In a recent article (‘Modi goes to Pakistan’, IE, February 1) Surjit Bhalla has succinctly laid before readers the various choices they have in selecting the next prime minister. He points out that India does not lack prime ministerial candidates, there being, according to him, at least 16 at last count. He then focuses on three major candidates: Narendra Modi, Rahul Gandhi and Arvind Kejriwal. Discussing their strengths and weakness, he argues that Modi is the only candidate who going beyond mere discussion is capable of bold, non-traditional decisions, whether on foreign policy, second-generation economic reforms or decentralisation of state power. The other two are unable to rise above the narrow, outdated and inappropriate ideas in Indian politics: economic policies on the left, secularism as belief in appeasement of minorities and job reservations for all.
Large sections of the electorate are understandably disillusioned with the Congress-led UPA 2 and associate it with high corruption, policy paralysis, falling growth rates, inflation and poor governance. Rahul Gandhi, too, is perceived as lacking the capability to provide leadership to the Congress. Welcomed as a clean and fresh alternative, the AAP is increasingly being viewed as lacking ideological focus, and apart from removal of corruption and improving accountability, bereft of any programme. Its governance style, using vigilantism, stings and raids, and attitude to issues of race and gender have left many shocked and unhappy.
With such perceived alternatives, an increasing section of the educated middle class, according to Bhalla, finds itself gravitating towards Modi. However, those who advocate Modi do not realise that the problem is not so much the man himself, but his party, the BJP, and the ideological and social baggage he will bring with him as PM. Modi has signalled that he would moderate his Hindutva stand and concentrate on economic policy and improved governance as in Gujarat. Much of his campaign has been along these lines. But Modi’s appointment would immediately encourage the RSS and a host of extreme rightwing fringe organisations belonging to the Sangh Parivar, such as the VHP and Bajrang Dal among others, who would be more difficult to control than in the past.
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The RSS, of which Modi has been a pracharak, has supported his candidature. It is doubtful he will be able to resist them if he wins— something that even Atal Bihari Vajpayee found difficult. The VHP has taken up sensitive issues such cow slaughter, converting Christian tribals to Hinduism, including some reports of forced conversion and violence in 2004 and 2008, and played a role in the demolition of the Babri Masjid. It has threatened to find and expose those involved in “Islamic terrorism” in the country. The VHP, in decline in Uttar Pradesh, received a new lease of life from the religious Chaurasi Parikrama Yatra it tried to organise in Ayodhya in August last year, which contributed to the growing polarisation between the Hindu and Muslim communities in the state, and the Muzaffarnagar riots.
The Bajrang Dal and Durga Vahini constitute the youth wings of the VHP and claim large membership across many states. Their activists together with the Sri Ram Sene have indulged in numerous acts of moral policing leading to violence. The Bajrang Dal has invaded gift shops and restaurants on Valentine’s Day, and threatened young couples. In 2008, the Ram Sena vandalised an exhibition of M.F. Husain’s works, claiming that the nude depiction of gods and goddesses was “indecent” and offensive to Hindu culture; in January 2009, its workers barged into a pub in Mangalore and attacked young men and women, alleging that the latter were violating traditional Hindu values.
The question is whether Modi, heading a BJP-led coalition, will be able to control these various Hindu Right organisations and their leaders and withstand their pressures to introduce changes that could affect the secular fabric of Indian society and create dangerous polarisation among communities. Bhalla considers the economic and governance benefits that Modi as PM might provide, but does not take into account the social divisions and anarchy it might introduce. Sections of the party are still wedded to a fundamentalist Hindutva ideology and it is this danger that looms if Modi succeeds in becoming PM. The BJP today is facing a generational change, and is in a post-Vajpayee, post-Advani phase. It is not clear in which direction it will move.
The writer is professor at the Centre for Political Studies and rector, Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi