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How Modi's demonisation fueled his rise

May 29, 2014 23:48 IST

'What was predictable, but entirely missed by Modi's strident critics, is that the excessive and intemperate demonisation of Modi allowed him to assume his own metaphor -- the underdog, the martyr, the marginalised,' says Dr Aseem Shukla.

As the newly anointed Prime Minister Narendra Modi ascended the steps of India's Parliament for the first time last week, he bowed deeply to offer his pranams to the temple of Indian democracy. But he may well have taken a bow of thanks to the West, towards his legions of detractors in India and abroad.

For as much as Modi's incredible ascendance is the gripping narrative of a self-made man starting on a rail platform in Vadnagar, Gujarat, his is also a story of infamy morphing to fame fueled by an antipathy rarely seen in contemporary history.

Obama still faces birthers, Clinton Benghazi and George Bush's millstone remains Iraq, but none of these American leaders faced any of the sustained pounding as Modi did. From human rights groups and citizen commissions, to the editorial pages of major newspapers in the world, to a visa denial heard round the world, Modi faced a campaign of calumny.

Even on the eve of the election, in a breathtaking atavistic colonial presumption, The Economist and The Guardian actually wrote editorials specifically enjoining Indians to vote for anyone but Modi.

But rather than derail the Modi bandwagon, the vitriol and vehemence of the anti-Modi camp became directly proportional to Modi's rise. Oscar Wilde said, 'The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about,' and Modi, objectified as a pariah, ingeniously grew his stature under the ugly glare.

Analysts will rightly argue that Modi's rise is a function of the growth and development story of the state of Gujarat, his ability to deliver power, water and prosperity to broad swaths of Gujarat, and an uncommon charisma and eloquence that allowed him to connect with the masses and leverage social media. The abject failure of the Manmohan Singh-Sonia Gandhi dispensation to lead, grow, and inspire a nation paved the road to an alternative.

But Modi became a household word, a mantra, thanks to an uncommon fixation on his ostensible role in the tragedy of 2002. One cannot underestimate the power of recognition.

Prime Minister Modi's biography will always be tied to the sectarian riots in Gujarat in 2002 that occurred in the immediate aftermath of the arson killings in Godhra on a rail platform. In a city used to regular episodes of religious riots -- dozens had occurred since and before India's Independence -- the riots following a communal carnage in Godhra were the first captured in the 24-hour news cycle era, and the first for which the dust would never be allowed to settle.

Indeed, even before the riots were over, and years before the first formal investigation would even begin, a narrative was forged: Narendra Modi not only allowed riots to happen to 'teach the Muslims a lesson' for the train burning, but that Modi actually orchestrated those riots.

It was as if the script of the crime was already written, and Modi had to fit the villainous title role. Even after the Indian Supreme Court's Special Investigative Team released a report in 2012 -- and a court in Gujarat substantiated that report -- that exonerated Modi as not guilty of dereliction of duty, let alone complicity, efforts to tarnish Modi continued unabated.

As the writer Zahir Janmohamed narrates in a brilliant part-confessional and part expose in The New York Times, he, as a senior staffer with Minnesota's United States Representative Keith Ellison -- then the only Muslim member of the US Congress -- worked with Raju Rajagopal, closely associated with members of the radical Forum of Indian Leftists, and John Prabhudoss, an evangelical Christian activist, to prevail upon two members of the US Congress to introduce a House resolution condemning Modi in March 2005.

A few days later, the State Department used a never previously, and never since, invoked a section of the International Religious Freedom Act to deny Modi's visa for a planned trip to the US -- on the grounds that he was responsible 'for particularly severe violations of religious freedom.'

The unexpected visa denial stunned observers, and the news was prominently carried in major media outlets around the clock for days in India.

A joke doing the rounds today is that Modi winning the prime ministership only shows how far a Gujarati will go to get an American visa. But the joke also conveys the frustrations that Indians encounter every day at American consulates, and what Fareed Zakaria termed a 'selective, arbitrary and excessive' visa denial played to a favourite theme of Gujarati asmita, or honour and pride.

