With Modis at the helm

Come 2014,BJP will serve each state a different Modi. There will be at least three

Written by Suhas Palshikar | Published: July 30, 2013 5:53:25 am

Come 2014,BJP will serve each state a different Modi. There will be at least three

The BJP hopes to derive an advantage from the elevation of Modi to the national level. It has certainly prompted the party rank and file,not to mention the public,to surmise that Modi would be the BJP’s choice for leadership at the national level in future. So it is worthwhile to assess Modi’s possible contribution to the BJP’s electoral fortunes in the approaching general elections. What is the advantage that Modi may bring to the party?

In the short period that he has been operating at the all-India level,Modi has brought three themes into sharp focus. First,development and governance,second,(Hindu) nationalism,third,anti-Congressism — vikas,rashtravad and Congressmukt rajneeti. The three themes are expected to appeal to three different social sections and can have differential impact on popular choices.

Modi won the last assembly elections in Gujarat on the plank of development and governance. This theme has become quite attractive to a cross section of society. In the aftermath of the cynical non-performance of Lalu Prasad,based on a belief that governance does not matter if you talk the language of social justice,governance has become a key component of the repertoire of political parties. The idea of vikas appeals to most voters,so Modi’s emphasis on development is expected to work wonders. However,this electoral dividend will accrue only if his performance is highlighted in different states of India. But many state governments — including those governed by the BJP — will claim to have brought development to the state. So,in order to project himself as the messiah of development,Modi will have to invoke Gujarat,which will inevitably underscore his image as a state level,rather than national level,leader and his Gujarati pride will be counterbalanced by the regional pride of different states.

Precisely for this reason,from the time of his much-publicised address at a Delhi college,Modi’s speeches have been empty of specificities and rich on generalities about making the nation strong and turning the education system into a heaven. These would momentarily appeal to the younger lot,but are sure to become inadequate in the long run,as the electoral campaign unfolds.

Hence,Modi has to take recourse to the other,and more emotive,theme of nationalism. When the nation-state is not in crisis,nationalist rhetoric tends to be vacuous or jarring. Therefore,Modi’s development-plus-nationalism agenda suffers from being too general and can appeal only to the well-oiled sections and the youth. So he skilfully invokes Hindutva. His claim that he was born a Hindu and so “happens” to be a Hindu nationalist just by circumstance — apart from being comical — is incapable of fulfilling the expectations that he has himself created among militant Hindutvavadis. Thus,again,the newly shaped Hindu nationalist Modi will have limited appeal,unless he goes back to core issues that define the secular-communal cleavage. At the moment,Modi appears to be avoiding that and yet aiming to gain from the Hindu image. This will attract only those who are already attracted to him. But Modi must be aware of this catch. So,he does a doublespeak: on the one hand,he conceals his Hindu nationalism behind a developmentalist nationalism for the consumption of the urban middle classes,on the other hand,he sends Amit Shah to UP as his “representative”. Perhaps,the gameplan is to shape different holographic images out of one Modi. Each state will have a different Modi — a backward state will get the vikas purush,the more urbanised states will get a rashtra purush or lauh purush,key states of the north and west,more prone to Hindutva,will get the “Hanuman” of Lord Ram. While this strategy relies on the fact of state specificity and the need for a variegated strategy of campaign and electoral messaging,whether that will bring new votes to the BJP is a big question.

Modi must be aware of this predicament. His supporters and he probably hope that as a demagogic leader,he may succeed in swaying public sentiment on the basis of generalities and differential appeals. In this task of image building,he would of course be aided most competently by the TRP-thirsty electronic media,eager to telecast his speeches live or most extensively.

Yet,there is a possibility,and a strong one,that Modi’s BJP may not actually get enough votes across sections and states to win a sizeable parliamentary presence — matching the Congress’s 2009 presence. Therefore,the third arrow to Modi’s bow is directed less at voters and more at non-Congress parties. A mere tactical appeal to these parties to join hands with the BJP may not work. So,Modi employs the language of Congress-mukt rajneeti — politics free of the Congress. Apart from the very evocative imagery that can appeal to traditional non-Congress voters from the middle classes,this theme is actually aimed at non-Congress elements across the political spectrum. By positioning himself as the leader bent on cleansing the system of the virus of the Congress (including a leader of foreign origin),Modi expects that his less-than-acceptable credentials on secularism will be ignored by parties when they do business after the elections. This theme is thus Modi’s insurance policy for handling the compulsions of post-election coalition. Just as Modi’s past (of letting the driver crush the puppy) comes in handy for the Congress in blackmailing self-proclaimed secular parties into a possible alignment,Modi’s Congress-mukt rajneeti coaxes the habitual anti-Congressism out of quite a few political actors. Veteran socialists and social justice supporters found virtue in the BJP during the mid-1990s because they were anxious to keep the Congress away from power,and Modi expects to forge a post-election alliance on that basis yet again. In a post-Congress polity,it is not certain that this appeal can be a very strong basis for forging a new NDA. But before that happens,Modi’s BJP will have to pass the electoral test and win enough seats to negotiate with others.

The trouble is that voters are likely to be much more discerning than Modi expects them to be. As such,an empty language of development and the potently emotive language of Hindutva will have limited appeal. It is not yet clear if Modi will be able to mobilise sections beyond the middle classes,new sections of voters that the BJP has not tapped yet — Dalits,Muslims,lower OBCs and the poor more generally. If he does that,his chances of winning a handsome victory will be more realistic. Or else the BJP would have made a risky gamble.

The writer teaches political science at University of Pune


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