The Man Who Turned Down the Skull Cap- How India Sees Narendra Modi

The Man Who Turned Down the Skull Cap- How India Sees Narendra Modi

What makes Modi what he is? That is a million dollar question today. Is it his Hindutva image? Is it his development politics? Is it his suave diplomacy?

These are heady times to address this issue, but it needs to be addressed. The immediate aftermath of both success and failure obfuscates the reality with either optimistic euphoria or abject disenchantment. It is necessary to keep one’s eyes on truth so that the real narrative is not lost to posterity.

The critics as well as the supporters of Narendra Modi often wonder about the exact point in recent history when Modi transformed from the riots-tainted Chief Minister of Gujarat, to the Prime Minister of India. The victory of 2014 was so stunning that people are still trying to get a grasp of it. And the shocking scale of BJP’s victory in 2017, the Uttar Pradesh Assembly elections, has once again forced his critics to ponder over the reasons of his success.

Just a few years ago, Modi was the ultimate untouchable of Indian politics. Everyone including scam tainted Lalu, corrupt Congress, lawless Samajwadi party, and dictatorial Amma, was acceptable in Indian politics. There was just one exception to this rule of political expediency. No mention of him was made in mainstream media and academia without adding the derogatory epithets like the ‘butcher of Gujarat’.

Even inside the BJP, he was a pariah, supported by a very small group of influential party members. What kept his political career alive was the fact that he was winning elections after elections. And then in 2014, he became the Prime Minister of India! Not only that, in just two and half years, he has transformed the political scene of India with scooping state after state for the BJP in assembly elections, making his promise of ‘Congress-mukt Bharat’ almost a reality.

So what happened? What transformed him from a pariah politician to the Prime Minister of India and a king maker in Indian politics?

Was it the Gujarat riots of 2002 and his handling of the affairs after that? Despite the clamor of the ‘secular’ brigade, the Supreme Court had proved that Narendra Modi had nothing to do with the riots. Godhra was a planned massacre of the Hindus, and Gujarat was its spontaneous reaction, however there was nothing in the entire series of event which Modi could have done otherwise.

The Hindus were massacred. There were retaliations. What was different about Modi was that unlike other leaders before him in similar situations, he refused to apologize to the Muslim community for the crimes he did not commit. This made him an instant hero among the Hindus.

Until then, after every riot in India, Hindu politicians had instantly apologized to the Muslim community, irrespective of whoever was guilty. As Koenraad Elst says, “Hindus are damned if they act, damned if they react”. Hindus were always considered guilty, no matter who started the riots. Media and politicians always endorsed this position.

And many a times, the chief minister in charge of the state, where the riots took place, was sacked too. But in 2002 things were different. There was a BJP government at the centre. Prior to 2002, Congress had always disbanded the BJP state governments at the slightest pretexts. It had happened after the Babri Masjid demolition as well.

The BJP too was under pressure to sack Narendra Modi and Vajpayee had almost made his mind to do so, but Lal Krishna Advani prevailed upon him to do otherwise as sacking would result in a lot of uproar and he argued that they should wait it out until the next round of elections. This is the version of Jaswant Singh. However Arun Shourie claims that even Advani had made up his mind to sack Modi and it was the overwhelming support of the BJP cadre and younger leaders at the national executive-meet in Goa, which forced the BJP leadership to rethink and give Modi a fighting chance. He was not sacked for the time being.

But clamor against Modi was rising. Nothing but an electoral victory would redeem his image. He resigned as the Chief Minister in July 2002, eight months before his term was due and assembly elections were scheduled in late 2002. His career was hanging from a thread. One defeat and he would be consigned to oblivion.

But he won. The masses backed him. He won 127 out of 182 seats in the Gujarat Assembly, ten more than the party had won in the previous elections in 1998 under Keshubhai Patel. Modi’s critics, for the time being, lost steam. So why did he win? Why did he have such great public support?

What made Modi stand out among the crowds was his decision not to apologize. It was the first time that a Hindu leader after independence showed some spine in the face of ‘secular’ criticism regarding the riots. It was the first time that a Hindu leader dared to stand up to the Congress-communist tyranny.

The people loved it. The fact that Modi could take a courageous stand against the ‘secular’ hordes made him a hero. The Hindu voice had been blocked out of the public space for ages, by the nexus of the Congress-communist eco-system, which had become all powerful under the reign of Indira Gandhi. This psyche was hurt but it had no way to express itself. There was no platform where it could be heard. Now it expressed itself electorally through supporting Modi overwhelmingly.

He also held his place within the party due to the overwhelming support of the cadre. Here was a leader, who did not hang them to dry. It is the cadre, the party workers who take the risks on ground, who give their blood and sweat to the movement. For a change, here was a leader who responded to their sacrifice in kind. If the cadre was willing to put their life on line for Modi, Modi was also willing to put his career at risk for them.

The support of the BJP cadre and the support of the common masses were the two legs on which Modi kept standing during his hard years.

However, in 2004, the NDA lost the Lok Sabha elections in a shock defeat. Reasons were analyzed and the usual suspect Modi was once again the target of the Congress-communist eco-system.

The detractors came at him from everywhere. Special investigation teams were pressured into giving false reports; international pressure was built through various NGOs; and false allegations were made. He was called every bad name in the book. Every limit was crossed.

It was a miracle that he survived during his second term as the Chief Minister of Gujarat. He was democratically elected and dissolving his government would further anger the Hindu community, which was already frustrated at the repeated attempts to demonize Modi, the BJP, and the Hindu community as a whole.

But he was harassed in every other manner possible. He faced the media witch-hunt; the trials of the judiciary; the eyes of the international human rights bodies; and the machinations of his political opponents, both within and outside his party.

Somehow all of these attempts failed to unseat Modi. The media kept up its constant din of anti-Hindu Modi-bashing rhetoric, full of venom and bile unseen and unheard in Indian politics for decades. They pinned their hopes on the 2007 Assembly Elections in Gujarat.

But startling everyone, Modi won yet again. Somehow the anti-Hindu narrative with Modi as a fundamentalist monster was not picking up. Somehow the Hindu masses were showing solidarity and faith in Modi repeatedly. Modi was doing something right.

But, Modi’s victory in 2007 was not enough to dismay his detractors. The centre was now ruled by the UPA with Congress Party leading the alliance. And the UPA was systematically cleansing the nation of Hindu culture and ideas. The institutions of the country were experiencing ethnic cleansing of non-Congress, non-communist Hindus. The Congress Party was filling them with party hacks instead. Bloggers were being jailed for defending Hindu causes, for intellectually ‘attacking’ the Gandhis. The UPA regime was the most anti-Hindu regime independent India had ever seen.

It was a dismal scenario. Amidst all this darkness, there was a ray of hope. There was one man who dared to defy and kept standing on his feet for more than five years.

Narendra Modi was gradually becoming the rock that would not sway in the storm.

Meanwhile the 2009 general elections were upon India. A big section of the country hoped to be rid of the corruption and violence of the UPA. Lal Krishna Advani was projected as the Prime Ministerial candidate, but the BJP failed to pick up steam. Advani failed to take off from where Vajpayee left. He was too ‘radical’ to fill in the shoes of Vajpayee and too ‘liberal’ to become a firebrand leader like Modi. The 2009 Lok Sabha elections came and went and nobody even noticed. The BJP lost even more seats. The Congress Party crossed the tally of 200, managing to win 206 seats.

The UPA-2 regime that was constituted became even fiercer, more racist, and more anti-Hindu than its previous avatar. Corruption became unbridled, even more than before. Dissent to the congress party was stifled ruthlessly. Intolerance of the official narrative of the Congress-communist eco-system against every opponent was rising exponentially. The Hindus and the opponents of the Congress Party were hounded out, even more ferociously than before.

The anti-Hindu rhetoric picked up and bids to topple Modi one way or the other quickened. But he kept his ground, even then.  Things were looking good in Gujarat. He had consolidated his regime with good governance. His development agenda was gradually being accepted by a larger section of media than before.

