Traditionally, in the Sangh Parivar, the decisionmaking process has been largely collegial. That was also true within the BJP, where the personalisation of power never went as far as it did with the Congress under Indira Gandhi. Even if L.K. Advani was in the limelight during the rath yatra, he continued to work in a team and it was not he, but A.B. Vajpayee, who became the first BJP prime minister six years later.
The personalisation of the BJP’s election campaign today does not stem only from the presidentialisation of the Indian polity.
Narendra Modi had already initiated this process in Gujarat — it was one of the reasons why senior BJP leaders seemed to feel alienated. Modi’s predecessor, Keshubhai Patel, allegedly left the BJP because of the chief minister’s style of functioning. Once reportedly, talking to VHP members, he said: “When he [Modi] took over the state BJP, I told him that this race is altogether different. It’s called a ‘relay race’, in which the baton is handed over from one participant to the other. Each one uses his strength and ultimately the team wins, not an individual. But since Modi took the baton in this relay race, he has never passed it on.”
This modus operandi was also resented by some state RSS leaders, who declared that they may abstain from backing Modi in the 2007 state elections. Pravin Maniar, one of them, then explained in an interview to the press that the RSS would adopt a different attitude than in 2002: “This time around, we have not asked our workers to get involved in any poll-related work. We have always extended our support for the cause of Hindutva. But we are wedded to an ideology and not any individual.’’
State RSS leaders were disenchanted with the BJP leadership of Gujarat because it did not submit the list of candidates nominated by the party to the Sangh, as state party leaders routinely do. Modi also reduced coordination with the state prant pracharak to a minimum and was accused of not rewarding other components of the Sangh Parivar, the VHP and the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, which had helped him in 2002.
Over the last decade, Advani had tried to emancipate himself from the RSS leadership, arguing that the Nagpur-based organistation was not in a position to appreciate the strategies and tactics of a political party and should, therefore, grant the BJP more autonomy. He failed at the national level, whereas Modi succeeded, somewhat, at the state level. Modi’s biographer, Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, points out that Manmohan Vaidya, once the Gujarat prant pracharak whom he tried to break free from, “was ultimately removed from Gujarat at Modi’s behest and was shifted to Chennai”. The concentration of so much influence in the hands of one political figure in the Sangh Parivar is rather unprecedented, because the organisation has traditionally been above the individual in this “family”.
The rise of Modi is also changing the ideological mindset of the Sangh Parivar. Previous leaders of the Sangh, including its chief ideologue, Deendayal Upadhyay, who is still referred to with great reverence in the Parivar, displayed strong reservations on industrialisation, industrialists (who then supported the Swatantra Party and the Congress) and urbanisation. Opposing Jawaharlal Nehru’s policy, Upadhyay wrote in the late 1950s that the Indian government aimed to “build an industrial, in place of an agricultural, society”, which meant that it tried to “build a pyramid from the top downwards”. Modi’s affinities with the urban stand in stark contrast with this worldview.
In 2009, he declared at the conference of chief ministers and chief justices of high courts: “there are no villages in Gujarat”. This was the prefiguration of his “rurban” project. His former professor, Pravin Sheth, recalls that Modi had once said: “We’re bringing a new concept called rurban, where the soul would be that of villages, but facilities those of a city, such as uninterrupted power supply and broadband connectivity etc.” This plan was translated into a policy in 2009, when “rurban centres” were initiated. They were supposed to take shape in 118 panchayats having a population of over 10,000 people. For implementing this policy, separate rurban general development control regulations were prepared. Presenting this scheme, the principal secretary (panchayat and rural development) declared: “The project will create urban-like facilities and high quality urban infrastructure in rural areas and encourage urbanites to enjoy rural life. It’s a concept of countryside living found in the US and UK and other European countries where land is costlier outside the city areas”.
The reference to the Western model of urbanisation, which contrasts with the swadeshi orientation of the Sangh Parivar, reflects a fascination for the Western pattern but also the influence of the US- and UK-based Gujarati diasporas. In 2013, the state government and the FICCI devoted a session of the Vibrant Gujarat summit to the “rurban” issue.
Beyond the “rurbanisation” project, the symbol of Modi’s urban dream is probably the Gujarat International Finance Tec-City (the “GIFT city”), a financial capital 30 kilometres outside Ahmedabad which is to consist of 124 skyscrapers, accommodating 75 million square feet of office space. He says: “The vision of Gujarat would be incomplete without capitalising on the in-house financial business acumen. To tie-up with technology, to create a hub complete with infrastructure, to meet the needs of modern Gujarat, modern India and to create a space in the global financial world, that is my dream.” The two main partners of the Gujarat government in this project are Fairwood India and the East China Architectural Design and Research Institute — which makes a lot of sense, given the Shanghai-like look of the plans. However, the brochure publicising the GIFT project is more in tune with the American dream, immediately calling to mind New York City, especially Manhattan.
By dwelling on the importance of the city, Modi moves away from the Sangh’s traditional emphasis on the rural. By being as close to the corporate sector as someone like Pramod Mahajan used to be, he separates himself from the old affinities between the Sangh Parivar and small entrepreneurs. Upadhyay would probably never have imagined that a tycoon from the Ambani family would be at the helm of a “petroleum university” bearing his name. Nehru turned his back on the Gandhian, village-oriented project immediately after Independence; it has taken a few decades more for the Sangh Parivar to distance itself from its core ideology, where rural India was twinned with swadeshi, a word nobody uses anymore.
Modi’s promotion of cities is in tune with the support he receives from the urban middle class. In the 2012 Gujarat elections, he only lost in the rural constituencies. To woo urban voters will definitely serve his interests in the coming Lok Sabha elections. But it may not make such a decisive impact, because the urban population in Modi’s state, 43 per cent according to the 2011 Census, is 11.5 percentage points above the national average — and the Aam Aadmi Party may do well in big metropolises too.
The writer is senior research fellow at CERI-Sciences Po/ CNRS, Paris, professor of Indian Politics and Sociology at King’s India Institute, London, Princeton Global Scholar and non-resident scholar at Carnegie Endowment for International Peace