25 September 2023 07:51 AM



On the Strongman Myth

Having got on the tiger, is PM unable to hop off?

At the recent Sardar Patel memorial lecture, National Security Adviser Ajit Doval, moving outside his mandate as an official, made a case for a strong government in India for another ten years. Given the way institutions have been hollowed out over the last four years by the cultural nationalists’ infiltration and brazen undermining by the right wing government, the strong government Ajit Doval had in mind was certainly not one based on strong institutions.

Doval was no doubt indulging in a bit of electioneering on behalf of his boss, with an eye perhaps with assuring his own longevity at helm of national security.

Doval’s questionable proposition has been taken apart elsewhere; it has been pointed out that so called weak governments, including weak coalitions, have taken tough decisions in the past. What still needs interrogating is the Doval thesis that Narendra Modi, is the strong man lending strength to a government.

PM Modi’s record over the past four years is not inspiring. Just some months ago year he made a dash for Wuhan, buying peace with China lest another Doklam like crisis with its attendant uncertainties upset his shy at another lease on Lok Kalyan Marg (formerly named Race Course Road). On the Pakistan front, it is by now exposed that the surgical strikes were politically overhyped, with India having conducted these periodically under earlier ‘weak’ governments, including Manmohan Singh’s.

As for the demonetisation decision, given its vacuity, strength would have been in Modi telling off his unknown advisers. No one has yet claimed ownership of that idea.

On India’s acquisition of a rudimentary triad, it is the outcome of a natural progression over the past three decades, encompassing the tenures of weak governments.

Nor has PM Modi been able to restrain his followers from micro terrorism in pursuit of their cow protection duties. As for his home minister’s oft repeated claim for having suppressed riots and terrorism, it is only proof that these were the handiwork of the right wing, which with the attaining of power can dispense with them as a strategy.

There is therefore little to show for Modi as a strongman prime minister. It now remains to reappraise the strongman illusion from his years in a provincial capital, whence he ascended to power.

The Prime Minister has attempted to reinforce the image at a photo op by the side of the tallest statue in the world, made at his behest with public money. Pushing it through in time for elections can hardly be seen as strength, for it obscures the pushing out of the vulnerable tribal community with ownership of the land now occupied by hollow steel.

The statue project exemplifies the contrast in the values to which strength is attached by PM Modi and Sardar Patel, whose Iron Man moniker the Prime Minister wishes to appropriate. He tried similarly to appropriate the Netaji mantle, at the recent observing of the 75th anniversary of the Azad Hind government’s formation in exile under Subhash Chandra Bose.

The image held by PM Modi believers rests on his early showing in power as newly minted chief minister of Gujarat. He allegedly held a meeting at his official residence on February 27, 2002 in the wake of the burning of coach S6 of the Sabarmati Express in which close to three score kar sevaks died. At this meeting, he reportedly approved the procession from Godhra to Ahmedabad carrying the victims’ remains, against senior officials’ advice, and the handing over of their bodies in Ahmedabad to the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal.

This was meant to incite mass violence by majoritarian extremists. The state administration and police were allegedly warned to allow Hindus to vent their feelings and give them time to put Muslims in their place.

It is interesting that believers in PM Modi believe in just this: his demonstration of strength in holding off the Indian state. His aura stands heightened in the manner he fended off the half-hearted admonishing by his party superior and then prime minister, Vajpayee. He also overturned the attempt to remove him from office at the ruling party conclave, and returned to power in early state elections.

Not only did the Prime Minister escape accountability, he provided impunity for hatchetmen and footsoldiers of the right wing such as DG Vanzara and Babu Bajrangi. He employed the now infamous police officer Rakesh Asthana, of CBI vs CBI fame, to provide post facto justification for the pogrom, by having him furnish a report that the Godhra coach burning incident was a premeditated one.

PM Modi’s strongman image was embellished with a few notches added by the murder of supposed Muslim terrorists with Pakistani links who it was claimed were out to get him in vengeance for the Gujarat pogrom. One such terrorist was a girl still in her teens, Ishrat Jahan. His then home minister – and now party president – has seen the inside of jail in the case.

Modi was the Hindu hriday samrat (king of Hindu hearts) on the make, taking a leaf out of the book of the likes of Bal Thackeray, the Mumbai supremo whose notoriety rested on similar credentials, of association with showing Muslims (and south Indians) their place through like means: largely one-sided mass violence. Since all this happened on the watch of the rival Congress-led coalition at the centre, which could or would not expose it even though the investigation agencies’ levers were in its hands, it further burnished the strongman image.

But the chickens are coming home to roost, ironically when PM Modi is at the zenith and prospecting a second term, and his strength is up for querying.

The Zakia Jafri case is due for a hearing at the Supreme Court. Jafri, widow of the former parliamentarian done to death in the massacre at Gulberg Society in Ahmedabad on the first day of the Gujarat carnage, has stayed the course, maintaining that the SIT was wrong in exonerating PM Modi. The subtext is that the Prime Minister’s holding back was not due to powerlessness or incompetence, but complicity, and the deliberate provision of cover for the perpetrators – the very reason for Modi idolatry by bhakts.

The second case is that of the political murder of Haren Pandya, who was then Chief Minister Modi’s home minister at the time of the Gujarat carnage. A witness in the case of the killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi and associate Prajapati, has alleged a connection between the policeman acolyte of thetime, DG Vanzara, and the alleged ordering of the killing of Haren Pandya.

Then there are the revelations in the recently released memoirs of former lieutenant general Zameer Uddin Shah. ‘Zoom’ Shah relates how the army, which had flown into Ahmedabad late on the night of February 28 on aid to civil authority, was tasked with sitting out the whole of March 1 on the tarmac of the airport, as the state authorities did not provision magistrates, vehicles, police liaison and logistics support for 34 hours.

Only on March 2 was assistance from the state government forthcoming, though the defence minister had been on hand since February 28 pleading for the same.

This timeline lends credence to the dissenting narrative that the mobs were given 72 hours’ leeway between February 27 and March 1.

Strength under prevailing circumstances in the republic can be interpreted in two ways. One is in taking PM Modi as a strong man, albeit in a certain perverse way. The questionable nature of such strength, specifically the ethics surrounding its acquisition and its deployment, is the Achilles heel.

The other way to look at it is strength being in the right wing forces, which have overtaken society and taken over the state. PM Modi’s unwillingness and inability to contain and control these forces then represents the opposite of strength. Having got on the tiger, he is unable to hop off.