourse can show only the bias,” Javadekar told me.

Despite this assertion, the Gujarat riots are a crucial election issue. Not only because of the human rights concerns, but because Modi and the BJP have campaigned hard on a platform of good governance. The obvious question that arises is if Modi could not compel Gujarat’s security forces to clamp down on communal violence for weeks, how effective a government can he run?

As India’s prime minister he would be expected to wield control over the military and respond to several pressing security issues – disputed and volatile borders with Pakistan and China, internal struggle against Maoist rebels, instability in India-administered Kashmir, not to mention persistent communal tensions in many parts of the country.

Modi’s performance during the riots does not bode well for India’s security, and his refusal to apologise suggests lessons have not been learnt. He has walked out of a TV interview when the issue was raised.

Instead of sweeping it into the past or dismissing it as irrelevant, the chief minister and the BJP must directly address concerns about the riots. And they must take steps to reassure India’s 177 million Muslims that such a calamity will never occur again under their watch.