Modi: Democrat or divider

April 9, 2014

India’s 815 million voters started the five-week voting cycle earlier this week. It’s already being celebrated as a triumph just for taking place — “the largest collective democratic act in history,” according to the Economist.

The winner will matter. India now punches far below its demographic weight — its 1.24 billion people are served by just 600 diplomats, about the same number as the Netherlands. The United States, with 314 million people, has 15,000. But that apparent lack of interest in making a mark on the world seems about to end.

What had seemed a likely victory for the first minister of the northwestern state of Gujarat, Narendra Modi, has now hardened into a near certainty — at least for much of the Indian media. Modi, self-made, ambitious and energetic at 63, has the ability to project India’s latent power. He wants growth, which India greatly needs to raise more of its citizens out of poverty and to provide jobs for its expanding population.

That could be a cause for fear — first within, and then outside of, India. For Modi is marked by a dark shadow that he cannot — and perhaps has no wish to — shake. His political affiliation, the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), and his membership in the right-wing , paramilitary Hindu nationalist group Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) signals he may have less loyalty to the multi-ethnic country that is India and more to the dominant ethnicity: the Hindus.

The charge against Modi that casts the longest shadow involves days of mob violence in Gujarat in 2002. A train caught fire in a town called Godha, causing 59 deaths — and rumors quickly pointed to Muslim extremists. In revenge, Hindu extremists slaughtered between 1,000 and 2,000 Muslims. There is no final clarity to this incident. A local commission has, 12 years later, yet to publish a final report on the train fire. Another commission, set up by the central government, concluded the fire was accidental.

Modi, then in office for less than a year, was accused of passivity, even complicity, in the massacres of the Muslims. This accusation has stuck — in spite of a Supreme Court finding that there is no evidence to support the claim. It has done so largely because much of Modi’s political career before being elected Gujarat premier was as an organizer for RSS — a group dedicated to Hinduism and anti-Muslim agitation. Some Western states took the accusation seriously enough to deny him a visa. Britain changed that policy last year, the United States earlier this year.

We live, sometimes uneasily, in rich and increasingly multi-ethnic democracies, with the legacies and current realities of mass immigrations. We stick to the necessary fiction that we are all equally engaged and loyal citizens. In the United States, for example, political analysts talk about the “black vote” and the “Latino vote” — or even, more precisely, the “Jewish vote” and the “Irish vote.” That’s the political fallout of a society built by immigrants, and ethno-nationalist politics have long been the way of reconciling vying communities with American society.

The horror created in Nazi Germany has served, for the past seven decades, as something of a prophylactic against ethnic division. But it’s just beneath the surface — sometimes erupting, as in Rwanda 20 years ago, in hideous massacres perpetrated by the majority Hutu against the minority Tutsi. At least 500,000 people died, perhaps as many as 1 million. The United Nations commemorated that massacre this week — as are the many nations and organizations that resisted calls for intervention. President Bill Clinton has futilely lamented that refusal to act as his largest mistake.

And this prophylactic of Nazi Germany may no longer be powerful. In the heart of Europe, the Hungarian election on Sunday saw a surge in the vote for the Jobbik Party. More than 21 percent of the electorate supported a party that remains fiercely anti-Semitic, though it has made attempts to soften its positions. Yet, the party campaigned most recently to investigate Jewish officials and members of parliament for disloyalty to the Hungarian state. This in a country where an estimated 565,000 Jews were deported and slaughtered during World War Two.

Racial affiliation now also informs the thinking of Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has made clear that he sees ethnic Russians, wherever they may be, as his responsibility to protect and, where possible, re-integrate into Russia. This was his explicit rationale for seizing Ukraine’s province of Crimea. The pro-Russian demonstrations and seizure of Ukrainian security offices on Sunday point to a continued determination to divide Ukraine by ethnic affiliation.

Putin is strongly influenced by the ultra-nationalist Alexander Dugin, now given prime time TV exposure, who routinely cites the “virtues of the Nazi practices.” Dugin posits an ethnically pure Russia, against what he sees as the mongrel, multicultural chaos of the United States — a state of affairs that the election of a black president would only confirm in his mind.

A former U.S. ambassador to Russia recently told me that he believed Putin held Obama in contempt because of his racial origins.

The primacy of the ethnic over the democratic is gaining ground once more — though in diverse societies. The lessons of the past fade. As democracy appears to falter, an older, harder form of social organization emerges.

Modi embodies a principle that has often struggled against democracy — at times even destroyed it. He has in the past been a racial nationalist. The question now is, if he wins the Indian elections, how much he will act like one.