While on one hand, Modi was not just holding his ground, but was constantly rising higher up in stature and hierarchy, on the other hand, the rest of the BJP was in a lurch with the failure of Lal Krishna Advani in winning the 2009 elections; and thus, making it bereft of a game plan for future. While Modi had won the state elections back to back in 2002 and 2007, Advani had lost the 2009 general elections. The rise of Modi was simultaneously accompanied by the weakening of many senior leaders of the BJP.

The lack of charismatic leadership in the BJP had pushed the nation into the hands of the UPA. The Hindu voter was desperate for a leader whom it could proudly vote for. Modi’s victory in 2007 and Advani’s defeat in 2009 had set the stage. One more victory and the road would be clear. And Modi got it. The BJP won once again in Gujarat under his leadership in 2012. For three straight elections he led his party to victory in the state despite facing great opposition. The road was now clear.

Meanwhile, the UPA-2 had crossed every limit. Communal Violence Bill which racially profiled the majority Hindus, blaming them for all the past and future riots in India was the lowest of the depths that the UPA regime touched during its reign. And in its arrogance, it was also not even being subtle. It was doing this openly, confident of the proverbial meekness of the Hindu.  Scandals upon scandals were heaping up. The masses were angered. But the naked prince of the grand old party was structurally incapable of seeing the change that was happening in the country.

The imbecility of Manmohan, the ignorance of Rahul, the arrogance of Sonia, the corruption of Congress, the anti-Hinduism of mainstream media, the racism of Hinduphobic professors, all of these factors led to one result… the strengthening of Modi.

The Rise of Social Media

There was a new player on the scene: Social media. And it would change the face of Indian media and politics forever. It had burst upon the Indian socio-political scene at the start of the new millennium and for the first time, the common man found voice. It was a democratic medium which gave voice to the marginalized and the oppressed sections of Indian society. The Hindus were one of the communities that found its voice through this new medium.

For the first time, their voices would not be stifled; their freedom of expression would not be trampled upon. For the first time, there was a Hindu voice after at all. For the first time, the anti-Hindu narrative of the mainstream media could be countered.

A new personality was taking over the Internet. A new kind of man was being forged in the furnaces of social media. A new man was scrapping in orkut; a new bird was tweeting; a new face was lurking in the facebook. The Internet Hindu had arrived!

Outside the arena of politics, mainstream media and academia, a new support group of Modi had suddenly appeared on the scene. The Internet Hindu had become a potent force, a force to reckon with.

Opposing all the journalists at the newspapers and the TV; against the scholars of ICHR and professors of the JNU; against celebrities of the Bollywood and the anti-Indian activists, the Internet Hindu had built a virtual human wall around Modi; fighting for him, protecting him and projecting him as the voice of the Hindus. Modi had inadvertently found a friend in Internet Hindu. While the communists had dominated the mainstream news channels, blockading the Hindu voices and ideas, the social media was dominated by the Hindus, reflecting the reality on ground.

However, a little before Modi won the Gujarat Assembly elections in 2007 and his name started to be proposed by the BJP cadre as the face of the BJP in the next general elections, a symbolically important event happened in 2011. It would seal the fate of Modi and his role in the Party.

The Watershed moment in the history of Indian politics

It was a mild September day in 2011, in the state of Gujarat. Modi was entertaining guests on the stage, in a public program. A mullah approached him and offered him a skull-cap; a symbol of hardcore and fundamentalist Islam, ironically offered as a symbol of ‘secularism’ to a Hindu leader.

So far nothing out of ordinary had taken place. It was the norm of Indian politics; of ‘Indian secularism’. A mullah offers a skull-cap, and the Hindu leader proudly and thankfully accepts this ‘secular’ token with obsequious humility and dons it to showcase his ‘secular’ credentials.

But then the unthinkable happened. Modi denied wearing the skull cap, the symbol of Islam in general and the very symbol of Indian ‘secularism’.

Narendra Damodardas Modi, a Hindu leader, had turned down the skull cap!

The most basic assumption of Indian secularism broke down in an instant. A prominent Hindu leader dared to publicly defy the Islamic offer of wearing a skull-cap. The most fundamental rule of ‘Indian secularism’, that every Hindu has to accept the Islamic symbols with no promise of any such gesture from the Islamic side, was broken.

