By: Javed Anand
A day after George W. Bush — the man responsible for the “global war on terror” — was re-elected president of the US in November 2004, a young student posted a picture of himself on the internet holding up a sign that read: “Sorry world (we tried) — Half of America”. Within days, the website, sorryeverybody.com, set up by James Zetlen had registered 27 million hits. A picture from one of the respondents said: “This one of the 55,902,001 Americans that voted against Mr Bush would like to apologise for the 59,422,689 idiots who did”. “Idiots” was too strong a word but the message was clear: majority and morality do not mean the same thing.
Six months before this, in India, the BJP-led NDA coalition had been trounced in the May 2004 general elections. The outgoing prime minister of the alliance government, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, pinned the blame for the debacle on the 2002 communal carnage in Gujarat, under the watch of a leader from his own party, Narendra Modi. Now, 10 years later, the same man has led a new NDA coalition from the front, notched up an impressive victory and is to be sworn in as prime minister.
Have we crossed the moral line? Has 2002 been forgotten and forgiven? Our turn to say sorry to the world? I think so. We should if we believe democracy is not just about electoral arithmetic. For concepts like human rights, civil liberties, rule of law, constitutional governance, democracy to have any meaning, they must have universal jurisdiction, respect no national boundaries. The millions of Americans who logged on to sorryeverybody.com felt accountable to the world and so should we if we claim allegiance to democratic values. Sadly, the media in India was happy to swim in the tide of opinion polls, leaving it to the Western media to raise uncomfortable questions about candidate Modi. The Economist commented a month ago, “He (Modi) will probably become India’s next prime minister. That does not mean he should be. He is still associated with sectarian hatred”.
Many political commentators told us throughout the campaign and will remind us in the coming days that Modi won because he and he alone spoke the politics of aspiration: good governance, development, roads without potholes, round-the-clock electricity, jobs on demand. At best, that’s a half-truth. A more accurate picture of what lay ahead was captured by a radio journalist who was told by an “elegantly dressed, well-spoken” Indian woman in Detroit, US, as early as October 2012, that “Even if Narendra Modi was involved in the Gujarat riots, I don’t care. His economic work wins out. I will vote for him.”
Whether Modi’s economic work wins out or not, and for whom, has been a matter of intense debate in the past few years. The real secret of Modi’s success lies in a happy coalition of those who adore him for what happened under his watch in Gujarat in 2002 and those who simply “don’t care” what he did then because he promises unbridled growth.
In the coming period, those who think that economic growth is not the only thing worth aspiring for must fear the implications of a Modi in power with no “compulsions of coalition politics” constraining the authoritarian style of a former RSS pracharak. Among other things, will issues like the Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, Article 370 and the uniform civil code move up from the penultimate page of the party’s election manifesto to the top of the government’s agenda?
In an interesting coincidence, earlier this week, the Israeli judiciary sent out a strong global message. On May 13, Judge David Rozen from the Tel Aviv district court held the country’s former prime minister, Ehud Olmert, guilty on charges of corruption (during his tenure as mayor of Jerusalem) and sentenced him to six years in prison. Rozen praised Olmert as “an impressive, warm, and very intelligent man who knows how to convince others. He is a respectful man who made a large contribution to the country.” He then proceeded to harshly condemn the former prime minister’s “noxious” offences, to describe him as “akin to a traitor”.
Three years earlier, the Supreme Court of Israel had sentenced former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, convicted for rape, to seven years in jail. Compared to Olmert’s or Katsav’s offences, Modi is faced with the far more serious charge of complicity in Gujarat’s 2002 mass crimes by a survivor, Zakia Jafri. The case is now pending in the Gujarat High Court. It could be the Supreme Court next.
Those among Modi’s supporters who continue to claim allegiance to democratic values say that India’s institutions, the judiciary in particular, are strong enough to hold him accountable. Like they do in Israel? By no means is Israel my ideal of a democracy. But it certainly is among the countries most admired by the BJP and its parivar.
The writer is general secretary, Muslims for Secular Democracy, and co-editor, ‘Communalism Combat’