Gujarat Notepad – The Enigma of Mr Narendra Modi

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A Muslim couple shopping in a maill in Ahmedabad

The Delhi Walla struggles to understand the charisma of India’s most divisive politician.

[Text and picture by Mayank Austen Soofi]

You would expect the man whose personal tragedy symbolized the horror of the 2002 Gujarat riots to hate Mr Narendra Modi. The state chief minister had looked the other way as more than a thousand Muslims were murdered by Hindu mobs. “Yes, I hate him as an individual,” said Mr Tanveer Ahsan Hussain Jafri, 46, the son of Ahsan Jafri, a Muslim politician who was killed by Hindu rioters at his own house in Ahmedabad, Gujarat’s chief city.

“They first cut my father’s fingers with a sword, then they dismembered his body and then they burned the pieces,” Mr Jafri shared the gory details with me one evening at his elegant row house in Adajan Patia. It is a suburb in the industrial hub of Surat, a pretty city 250 kilometers south of Ahmedabad.

A senior executive in Larsen & Toubro, Mr Jafri’s revulsion of Mr Modi rests on one extreme of the Muslim public opinion in Gujarat. There are also a few Muslims who have begun to shift to the other side. One such person lives not far from Mr Jafri’s house.

Mr Farhan Ayub Sopariwala, 25, is an admirer of Mr Narendra Modi. “All the corrupt people are shit scared of Modi’s honesty and no one dares to approach him for bribes,” said Mr Sopariwala as he lay with both legs up on a sofa in his three-storied bungalow in Usmani Park Society.

Running an IT firm, this clean-shaven young man defies the stereotypical beard-and-skullcap image that many Modi fans have of Muslims. An MBA from Singapore, his education is in sync with the census figures which show that the Muslim literacy rate in Gujarat at 73.47 per cent is higher than the state average of 69.14 per cent.

What is more astonishing is that Mr Sopariwala had done his schooling from – of all the places – an institution run by Rashtriya Sevak Sangh (RSS). It is a Hindu fascist organization that inspired the political ideology of Mr Modi’s party, Bhartiya Janata Party (BJP).

“I sent my son there because I wanted him to be integrated with the majority community,” explained father Ayub who was sitting on the other sofa. He was in an off-white shalwar-kameez. “You can’t swim against the tide all your life.”

This is the other truism of Indian experience – pecuniary interests hover over many other interests, and resentments. So if Mr Modi have brought in big business houses to Gujarat, built high-speed highways and cleaned up cities (Surat is India’s cleanest city), there are some Muslims willing to ignore his almost-criminal handling of the 2002 riots.

“We don’t expect Modi asking for forgiveness,” said father Ayub. “But if he calls everyone to forget what had happened in 2002, we would side with him.”

Not Mr Jafri though. “There’s no question of forgive and forget,” he said. “This is not a matter of Hindu-Muslim conflict; I simply want justice through legal means against those who killed my father.”

“Even the Prophet forgave his tormentor twice — first as a victim and then as a victor,” said 45-year-old Zafar Sareshwala, a Gujarati Muslim who lost all he had in 2002 when rioters burned down the building in Ahmedabad that housed his stockbroking company’s office. He is now the sole distributor of BMW cars in Gujarat.

“What’s done is done,” said the young Mr Sopariwala when reminded that the riot toll was raised from 952 dead to 1,180 in March, 2009. “Today Modi has taken Gujarat to new heights.” His father nodded.

However, Ms Farah Khan, 44, will not nod. Running her own advertising agency in Surat for 14 years, she has no kind word for Mr Modi. “This man might have done all the good things that he says he has done but how can you support him when he’s stained by the blood of so many innocent people,” she asked.

It is this twin legacy of Modi – a large record of development, and being a lay spectator to massacre of Muslims – that has created confusion among a section of Gujarat’s Muslims, especially the mercantile class living in urban areas.

Mr Modi’s success story as chief minister, as far as economic progress is concerned, is no myth. I traveled through various districts of the state and witnessed that his development measures like 24-hour electricity down to the villages, computers and Internet connectivity in the remotest areas, good roads and an agricultural transformation have touched the lives of both Hindus and Muslims.

“The changes I have seen in Ahmedabad in the last six years, I haven’t seen in 45 years,” said Mr Sareshwala, who once led a campaign to haul Mr Modi to the International Court of Justice. He now claims to be Mr Modi’s friend and says that he has even performed namaaz at the chief minister’s chamber in Gandhi Nagar, Gujarat’s capital.

Mr Modi’s critics say that this strange love for him by Muslims is out of fear. “There is no turning around among the Muslims regarding Modi,” remarks Ahmedabad-based scholar Achyut Yagnik, author of The Shaping of Modern Gujarat. “Deep down there’s a fear psychosis among the Muslims and they don’t want the ruling establishment to know that they are against Modi or BJP.”

While I talked to quite a few Muslims and couldn’t exactly make out how many were speaking out of fear, there surely exists among them a certain kind of ambivalence towards Mr Modi. For instance, Ms Farah Khan, the advertising entrepreneur, after all her loathing for Gujarat’s most charismatic leader, wants him to retain power. Her reason is rather practical. “They usually don’t kill Muslims when they are ruling,” she said, “but, of course, I myself will never vote for Modi.”