More than Modi

Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders. (AP) Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders. (AP)

This is an election where sifting noise from substance has been particularly hard for a number of reasons. It is easy to get distracted by side stories.

Each party has enough unruly candidates who put their foot in their mouth, embarrass the party and provide commentators with easy material to discern the historical zeitgeist. There are the inevitable dissensions. There are the personality contests and focus on mutual hypocrisy. There is also a sense in which this election is about future bets, to which the past is an unreliable guide. Narendra Modi may run on his achievements in Gujarat; his detractors may point to his past failings.

But the truth of the matter is that this election, whether you are supporting the AAP or the BJP, is about projecting hopes rather than reasoning from facts or from the past. And the projection of hope is self-fulfilling. There is an “anything but the Congress” momentum because that is the space the Congress lost. It brought the country psychologically to the point where any other bet, with all the attendant risks, seemed better than the present reality. And the Congress campaign has done nothing to allay the fear.

Both Modi and the AAP were the sites of hope, both trying, in different ways, to occupy the space of the new. Which is why, despite the AAP’s limited reach, it became an important ideological contender: the AAP suggesting that a vote for the BJP is a vote for the current style of corrupt governance, the BJP suggesting that a vote for the AAP is a vote for the current economic uncertainty, and everyone suggesting that a vote for the Congress is a vote for both these ills.

At a tactical level, the picture and messaging is even messier. The AAP is a party in formation and cannot plausibly project a stable alternative to the Congress at this stage. The BJP’s own candidate selection seems to not lend itself to any easy narrative. Now the debate has shifted to how much tactical mistakes will cost each party.

But in this analysis, we may have missed one interesting feature of the BJP. Much of the focus in thinking about the BJP has been on the interminable question of what Modi is really like.

Both the BJP’s extreme supporters and its detractors are centred on Modi. Has Modi really moderated? Is moderation tactical? The honest answer to these questions is, who knows. Or more precisely, who can really know? This question is then examined through the lens of what Modi does with other BJP leaders, like L.K. Advani supporters or Jaswant Singh. This is also a bit of a red herring, since there is no question that Modi will bring his own …continued »