Saturday, 17 November 2018
On the Strongman myth

The UNEDITED version

On the strong man myth
By Ali Ahmed
At the recent Sardar Patel memorial lecture, the National Security Adviser, Ajit Doval, moving outside his mandate as an official, made a case for a strong government for another ten years. Given the manner the institutions have been hollowed out over time by cultural nationalists’ infiltration and brazen undermining by the right-wing government over the last four years, the strong government that Ajit Doval had in mind was certainly not one based on strong institutions. As a leading Modi believer, Ajit 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.
Ajit Doval’s questionable proposition has been taken apart elsewhere with an argument having it that so-called weak governments, including weak coalitions, have taken tough decisions. However, what needs interrogating the Doval thesis that his boss Narendra Modi is the strong man lending strength to a government. 
Narendra Modi’s record over the past four years is not inspiring. Only mid this 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 at Lok Kalyan Marg. (The renaming of Race Course road is lesser known as it did not displace a name with Muslim provenance.) On the Pakistan front, it is by now exposed that the surgical strikes were politically overhyped, with India having conducted these periodically under ‘weak’ governments, including Manmohan Singh’s, earlier.
As for the demonetization decision, given its vacuity, strength would have been in Modi telling his unknown advisers off. It is not without reason that no one has claimed ownership of the idea yet. On India’s acquisition of a rudimentary triad, it is outcome of a natural progression over the past three decades, encompassing tenures of weak governments. Modi has not 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 rightwing, which with the attaining of power can dispense as a strategy.  
There is therefore little to show for Modi as a strong man prime minister. It now remains to reappraise the strong man image from his years in a provincial capital, whence he ascended to power on the back of the image.
Modi has attempted to reinforce the image at a photo opportunity by the side of the tallest statue in the world, one made at his behest with public money. Pushing through the statue project in time for elections has been mistaken for strength. It obscures the pushing out of the vulnerable tribal community with ownership of the land – hardly an example of strength. This exemplifies the contrast in the values to which strength is being deployed between Modi and Sardar Patel, whose Iron Man moniker Modi wishes to appropriate for himself. To drive home the connection, Modi alongside attempted to appropriate the Netaji mantle at the recent observation of  the 75th anniversary of the Azad Hind government formation in exile under Subhash Chandra Bose. 
As for the image, it is one held by Modi believers. It rests on his early showing in power as newly minted chief minister. He allegedly held a meeting at his official residence on 27 February in wake of the burning of coach S6 of 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 remains of the victims and the handing over to the extremist Vishwa Hindu Parishad and Bajrang Dal at Ahmedabad. This was meant to incite mass violence by majoritarian extremists. The state administration and police were warned to allow the venting of feelings and time to put Muslims in their place.
While the Supreme Court appointed Special Investigation Team found no evidence of alleged meeting and let off Modi from complicity, it is interesting that believers in Modi believe just this – his demonstration of strength in holding off the Indian state. Modi’s aura stands heightened in the manner he fended off the half-hearted admonishing by his party superior and prime minister, Vajpayee. He also overturned the attempt to remove him at the ruling party conclave and returned to power in early state elections. Not only did he escape accountability, but he provided impunity for hatchet-men and foot-soldiers of the rightwing such as DG Vanzara and Babu Bajrangi. He employed the now infamous police officer Asthana, of the 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.    
His strong man image was embellished with a few notches added by killings of Muslim terrorists with Pakistani links supposedly out to get him in revenge for the Gujarat pogrom. One such terrorist was a girl barely out of her teens. His then home minister – and now party president - has seen the inside of jail in the case. Modi was the Hindu hriday samrat on-the-make, taking a leaf out of the book of the likes of Bal Thackeray, the Mumbai supremo whose notoriety rested on like 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 center, who could not expose the same even though it had the levers of investigation agencies in its hands, it further burnished the strong man image. 
But the chickens are coming home to roost and ironically when Modi is at the zenith, prospecting a second term. Modi’s strength is up for querying on three counts.
The Zakia Jafri case is due for a hearing at the Supreme Court. Zakia Jafri, widow of 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 Modi. The subtext is that Modi’s holding back was not due to powerlessness or incompetence, but complicity as a deliberate provision of cover for perpetrators – the very reason for Modi idolatry by bhakts.
The second case is that of the political murder of Modi’s home minister at the time of the Gujarat carnage, Haren Pandya. A witness in the case of the killings of Sohrabuddin, his wife Kauser-bi and associate, Prajapati, has alleged a connection between the policeman acolyte of the Modi-Shah combine, DG Vanzara, as ordering the killing of Haren Pandya. Pandya was Modi’s party rival. He was reportedly spilling the beans on the conspiracy behind the Gujarat pogrom, necessitating that he be put away.  
The third owes to revelations in the recently released memoirs former general Zameer Uddin Shah. ‘Zoom’ Shah informs of the army, that had flown into Ahmedabad on the night of 28 February-1 March on an aid to civil authority task sitting out a whole day, 1 March, on the tarmac of the airport since the state authorities did not provision magistrates, vehicles, police liaison and logistic support for 34 hours. Only on 2 March was assistance from the state government forthcoming, though the Union defence minister was on hand since 28 February pleading for the same. This timeline lends credence to the dissenting narrative that the mobs were given 72 hours leeway between 27 February and 1 March. 
Strength under the prevailing circumstance in the Republic can be interpreted in two ways. One is in taking Modi as a strong man, albeit in a certain perverse way. The questionable nature of the strength, specifically, the ethics surrounding its acquisition and its deployment, is the Achilles heel. The second is in the strength being in the right-wing forces, that have overtaken society and taken over the state. Modi’s unwillingness and inability to contain and control these forces is thus the opposite of strength. Having got on the tiger he is unable to hop off.   
As with screen villains, the projection of strength is liable to be shown up in a climax. It is best that hollowness of the supposed strength be interrogated timely, lest over the coming five years the electorate is presented with yet more evidence of Modi’s unsuitability for high office.