His loud silence

Modi owes a conversation on 2002 to those who do not have Rajnath Singh's face-reading abilities

As he helms the BJP's general election campaign for 2014, Narendra Modi continues to maintain a public silence on the communal violence that happened on his watch in Gujarat 2002. He has neither expressed regret nor offered an explanation, apart from an unfortunate comparison of riot victims to roadkill. Now, his party president Rajnath Singh has waded in, ostensibly in Modi's support. Singh has claimed to discern deep sadness on the Gujarat chief minister's face every time the matter is mentioned.

This may be the third time that the 2002 killings have been glancingly mentioned since Modi took the national stage. In June, Goa Chief Minister Manohar Parikkar took the subject head on, calling it a clear-cut administrative failure, an instance of bad governance by a chief minister still adjusting to a new job. This was seen as significant because Parikkar has been an early and staunch Modi supporter. In the same month, the JD(U) walked out of the NDA over Modi's elevation, making it difficult for the BJP to pretend that Modi's anti-minority image was not an issue for allies and voters. Parikkar's remarks had suggested that a fuller conversation about 2002 was imminent, even if it was strategic or self-serving. But none came. Instead, Modi gave an interview to Reuters where he called himself a Hindu nationalist and spoke of the 2002 violence with no trace of personal responsibility. He reinforced that image with expressions like "burqa of secularism", certain to energise the party's Hindutva base.

So what do Rajnath Singh's remarks really signify? One way to read them would be as an attempt to obliquely broach the subject, let Modi's feelings be known without Modi having to bring it up. Or they could be another attempt in a long decade of evasion, to treat the violence as a matter best forgotten and transcended. While the cases inch on in the courts, a forthright political response from the Gujarat chief minister still looks elusive. No matter how prodigious his development efforts, however, there may be no getting around the reality that he is seen as a divisive and polarising figure. As the BJP comes closer to announcing its prime-ministerial candidate, and as religious assertion appears to make a comeback to the party agenda, as seen in UP, where Modi's deputy Amit Shah manages the BJP's campaign, Modi's silence on 2002 is only becoming more conspicuous.

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