On the eve of the 2002 Gujarat elections, I had stuck my neck out to predict, somewhat audaciously, that if Narendra Modi wins, it would alter the character of national politics and that the next general election could be a Sonia versus Modi contest. There were some curious murmurs from the usual suspects of the Congress who called that Saturday morning. But, surprise of surprises, the angriest protest came from Pramod Mahajan.
He called early that morning and, for once, was not his usual sugar-coated self. “What’s this, boss, what kind of nonsense are you writing?” he said.
Why should it have upset Pramod if I was predicting his party’s victory in Gujarat? That foxed me and, in any case, 6.30 in the morning is not exactly when I am at my brightest. Pramod apologise for calling early and we agreed to meet for lunch that afternoon.
Mahajan startled the steward at the Oberoi’s very proper Belvedere by asking for a whole, large onion. “Don’t peel it,” he specified. I thought for a moment that Mahajan, always a great showman, wanted to use the onion to make a political point about the BJP. He, instead, plonked it on the table, crushed it under his ample palm and plucked out the flesh for himself and me to munch with our lunch. Even in a seven-star environment, the BJP’s most flamboyant star was his rustic self. Then he came to the point.
“What do you mean by saying ‘Sonia versus Modi’ in the next general elections? Do the rest of us wear bangles? You think we have spent decades in politics to now hand it all over to somebody who walks in through the backdoor?”
I tell this story because while the 2004 poll distorted the emerging political scenario then, it is incredible how it is promising to play out exactly the same way now. If Modi wins on Sunday *, the stage will be set for an ultimate Modi versus Sonia battle, even if Advani continues to be the BJP’s shadow prime minister. Modi will then be the key campaigner. His kind of politics, his style of mobilisation, his cryptographic saffronism and even his short-sleeved kurtas will then define the BJP campaigns in subsequent general elections. In the long run, too, he will emerge as Rahul Gandhi’s main challenger. He will unite against himself the parties that need the Muslim votes, thereby strengthening any Congress-led coalition. He will put under great strain the members of any BJP-led coalition, particularly those that still value Muslim votes. Nitish Kumar is a key example. Even his worst critics won’t deny that if he wins on Sunday, he will pretty much define the agenda for national politics in the future.
This is also why his re-election will worry many of his party’s leaders exactly the same way his rise had irritated Mahajan in 2002. It is not just because he will then make an immediate bid for the national leadership. On the contrary, chances are that he will let Advani be the prime ministerial candidate in 2009. But his style and persona will cast a larger-than-life shadow not just on the BJP, but on the entire saffron politics.
Two important factors that have marked the BJP’s national politics will then change. One is that whatever their commitment to RSS ideology, most senior leaders of the BJP have risen from the parliamentary system of the fifties and the sixties. They have, therefore, conducted their politics within the broader parameters of constitutionalism and parliamentary sobriety. Vajpayee has smilingly sparred with Nehru, and Advani was on talking terms with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv, even after she jailed him and his entire party leadership during the Emergency. Also, whatever their private views, you have never heard any senior BJP leader say nasty things about Muslims in public. The second factor to have defined the BJP’s politics, so far, is its leaders’ servility to Nagpur. So strong has that hold been that even at the peak of Vajpayee’s power, most key decisions, even privatisation of PSUs, had to be cleared with the RSS.
If Modi wins tomorrow, both will change. He may not call Muslims names in public, but he leaves very little to chance. Not for him the Lucknavi niceties of old-fashioned BJP leaders. He will never entertain a suggestion to reach out to Muslims especially, as he does not believe in “appeasement”. He is not shy of using the expression “Aalia, Malia, Kamalia” to refer to goondas on the streets of Gujarat. And when asked if he isn’t actually suggesting — in code language — that the bad guys are all Muslim, asks with a straight face: “So what would you have said in English, Tom, Dick and Harry… would that have made the bad guys all Christian?”
Modi’s rise will completely change the form, style, substance and essence of the BJP’s politics. In the nineties at Ayodhya, Advani had given his party a certain direction. Modi’s rise will now mean that the use-by date on that politics is over. Most interestingly, he will change the second factor too. He may be an icon of aggressive Hindutva, but Modi has emerged as the first BJP leader ever to defy the RSS. He has not deferred to them. He has, in fact, defied them. He has even denied RSS boys and sympathisers the power of making money on the side, something they consider their entitlement in BJP states. The RSS and VHP are now returning the compliment by boycotting his campaign. If Modi wins, he will also be the first BJP leader ever to win in defiance of, and despite, the VHP and RSS.
So come Sunday, you will see the rise of a new politics, one way and the other.
PS: I have a sneaking feeling that this time, too, my phone may ring (hopefully, not at 6.30 am) and someone from the BJP will say, “What nonsense are you writing?”
Footnote: * The BJP won 117 seats in the 182-member Gujarat assembly.
This article was written on December 22, 2007.
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