PHOTO (TOP): Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, waves towards supporters in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, December 28, 2013. REUTERS/Amit Dave

PHOTO (INSERT 1): People wait in line up to vote at a polling station in Jorhat district, in the northeastern Indian state of Assam, April 7, 2014. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

PHOTO (INSERT 2): Supporters of Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi, the prime ministerial candidate for India’s main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party, hold placards during a rally being addressed by Modi in the western Indian city of Ahmedabad, February 20, 2014. REUTERS/Amit Dave


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Modi is a criminal who should be hanged for his crimes for inciting and executing thousands of innocent people..

Posted by Looter | Report as abusive

As a liberal, secular supporter of Mr Modi, I find it difficult to understand the motivations of western press to falsely malign Mr Modi. Gujarat experienced religious riots every few years under the previous, supposedly secular, Congress governments. Any rational analysis would link the 2002 events to that history rather than pin it on someone who had literally just walked in the door. There has not been one single event of religious violence in Gujarat in the 12 years that Mr Modi has run the state … which stands in stark contrast to every state that has been run by the supposedly secular parties. For the past 12 years, the Congress party has used every resource at its disposal to try to pin blame for riots on Mr Modi but has failed to dig up one single iota of proof.

Reuters hurts its credibility by publishing patently false and politically motivated allegations. I’ll bear that in mind every time I read your reporting or analysis of events in other parts of the world that I am not as familiar with.

Posted by RaviR | Report as abusive

There is a difference between a train catching fire and being set on fire

Posted by karthikiyer | Report as abusive

Democracy, in the absence of an ethnically homogeneous population, will devolve into what is basically mob rule, as competing groups carve out what they can and wage turf wars against each other.

What do the most successful nations have in common? Their conspicuous lack of “diversity.” This is how they function so well, as most people are on more or less the same wavelength, as part of an extended family.

Posted by SmartThinking | Report as abusive

Stop bashing Modi. There was a Supreme Court finding that there is no evidence to support any of the allegations against him. If there was even little evidence against him he would be in jail. But the fact of the matter is that there is no evidence of his passivity or complicity in the matter. John, why don’t you write a positive article on his accomplishments and on so much what he as done in the State of Gujarat? The article is typical Modi bashing and negative overall.

Posted by spdr | Report as abusive

Thankfully, Modi is more intelligent than the writer of this article. Anyone who is remotely aware of Indian politics would realize that its all a numbers game over there. Muslims were slaughtered by extremist Hindu’s in 2002 riots because he knew it would lead to a build-up of massive public support in his favor, after a ghastly incident of train burning in which there was no doubt that extremist Muslims were involved. Once he became the chief minister again, there have been absolutely no incidents of such kind in his state, since he already enjoys huge support at the ground level and would lose it if there is a repeat. Same applies at the national level. After last year’s riots in another politically important state, there has been a build-up of support in his favor. Once he comes to power, it would be in his interest to maintain stability.

Posted by adjinn | Report as abusive

Excellent article by John Lloyd, and raises good questions.

Looking back on the history of mankind, it seem clear that all life has been, as Darwin says of all nature, a competitive struggle.

History shows again and again that one human alone cannot survive; he can only survive as part a group, be it a family first, then a tribe. Any tribe in history that has failed to defend itself has been quickly devoured.

Read the Greek and Roman histories by Polybius or Thucydides, or any of the ancients, and we see the same story: Any city of humans who failed to defend themselves were quickly devoured by the humans of other cities seeking to get ahead.

World War I and World War II are simply the same story on a larger scale. And as Darwin describes the world of microbes, insects and the animal kingdom, the same thing plays out every moment in every square inch of the globe, including under the sea, this very moment.

Shall the European civilization of today pretend life is a fairytale where nice people live happily ever after? Shall it pretend that mass immigration is something to be ignored or simply accepted? And thereby allow itself to be overrun and obliterated from the Earth by other tribes from the East?

Shall any politician that stands up and questions massive immigration be branded as ignorant, uneducated and hateful?

