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The surge from below

Modi’s transition to PM-in-waiting didn’t happen due to committee games

Written by Swapan Dasgupta |
September 16, 2013 1:26:01 am

Modi’s transition to PM-in-waiting didn’t happen due to committee games

In the history of the Sixties’ counter-culture,the anti-Vietnam war protests of 1968 occupy a very special place. The ageing radicals I encounter at various reunions in the pubs of London often recall the 1,00,000-strong demonstration chanting “Ho,Ho,Ho Chi Minh” outside the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square one overcast October 44 years ago. The more impish among them also recall how some contrarians with an exaggerated sense of self-worth even made the journey from the sublime to the ridiculous: the earnest activists of a Trotskyist sect distributed leaflets explaining “Why we are not marching!”

It would be cruel to equate L.K. Advani’s missive explaining his non-attendance at the BJP parliamentary board meeting last Friday with those who missed the bus in 1968. But it may not be entirely inaccurate to suggest that in India 2013,Advani is probably as representative of the “parivar” mood as the Socialist Labour League was of British radicalism in 1968. By sitting morosely in Prithviraj Road while BJP workers celebrated,Advani wilfully reduced himself to a petulant footnote. However,he has also ensured that even if coalition vagaries deprive Narendra Modi of a Race Course Road tenancy next year,the BJP will not fall back on its ponderous nostalgia machine.

Murli Manohar Joshi and Sushma Swaraj were cleverer: they advertised their dissent but didn’t sour the party spirit. They,along with Rajnath Singh,can still aspire to be the second choice of the first party after the 2014 polls.

It is pertinent to highlight the sub-agendas that were temporarily put on hold amid the intense emotional upheaval that greeted the declaration of Modi as the NDA’s PM-in-waiting. The euphoria was warranted. The transition of Modi from a strong regional leader to the PM-in-waiting didn’t happen as a consequence of his success in playing the committee game. On the contrary,Modi’s dogged sense of right and wrong and his unwillingness to make short-term compromises cut him off from the rest of the political pack. At the time of his second victory in 2007,Modi was very much a political loner — hounded by the all-powerful secular establishment,detached from the BJP national leadership,and alienated from the apparatchiks of the RSS.

So,what happened in the intervening six years to allow the entire parliamentary board (from which he had been unceremoniously dumped by the same Rajnath Singh in 2006) to pose for photographs with him last Friday?

The suggestion that it was the change of guard in the RSS,from the outspoken and indiscreet K.S. Sudarshan to the more quietly determined Mohan Bhagwat,that did the trick,is over-simplistic. No doubt,the RSS threw its entire moral weight behind the decision to declare Modi primus inter pares. But this was a considered collegiate decision,not the personal choice of the sarsanghchalak. And this decision,in turn,was forced on the RSS by a groundswell,the likes of which the country has not experienced in recent times. It may sound hyperbolic,but the reality is that Modi’s elevation to the national stage was almost entirely a result of overwhelming and irresistible pressure from below.

The seemingly nail-biting sequence of events that led to the formal recognition of Modi as the BJP’s face for 2014 was actually only a formality. For the thousands of ordinary BJP workers and lakhs of the party’s well-wishers,Modi was the only national leader who counted ever since his third-term victory in Gujarat last December. The writing was always on the wall for everyone to see.

It wasn’t merely Advani who failed to decipher the script. India’s intellectual establishment,whose dislike of Modi had turned visceral,interpreted the Gujarat chief minister’s growing cult status among a section of the population as evidence of what Marxists call “false consciousness” — the inability to realise their own self and class interests. This resulted in the simple assertion “Modi is popular” being turned into a more philosophical question: “Why should Modi be popular?” This,in turn,prompted a contrived conclusion: “Modi is unelectable”.

This expedient sleight of hand is a common mistake of politicians and public intellectuals: the equation of personal preference with the larger mood. Ronald Reagan was,for example,denied the Republican nomination in 1976 because the party establishment also deemed him unelectable and a deeply polarising figure. Most of the old guard of the Conservative Party had similar misgivings of Margaret Thatcher.

In the case of Modi,the BJP leadership has certainly gambled on his vote maximising potential. The newly-appointed PM candidate may not wipe the slate clean,but compared to him the rest of the BJP leaderboard lacks the inspirational thrust that alone can counter dodgy electoral arithmetic with positive chemistry. In 1995,Advani rightly calculated that only Atal Bihari Vajpayee had the potential to add to the BJP’s committed and exuberant Hindu vote with incremental additions from the fence-sitters. Today,Modi’s great strength lies in his phenomenal appeal to a section that has little time for party politics but recognises the importance of a clear-sighted,charismatic leader with unquestionable personal integrity. If the BJP is experiencing a surge in the Ganga belt,it is almost exclusively due to Modi’s rock star appeal,particularly among the restless youth,bubbling with raw energy. This is the incremental vote that Modi promises to bring into the NDA kitty. Countering this surge with invocations to a Nehruvian “idea of India” and dynastic paternalism is touching.

The issue is not whether Modi’s charisma can lead to a radical realignment that will see the BJP scoring unexpected victories in West Bengal,Kerala and Tamil Nadu. However,Modi alone among the BJP leaders has the appeal to maximise the BJP’s yield in states where the party has a meaningful presence. And his pan-India appeal is such as to force other non-Congress parties to seriously explore the advantages of a pre-election understanding with the NDA.

At this stage,before the election campaign has even begun,an outright victory for the NDA looks a tall order. Indeed,the fear of a horribly fractured verdict is widespread. However,an imaginatively run,quasi-presidential campaign could alter equations dramatically. For the BJP,the Modi “gamble” is not premised on the power of will alone.

The writer is a Delhi-based political commentator

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