If Modi wants to pursue his prime ministerial aspirations, the only option available to him is to make public and sincere amends to the victims of Gujarat riots, says B Raman
There has been a debate on the respective leadership qualities of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi and Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the wake of two recent developments.
An objective of the debate is to assess which one of them stands a better chance of becoming the prime minister after the next Lok Sabha elections that are scheduled to be held in 2014, unless the Congress, which is facing a series of political crises, decides to go for earlier elections or is forced to do so due to a realignment of the ruling coalition headed by it.
The first development is a September 1 report released by United State's Congressional Research Service titled India: Domestic Issues, Strategic Dynamics, and US Relations. The report discusses in detail, on the basis of media reports, India's external relations -- including ties with the US -- and the domestic political developments for the information of Congress members.
'Controversial Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes'
Three aspects of the discussion on the domestic political situation in the report are significant:
Of the Indian political leaders discussed by name, only Modi and Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar got a positive mention. The references to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Rahul Gandhi are negative. The ineffective management style of Dr Singh and the faltering political image of Gandhi are underlined. As against this, the report looks positively at the leadership styles of Modi and Nitish Kumar.
The report has been impressed not only by the remarkable economic progress made by Gujarat under the decade-long chief ministership of Modi, but also by his efforts to reduce corruption and red tape in governance.
It says, "Controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes, removing red tape and curtaied corruption in ways that have made the state a key driver of national economic growth."
References to Dr Singh are negative
In contrast, the references to Dr Singh's role in the fight against corruption are negative. A perusal of the entire report would indicate the extent of the concern -- in the minds of the CRS researchers who drafted the report -- about the large-scale corruption in India as revealed by recent scandals.
In this connection, the fact that Modi has been judged positively and Dr Singh negatively could have a significant impact not only on Congressional opinion, but also on policy-makers in the Executive.
While judging Modi positively for his governance, the report continues to look upon him as a controversial political leader because of allegations of his inaction during the 2002 riots in the state. While it has taken note of Modi's prime ministerial aspirations, it feels that the continuing allegations regarding his role in the Gujarat riots might stand in the way of concretisation of his aspirations.
'Modi continues to be haunted by the 2002 riots'
In one of its explanatory notes based on two articles written by Indian columnists, it says, "Modi continues to be haunted by the 2002 Gujarat riots, a topic he has never fully addressed in public. Although he is a safe bet to win a third term in 2012 state elections, his aspirations to be the Bharatiya Janata Party's prime ministerial candidate face significant obstacles, not least the likelihood that Muslims and liberal-minded Hindus would represent an anti-Modi bloc at the national level, and the BJP's key ally in Bihar, Nitish Kumar's Janata Dal-United, could be expected to abandon the alliance in protest."
The report thus draws the attention of Congress members to the post-2002 positive image of Modi as well as to the lingering allegations about his role in the riots. Modi is seen as a positively evolving leader with a negative historical background.
Unless he is able to rid himself of the negative memories evoked by the riots of 2002, any exercise by his followers and party to rehabilitate his image abroad will be problematic.
Modi is here to stay
In the short and medium terms, the CRS report could have two fall-outs in respect of US policy. Firstly, a dilution of the decision of the US State Department in 2005 not to issue a visa to Modi and, secondly, a greater readiness on the part of US diplomats posted in India to interact with Modi, his ministers and officials.
Some of the WikiLeaks documents already indicated a developing view in the State Department that the policy of avoidance of interactions with him could prove inadvisable. This view is likely to be strengthened in the forthcoming months and before the next elections. Whether the US likes Modi or not, he is here to stay, so better take cognisance of him.
The second development is the order passed by the Supreme Court in a case in which it had been monitoring investigations by a Special Investigation Team into allegations in a petition regarding Modi's role in the riots. The petition alleges wilful inaction by the administration headed by Modi.
Modi needs to make amends to Gujarat riot victims
The SIT investigation has not been able to find any substantive evidence in support of the allegations. At the same time, non-governmental activists carrying on a decade-long campaign against Modi on this issue have not been able to produce any concrete evidence to prove their allegations. Thus, Modi stands in a position where he can neither be proved guilty nor established to be innocent.
The Supreme Court has decided to discontinue the monitoring of the investigation in view of the completion of it and has referred the results of the investigation made so far to a trial court for further action as warranted in accordance with the law. It is doubtful whether the court will be able to come to definitive conclusions. The claims made by the supporters of Modi and his party that he has been vindicated are premature.
If Modi wants to pursue his prime ministerial aspirations, the only option available to him is to make public and sincere amends to the victims of Gujarat riots and persuade them to forget and forgive.
His continuing reluctance to do so is evident from his subsequent comments and actions. He and his supporters seem to believe that if they continue to stonewall the allegations against him, public memory would fade away. This may not happen as we had seen in the case of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi under the rule of the Congress.