Posted by AdamSmith | Report as abusive

In an otherwise excellent piece Mr Lloyds makes statements that need to be put in context as it is in the West’s interest to understand Mr Modi and the changing India. RSS is the base of the BJP. It was started when a Congress leader incarcerated in the British prison in the Andaman Islands [in Indian terminology, ‘Kala Pani’ (black water)] realised that the British Raj was a boon to India because it got rid of Mughals. The British released him and he started RSS in 1930s. Yes, it was for Hindus only. The previous and late RSS ‘Sanchalak’ (Organiser) changed the policy from Hindutva to patriotism. Now any patriot is welcome. This is the reason that the Muslim priests at Ajmer Dargha joined the BJP (Ajmer Dargha in Rajasthan is the top Muslim Shrine in South Asia and even Pakistan Presidents and PMs go there for pilgrimage). Many Muslim leaders have praised Mr Modi and suffered for it. Today, prominent Muslims are supporting him. I mention two; Mr M J Akbar is one of the most prominent Indian journalists and I am sure Mr Lloyds knows of him. He is currently heading the Modi media campaign and a very successful one. A top Muslim politician in Bihar recently joined the BJP but a non-BJP leader accused him of being associated with an Indian Muslim terrorist group (he claimed, falsely, that a most wanted Muslim terrorist was arrested in the Muslim leader’s house). He is seeking legal redress.
About the 2002 riots; actually, the rail bogey in question did not ‘catch fire’ it was set on fire and about 58 Hindu pilgrims were burnt to death. This started the riots. The number of people killed was slightly over 1,000 and about 275 of these were Hindus. One needs to remember that this was in 2002 soon after 9/11 when many young Muslims believed that under Al-Qaeda they were going to rule the world.
Mr Modi has never been a ‘racial nationalist’. In fact, South Asians belong to same ‘race’ (actually, this concept should be discarded as it has no genetic basis). Mr Modi has not even once mentioned ‘Hindu’ or ‘Hinduism’ (Hidutva) in his umpteen speeches. He came from a poor and low caste Hindu family and did not attend any university, Indian or Western. Initially, his opponents claimed that a tea-seller (Chaiwalla) cannot be the Indian PM but his humble background appeals to most Indians as it shows that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary Indians. My only concern is that India faces too many problems and no Indian PM, not even Mr Modi, can resolve them all. The disenchantment that now clings to President Obama might cling to Mr Modi as well.

Posted by AtamVetta | Report as abusive

You say “Tain caught fire in a town called Godha, causing 59 deaths — and rumors quickly pointed to Muslim extremists…”

This is complete baseless statement. Train compartment was burnt, petrol was brought from nearby petrol pump.

Do you know by writing such baseless statements what harm are you making to lives of innocent people? There were all innocent people in that compartment. They all dies. Have shame Mr John Lloyd. Were you present when that incident happened?

Posted by 123_tmp | Report as abusive

I would have expected John to do some basic home work. He either conveniently forgot or didn’t care to do some research as in Feb 2011 court found 31 people guilty of setting fire to the said train in Godhra. The court also said the incident was a “pre-planned conspiracy”.

I would also appreciate if John could write about thousands of Sikhs massacred in 1984 by the ruling Congress party. He may also write how Indian courts have found several Congressmen guilty of the massacre unlike Modi who hasn’t been found guilty by courts.

There is no doubt Modi has to accept his failure in protecting his citizens but at least people like John can write both sides of the stories rather than professing like a cheap politician or a paid journalist.

Hindus, Muslims or Sikhs its the innocent people who have lost their lives in these riots. Its at least expected from international media to present facts rather than one sided political stories.

Posted by SureshVerma | Report as abusive

Bad article – went all over with the content.

Posted by Mott | Report as abusive

Poor article, more that half the article is non-Modi related. In fact the govt that Modi’s BJP will replace is a anti-social extremist govt Indian National Congress party. It is full of corruption, aristocracy and scandals. Congress’s leaders pass on the reins of their party to their children whereas senior BJP leaders dedicate their life to the country by staying unmarried or childless. Congress leaders have accumulated trillions of dollars of wealth in black money in offshore accounts and are estimated to be one of the wealthiest people on earth if they come out clean with that money. Modi has promised to expose that wealth and bring it back to the poor families which compromise >80% of Indian population.

Posted by KeepCoolFellas | Report as abusive

How can Reuters publish such a factually incorrect article? This article is incorrect on multiple fronts. It would do Reuters a lot more justice if authors such as John Lloyd are asked to do far better research before spewing venom against such a popular leader in India. The article is incorrect on multiple fronts.

1. The actual no. of deaths during the 2002 riots were 1044 deaths of which 790 were Muslims and 254 Hindus. A far cry from 1000 to 2000 Muslims claimed by the author.

2. Regarding the burning of the pilgrims in the train, a court has already delivered a verdict and pronounced 31 culprits guilty in the case.

By comparing a culture which is over 5000 years old to that of Nazi Germany and the genocide in Rwanda the author has insulted India as a nation. Does India sit on judgement about the crusades carried out by the British kings in the name of religion or the explosion of nuclear bombs in Japan which actually wiped out much much higher of innocent civilians? It is really the double standards of the Western powers who find it difficult to accept that their judgement on Mr. Modi was wrong even though a Supreme Court monitored investigation team found no evidence against him. Are these vested interests who desperately want to keep Mr. Modi out of power who is promising to restore India’s lost glory? From the machinations and the way the Western world through its corporations work, it seems all they want is to turn India into a ghetto where they can derive services and goods at subsistence wages and continue ensuring that India’s purchasing power parity never rises. That is exactly what happened during the last BJP government when India’s PPP rose in the world with a strong currency. Otherwise there is no reason why there should be a barrage of concerted attacks in Western media by these agenda driven authors constantly maligning Modi and the BJP.

Posted by HarishChaddha | Report as abusive