It was a very small gesture, but with very great and far reaching implications. For the first time, a Hindu leader had dared to defy the secular thekedars of Indian democracy. For the first time, a Hindu leader had broken convention and defied the aggressive patronizing of Islamic leadership. For the first time, a leader had shown that Hindus too can stand up to tyranny; to bullying, and have a voice of their own, even in mainstream politics.

Here was a leader who had constantly shown spine in the face of a furious anti-Hindu onslaught by the Congress-communist eco-system, right from the aftermath of Gujarat riots to the skull-cap incident. Narendra Modi had proven that he was willing to stand up to the rights of the Hindus, under any circumstances. He had shown that he was willing to fight for them to the last mile. His turning down of the skull-cap had cemented his reputation as such a leader.

This was the moment which galvanized the Hindus. The collective Hindu psyche which had been hurt, suppressed and marginalized for centuries rose up in defiance and in defense of its leader. Until that point in independent history of India, dissent was just a dream for the Hindus. Now it had become a reality.

The suppressed, the downtrodden, and the marginalized Hindu had risen.

The Role of MSM in the rise of Modi

And this trend, this unification of Hindus, was catalyzed by the actions of the viciously anti-Hindu mainstream media. The media embarked upon a slander campaign against Modi and the BJP, hitherto unseen in Indian politics. They went as far as vilifying Modi in international circles and lobbying against him all over the world, especially in the US. As a result, the US denied Narendra Modi diplomatic visa in March 2005. The TOI reported, gloatingly: “In a severe rebuke to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, the United States has denied him entry to America.”

Later in the July of 2013 sixty four Indian MPs went out of the way and wrote to the US authorities to continue the ban on Modi’s visa to the US, crossing the last mile of democratic decency by reporting their own politician to a foreign country.

The media, along with the other political parties, ran a sustained anti-Modi campaign for almost a decade after Godhra and Gujarat. He was given many abusive epithets by the Congress party and others: ‘Maut ka Saudagar’, ‘Ravan’, ‘Gandi Nali ka Keeda’, ‘Bhasmasur’, ‘mad dog’, ‘man eater’ ‘Butcher of Gujarat’, and ‘murderer’ were some of those epithets. And the media was happy to give space to such vicious name calling.

He bore it all with equanimity. The compliance of the media and the academia with the Congress-communist eco-system was never a new thing, but the advent of social media exposed this unholy alliance to the public.

The people were angered over the media inquisition of Modi, even after the courts had repeatedly declared him “not guilty”. The unrelenting hatred that media had for Modi and their nexus with the Congress communist eco-system gradually became public knowledge, spread through the agency of social media.

The inveterate hatred of media was pushing even the neutral spectator into the lap of Modi. The more they opposed and reviled Modi, the more the people loved him. He grew not just on the love of his supporters, but also on the hatred of his opponents.

Today the journalists and news agencies that are in dock for being partisan and waging anti-Hindu politics have spun a new narrative, which claims that it was the BJP, Modi and Amit Shah, who stitched together an army of social media warriors to wage war for them on social media. But the reality is different.

Seeing that the mainstream media was an enemy of Modi and was just a fifth column of the Congress party, the social media rose as an alternative; propagating the truth that was blocked by the mainstream anti-Hindu media. It was a spontaneous movement, independent and self-regulating. It was the collective Hindu psyche manifesting in a million different avatars.

It was only later that Modi understood the importance of social media and harnessed it to spread his message directly to the people, bypassing all the traditional outlets of media, academia and politics. Had Modi and Gujarat happened twenty years ago, he would have been buried under the rubble of Indian secularism and nobody except a few would have known the truth.

But for the first time, there was a medium which enabled an otherwise isolated and vilified leader like Modi to make himself heard to the public. A strange phenomenon was taking place. Bypassing even his own party structure, Modi was directly talking to the people. And the people were listening.

The middlemen became irrelevant and defying every opponent, Modi became immensely popular among the Hindus all over India and even abroad. This is not to say that his image was confined to just Hindus. But they were his primary support base.

It was an explosive combination, something no other leader before Modi had enjoyed.

It was in this political climate, that in 2011, Modi had refused the skull cap. The image of Modi as a leader who takes stand was further strengthened. The Hindu public was now staunchly behind him.

