There has been a debate on the respective leadership qualities of Shri Narendra Modi, Chief Minister of Gujarat, and Shri Rahul Gandhi of the Congress (I) in the wake of two recent developments. An objective of the debate is to assess which one of them stands a better chance of becoming the Prime Minister after the next elections to the Lok Sabha, which are scheduled to be held in 2014---unless the Congress ( I ) facing a series of political crises decides to go for an earlier poll or is forced to do so due to a re-alignment of the coalition headed by it.
2. The first development is a report dated September 1,2011, released by the USA’s Congressional Research Service (CRS) on India titled “India: Domestic Issues, Strategic Dynamics, and U.S. Relations”. The report discusses in detail on the basis of media reports India’s external relations---including ties with the US--- and the domestic political developments for the information of Congress members.
3. Three aspects of the discussion on the domestic political situation in the report are significant:
(a). Of the Indian political leaders discussed by name, only Shri Modi and Shri Nitish Kumar, Chief Minister of Bihar, come for positive mention. The references to Prime Minister Dr.Manmohan Singh and Shri Rahul Gandhi are negative. The ineffective management style of Dr.Manmohan Singh and the faltering political image of Shri Rahul Gandhi are underlined. As against this, the report looks positively at the leadership styles of Shri Modi and Shri Nitish Kumar.
( b). The report has been impressed not only by the remarkable economic progress made by Gujarat under the decade-long Chief Ministership of Shri Modi, but also by his efforts to reduce corruption and red tape in the governance of the State. It says of Shri Modi: “Controversial Chief Minister Narendra Modi has streamlined economic processes, removing red tape and curtailing corruption in ways that have made the state a key driver of national economic growth.” In contrast, the references to Dr.Manmohan Singh’s role in the fight against corruption are negative. A perusal of the entire report would indicate the extent of the concern in the minds of the CRS researchers who drafted the report over the large-scale corruption in India as revealed by recent scandals. In this connection, the fact that Shri Modi has been judged positively and Dr.Manmohan Singh negatively could have a significant impact not only on Congressional opinion, but also on policy-makers in the Executive.
( c ).While judging Shri Modi positively for his post-2002 governance, the report continues to look upon him as a controversial political leader because of allegations of his inaction during the 2002 anti-Muslim riots in the State. While it has taken note of Shri Modi’s Prime Ministerial aspirations, it feels that the continuing allegations regarding his 2002 role might stand in the way of a concretisation of his aspirations. In one of its explanatory notes based on two articles written by Indian columnists, it says: “Modi continues to be haunted by the 2002 Ahmadabad riots, a topic he has never fully addressed in public. Although he is a safe bet to win a third term in 2012 state elections, his aspirations to be the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate face significant obstacles, not least the likelihood that Muslims and liberal-minded Hindus would represent an anti-Modi bloc at the national level, and the BJP’s key ally in Bihar, Nitish Kumar’s Janata Dal (United), could be expected to abandon the alliance in protest.”
4. The report thus draws the attention of Congress members to the post-2002 positive image of Shri Modi as well as to the lingering allegations about his negative role in 2002. Shri Modi is seen as a positively evolving leader with a negative historical background. Unless he is able to rid himself of the negative memories evoked by the ant-Muslim riots of 2002, any exercise mounted by his followers and party to rehabilitate his image abroad will be problematic.
5.In the short and medium terms, the CRS report could have two fall-outs in respect of US policy. Firstly, a dilution of the decision of the US State Department in 2005 not to issue a visa to Shri Modi and, secondly, a greater readiness on the part of the US diplomats posted in India to interact with Shri Modi, his ministers and officials. Some of the WikiLeaks documents already indicated a developing view in the State Department that the policy of avoidance of interactions with them could prove inadvisable. This view is likely to be strengthened in the months to come and before the next elections. Whether the US likes Shri Modi or not, he is there to stay. Better take cognisance of him.
6.The second development is the order passed by the Supreme Court of India in a case in which it had been monitoring investigation by a Special Investigation Team (SIT) into allegations in a petition regarding Shri Modi’s role in the 2002 riots. The petition alleges wilful inaction by the administration headed by Shri Modi. The SIT investigation has not been able to find any substantive evidence in support of the allegations. At the same time, non-Governnmental activists carrying on a decade-long campaign against Shri Modi on this issue have not been able to produce any concrete evidence in proof of their allegations. Thus, Shri Modi stands in a position where he can neither be proved guilty or established to be innocent.
7. The Supreme Court has decided to discontinue the monitoring of the investigation in view of the completion of it and has referred the results of the investigation made so far to a trial court for further action as warranted in accordance with the law. It is doubtful whether the court will be able to come to definitive conclusions. The claims made by the supporters of Shri Modi and his party that he has been vindicated are premature.
8.If Shri Modi wants to pursue his Prime Ministerial aspirations, the only option available to him is to make public and sincere amends to the victims of the anti-Muslim riots and persuade them to forget and forgive. His continuing reluctance to do so is evident from his subsequent comments and actions. He and his supporters seem to believe that if they continue to stonewall the allegations against him, public memory would fade away. This may not happen as we had seen in the case of the 1984 anti-Sikh riots in Delhi under the rule of the Congress.
9. This may please be read in continuation of my article of September 15,2011, titled “CRS OBSERVATIONS ON INDIAN DOMESTIC SCENE BASED ON MEDIA REPORTS. “ (16-9-11)
( The writer is Additional Secretary (retd), Cabinet Secretariat, Govt. of India, New Delhi, and, presently, Director, Institute For Topical Studies, Chennai, and Associate of the Chennai Centre For China Studies. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org . Twitter: @SORBONNE75)