A city, burning
Smoke billowing through the holes
Spreading into every eye
Adil Mansuri (1936-2008).
Things are at a bad pass for the Indian far right. Its political party, the BJP, is in disarray. At their last “chintan baithak,” (introspection meeting) in Simla, the leadership went at each other for their poor showing in the general election earlier this year. Expulsion followed expulsion, as formerly revered men and women were found guilty of one kind of infraction or another. A book by a former head-man of the party, Jaswant Singh (one time foreign minister and close confidant of Strobe Talbott), on Pakistan’s “father of the nation” Mohammed Ali Jinnah provided the opportunity for more blood letting. Singh gave credence to what the history profession already knew (from Ayesha Jalal’s useful biography of Jinnah), which is that Jinnah was hardly the clownish bigot so carefully portrayed in Richard Attenborough’s Greatest Hits of Gandhi (1983). Singh was shown the door. The Hindu right cut its teeth singing songs against Jinnah. He was always the “bad Muslim.” There are not many “good Muslims” in the Hindu Right’s cosmos.
With Jaswant Singh went Sudheendra Kulkarni, onetime Leftist and journalist turned intellectual bagman for the Hindu Right’s leader, L. K. Advani. A few days later, another former journalist who had done so much to burnish the credentials of the Hindu Right, Arun Shourie, went apoplectic on a television show. He accused the rump leadership of ineffectiveness, and went so far as to quote Mao, asking the cadre to “bombard the headquarters.” In the party of the far right, a call to arms is not made lightly. The fellows often take the thinkers seriously. Fortunately, Shourie’s writ runs in the chattering classes alone, and they were too busy locking up the silver to rush out and throw candelabra at the BJP’s citadel. Shourie is the former Minister for Disinvestment, a surreal post whose portfolio was blocked by massive protests. He was discomforted by the current boss, Rajnath Singh, whom he called Alice in Blunderland. Nothing in the ideology of the far right came under criticism from him, or from others who were on the way out.
The RSS, which operates as a sort of Reichsleitung (party directorate) of the Hindu Right, hastily tried to take charge of the collapse of its parliamentary arm. Mohan Bhagwat, the Sarsangchalak or headman of the RSS, told a press conference that the BJP would “rise from the ashes,” an indication of how bad things had become for the movement. BJP leaders rushed to the RSS headquarters to get the blessings of Bhagwat and to prove their Saffron bonafides. Gujarat’s Chief Minister Narendra Modi played a crucial role at the Simla introspection meeting. Some accused his prime ministerial ambitions of scuttling the BJP’s electoral chances in this go-around. Modi has a terrible reputation as an extremist of the far right, which gives pause to a population that was fortunately distracted by matters of the stomach to concentrate on jingoism. The murmurs of the BJP dissidents were not taken lightly. Modi is ambitious and has built a strong following among both the RSS and the party’s base. They like his clarity: no wavering from the hard right’s aversion to Muslims. Few contemporary politicians in India have their face on t-shirts. Modi is the far right’s Obama.
As all this transpired before the television cameras, the investigative moles of the Indian State gathered up their paperwork and went before various high and supreme courts, seeking permission to open an investigation against Modi. In April, Mrs. Zakia Jafri, whose husband Congress Member of Parliament Ahsan Jafri was killed in cold blood during the pogrom of 2002, and human rights activist Teesta Setalvad moved the Supreme Court to investigate the Modi government. In June, the Court ordered the Special Investigation Team (SIT) to “take steps as required by Law.” The wheels of justice had finally been wiped of their rust. The BJP tried to stop the process in the Gujarat High Court, but the state court declined and moved the SIT to continue its work (which would include the registration of a First Information Report against those whom it would accuse, including, perhaps the Chief Minister, Narendra Modi). There is ample evidence of Modi’s role in that pogrom, engineered as it was by his state apparatus and party (Human Rights Watch has a very clear report on this, chillingly called We Have No Orders to Save You, 2002). Two thousand people were killed in this state-engineered campaign. A virtuous police officer, Rahul Sharma, at the Ahmedabad police control room taped the calls coming from local Hindu right leaders to the Chief Ministers’ office during the heat of the riot. Modi is said to have egged them on. Now the government has finally taken notice. The boiling oil of legality was set to pour on Modi.
