Politics is a very cynical business. Its most defining moments are created not by words or deeds but by events. Very often such defining events do not simply happen ' they are made to happen. And those unseen forces that make them happen create in the process leaders as national icons who then become fit instruments for implementing policy agendas.
Narendra Modi has a controversial past. His mishandling of the Gujarat riots in 2002 is a blot on his record. Will that permanently mar his future prospects? History tells us, no. Recall Rajiv Gandhi's mishandling of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots. That did not prevent him being hailed subsequently as the messiah who would lead the nation to the 21st century. Gandhi, of course, had advisors smart enough to quickly put anti-Sikh sentiments behind them and focus on creating a modern, united India. National unity and modernity ' these twin goals reflected the deepest urges of a new Indian generation. If a new India did not emerge in Gandhi's time it was not for lack of opportunity.
Liberal elements of civil society would doubtless lament over ease with which major human rights violations, such as in 1984 and 2002, can be swept under the carpet of political expediency. Well, civil society has only itself to blame. Genocidal crimes cannot be extinguished from politics by tearful bleeding hearts. Crime has to be met head on by relentless exposure. Is it without significance that the events which sparked both the 1984 Delhi riots and the 2002 Gujarat riots have never been satisfactorily explained?
The cold blooded murder of the Sikh guards of Indira Gandhi long after they had surrendered their weapons, the change made in their guard duty to ensure their presence when she came out of her house, the damaging directives in the Report of the Thakkar Commission of Inquiry suggesting a deep-laid conspiracy behind her assassination and the need consequently for a fresh inquiry to probe it ' all these were conveniently overlooked by civil society.
Similarly the Godhra train fire had certain features never satisfactorily explained. How come all but four of the 58 reserved passengers of the burnt bogey were not in their seats, which were occupied by others? Who precisely were the others? Nineteen of the burnt bodies were never identified. The remaining 35 bodies were 'identified' and compensation paid to relatives of the deceased. But their names were never publicized. Were they kar sevaks or simply innocent labour? The door of the burnt bogey was locked. The forensic report said fire was started from inside. The bogey's only other entrance was through the adjoining bogey occupied by VHP activists. How could a Muslim mob pass through this compartment, set fire to the adjoining compartment, and make its exit in peace?
The Human Rights Watch team from USA, led by Smita Narula of Indian origin, made a detailed study of the Gujarat riots. The team concluded that the riots were pre-planned, and that the rioters had earmarked in advance all the shops and houses occupied by Muslims. If the riots were pre-planned, could the incident that provoked them have been spontaneous? A day after the Godhra fire police officials claimed that it was perpetrated by ISI elements. They even named the perpetrator and claimed he had fled to Bangladesh. But several weeks later the official version changed: now the fire was described as the handiwork of only local elements. What brought the first version, and why was it later contradicted?
KPS Gill who probed the handling of the Gujarat riots was informed by Gujarat police officers that on the night preceding the riots an official meeting was held in which the police were advised to go easy on VHP rioters. Chief Minister Modi carted 17 bodies of the alleged VHP deceased to be paraded in a funeral procession through the streets of Ahmedabad. That undoubtedly inflamed passions. Was that step administratively justified?
These are inconvenient questions that have never been satisfactorily explained. The Railway Ministry's commission of inquiry, which described the Godhra train fire as an accident, has satisfied neither those justifying the riots nor those condemning them. All these are unanswered questions, no less inconvenient than those that were raised after the assassination of Indira Gandhi. They remain unanswered. Politicians and media never had the will and tenacity to compel answers. One is led inevitably to recall and compare the instance of the Reichstag fire that helped Hitler, and to ask if that was unique! So, it is rather futile now to lament that those who bore constructive responsibility for genocide have become electoral victors. A society that does not speak when it should loses altogether the right to speak.
So, can Modi successfully bury his communal past? He most certainly can. BJP leaders, and Modi himself, are at pains to stress that he is focusing only on development. That is correct. Congress leaders and other opponents of Modi keep harking on Modi's past. Modi will most likely want to bury it. He no longer needs to play the communal card. He is already embedded deep in the consciousness of the Hindutva crowd. Why should he preach to the converted? He has his committed constituency. He now needs to broaden it. He may well explore steps that could help him achieve it.
One obvious step suggests itself immediately. Modi as Chief Minister was denied a visa to visit America. That was the depth of revulsion he aroused among liberal elements in the US. With one stroke he could neutralize that opposition. What if he goes over the heads of the central leadership of his party to plead that, for the sake of the nation's development, the Indo-US Nuclear deal must be supported? Would the BJP's central leadership oppose him? Would not the party's rank and file rally around him? Would not the Congress itself be thrown into confusion? Would not the Left be isolated and frustrated? Would not liberal elements in the US take a deep breath and revise opinion? All this, and more, is possible. This is but one possible step that Modi could take to win political 'respectability'.
In what way, and in which direction, he moves will be known only in the days ahead. But let's not kid ourselves. One can't write off a politician simply because he mismanaged affairs to allow genocide. Politics is too cynical for that to happen.