A video on YouTube shows Atal Bihari Vajpayee at a press conference soon after the Gujarat carnage in 2002, where he reminds the Gujarat government of its obligation to observe raj dharma (rulership ethics or the religion of rule). As Vajpayee makes the point, the Gujarat chief minister is seen interjecting with the claim that his government in its tackling of the episode indeed respected the tenets of raj dharma.
Clearly there was a divergence on what constituted raj dharma between the two members of the ruling party respectively heading the central and state governments. What Narendra Modi meant by raj dharma remains consequential and worth interrogation, if only because he is now auditioning across the country for yet another five years in which to practise it.
In the Gujarat carnage, over a thousand died, with unofficial figures from the ground being double.
It was the formative event in the creation of the strongman myth which politically propelled PM Modi to power at the centre.
It appears that understanding Modi has generated a cottage industry of writings, both complimentary and critical. Early in the course of the Modi era, a slew of books appeared making much of the so called Modi doctrine. One strategic affairs stalwart begins his latest time by courageously admitting that PM Modi’s performance at the helm has proven him wrong in his appreciation of the man prior to the 2014 elections.
Given that many are disappointed with the Prime Minister’s performance, a flurry of perception management activity likely impends. The first salvo has already been fired, in the publicity surrounding a book soon to be released by a right wing think tank and members of the NITI Aayog.
Since the idea behind the information war is to influence voters, voters need reminding alongside of the manner in which Modi acquired and retained power.
The latest episode in the ongoing saga of the Gujarat carnage saw three judges recuse themselves from hearing a case in which an activist alleges that Justice B.H.Loya, the judge who died mysteriously when hearing the Sohrabuddin case involving the alleged encounter killing of a gangster by a police official, D.G.Vanzara, an acolyte of Modi and his right hand man Amit Shah.
Developments in the case on the killing of Haren Pandya, a former party rival and minister of Narendra Modi in Gujarat, also have it that he was allegedly killed on orders of Gujarat supercop Vanzara.
The official narrative put out then was that Pandya was killed by Muslim terrorists out to avenge the Gujarat carnage. The counter narrative has it that he was an early source of information in the public domain about the alleged meeting at Modi’s residence at which majoritarian extremists were given 72 hours’ impunity to conduct the pogrom.
In the press conference during Vajpayee’s visit to Gujarat, the prime minister was emphasising that the state cannot discriminate between citizens on any basis. Modi meanwhile made the claim that his police, in stanching the violence, was equally firm with both the communities.
It escaped Modi that the Muslims, at the receiving end of mass violence, needed state protection and therefore were to be spared the ‘equal treatment’ his police supposedly meted out.
As Lt Gen Zamir Uddin Shah, the general commanding troops who responded to an aid to civil authority appeal, points out, in Gujarat the police were selectively violent, reserving their brutality for Muslims.
So, what exactly is the raj dharma that Modi as chief minister was upholding, and has likely practiced over the past four years at the national helm – and is poised to replicate over the coming five?
Modi’s flock of devotees did not coalesce on account of his strongly putting down mass violence. The reason instead is in their approval of his keeping the state off their backs while they were at it, and preserving them from the consequences.
The raj dharma Modi was implementing was to turn India into a majoritarian democracy. This is the Hindutva project, and the prime minister, a self-confessed Hindu nationalist, has been at its vanguard for the past three decades.
Modi’s early showing as a foot soldier was in organising his mentor L.K.Advani’s yatra at the launch of the BJP’s temple campaign. Soon thereafter, his role in bringing down the Babri Masjid lay in organising storm troopers from his state for the event.
This led to his being placed at the helm in Gujarat, propitiously a few months prior to the Godhra incident. That incident offered a lifetime opportunity, which Modi was well prepared to seize.
To him the propagation and self-perpetuation of Hindutva is rajdharma.
If this was all, it would yet redound – if perversely – to Modi’s credit for sheer ideological commitment. It also explains his lack of remorse for the deaths in the pogrom, which he inimitably likened to a passing mood resulting from when the driver of a speeding car runs over puppies – in his phrase, the children of dogs.
The question of seemingly interrelated killings, beginning with Haren Pandya, going on through Sohrabuddin and his wife Kauserbi, up to the alleged killing of Justice Loya, yet needs disposing off.
To Modi devotees, this would be a small price to pay in pursuit of the larger project of rescuing Mother India from liberal, inclusive democracy.
To the extent the allegations are plausible, these deaths prove Modi’s personal risk taking, called for by the higher ideal. They are evidence that he can embrace without qualms the ‘realism’ that undergirds politics.
For they were necessary to cover up the tracks leading back to that late night meeting the day coach S-6 of the Sabarmati Express caught fire. If the tracks were not swept over, the state apparatus could have gone down the legal, judicial route and upset the Hindutva applecart.
Thus, in the imagination of believers, Modi has fearlessly rescued the Indian state, and delivered it for constitutional reengineering in the Hindutva image.
There is another possibility, that of Modi being an imposter, an opportunist who finding himself in the eye of a storm chose to get on the Hindutva tiger, and is now unable to get off.
This possibility is somewhat remote, considering that he has long had an infrastructure within the government to help the project along, including the likes of Vanzara, in the bureaucracy, and the police and intelligence agencies.
A pretender could well have attracted people with charisma, but not the close camp followers who too have helped along the way to the ‘wave’, by participating, covering tracks, or looking the other way.
So, ideology or the lack of it? Neither possibility is edifying. PM Modi is at a final hurdle, an election with make-it-or-break-it portents for the Hindutva project.
It is no wonder his national security advisor, similarly motivated, has asked for a strong dispensation – presumably centered on his boss Modi – over the coming ten years.