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.
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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 power structure to the BJP.
That is why he has been elected leader. One feels for the likes of Jaswant Singh, but the writing was on the wall. What Modi does to Delhi-based leaders may make for compelling soap opera but it is not politically consequential. Modi’s relationship with Delhi-based leaders is not a measure of how he might deal with dissent.
There is no question that comparatively speaking, Modi has made far fewer mistakes on the campaign trail than his detractors acknowledge. There is one structural issue he seems to have got right. For all the paranoia about Modi’s centralising tendencies, the interesting fact about the BJP’s evolution in the last few months is this: Modi seems to have been careful about not alienating any of the BJP chief ministers, or even regional leaders. He may sideline a Jaswant Singh or a Sushma Swaraj.
But the real BJP leadership that matters is Shivraj Singh Chouhan, Raman Singh, Vasundhara Raje, Manohar Parrikar and Sushil Kumar Modi. Arguably, in Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka, he might have even deferred a bit too much to local power structures and reproduced old pathologies.
Why does this matter? It suggests that the BJP has potentially more internal checks and balances institutionally than any other party. The Congress has been in this bizarre position for quite a while since Y.S. Rajasekhara Reddy’s death: there are no party leaders who have sufficient power that if they were to walk out, they could damage the Congress. The BJP does.
Collectively, this group is better placed structurally to exercise accountability over their leader than any equivalent group in any other party. This group also matters for another reason. The BJP’s detractors keep suggesting that members of this group, like Chouhan, might be better placed to project the party’s moderation. The fact of the matter is that the party has made Modi its leader, and he is the figure around whom a lot of mobilisation is taking place.
But it is worth thinking whether supporters of people like Chouhan or Sushil Modi would accept the corollary of their own argument. If these are worthy leaders, as they are, should not their presence in the party and their accepting to work with Modi be some source of reassurance about the BJP? If Chouhan’s virtues make him an acceptable prime minister, why don’t those same virtues reassure people that his presence in the party will also be a bulwark against Modi running amok?
This group also suggests that federalism is better enshrined within the BJP than the Congress. For all of the focus on Modi, he is dependent on these leaders to secure power. From the point of view of projecting a stance on corruption, the re-inclusion of a whole range of leaders, from B.S. Yeddyurappa to assorted candidates in UP, might not send the best message, and may, in some cases, tactically backfire. But in a backhanded way, it also suggests something interesting: the BJP remains a more bottom-up party than the focus on Modi suggests.
He may put his weight behind a few loyalists, and sideline some of the old guard. But he has also signalled that he is dependent on people who he thinks, rightly or wrongly, bring some independent clout of their own to the party. The candidate selection is not so much a reflection of his will as it is of his relative deference to local power structures.
This group, for the most part, also projects a degree of competence. It gives Modi a tangible link between the Centre and politics in the state, it gives him a set of leaders who are both politically embedded and administratively experienced. But the noise around Modi may be deceiving us. The party with the greatest personality cult may also turn out to be more of a genuine party. The issue may not be Modi’s personality, but how the relationship between these regional leaders in the BJP plays out.
The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research, Delhi, and a contributing editor for ‘The Indian Express’