To divert attention from all this, Modi went ahead and banned the book on Jinnah written by his erstwhile comrade-in-arms (or put together by him; my teacher, C. M. Naim wrote a piece in the Indian Express showing several instances of plagiarism). Once expelled from the BJP, Jaswant Singh has let loose. He revealed that after the Gujarat pogrom some in the BJP leadership wanted to remove Modi. They were overruled at that time. Modi had too much support in the party, and besides his views had been given credence by the BJP’s then leader, Atal Bihari Vajpayee (on April 12, 2002, when the pogroms fires had only just begun to simmer, Vajpayee told a gathering in Goa, that Muslims, all Muslims, “tend not to live in co-existence with others, not to mingle with others, and instead of propagating their ideas in a peaceful manner, they want to spread their faith by resorting to terror and threats” – this is the sort of rude ideology of the far right, shared by its most eloquent and well-regarded leader, Vajpayee). Singh tried to hide behind Vajpayee in this, saying that the grand old leader had been distressed by the Gujarat massacres. No such evidence was given in public. At any rate, Singh’s breach of faith could not be tolerated. Modi struck back by banning the book in his state. The Supreme Court stepped in to prevent the banning, just as the RSS chief Bhagwat is to be in Gujarat to discuss the book and the fallout with Modi. The nadir for Modi is on the horizon.
Personality of the Year
Then comes FDI magazine, a five year old publication devoted to foreign direct investment and owned by the Financial Times’s parent company, the Pearson Group. Its editor, Courtney Fingar points out that her magazine investigates “issues that concern foreign investors,” talks to “leading corporate executives and government leaders” and highlights “the many opportunities and risks that await investors around the world.” It is a classic corporate magazine, little of interest to the general reader, a pretence of real journalism when it is actually filled with corporate and governmental press releases transcribed into better English. For that, FDI provides a real service.
As part of the press release culture, FDI picked Narendra Modi as the Asian Personality of 2009, citing in particular that he had attracted $2.8 billion in foreign direct investment to Gujarat (10.3% of the total FDI coming into India). This was in late August, just as the proverbial you-know-what hit the fan in the chief minister’s Gandhinagar residence. The FDI tribute was a boon to Modi. It was a nice way to take the spotlight off the 2002 investigations. The magazine is either ignorant of Modi’s checkered career, or else some mischief is afoot. It is probably the former. After all, in a manner of speaking, Modi makes the trains run on time.
What is remarkable about this award is that the Financial Times, the flagship of the Group, itself took Modi to pieces after the pogrom. Edward Luce, who was then the FT’s man in India and later wrote a very thoughtful book about India (In Spite of the Gods: the strange rise of India, 2007), put his case in a long piece on July 4, 2003 called “Faith, Caste and Poverty.” Luce didn’t hold back. When the BJP began its ascent in 1990, its leader L. K. Advani went on a national tour to garner support. Modi was his Gujarat man, and when Advani sailed through the state, Modi ran the organization, which included “a trail of anti-Muslim violence wherever [Advani’s cavalcade] went.” Calling Modi “India’s most hardline Hindu nationalist,” Luce described the 2002 pogrom which took the lives of 2000 Muslims and which cleansed Ahmedabad of 800,000 Muslim residents. “The riots followed a ruthlessly well-organized pattern,” Luce continued, “Armed with electoral rolls, mobs moved from one Muslim locality to another.” He quoted from Dr. Hanif Lakdawala, “They raped the women and the children. Then they poured kerosene down their throats and set them on fire. Their male relatives were forced to watch. Afterwards they were killed as well.” The police stood down. So did the other arms of the State. Luce went and interviewed Modi. When asked about the riots and the refugees, he prevaricated: “Your question is very loaded,” or “That is a myth peddled by vested interests,” or indeed, “Your question is factually incorrect.”
Courtney Fingar could have read this article on the FT’s website, where it is easily available, or else read the section in Luce’s book called “The Imaginary Horse.” It would have been instructive. She might even have run a quick google search and discovered that this is not yesterday’s news, but that the SIT investigation is set to go ahead and revisit the events that Luce so vividly described in the FT. Modi was denied a visa to enter the United States in 2005. This is remarkable, given how licentious the State Department is with visas to mass murderers who are otherwise given over to neoliberal capitalism. When Modi wanted to visit the US once more in 2008, the US Commission on Religious Freedom put the kibosh on the visit. He withdrew his application. It says a lot about the degeneration of standards at a magazine owned by a mainstream media conglomerate, with all the resources at its disposal, that it still wants to associate itself with a man widely regarded as responsible for leading the destruction of Gujarati society.
