It seems Prime Minister Narendra Modi and the Bharatiya Janata Party—also the hydra-headed Sangh organisations of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh—can summarily toss the image of Bajrangbali (strongman) for the emotive Shradhanjali (condolences) during election time. It’s a recurring theme in the run-up to elections where the BJP has a lot at stake. Predictably, ever since a terrorist suicide car bomb rammed into a bus and killed 40 CRPF personnel in Pulwama on February 14 in the burning state of Jammu & Kashmir, the last fortnight has seen calls for revenge, ruthlessness, retribution, apart from sentimental and whirring images of funerals, loss, bereavement and sacrifice.
Modi has led the carnival of grief and avengement, not as a leader asking for calm and communal harmony even as attacks erupted in parts of the country after Pulwama, but by thundering his commitment to teach Pakistan a lesson at a place and time of his choosing and sending IAF planes to pulverise terrorist hubs. This is accompanied by war cries from BJP leaders and ministers, and aided by a belligerent and willing mainstream media.
Call it coincidence or fortuity, but the irony of Laash ke Taash (game of corpses) could not have been more compelling when the media reported a few days ago that as part of a biopic on Modi to “capture(s) the life of the prime minister”, the filmmakers recreated the Godhra train burning of 2002. A mock-drill railway bogie was actually set on fire in Vishwamitri railway station in Vadodara, Gujarat. It may be remembered that the Godhra incident set off one of the country’s most murderous and violent communal riots. It also set the stage for Modi to rule Gujarat, which he whipped up by strident and communal campaigns as the self-proclaimed Hindu Hriday Samrat (King of Hindu Hearts) with inflated Gujarati asmita (parochial pride) to finally storm Delhi 12 years later as prime minister. That too without losing a single election since then.
Not surprisingly, corpses played a big role in the aftermath of Godhra when Modi allowed the charred bodies of 59 people burned in the Sabarmati Express to be brought to Ahmedabad for exhibition, even as Vishwa Hindu Parishad members were sloganeering revenge against Muslims. This has been meticulously documented in various investigation reports. It was to begin a political career and set off electoral victories for Modi, with a political cocktail of a potent mix of death, revenge, communalism, anti-Muslim sentiment, Islamic terrorism and Pakistan.
Modi’s election in a by-poll in Rajkot on February 22, 2002—barely a week before Godhra—gave him a slim majority because minority votes went against him. In December 2002, eight months after the Godhra riots, he became chief minister with a resounding majority (he won 127 seats in the 182-member Assembly), in the shadow of the Godhra corpses and murderous riots, a virulent hate campaign and provocative speeches, where he reminded people again and again about the burnt bodies in the train fire. But didn’t once raise what happened to Muslims who got the brunt of the Godhra carnage. Modi’s campaign positioned him as a protector of Hindus and against Islamic terrorism, and a vote against him was seen as a vote for Pakistan. Meanwhile, the Congress as usual pursued soft Hindutva by neither taking a firm stand against the riots nor purging members who had actively participated in the riots.
Modi brought the spectre of the corpses once again in the next state polls in 2007 but it was then Congress President Sonia Gandhi who famously raised it when she called him “Maut ka saudagar” (merchant of death) in the backdrop of a spate of fake police encounter killings of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, his wife Kauser Bi, Ishrat Jahan and her companions. They were all called terrorists on a mission to kill Modi. The then Gujarat CM swiftly used it to his advantage, junking his “development” image and went all blazing with his Hindutva persona.
He lost no opportunity to taunt the Congress about its pro-Muslim—read terrorist—sympathies. At a public rally, Modi challenged the party to pledge to place a chadar on Sohrabuddin’s grave if it came to power. At another rally, Modi whipped up passions asking the crowds what should be done to criminals like Sohrabuddin who hoarded AK-47s and was close to Pakistan. The crowds lustily cried, “Kill him, kill him”. It was as if he was justifying the murder of Sohrabuddin. Modi even blamed Sonia Gandhi for not carrying out the death sentence against Parliament attack accused Afzal Guru.
And the BJP won 117 seats, just 10 down from 2002.
The ensuing election in 2012 saw the rebranding of Modi yet again as the “Development Man”. It focused his campaign on Swami Vivekananda too, setting off on a month-long yatra in his name extolling the virtues of harmony and peace. However, the body politic(s) (pun intended) came back in full force in the aftermath of the Muzaffarnagar communal riots in 2013 in the run-up to the 2014 general elections, where Modi was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. It was crucial to win the key state of Uttar Pradesh for any likely victory in 2014, and the BJP set out to vigorously stir the communal cauldron in sensitive regions like Muzaffarnagar with cries of Love Jihad and Ghar Wapsi campaigns.
The ensuing riots led to at least 70 deaths and thousands of Muslims being displaced forever from their ancestral lands. Not surprisingly, two months later, the BJP felicitated three of its MLAs accused in the riots—Sangeet Som, Suresh Rana and Sudhir Baliyan, all out on bail—with shawls, turbans and garlands just before Modi arrived at the same venue in Agra to speak at the rally. Worse, after Modi became PM, Baliyan was even rewarded with a ministerial post in Modi’s government. The BJP claims the trio was accused wrongly by the state government.
As a BJP leader exulted at a rally a year later: “The embers that rose from Muzaffarnagar, and spread all over the state made Modi the prime minister.” The BJP won an astounding 71 Lok Sabha seats out of 80 in the 2014 general election and jettisoned Modi to the prime minister’s chair.
As the bombs flatten terrorist hubs and border villages between Indian and Pakistan, amidst cries of war and bloodshed, revenge and ruthless reprisals, is it any wonder that it’s Modi himself who is charging the brigade? The language and tenor of the prime minister of the world’s largest democracy has been characteristically threatening and menacing, contemptuous and derisive—whether against Pakistan or Opposition leaders—even as he thunders at rallies with the backdrop of images of the slain CRPF personnel, or conjures up imagery of martyrdom and sacrifice in his speeches. The climate of hate has spurred more attacks and aggression by Hindutva bullies against vulnerable people, from Kashmiris to Muslims, progressives and peaceniks—all in the name of teaching Pakistan a lesson.
Was Modi dealt a slow hand as Pulwama didn’t send India a body bag but a “peace offering”? The odds of more bloodshed and violence, rioting and assault seem high in the run-up to the Lok Sabha elections a month and a half away. The endgame is not near, yet.