Published in The Express Tribune
‘Only a Nixon could go to China’ is an easy theory to pick up. The context is this: Dick Nixon spent his youth hunting down decent men he felt were communist spies. In a saner time, men like Nixon would have been kicked to the curb. Instead it was the 1950s, Joe McCarthy was senator, and Americans everywhere were terrified of the Red Terror Beyond. ‘Tricky Dick’ became a star in no time.
So when he flew to Beijing decades later, this time as President Richard M. Nixon, it shocked the world. Nixon, that soulless red-chaser, shook hands with communist royalty and opened China. No Democrat, not most Republicans for that matter, would have dared trying. A theory was born – that only zealots had the capital to go to the other end of the spectrum and make friends. Only a Richard could have conceded Jerusalem to Salahuddin, and only a Richard could make peace with Chairman Mao.
And so it was sunny optimism that Pakistanis greeted the latest horrific news to do with Narendra Modi: the B.J.P.’s decision that he lead their election campaign. Best-known (at least to people with a conscience) for his role in the Gujarat massacre, Modi has inched ever-closer to leading India. The communal party’s most communal candidate, could there be a better pick to ‘go to Islamabad’ and repair ties? Or lift India’s 200 million Muslims out of the economic morass they’ve fallen into? Yes, thankfully, there could.
Because the ‘Nixon goes to China’ premise is all wrong. For starters, it rarely happens. Bibi Netanyahu is no closer to peace with Palestine, Dr. Najibullah failed to convince anyone he’d discovered Islam, and Asif Zardari won’t ever smash corruption. Nor is Nixon the gold standard himself. Not only was he lacking in any principles his fans assumed he had, he was nowhere near as right-wing as his sweaty public image. Attempting the unimaginable with China becomes a lot more imaginable considering Nixon’s moderate record in office. Considering Modi’s record, though, merits its own minute of silence.
Pakistani fantasies out of the way, it’s time to turn to the man. It was recalled in these pages that political psychologist Asis Nandy came away from a meeting with Modi feeling he’d met a ‘textbook fascist’. This image rains on the B.J.P. parade, busy as it is pushing the Chief Minister’s development of Gujarat. They needn’t be worried. Fellow fascist Mussolini did make the trains run on time, and even Saddam was fond of promoting girls’ education. Fascists aren’t averse to progress. But they are eventually fatal to it. India has yet to reach the conclusions Iraq and Italy did, but until that awful moment, Modi will continue being hailed as pro-business, and backed by big business.
Regardless, Modi’s obvious ambition has proven impossible to ignore, as that old B.J.P. walrus L.K. Advani finds out. But becoming Prime Minister is still a way off. Modi’s party is, after all, the Bharatiya Janata Party, a troupe of kamikaze experts if ever there was one. Inert in Uttar Pradesh and losing ground in the south, the B.J.P. crawled to just 116 seats in 2009’s Lok Sabha, a world away from the infamous 272 required. Nor does Modi have anything close to the parliamentary experience PM Vajpayee had. And unlike Vajpayee, Modi is controversial as sin (and enjoys it).
Yet the fact remains – much of India loves Modi, a ‘disciplinarian’ standing tall against the corruption-sodden Congress Party. With his thick wrists and blood-and-guts rhetoric, Narendra seems the right answer to delicate Rahul Gandhi. While Congress scribes try their best to paint Rahul’s wishy-washiness as thoughtful leadership, Modi roars that ‘bagheechay ke phool’ are no match for jungle flowers. It’s a metaphor requiring little explanation.
And as a contender, Modi has gravitas. Like a character from a Yash Chopra film, Modi recently called for a ‘nationwide campaign’ to collect pieces of iron from farmers, to put together a massive statue of Sardar Patel. This is Brand Modi, a worthy servant of India’s only Iron Man. Ironic then that Sardar Patel was the worst enemy of Modi’s R.S.S., an outfit he felt encouraged the Hindutva fanaticism that murdered Gandhi. Or that one of Patel’s most iconic moments was praying in solidarity with thousands of Muslims fearing Partition attacks at Nizamuddin Dargah, a Sufi shrine – nearly 300 of which were wrecked in Gujarat.
Which leads us to what happened 11 years ago. In response to a train fire that burnt 58 Hindus alive, the blood of nearly a thousand Muslims was spilt across Gujarat. It was slaughter as spontaneous as any campaign involving time and patience; the police and the state. That blood will never wash, but ‘Sri Modi’ has tried his best to at least change the subject. The din of investment drives and technology fairs have muffled the screams and screams of Gujarat’s widows, who watched as their husbands were hacked to torsos. Modi the Modernizer, it seems, has finally shed the title of Yamraj…the god of death.
A Pakistani novelist once said, ‘India is magic. It always was.’ The elements that make up that magic are different depending on who you talk to: as a cradle of civilization, as a birthplace of world religions, and as a democracy exploding with sound and colour, its constitution etched by an untouchable. A land both vital and ageless. Yet all this may be tribute to an India fast disappearing.
The India that celebrates Narendra Modi is a different place. Because Narendra Modi is the true leader of India Shining, the fakest sheen ever applied to a spiritual land. A nation that votes in a man whose outstanding trait is his bloodlust, is a republic that shines devoid of light. A place that will no doubt grow rich, but also communal, violent, and unjust. And should Modi steamroll into Delhi, in a burst of saffron glory, Pakistan should brace itself. India’s Muslims may not get that luxury.