The ‘new’ Narendrabhai

Why Modi’s national elevation may be less difficult than it should be

Written by Saubhik Chakrabarti | Published:January 19, 2009 1:05 am

India’s capitalists generally like to spread bland encomiums evenly across the political class. That’s why businessmen rarely mark Union finance ministers,no matter what their party and policies,less than 7 on 10 on budget day. That’s why the “Narendrabhai as pradhan mantri” gush from big capitalists is so interesting. It seems to conflict with the risk-averse strategy dictated by the structure of India’s political economy; a structure that still allows both plenty of discretionary state power over business and plenty of opportunities for state-business “deals”.

With Sonia Gandhi’s Congress in power in Delhi and the BJP as of now not exactly looking like a strong favourite for the next elections,industry’s forward trade on the Modi scrip would seem anything but risk-averse. But that is only assuming industry was talking about Modi as a politician qua politician. More likely,and this answers the puzzle about the seeming absence of risk-averseness,the capitalists were gushing about a politician who,for them,is not a politician. Modi,as industry sees him,is an administrator who delivers an enabling commercial environment. If he was from the Congress,this assessment would have been no different.

To that extent therefore industry’s endorsement of Modi’s national elevation is a message to all politicians. Most politicians,unlike some reflexive commentary on anything Modi,are smart enough to read that message. What they can do about it is of course a different,complicated issue.

Politicians also know,because they practise the art,that politics is almost wholly defined by malleability. Which is to say the political question — will Modi be accepted nationally? — inherent in the capitalists’ apolitical praise of Modi is susceptible to interesting answers.

It is dreadful and extremely troubling that Modi despite being so secure politically has not attempted a single rhetorical gear shift on the Muslim question. Some blandishments or a fraction of an insincere quasi-apology on how riots were handled should have been a rational choice for the Gujarat chief minister by now. Cold-blooded assessment of politics tells us Modi will never seek forgiveness. But it also tells us he will gain from a tactical move,even or especially if his tactic is dismissed by the liberal commentariat.

But does this mean Modi is not going to attempt something like this ever? Time and timing are crucial in politics. Remember the time in mid-1990s when L.K. Advani was the Hindutva hardliner and,as the BJP began to feel it has a shot at Central power,Atal Bihari Vajpayee became the leader who counted for the party’s allies? Advani now doesn’t have an acceptability issue and is the BJP’s alliance leader and prime ministerial candidate. Modi is the hard-to-handle hardliner for non-BJP parties who don’t like the Congress.

For Modi,the timing is probably not right as yet for that tactical shift. This is especially true if a BJP-led alliance doesn’t make it this time and a mishmash alliance with no natural centre of political gravity comes to power.

Two things may happen. First,Advani’s political career may rapidly begin to end. Second,the mishmash government may conspicuously fail to deliver given India’s long-term expectations and short-term economic challenges. The two factors may combine,during the term of the next government,to create some national momentum for a leader from the opposition party who has a proven capacity for economic administration and energetic mass politics.

That,Modi may think,is the time he tweaks his political gear,just enough so that potential BJP allies can drive with him. He may not have to as painstakingly make himself over as Advani seemed to have felt the need for. One reason for that is,no matter what the message,Modi is a more effective communicator than Advani. Second,Advani had to contend with the Vajpayee legacy. Advani won’t most likely leave a similar hill for Modi to climb. Third,if non-UPA parties including the BJP suffer from two general election defeats — the 2004 loss,and assuming they don’t make it this year — desperation may considerably modify political morality at the pro forma level parties operate on.

Needless to say,a Modi-led BJP alliance may still lose. But the question about Modi being a national-level leader will have been solved.

If an Advani-led BJP alliance comes to power this process won’t get subverted but it will get more complicated for Modi. Advani is unlikely to be in politics for 10 years more. But Modi may have to fight for the party top spot in case the BJP comes to power in 2009 elections. The timing may change but the imperative for a tactical makeover will remain unchanged. Interestingly,therefore,while one can safely assume Modi wants the BJP to win this year,one can also safely argue that for his personal political future a BJP defeat will work out quite nicely.

And while speculating on Modi’s national future let us not forget an interesting political data from his state. In the 2007 assembly elections,the BJP’s seat tally in central Gujarat,the core area of hardline Hindu right politics in the state,halved and the Congress with 22 seats beat the BJP (19 seats). Modi has already tasted victory laced with a sort of a defeat for hardline Hindutva. And evidently he doesn’t mind. Therefore,those who are assuming that Modi will want ‘his brand’ of politics to do well on the national stage may be misreading his political calculations.

So,the “Modi on the national stage” question may not be answered via dramatic politics that confronts deep questions. Humdrum political power play that includes standard political moral malleability may do the trick.

This will rightly seem deeply dissatisfying. But don’t be surprised by it.

saubhik.chakrabarti@expressindia.com

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