Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Modi's Tenure - A Retrieved Reformation?

The genius of O Henry shows in his stories, full of clever insights into the human condition, with humour, pathos and the mandatory twist at the end. One of the nicest is A Retrieved Reformation, the story of a professional safecracker called Jimmy Valentine who changes his ways, decides to live a straight life and marry the girl he loves - a banker's daughter. But the law is catching up with him for his past. At the story's denouement, a detective is waiting to arrest him at the bank owned by Jimmy's future father-in-law. An unexpected moment of drama occurs when a little girl gets locked inside the bank's vault. Jimmy is forced to risk losing it all by revealing his true identity when he decides to crack the vault and save the child. Moved by that selfless act, the detective who has come to arrest him pretends not to recognise him and leaves.

An O Henry-esque story is playing out in India with the inauguration of Narendra Modi as prime minister. Regardless of Modi's vaunted skills as an administrator and a no-nonsense decision maker, one aspect of his past that he has been unable to live down is the planned rioting and huge loss of life that occurred on his watch in Gujarat in 2002, in which mainly Muslims were targeted and killed. Modi's complicity in the riots could never be proven "beyond the shadow of a doubt", the standard required to secure a conviction under the "innocent until proven guilty" legal system. However, the evidence for it, although circumstantial, is still substantial. A secretly recorded sting video of a few key players in those riots (one of whom was later sentenced to life in prison) reveals that Modi not only knew about, and encouraged, the riots, but also used his power as Chief Minister to protect the perpetrators and thwart justice later on.

Warning - some of the admissions here are graphic and chilling

Today, this man is India's prime minister, elected on a plank of development. There are millions of people who are quite willing to forgive and forget whatever happened in 2002, provided he delivers the economic benefits that he has been promising - benefits that even Muslims will enjoy, as people keep pointing out. It's a Faustian bargain made by the electorate, and not one that can be easily condemned. After all, the alternative to Modi's BJP was the Congress, with its staggering tradition of corruption and its own dirty list of planned riots and killing over the decades. In a near-binary system, a rejection of one party automatically means the elevation of the other, and so the BJP's turn at power was probably the only realistic outcome.

For his part, although Modi has consistently denied involvement in the riots, he has hinted obliquely that they will not occur again. He has promised to make development his sole agenda, and there are strong reasons to believe that he is sincere. Indeed, he cannot afford another conflagration on his watch. It will put paid to his hopes of leaving behind a legacy in which he is remembered as 'Vikash Purush' (Man of Development).

But all this still leaves one with a philosophical dilemma. Must we always be forced to choose the lesser of two evils? And by what measure do we decide which is the lesser evil? How do we view crime, punishment, expiation, reparations, forgiveness, and reconciliation? The Nuremberg trials and the African Truth and Reconciliation Commissions offer very different models of closure. One deals with "justice" of a retributive kind, the other of a pragmatic way to let people move on. The Nuremberg model has been attempted, and it has failed. Modi has been officially acquitted by the highest court in the land, and the legal option has therefore run its course. Reconciliation seems the only realistic way to move forward, but what we have today is an uneasy limbo. The main element of reconciliation is remorseful acknowledgement. "I'm sorry I murdered your family" is what many people in Rwanda said to genocide survivors, and then they all moved on. There has been no such acknowledgement by Modi or the BJP, just a promise of economic benefits that aren't quite called reparations. It's like corporations paying compensation to victims without admitting wrongdoing. Muslims are expected to collect the economic benefits of a Modi government and forget 2002.

Although I have always harboured deep misgivings about Narendra Modi, I have reconciled myself to his election victory and to the fact that he will probably serve more than one term as prime minister. The previous Congress government was so bad that he can only be an improvement, and he is sure to want to prove himself with a vengeance, so he will almost certainly effect many welcome changes and be rewarded with a second term.

But it is not for me to reconcile myself to anything. I lost nothing in 2002, except in a vicarious humanistic sense. It's the Muslim community that has to do the reconciling, and it is admittedly harder for them, just as it has been hard for the Sikhs to reconcile themselves to the Congress party after the 1984 riots. Modi could make it easier for everyone by apologising and seeking forgiveness. That would be the best way for the country to move forward, but I suspect that is not going to happen. The hardliners in his own party would view that as a betrayal.

There is an old Jewish principle that I have read about, which says there can be no forgiveness without apology. Even with the best hopes of Indians realised and an economy that grows at a stellar rate over the next few decades, without true reconciliation that comes from an apology, India can achieve no more than Trishanku's heaven.

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