The theme was ‘Is Islam now the driving force of terrorism’.
It was a time of great shock and fear because of the audacity, precision and devastation of the attacks. People had been wary of linking the words Islamic and terrorism, and Modi showed he was aware of this, though he was in no doubt about the association. What he said is significant now that he has become prime minister, given the BJP’s Hindu-nationalist creed, which many regard as instinctively anti-Muslim.
He acknowledged in his opening remarks that Islam had ‘many good aspects’ but said accusingly that, ‘when one community says that my community is different from yours, it is higher than yours, and that until you take refuge in mine you cannot get Moksha [liberation or salvation], you cannot get Allah, you cannot get Jesus – then conflict starts’. Hinduism taught ‘Ekam sat, viprah bodha badhanti’ (truth is one, says God in different ways), and there would be no conflict if it was accepted that ‘all religions are the same’.
But, he added, ‘when one says your religion is hopeless and mine is better, then hatred starts, and later when that hatred gets linked into society, terror starts’.
Since the fourteenth century, Islam had aimed to ‘put its flag in the whole world and the situation today is the result of that’.
Those remarks led to a noisy clash with Dr Rafiq Zakaria, an elderly Islamic scholar and Congress politician, who angrily tried to tone down the inference to Islamic terrorism and argued that the religion’s texts contained the language of peace. G. Parthasarathy, a retired Indian diplomat and former Indian high commissioner to Pakistan, had suggested that terrorists came from Islamic countries in a ‘crescent of crisis’ stretching from Pakistan to Algeria. Eventually Modi called on his ‘Muslim friends’ – a noteworthy phrase – to ‘understand that terrorism has damaged Islam like anything,’ and that they needed to ‘come out against the terrorist’.
The powerful and passionate but reasoned way in which Modi presented his arguments partly influenced me ten months later to write a column (in July 2002) in the Business Standard, explaining about the TV programme and suggesting that he looked like India’s next big leader. There had a lot of shouting in the studio and Modi wouldn’t stop bellowing out his single-minded message in decibels that the sound system fortunately muted for viewers.
At the end of the programme, we laughed and Modi asked if he’d spoken enough in English for me to know what he was saying. He hadn’t because his opening remarks were all in Hindi and he only broke into fluent but rather heavily accented English later. He gave, I wrote, ‘the impression of a driven and (sometimes) charming politician – a potent mixture for the political leader that he duly became.’ He had even showed that he was not averse to being shouted at, even by a foreign journalist, if the occasion demanded it!
It was also clear that Modi could be much more fluent in English than most people assumed.
He only occasionally speaks the language in public, or in official or private meetings, and he appears to be less comfortable reading prepared English speeches than he was ad-libbing confidently on the television programme (He was criticised for trying to make Hindi the language of ministerial discourse as soon as he became prime minister, breaking the convention that English is widely used).
Three weeks after the television appearance, the BJP sent Modi back to his home state of Gujarat to be chief minister. Despite the horror and the carnage at Godhra, it seemed to me that, like it or not, India had in Modi a new potential national leader. Unlike most politicians, he was arguing passionately for what he believed in, not for some short-term personal gain far removed from policy, but out of conviction. He was a potent public speaker with a commanding presence, and was standing his ground and presenting his case with rare confidence and élan.
Friends and contacts told me I was wrong. How could a man who had presided over such ghastly bloody carnage ever win popular respect and a wide following? Weren’t Gujarat’s people tiring of the violence and wasn’t he in fact already finished, just waiting to be edged out of his job? The BJP, I was told, could not survive as a national party of government if he became one of its top leaders because it would be shunned by coalition partners. So Modi had no future and, I was assured, was likely to be sent away to some remote corner of the RSS’s central India headquarters in Nagpur.
When I visited Gujarat in May, I got the same message. Modi, I was told, was being cold-shouldered by ministers in his state government, was lying low, and would soon be out of office and the political limelight.
One of the state’s senior ministers who, according to newspaper reports, had been responsible for leading some of the savage attacks, even came to my hotel room (in Ahmedabad) to tell me that he had been maligned and was innocent. Modi, he said, was an egocentric self-publicist who had used the aftermath of Godhra to build his personal political platform but was now isolated and about to go. Yet Modi led the BJP to victory in state assembly elections later in 2002, and won again in 2007, and once more in 2012 when his victory propelled him to Delhi and the prime ministership.
All through these years however, his reputation was widely damned by the blood of Godhra. The vast mass of liberal public opinion, abroad as well as in India, remained in a state of denial about how far he could rise. The US, UK and other European countries refused to deal with him, and in 2005 the US denied him a visa.
The rest of the world, however, did not take such a strong line, and Modi visited China, Japan and Singapore as chief minister. Eventually the needs of diplomacy overcame western principles and, led by the UK, European countries bowed to the inevitable and withdrew their objections from the beginning of 2013 when Modi began to emerge as a likely prime ministerial candidate. The US dithered for many more months and only capitulated early in 2014.
Congress Party leaders took the line that his emergence in 2013 as the prime ministerial candidate would actually help them defeat the BJP and win the general election.
The self-denial continued with many people refusing to believe Modi could achieve a landslide general election victory until the results were actually announced.
John Elliott is a former Financial Times journalist based in New Delhi. He writes a blog on Indian current affairs, Riding The Elephant.
Excerpted with permission from Implosion: India’s Tryst with Reality, John Elliott, HarperCollins India.
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