Then there is the small matter of how magazines like FDI calculate foreign direct investment. They typically look at the Memorandums of Understanding, which are often signed with a lot of hoopla and are not always acted upon. In fact, the MoUs signed by the government of Gujarat have only been acted upon 21% of the time (and a significant number of MoUs are written between government agencies). Modi likes to talk big about Gujarat’s economic development. Robert Kaplan did a cozy interview with him for the Atlantic Monthly (“India’s New Face,” April 2009) in which he did not deviate from the script. Kaplan went over the complaints about Modi, the comparisons with Hitler for example, and concluded, that Modi is really “part CEO with prodigious management abilities, part rabble-rouser with a fierce ideological following.” Modi wanted to talk about development, ducking questions about the 2002 riots. Kaplan ends his piece hoping that this “managerial genius” would pull it together, get rid of the extremism and inhabit his business side. But Luce had questioned that earlier, pointing out that Modi is not responsible for Gujarat’s take-off in the early 1990s. He simply took credit for it.
A few years ago, journalists Dionne Bunsha (for Frontline) and Salil Tripathi (for The Mint) went over the economic evidence and concluded, independently, that Modi is bad for business. In 1995, Gujarat drew in 14.5% of all foreign investment coming into India. Modi became Chief Minister in 2001. In 2002, the rate of investment dropped to 8.78% and then by 2005 it went to 7.67%. Tripathi joined Luce’s doubts, writing, “The sobering reality is that Gujarat had the lead in 1995 which it lost after the  violence, and is trying to regain its erstwhile pre-eminent position. The fundamentals to attract investments-industrial peace, great infrastructure and ancillary industries-preceded Modi’s tenure. The Narmada dams were already under construction, workers polished diamonds in Palanpur, petrochemicals and cars were made in Vadodara, milk flowed from Anand, yarn churned out in Hazira and a refinery was being built in Jamnagar, much before Modi took office. Gujarat’s rural prosperity is substantially, though not entirely, due to significant remittances from overseas Gujaratis.” Human development figures for Gujarat are abysmal, with little improvement during Modi’s tenure.
Even the business community recognized this. The Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) offered its complaints in 2002. Three CEOs, Airfreight’s Cyrus Guzder, HDFC’s Deepak Parekh and Thermax’s Anu Agha went public with their criticisms. But hastily Gujarat’s business community stood behind Modi, afraid, in many ways, that any less than this would put them into a difficult position. At a Confederation meeting in 2003, historian Jairus Banaji questioned Modi for his blather on corporate governance, when justice was denied to the Muslims of Gujarat. “Why does the CII give credibility to a politician who has blood on his hands,” Banaji asked. When others wanted Banaji thrown out of the gala, Modi stopped them. He offered his defense and then, in speaking of the transparency in his state, smirked, “An individual can check where his file is taking a rest.” The barons of Indian industry smiled and apologized to Modi. In October 2002, a few industrialists formed the Group of American Businesses in Gujarat to promote their interests. Industry Minister Suresh Mehta addressed the founding meeting of this group, created to “re-brand” Gujarat after the 2002 pogrom. “Some doubts have been created in foreign countries,” said Mehta, as the group’s Vice Chairman Kaushal Mehta (CEO of Motif) noted, that industrialists would have to “create brand awareness about Gujarat in US.” FDI magazine has helped the Group of American Businesses in Gujarat “rebrand” Modi.
The head of the Pearson Group, which owns the Financial Times and FDI is Dame Marjorie Scardino. She also sits on the board of the MacArthur Foundation, which is devoted to peace and security. Mira Kamdar and I drafted a letter to her, asking her to act against this atrocity. I’m sure Edward Luce feels the same way as us, and certainly much of the newsroom of the Financial Times must be appalled. Hundreds of people have signed on to the letter which we sent to Dame Scardino. Modi thrives on this kind of naïve publicity. He must not be allowed to get away with it. Within a few hours of the email campaign and our letter to Dame Scardino, we got an email from Courtney Fingar. The FDI has found a way to nuzzle out of a fix. They now say that “the criteria of the award has always remained focused on rewarding a region in attracting foreign investment.” This could not have been all that clear, because Fingar also wrote, “FDI has also decided to highlight the geographic regions of all the other winners.” Now Gujarat will get the award, not Modi. This is something. But not enough. Modi will still take credit for this. He should not be allowed to do so.
VIJAY PRASHAD is the George and Martha Kellner Chair of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT His new book is The Darker Nations: A People’s History of the Third World, New York: The New Press, 2007, which was chosen for the Muzaffar Ahmad Book Award, 2009. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org