Secularism is to do, not talk

The three-day fast was not about Narendra Modi’s makeover. He’s not changing. He’s asking you to change, instead. Change the way you see Modi, change the way you see secularism. Shift the focus of secularism from him and the Gujarat riots on to the secular parties. Force you to ask openly what you have known for some time: If Gujarat is such a dangerous place for Muslims, how are they moving up the social ladder faster than Muslims in the rest of the country? Who’s doing secularism and who’s just talking secularism?

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Ajay Singh | September 29, 2011



Not long ago (to be precise exactly 15 years back), Narendra Modi passionately talked about a dream he had been nursing for a while. Like a wandering ascetic, he wanted to walk along the course of the river Narmada in a spiritual tradition which seeks pursuit of god through penance. In Gujarati society, penance is deeply ingrained in the people’s psyche because of influence of Jainism. Modi’s dream was certainly queer considering his profession – politics.

He revealed that his willingness to undertake such a pilgrimage was motivated by his desire to curb ego, feel one with the nature and humanity. “You see, in such a pilgrimage, you are not supposed to reveal your identity and survive on whatever you get as alms,” he explained. Modi was then an insignificant regional leader living at a friend’s house in New Delhi after having been exiled from Gujarat following Shankarsinh Vaghela’s rebellion. Modi never undertook this journey. He got more engrossed in pursuit of power rather than god in the subsequent years.

Those who know Modi will bear this out that spiritual penance through fasting is integral to Modi’s personality. Every year, he fasts for nine days of the Navratri festival, a fact which is not in public domain. In this context, Modi’s decision to go on a three-day fast should not come as a surprise. But this fast was certainly not a private affair as his annual nine-day fasts are. He was fasting as chief minister of the state with all the attendant paraphernalia and much fanfare.

Was he making a political statement through fasts? Was he justified in employing fast, a Gandhian tool, to cover up his indiscretion as an administrator in Gujarat killings of 2002?  Did he seek apology for riots? There are many such questions begging for answers. But the message delivered unambiguously on the first day of his show, September 17, pertained to his arrival as the tallest BJP leader on the national scene. That the senior most BJP leader, L K Advani, gave way to Modi was evident. Advani referred to his blog when asked if he endorses the possibility of Modi being the prime ministerial choice for the BJP. “There is definitely a meaning if I write something in the blog,” he said without elaborating further. Advani was followed by Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh in showering encomiums on Modi. The leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha, Sushma Swaraj, also joined the bandwagon by the end of the fast.

If there were any doubts, Modi has dispelled all that by making two most powerful speeches in Hindi, one at the beginning and second at the end, obviously addressed to the national audience. Though he was careful to punctuate his speeches with elaborate references to Gujarat, it appeared an attempt to convince the larger audience about the replicability of the Gujarat model. At the end of his fast, he referred to “sixty years” of wasted governance by those who ruled the country. “We do not dream big,” he said while making it clear that he was the only politician who broke the mould and took Gujarat to the path of big dreams. “We have not tailored policies on majority-minority paradigm but for the whole of society,” he spelled it out further to reemphasise his eagerness to generate a debate on ‘secularism’ vs. ‘pseudo-secularism’.

Obviously, Modi’s prescription is not confined to Gujarat being an ideal economic model only. “Gujarat has achieved a model of social harmony not because of somebody’s sermons but because of its own living experience,” he told the gathering which also included a large number of Muslims obviously brought from different districts. “My fast would be a death sentence to the vote bank politics of the other parties,” he said in an obvious attempt to clarify that he was as averse to traditional ‘secularism’ as any hardliner in the Sangh Parivar.

At first glance, Modi’s strategy would appear to be like running with the hare and hunting with the hound. But it is not. His reference to the Gujarat riots of the 1980s that continued for months on end was a clear articulation of the hoary communal situation in the state under the Congress regime. Taking 2002 as an aberration, he contrasted Gujarat’s past with the peaceful situation in the state post 2002 and rapid economic achievements of the state. By all indications, he seems determined to showcase Gujarat not only as an economic model but also as a social paradigm.

