Narendra Modi: The Mercurial Indian Leader With A Double Identity

Could this 60-year-old Hindu nationalist become India’s next Prime Minister? Though boosted by his own charisma and the economic success of Gujarat, the region he leads, Modi is also still hounded by decade-old accusations that he sanctioned deadly attack

Narendra Modi at a BJP rally (Al Jazeera)
Narendra Modi at a BJP rally (Al Jazeera)
Frédéric Bobin

NEW DELHI - This man haunts the entire Indian political scene. Slightly plump, wearing a white beard and one of his colorful traditional kurtas tunics, Narendra Modi is sure to always don a saffron-colored scarf, the symbol of Hindu nationalism.

When he talks to his supporters, the 60-year-old is indeed attentive to the details of his appearance. Modi is clearly someone who believes in his own destiny. Assigned a halo by some and sulphur by others, both adored and loathed, the enfant terrible of Indian politics, is an absolute paradox. He has both all the assets to help him become the Prime Minister of the Asian giant, and all the handicaps to fail. He is simultaneously acclaimed by Indian corporations and accused of an awful political crime: having hidden, and perhaps even encouraged, anti-Muslim riots in 2002 that killed 1,000 to 2,000 people in the State of Gujarat– his territory as chief minister.

The Indian political microcosm has been buzzing around Modi in recent days. A report by the American Congressional Research Service (CRS) cites him as potential candidate of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the Hindu nationalist party – in the next run for Prime Minister in 2014. Though still just a distant hypothetical scenario, the fact that Modi's political future is taken seriously by analysts in Washington has thrown India's politics into turmoil.

One could laugh at such speculation. The internal maneuverings of the opposition Hindu right-wing party, which led India from 1998 to 2004, might be of interest for some experts. But BJP's candidate in legislative elections that are still more than two years away? So what.

But Modi's name would not be making such waves if the Congress Party led by Sonia Ghandi – the heir of the Nehru dynasty – in power for seven years in New Delhi was not falling deep into such disrepute. Tainted by repeated corruption scandals and targeted by waves of middle-class protesters claiming to follow the Mahatma Ghandi – how ironic! – the Congress Party is sinking fast. In this toxic atmosphere, the return to power of the BJP does not look impossible. Hence the vaunted Mr Modi.

In the few lines about him, the CRS report nails his portrait. It highlights the double identity of the head of the Gujarat, efficient leader and man with a shady past. The Modi phenomenon is a mix of impressive successes in developing his state of Gujarat and his alleged collaboration in 2002 anti-Muslim pogroms.

A sort of Indian Janus, the two-faced Roman divinity. On one side, the praises are quite lyrical. With its 11% growth rate, Gujarat is like an Indian China where investors are welcomed with open arms. Discouraged by the archaic bureaucracy of the other states in the federation, "big business' figures make no mistake about it. Once every two years, they rush to his "Vibrant Gujarat" conference to embrace "Modi, the Visionary."

Tata's blunt advice

All have their special ode to sing to the "model from Gujarat". The famous Ratan Tata, father of the Nano – the cheapest car in the world – who had to move his factory to Gujarat after a series of setbacks in western Bengal, uttered this famous phrase to Indian businessman: "If you're not in Gujarat, you are stupid."

Then, on his dark side, there is the memory of the 2002 massacre, a controversy that will not fade. On February 27 of that year, 58 Hindu pilgrims were killed during an attack on their train by Muslims in Godhra (Gujarat). The retaliation was violent and showed how fragile the balance between religions in India can be. For several weeks, a wind of violence stormed on the Gujarat towns and villages. Under the conniving watch of the police, and organized by right-wing nationalists, hordes of Hindus craving for revenge went on killing sprees in Muslim neighborhoods.

What did Modi, the chief government minister, do to protect the victims from those groups of killers? His detractors accuse him of having ordered the police not to intervene. This question has been following him for almost a decade now. But Modi took refuge in silence and refuses to recall the ghosts from 2002, letting others speculate and probably hoping the controversy would be overshadowed by the celebrations of "Vibrant Gujarat". But some of his friends think he is wrong the count on amnesia, and beg him to explain himself and firmly reply to his accusers. Indeed the 2002 drama has damaged his reputation beyond India's borders - in 2005, the US terminated his travel visa.

Narendra Modi chooses to confront the matter with contempt, calling the protests "fake propaganda." He instead strives ever more for the role of a saint, praying for "peace, unity and harmony". On September 17, he started to fast in the name of his ideas, and one could almost see some of Mahatma Gandhi in him. The resemblance will surely not go much further.

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Photo - Al Jazeera English

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How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.

But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Activist in front of democracy monument in Thailand.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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