By Swapan Dasgupta
It was December 2002 and the last days of an extremely tense election campaign. I was with Narendra Modi in a small aircraft, flying from Jamnagar to Ahmedabad where he would address an evening rally with Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee.
Leaning across the aisle, he asked: “What do you think?” “Looks very encouraging” I replied. He nodded and then lapsed into a reflective silence. Then, quite abruptly, he shot me another question: “And what if we lose?” I smiled warily and he too smiled back.
“But at least I fought a good campaign. I gave my best.”
Modi had every reason to consider the worst-case scenario. The forces ranged against him in 2002 were formidable. Apart from the liberal intelligentsia and media that held him personally responsible for the post-Godhra riots, it was an open secret that a powerful section around Prime Minister Vajpayee was less than enthusiastic about him. Any electoral mishap, including a failure to secure a resounding victory, would have spelt the end of his political career. For Modi, it was a do-or-die battle.
In hindsight, that short flight to Ahmedabad was also one of those rarest of rare moments: when a flicker of doubt crossed the mind of a man who has today earned a reputation for being the last word in political decisiveness. Never before—not even in those dark days of the late-Nineties when he was more or less barred from even visiting Gujarat—had I ever seen a hesitant Modi. And never subsequently have I seen his fierce sense of mission falter. Modi is a man blessed with astonishing self-resolve.
On December 20, as the Electronic Voting Machines revealed the extent of Gujarat’s determination to persist with its longest-serving Chief Minister, there was a realisation that what was being witnessed was more than just another state Assembly election: Modi was on the cusp of becoming a national phenomenon. Even his fiercest detractors—and they still dominate the Indian Establishment—have grudgingly admitted that in this 62-year-old Gujarati they are dealing with someone who has the potential of not merely reshaping the rules of electoral politics but even contesting the muddled ambivalence of India.
Modi has emerged a leader you can either love or loath but can’t ignore.
In the aftermath of his third consecutive victory in Gujarat, there is certain to be a clamour for giving Modi a national role and even declaring him the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate for the next general election. Hitherto this insistence was confined to a group of enthusiasts active on the social media, a clutch of business leaders wowed by the energy and dynamism of Vibrant Gujarat, a few oddball intellectuals detached from the academic and media establishments and a handful of political activists exasperated by the inability of the BJP to capitalise on the failures of the Central Government. In the past six months or so, as the drift in the BJP has become more palpable, the ‘Modi for PM’ constituency has grown exponentially and embraced not only BJP-inclined voters and the party’s grassroots workers but even a largish section of elite opinion-makers. Modi’s growing national appeal has even begun to be strongly reflected in the opinion polls.
The trends don’t reflect a contrarian fad. There are three significant points of value-addition that Modi is likely to bring to the BJP table. The first is the youth vote. Gujarat has clearly demonstrated that Modi’s most enthusiastic support comes from the below-35s, which explains why Modi’s election rallies often covey a rock concert mood. They are passionately attracted by his ability to both sell a development dream and translate some of this into reality. In a party often seen as being antediluvian, Modi stands out as the leader with strongly modernist impulses. His 3-D campaign may have seemed a needless gimmick—akin to the helicopter that never fails to draw an incremental, gawking crowd at political rallies—but Modi calculated it would be viewed as an example of his technology-friendly approach that is in tune with Gujarat’s aspirational ethos.
The Gujarat experience has also pointed to Modi’s hold over women’s imagination. A social psychologist may be able to better explain if this appeal is centred on raw machismo, his status as a single man (something that has also worked to the advantage of Naveen Patnaik in Orissa) or something more complex. Whatever the reason, this appeal is advantageous for a party which sees women and youth as weak links in its social architecture.
The third feature of Modi’s political strength is his ability to inspire the BJP’s bedrock social constituency—the middle classes. This following owes to Modi’s three perceived strengths: his passion for rapid development, his decisiveness and his personal integrity. In the 1990s, a much smaller middle class rallied behind the BJP because it was seen to be ‘different’ from the rest of the political pack. Today, a much larger and more fiercely aspirational middle class may well view Modi as the no-nonsense alternative to a bunch of narrow-minded, self-serving and venal political class.
In the past, Modi has successfully experimented with creating an all-embracing political community. After the 2002 riots which were attributed to a visceral majoritarian backlash against Muslims, Modi deliberately avoided the temptation of re-creating the Hindu vote bank of the Ayodhya years. Instead, he invoked Gujarati asmita which incorporated the ‘garv se kahon hum Hindu hain’ theme to something larger and non-contentious. In the process he subsumed the caste mobilisation that had been a feature of the Congress resurgence in the 1980s.
It is said that Gujarat isn’t India and that Modi’s bid to invoke an India Pride will falter in the face of the fractious caste and community mobilisation of the Hindi heartland. There is some merit in the argument. At the same time, Modi’s critics have failed to take into account the possibility that no meaningful national campaign can be a carbon copy of an approach evolved in the context of just Gujarat.
Modi has two cards that have been kept in reserve. The first is the element of class that Modi touched upon tangentially in the final stages of the Gujarat campaign, as a retort to Rahul Gandhi. “Your father, his grandfather and his mother were Prime Ministers”, he said in a few rallies, “but my father wasn’t even a sarpanch.” This was a direct assault on both privilege and the Gandhi family’s remarkable sense of entitlement.
The second reserve card is Modi’s membership of a backward caste. He has never invoked his OBC status, not least because casteism goes against his commitment to an all-embracing Indian nationalism. But this is a theme that is rarely proclaimed on public platforms. It is a message transmitted through the powerful bush telegraph. In theory, Modi has the weapon to replenish his larger appeal with the OBC card. The leaders of caste parties in Uttar Pradesh and Bihar know this and are awkward about confronting him frontally on the social justice theme.
Modi’s strengths are known to the BJP but yet there are misgivings on two counts. First, Modi is seen to be too much of an individualist. Despite being a former RSS pracharak who was trained to receive instructions and follow them, Modi is an argumentative Indian. Many RSS veterans are wary of his constant questioning of certitudes.
Secondly, flowing from this is the belief that Modi lacks the flexibility to manage the disagreeable world of coalition politics. With Nitish Kumar determined to walk out of the NDA in the event of BJP naming him as the candidate for the top political job, there is a fear in the party that the BJP would be left in ‘majestic isolation’, as happened between 1990 and 1996.
These are real issues and there is only one way Modi can confront them: by letting public support do the talking. This was precisely how Vajpayee handled very similar problems between the collapse of his 13-day government in 1996 and the election of 1998.
Frankly, the BJP has no option but to anoint Modi soon, giving him the time to build his national profile from his Gandhinagar operational base. The alternative will be a BJP entering the general election campaign with a sullen, listless and unenthusiastic support base—an approach calculated to produce indifferent results and the subsequent inability to play a meaningful post-election role.
Within the ‘parivar’ it is often said that Modi has unlearnt everything he imbibed as a swayamsevak. This is untrue. One attribute that he has never lost sight of is the strategic virtue of patience over impulsiveness. In his 12 years at the helm in Gandhinagar, he has rarely overplayed his hand. He has never been a man in a tearing hurry, even while aware of his ultimate destination.
INDIA TODAY, December 31, 2012