How Militant Secularists Made Narendra Modi A Political Brand

There is a good lesson here for advertisement whiz kids and management gurus — it is not always necessary to showcase the positive aspects in building a brand. If you have a determined bunch of detractors who are willing to harp on demonic aspects of the person or product, then that serves as part of aggressive marketing as well. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi is a good example of the process.

His critics, most of them militant secularists, did not allow him or the country to forget the 2002 killing of more than 2,000 Muslims in Gujarat after the Godhra train fire in which 59 Hindus died. The critics were not so much moved by the inhuman atrocities that the victims and the survivors had to endure.

They did not even focus on the mob that went on the rampage and indulged in savagery that was terrifying to say the least.

The secularists would not mention that the killing mobs comprised members of backward class and the scheduled tribe communities. Then there was the shameless robbery and arson committed by the well-to-do middle class in the towns. Instead of understanding the collapse of social norms, they chose to focus on Modi and make him the embodiment of the collective evil that was Gujarat society in those few days of rioting and massacre.

The vilified chief minister played along with his detractors, and maintained a studied silence. He refused to utter the word ‘Muslim’ before 2002 and after. When he became chief minister, a prominent TV journalist on a Hindi channel asked whether he would not discriminate against the minorities. All that he would say is that no one would be discriminated against.

Even after the riots, he remained mum on the ‘M’ word and that is what serves as the proverbial red rag to enraged secularists even today. If only Modi were to say ‘Muslim’ in his declarations of political contrition, they would forgive him.Modi is speaking the secularist language of citizens and communities without naming any of them, and he is beating the secularists at their own game of going beyond religious identity.

It is not that Modi, like other BJP leaders and ideologues, does not harbour a majoritarian bias even as the secularists, going against the very grain of their non-religious creed, protest too loudly in the name of the followers of Islam and other religions, and they cannot hide their sneaking hostility to the majority religion. Even as Modi pretends that he is not hostile to Muslims, the secularists pretend that they are not hostile to Hinduism.

Modi and his secularist critics want to define the national political agenda in their own narrow, divisive terms, and it would seem that they are succeeding. This is an illusion. People are not willing to be dragged into this war over religions, which is what it is at the bottom of it all. People of all religions, including Hindus and Muslims, are not willing to be confined to the restrictive terms of debate. They are looking at a broader horizon.

It is in this specific context of a general context that goes beyond faith in ideologies that both Modi and his critics are found wanting. Modi is, of course, speaking the language of development but he does not have much to say about the issue. Development is not as uncomplicated as Hindutva or secularism. Development has become a complex issue where difficult decisions have to be taken, and Modi and his party, the BJP, are simply incapable of meeting the challenge.
The secularist critics of Modi are as simple-minded as the man they hate. They are incapable of dealing with complexity. That is why they confine their pronouncements to so-called social justice issues when the people on whose behalf they claim to speak, especially the Muslims, are weighing their options of development. The choices that Muslims and other minorities will make do not easily fit into the simplified welfare-state model of the secularists. Muslims are excited by the ever-widening horizons opened up by the market economy. They are not willing to be confined to the cribbed spaces of government beneficiaries.

If Modi and the secularists believe they are fighting with each other for the soul of India, then they are really under a grand illusion. The people of this country have other, more important, more interesting and exciting, things on their mind than the silly notions of state-sponsored development and state-sponsored secularism.

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