Modi became one with the unwashed masses that aspired for an elusive visa, perhaps, but would chart a course to secure a future on their own.

Modi was rendered a victim, and in refusing to grovel, his stature simply grew.

Modi's visa denial may have been their coup de main, but a year after the visa brouhaha, a core group comprising Rajagopal, Prabhudoss and a few others -- along with their organisations interchangeably calling themselves Friends of South Asia, Coalition Against Genocide, Coalition Against Communalism and the like -- countered efforts of Hindu Americans to offer modifications to California sixth grade textbooks that caricatured and misrepresented Hindu beliefs.

The effort of the coalitions was ultimately unsuccessful, but it forced Hindus to launch a major lawsuit to ensure their rights in the textbook revision process, and the larger community became aware of the need to organise and counter the conflations of the Gujarat riots with any Hindu advocacy.

Sonia Gandhi may have shown that smearing Modi with 'Maut ka Saudagar' (Merchant of Death) would backfire into an honorific and propel Modi to his re-election in Gujarat in 2007, but the Coalition Against Genocide -- comprising mostly now-defunct groups -- still organised high-profile events on Capitol Hill specifically to denounce Modi and continue his visa denial.

Members of the CAG also gave testimony to the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The USCIRF, which was created by evangelical members of Congress with the initial intent of securing Christians from persecution and which has no Hindu members, adopted a searing anti-Modi position that continues today.

USCIRF Vice Chair Katrina Lantos Swett zealously proselytises against Modi at numerous fora, and even said that she hoped that her criticisms of Modi would serve as a 'bit of information that will help them (Indian voters) as they go through that electoral process.'

When organisers of the Wharton India Economic Forum 2013 were forced to disinvite Modi from a planned video address after protests from a few University of Pennsylvania professors -- supported, again, by founding members of FOIL and CAG principals -- Modi was again front-page news for days in India.

The antics here at Penn, where I had a front-row seat, found little support in India, with even his prominent detractors admitting that Modi's muzzling negated the diversity of thought and speech that should define an Ivy League university.

There were other skirmishes from realms of farce -- when a pro-Modi entrepreneur promised a Capitol Hill video address by Modi that never happened to the forged collection of signatures of prominent Indian members of Parliament by Indian-American Muslims against a Modi visa -- that continuously catapulted a seemingly unfazed Modi to the headlines again.

And the last concerted effort to uphold Modi's visa denial came as a resolution introduced in the House of Representatives that included a breathtaking call by the US Congress to urge India to create separate religious minority courts in India. This resolution, vigorously opposed by several Indian-American groups, involved a high-priced Washington Beltway lobbyist and is dead and buried now that President Obama extended a visit personally to Prime Minister Modi.

Modi won't be worrying about his B-1 visa any longer.

What is clear from all of this is that an attempt was made to turn Modi into a metaphor, a convenient foil to not just stifle the rise of Modi, but also the right-of-centre economic and social conservatism he propounds.

What was predictable, but entirely missed by Modi's strident critics, is that the excessive and intemperate demonisation of Modi allowed him to assume his own metaphor -- the underdog, the martyr, the marginalised.

Modi's rise is axiomatic in retrospect for many reasons, but the astonishing backfiring of a carefully plotted vilification campaign is a story that is only now yielding a bitter harvest. From Capitol Hill to Foggy Bottom and even the campus of the University of Pennsylvania, one hopes for a serious period of reckoning and not retrenchment.

The myopic visa denial was a quick win for radical anti-Modi demagogues, but the consequences of a mission that flew in the face of India's own judicial process and the very concept of fairness is now obvious. The tragedy for American diplomacy was compounded by the absurd bureaucratic inertia in the White House and State Department that failed to change its policy vis-a-vis Modi substantially even up to the start of elections.

One can only hope that Prime Minister Modi is capable of a bit more diplomacy than was shown to him.

Dr Aseem Shukla, MD, is a co-founder of the Hindu American Foundation, and an associate professor of surgery (urology) at the University of Pennsylvania.

Image: Supporters of then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi burn an effigy of then US President George W Bush at a protest against the denial of a US visa to Modi, in Ahmedabad. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters

Dr Aseem Shukla