Byline by M.J. Akbar: Guilt by any other Name
As politicians go, Narendra Modi is among the least corruptible. Money is not his weakness. So there you are: a hero to minority-haters, competent, honest, ambitious. It is the kind of biodata that can take you places. There are enough middle-roaders who would be happy to overlook the riots in exchange for competence and personal probity. Liberals may loathe Modi, but they would be foolish to ignore him or his potential.
So is Narendra Modi a hero then, thanks to George Bush and Condoleezza Rice?
Of the many reasons for taking a position on the Gujarat chief minister and his adoring fans in the American Asian Motel Owners Association, who have been seeking his charismatic presence on their motel-soil for perhaps two years now, this has to be silliest. The relevant point is not whether Narendra Modi has become a hero. The point to note is that he is already a hero to those who hero-worship him.
It did not need Bush or Rice to persuade the motel-owners, many of them fellow-Gujaratis, to adore Modi or make him their star guest. They did not want Atal Behari Vajpayee or Lal Krishna Advani; and certainly not Dr Manmohan Singh or Sonia Gandhi. They wanted Narendra Modi and no one but him, which is why they were prepared to wait. He became their hero when he supervised a pogrom against the Muslims of Gujarat after the Godhra incident three years ago. It was the kind of "revenge" that pleased the heart of hate-mongers. Since then Narendra Modi’s problem has been to check similar heroism without losing his fan base.
Narendra Modi is a politician with both ambition and a strategy, which itself is unusual. All, well, most, politicians are ambitious, but rather than developing a strategy they wait for stars to bring them luck and joy. Modi believes that the infamous riots have provided him with a cushion-vote of some 15 million Indians. This, apparently, is his estimate of the core "anti-Muslim" vote in India. He is building other vote blocs on that to become the most popular leader of his party and by virtue of that a future Prime Minister of India.
His strategy is cool and logical. Having taken command of the venom vote he does not need to spew venom anymore. He can now concentrate on proving that he is an excellent administrator, which he is. His reputation as an effective chief minister is growing steadily but surely. Moreover, his palm does not itch in the manner of, say, Pramod Mahajan, a contemporary with similar ambitions if less strategy. As politicians go, Modi is among the least corruptible. Money is not his weakness. So there you are: a hero to minority-haters, competent, honest, ambitious. It is the kind of biodata that can take you places. There are enough middle-roaders who would be happy to overlook the riots in exchange for competence and personal probity. Liberals may loathe Modi, but they would be foolish to ignore him or his potential.
The principal yardstick of public life is not justice, but success. Success tends to drown out accountability, while failure invites quick punishment. Modi’s success in the Assembly elections, when he brought the BJP back to life from a comatose state, exonerated his mischief.
This was not mischief behind a curtain. This was not corruption ferreted out by either fearless or sleazy journalism. This was not a crime that needed too much investigation. It was a macabre, brazen use of state power for political gain, in front of the world’s television cameras and print media. It was a crime whose evidence lies in dozens of photo exhibitions, on Internet sites and archives, and most painfully, in the minds of a generation of young people who watched helplessly as a government abetted hooligans gone berserk, torching homes and killing their loved ones. If there is another definition of genocide I would be grateful for some education.
We in India did very little about Modi. His leader Vajpayee made some noises, which spluttered away and exposed the impotence of a Prime Minister. Nor have his adversaries done anything in particular. The UPA government that succeeded the BJP-led coalition has not even bothered to worry about those riots, except to the extent that a Lalu Yadav wanted to derive his own quota of political mileage from Godhra. It will soon be a year since it has come to power, but the Congress, always ready to expend serious heavy firepower against Mulayam Singh Yadav, who destroyed the BJP in UP and effectively prevented its return to power, has not mounted any effective political campaign against Modi. To be fair, no one else has, either.
Congress and non-BJP chief ministers gladly shake Modi’s hand at ministerial conferences, while media lines up to seek the favours that he can offer from office. (By the way, notch up another Modi success: he has eliminated a great deal of corruption within media.) His party, which saved him from its Prime Minister, does not dare interfere with the rising trajectory of his star. It is sometimes whispered that BJP president Advani would like to remove Modi, but they remain mere whispers. In any case, Advani, who retains a persistent memory of Delhi in the 1984 riots gets amnesia about Ahmedabad in 2002. If India did not bother, there was no reason why the rest of the world should. Britain, Switzerland, Australia and Singapore were happy to give Narendra Modi a visa when he asked for it.
It is extraordinary, then, that, quite out of the blue, Washington took a stand. It is of course symbolic. America can only exercise its right to deny a visa to a non-American. Most of us were unaware of the American law that "makes any government official who was responsible for, or directly carried out at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom, ineligible for a visa". America cannot do anything more, because Modi does not need anything more from America. He has no desire for a green card, or even a holiday. If he was interested in the members of the motel association it was because many of them are of Gujarati origin, and their applause would have resonated well among some sections back home.
According to some knee-jerk analysis, this decision could even become counter-productive. Well, so what? Is justice to be weighed on the scales of popularity, or its not-very-distant relative, prejudice? I am certain that extremists and even terrorists often have popular support. That does not make them less culpable. If we make justice conditional, we erode the foundations of civilisation and sap the life-energy of democracy.
A psychoanalyst would probably find much more in the sometimes overlapping and sometimes disparate layers of Modi’s arguments against the American decision than a columnist. There is a hint of self-incrimination in the plea that if others who have violated human rights can be permitted to visit America, and even welcomed (he can hardly resist mentioning President Pervez Musharraf), why should he be denied a visa? At other moments, there are suggestions that India’s sovereignty has been undermined. Er, not quite. It takes more than a denied visa to undermine our sovereignty. But Narendra Modi does provide one splendid suggestion. Should India refuse a visa to the United States Chief of Army Staff because of the alleged violation of human rights in Iraq? I don’t know about others, but I consider this an absolutely splendid idea. Should Pranab Mukherjee, as our defence minister, lead the campaign to prevent any such visit? That might be over the top, but how about letting this idea loose among all the liberal NGOs and human rights activists whose combined efforts persuaded the United States establishment to stop Modi’s visit? After all, the same yardstick must apply. The evidence for the abuse is visible in hundreds of photographs, and we do not know how much abuse took place with those who were not photographed. There is serious evidence of culpability at the highest levels of the American military. Jeff Jacoby, writing in the Boston Globe and the International Herald Tribune, says: "In August 2003, when he was commander of the military base at Guantanamo Bay, Major General Geoffrey Miller visited Baghdad with some advice for US interrogators at Abu Ghraib prison. As Brigadier General Janis Karpinski, the military police commander in Iraq, later recalled it, Miller’s bottom line was blunt: Abu Ghraib should be ‘Gitmo-ized’ — Iraqi detainees should be exposed to the same aggressive techniques being used to extract information from prisoners in Guantanamo. ‘You have to have full control,’ Karpinski quoted Miller as saying. There can be ‘no mistake about who’s in charge. You have to treat these detainees like dogs’."
Treat these detainees like dogs. Any more evidence needed? Here is some from Afghanistan. "A detainee in the ‘Salt Pit’ — a secret, CIA-funded prison north of Kabul — is stripped naked, dragged across a concrete floor, then chained in a cell and left overnight. By morning he has frozen to death." What was his crime? "He was probably associated with people who were associated with Al Qaeda," a US official explained.
Of course the American military high command never accepted that they were guilty of what happened under their nose.
Neither did Narendra Modi.