His journey of political ascendance started in 2002 when he took a firm stand and later his position was cemented with the skull cap incident in 2011. After winning the 2012 Assembly elections, demand for Modi increased and he was finally declared as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate in the run up to the general elections in 2014.

The opponents of Modi in the media and the politics realized for the first time that Modi as the Prime Minister of India could become a reality. As a result, the media went into frenzy and from 2012 to 2014 many anti-Modi, anti-Hindu fronts were opened.

While running his campaign for the Lok Sabha Elections 2014, Modi, in an interview to Reuters declared that yes, he was a Hindu nationalist, as he was a proud Hindu and a proud nationalist. All doubts that were there, about his ‘communal’ credentials were hence removed.

Until then, the media had hoped that under the pressure of their constant din, and in the spirit of Vajpayee and Advani, Modi would also bow down and take the baptism of secularism. But this interview removed all doubts, both in the minds of his opponents and his supporters.

What happened in 2014 is no secret. The road from then till now is one of absolute victory for him.

To return to the question, what makes Modi what he is? Is it his development politics? For many allege, both from the ‘secular’ and the ‘right-wing’ camp that after his Gujarat stand, he has just engaged in development politics and this is what makes him such a popular leader.

It would be wrong to say that his Vikas agenda does not contribute to his popularity. It is an important factor, but it does not make Modi what he is. It is not the decisive factor. There have been leaders before him who have done the same.

The mandate that Modi has, is a Hindu mandate. Nothing makes it clearer than the UP Assembly elections of 2017. The BJP did not give a single ticket to a Muslim candidate on all 403 seats of the state and yet managed to win 325 of them. All other parties, on the other hand, wooed Muslims more than before, but they all fell flat on their face, winning just 78 seats between the SP, the BSP, the Congress and other smaller parties. Even in the seats where Muslims are almost 50% of the population, the Hindu population voted en bloc for Modi.

What shocked his critics as well as some of his supporters even more was Modi’s choice of Yogi Adityanath as the Chief Minister of Uttar Pradesh. There is no other candidate who is as ‘controversial’ from the secular standards as Yogi Adityanath. His choice as the CM is the first clear sign to many of his skeptical supporters that Modi does understand his Hindutva appeal and base.

Yogi Adityanath’s choice is significant in many ways. His views are strident and just like Modi, he is unapologetic about them, no matter how much opposition he faces. His fiery speech in the Parliament in August 2014, just after Modi stormed to power, branded him as the firebrand Hindutva leader who has his facts ready and is also a good orator. With Yogi there can be no ‘secular’ politics for the BJP, at least in the Uttar Pradesh, politically, the most significant state in the country.

Also, Yogi enjoys tremendous support of the BJP and the RSS cadre and also of general population. His choice shows: that the Hindus know the direction in which they want their country to head; that Modi knows this fact and is ready to respond to it: and that the era of minority appeasement of Indian politics, is finally over.

For the first time, minority politics is becoming irrelevant in the country. For the first time, political parties are bound to think that wooing Muslims will not bring any gain, but only disaster upon them. While Muslims, who until five years ago were the kingmakers, are becoming irrelevant in the politics of the country, the Hindu vote-bank is fast becoming the holy grail of Indian politics.

This consolidation of the Hindu vote is the greatest achievement of Modi.

Among the most important ‘what ifs’ that the future political historians will discuss about the rise of Modi and the new India, two most important will be: What if they hadn’t burned that train coach in Godhra, 2002? And what if Modi had not refused the skull cap in 2011?

Though, people will love him for his Vikas agenda; for his smart diplomacy, for his efforts to root out corruption in the country and will also vote him for that, Narendra Modi will always be remembered as the Hindu leader who turned down the skull cap.


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Pankaj Saxena

Pankaj Saxena is a scholar of History, Hindu Architecture and Literature. He has visited more than 400 sites of ancient Hindu temples and photographed the evidence. He has been writing articles, research papers and reviews in various print and online newspapers and magazines. He currently works as the Asst. Professor, Centre for Indic Studies, Indus University, Ahmedabad. He has authored three books so far. He maintains a blog at