Will people buy his argument? If sceptics find this question pertinent, they would find the answer if they could be privy to what transpired in the national integration council meeting of September 10. PDP leader Mehbooba Mufti appreciated the Gujarat government’s approach to reach out to the minorities and asked the centre to at least emulate Modi. As if this was not enough, she pointed out that during her recent visit to Hyderabad, she met some Muslim industrialists who were investing in Gujarat without fear. “We do not feel discriminated against on the basis of religion,” she quoted the Muslim industrialists as telling her. Though Modi chose to be absent from the NIC, Mehbooba’s remarks left many Congress leaders squirming in their seats, said a senior official who attended the meet.

Mehbooba, known for her rather radical stance on Jammu and Kashmir, could escape the heat of her statement as it was not reported in the media. But the former vice-chancellor of Darul Ulum Deoband, a university of Islamic theology, Maulana Ghulam Vastanvi was sacked for merely saying that the development in Gujarat had benefitted the minority as well. The maulana was making a fine distinction between the problems of Muslims in the western region and in Hindi heartland.

There are all indications that Modi’s decision to launch Sadbhavna (goodwill) Mission was not an overnight decision. The supreme court’s decision on the Zakia Jafri case acted only as a catalyst for him to launch the campaign which was intended to show his determined effort to win over the minority and neutralise his baiters. Given the vacuum in the national politics and the void of credible leadership within the BJP, Modi is well aware of his strength and his vulnerabilities. His hard-selling of the Gujarat model to the national audience is nothing short of selling a dream to rest of India that he is capable enough to replicate the Gujarat model.

At the same time he is conscious of his macho image which jells well with the Sangh Parivar’s world view of robust nationalism. This is the precise reason why Modi refused to wear the skull cap offered to him by a Muslim cleric during his three-day fast. Given his own deep understanding of dynamics within the Sangh Parivar, Modi is unlikely to undertake a radical image makeover. Obviously, the hopes of those who wished to see in Modi a political metamorphosis stood belied in the three-day fast. He is neither emulating Atal Bihari Vajpayee nor Advani – the two tallest political leaders of the saffron family.

Yet he retains his unique position on account of the tangible achievements as administrator. “We have lived as one family in Gujarat for the past one decade,” he said in order to promote his own brand of secularism and make a living example of that. His formulation is quite consistent with the saffron family’s slogan, “appeasement of none”. He talked about 100 percent enrolment of students, particularly girls, in schools as his government’s mission which covers everyone irrespective of caste and religion. Even a taxi driver in Ahmedabad, Banshi Bhai, could understand and relay this message saying, “If Modi gives water and electricity, it is not confined to Hindu areas only.” Similarly, a visit to Juhapura and other Muslim dominated areas could prove well beyond doubt that people of these localities were complaining about the absence of gymnasiums, parks or better schools and not basic facilities.

By all accounts, Modi seems to be setting the agenda which will trigger the ‘secularism vs. pseudo-secularism’ debate in the context of the Gujarat model. That minorities are economically better-placed in Gujarat than in other parts of the country is a fact substantiated by a series of researches and it has come in handy for Modi to put the Congress on the mat. With barely less than a year for the state assembly elections, the electoral efficacy of his Sadbhavna Mission would be put to test in Gujarat before expanding it to rest of India. In Gujarat he has already reduced all his rivals to a poor parody of himself. The manner in which Congress leaders like Shankarsinh Vaghela, Arjun Modhwadia and Shaktisinh Gohil initiated their own fast as counter to Modi’s fast appeared like a theatre of absurd.

Vaghela while attacking Modi for the massacre in 2002 suggested that he should renounce worldly life and atone for his sins. Vaghela may have been aware of his former friend’s spiritual quest. But 15 years is long, long time in politics. As a practitioner of realpolitik, Modi has set his eyes on the national scene. And his presence is bound to generate political fireworks on an unprecedented scale.

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