Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited Canada this week and stirred emotions at both ends of the spectrum. While most of the Indian diaspora as well as some Canadian politicians were very excited about his visit, there were others who were outraged and saw it as an opportunity to express their displeasure with protests.
Modi was a very popular Chief Minister of the state of Gujarat. He was greatly admired for his economic development of the state, and largely on the back of that, elected to the top post in India last year. Since his election, he has visited the United States, Australia, and now Canada, all places where he has been received like a rock star by the Indian community. After the staid and rather sleepy Manmohan Singh, many Indians the world over are happy to have someone in office who seems dynamic, passionate, articulate, and eager to drive economic growth.
However, others with more of a historical memory and conscience are wary. In 2002, a train travelling through Gujarat carrying Hindu pilgrims was burned, killing 59 people. In retaliation, Hindus rioted, resulting in the death of over a thousand people, mostly Muslims. Modi, then the chief minister of Gujarat, was accused of a range of actions from simply turning a blind eye to the retaliation and thereby allowing it to happen all the way up to actually encouraging the violence.
Modi is not the first leader of a nation to be accused of some form of transgression. George W. Bush has been called a war criminal for instigating the war against Iraq and torturing suspected terrorists. The International Criminal Court is launching an investigation into possible war crimes in the Palestinian territories, which puts Benjamin Netanyahu ill at ease. Stephen Harper has been accused of several wrongdoings, such as blocking efforts on emission control, approving of long-time despots like Tunisia's Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, and unconditionally supporting Israel, including its settlement of occupied lands. And undemocratic countries might provide more and worse examples.
Politicians are intelligent, articulate, charismatic, and driven. They may also be sociopaths or psychopaths. This is not the first time this link has been made and it could explain their manipulative behaviour and lack of empathy. Perhaps they lack a strong moral compass -- which may be a useful characteristic at times because it enables them to take the seemingly tough decisions without worrying how other people may feel. Many of us hoi-polloi may also not be particularly moral either, but our sphere of influence is limited. The powerful however have the opportunity and the ability to affect the lives of many others -- helping some and hurting others.
Modi was formally cleared of the charges in 2012 by India's Supreme Court but the incident still casts a long, if progressively fainter, shadow. If Modi turned a blind eye to the attack on Muslims, it would be a sin of omission and perhaps no more than what his predecessor did. Singh was thought to be very clean himself, but apparently knew of the rampant bribery and corruption happening under him and did nothing. Does that make him innocent of the crime or an accessory to it -- or maybe a facilitator?
If Modi did indeed consciously ignore the Hindu's revenge attack against the Muslims, that sits on one side of the balance. On the other is all the good he's done in the state of Gujarat and the nation's hope that he can replicate some of that efficiency, economic success, and growth in the rest of India. Western nations -- like Australia, the US, France, Germany, and Canada, are also betting on his "good" side, hoping that this will mean trade benefits for their own countries. Much like how the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Barack Obama, Western nations are feting Modi for the economic promise he carries.
Just as we talk of separating the art from the artist, one could separate the product from the politician. And appreciating the value of his product and seeing the possible economic benefits, Canada has long been supportive of Modi, even when he was still the Chief Minister of Gujarat and the U.S. was denying him visas. Patrick Brown, Jason Kenny, and High Commissioner Stewart Beck have attended his investors' conferences in Gujarat and spoken highly of him. His visit to Canada was a natural extension of that long-time friendly relationship.
Political morality may be an oxymoron. The good guys and the bad guys may be the same guys. Like many of us, Modi may have a complex personality, made up of good and bad. And like many leaders, his decisions affect many people, sometimes to their benefit and other times to their detriment. In Modi's case, for now, the good -- and the possibility to affect further good -- outweighs the bad. But it's our individual choice whether to see him as sinner, saviour, or shades of both.
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