Awaiting a change

SWAPAN DASGUPTA

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INDIA is a democratic country. It is also, as we have been incessantly reminded over the past nine years, committed to being inclusive. We are naturally tolerant and allow space for contrarians and dissidents: we don’t hound them for defying conventional wisdom or suggesting the unpalatable. Amartya Sen has even gone to the extent of suggesting that this pluralism is ingrained in our DNA, and it has been part of our polity since Akbar the Moghul.

Nirad Chandra Chaudhuri was one of the earliest of our post-Independence Indians who failed to clear the gauntlet. His controversial dedication to the loftiness of the British Empire in Autobiography of an Unknown Indian failed to clear the correctness test of the formidable Nehruvian censor board that ruled the roost. From 1951, when the Autobiography was published, to 1970, when he left India to take up residence in Oxford, Chaudhuri was relentlessly ostracized by India’s intellectual establishment for his forthright and occasionally quirky views. True, there was a qualified rehabilitation of this Bengali gadfly, especially in his home state, in the final decade of his long life, but even this atonement does not detract from the fact that Chaudhuri was among the most notable intellectual exiles – Professor Jagdish Bhagwati was another – from an India that coupled cultural pluralism with intellectual conformism.

‘The intelligentsia of my country’, Nirad babu wrote in apparent disgust in his Autobiography, ‘have always had the faith – which certainly is justified by the secular changes in our political existence – that they are indispensable as mercenaries to everybody who rules India.’

 

The recent twists and turns of Indian politics have borne out the prescience of Chaudhuri’s observation in 1951 – a time when he witnessed radicals, conservatives and admirers of the British Raj jostle to embrace an emerging Nehruvian consensus. As India enters the year of the general election, there is a creeping fear in the Establishment which, naturally, includes the intelligentsia, that the country may be on the cusp of a great and dramatic political change. Initially, this anticipation of change was in the nature of a vague suspicion borne out by anecdotal evidence and the profound public disgust over uninhibited corruption. The Anna Hazare movement and the flash mob fury over the rape and murder of a young woman in the capital in December 2012 were early indications of restlessness. However, it was the sheer magnitude of the ruling Congress Party’s defeat in the four state assembly elections of December 2013 that alerted the establishment to impending collapse.

A change of dispensation at the Centre is not a novel experience for India. The decimation of Indira Gandhi in the Emergency referendum of 1977 was not anticipated – at least not by the ‘progressive’ intellectuals who had come to view the post-1969 Congress dispensation as the most worthwhile standard bearer of socialist transformation. Nor for that matter did it occur to the interpreters of India that the Bharatiya Janata Party – a formation that was banished from polite society after the demolition of a 16th century shrine in Ayodhya in December 1992 – would be doling out appointments and favours just six years later.

Yet, what marked the Janata Party’s assumption of power in 1977 and the installation of the Atal Behari Vajpayee-led government in 1998 was the modesty of establishment discomfiture. Yes, a few of the durbaris may have had to vacate their grace-and-favour government bungalows in Lutyens’ Delhi and some political appointees may have had to resign their ambassadorial posts, but overall the establishment did not undergo a radical overhaul. The Janata Party government, for example, had enough representatives from the old Congress, including Morarji Desai, Jagjivan Ram and H.N. Bahuguna, to ensure large measures of continuity.

Likewise, Vajpayee, a familiar and convivial figure in the rarefied political circles of Delhi, did his utmost to keep the saffron radicals at bay during the six years of NDA rule. Vajpayee, who many in the BJP regarded as a closet Nehruvian, was anxious to inherit the old establishment rather than forge a counter-establishment. Despite initial fears of a ‘right wing takeover’ that some hardened secularists did their utmost to spread, the genial Vajpayee was neither a Margaret Thatcher nor a Ronald Reagan. The NDA regime’s contribution to nurturing alternative political worldviews was extraordinarily unimpressive.

 

In view of India’s fascination with continuity – a very Hindu attribute – why should the establishment have reason to look upon a possible change of government with anything more than routine trepidation? The answer lies in one man: Narendra Modi.

Few individuals have been so consistently underestimated and misread as the three-term chief minister of Gujarat who is poised for the most ecstatic of victories or the most colossal disappointment. Barring the unforeseen, the 2014 general election will be a battle about Modi. In a throwback to the days of Indira Gandhi, voters will either endorse him resolutely or reject him unequivocally. There is unlikely to be any halfway house.

 

The inability of the professional India-watchers to anticipate the rise and rise of Modi is a failure of colossal proportions. After the horrible post-Godhra riots of 2002 – which also happened to be the first riot which was televised without any significant measure of self-censorship – Modi was written off as an ugly fringe figure who would either remain confined to Gujarat or become a victim of judicial strictures. When he went to the polls in December 2002, the first occasion he was seeking a mandate of his state, he ran a solo campaign without any meaningful assistance from the Vajpayee dispensation in Delhi. I still recall the glee with which PMO officials and BJP ministers close to Vajpayee would feed the media reports of ‘confidential’ opinion polls that indicated the BJP would secure a bare majority. The message was clear: Modi was well on his way to being dethroned and eventually banished from Gujarat.

The Vajpayee court was a victim of the same phenomenon that has plagued other ruling dispensations – being told what was politically expedient, rather than the whole truth. Anyone who spent time in Gujarat in 2002 would vouch for two developments. First, there was a deep conviction that the post-riots outrage was calculated to tarnish the fair name of the state and cast its people as bloodthirsty fanatics. Second, despite being parachuted into the state in 2001, Modi had been cast as a Gujarati folk hero and a man who alone was capable of redeeming the honour of this prosperous and entrepreneurial part of India.

Modi won a famous victory in 2002 on the strength of raw emotion. Gujarat voted as proud Gujaratis, proud Hindus and for a leader who they felt epitomized the no-nonsense attributes of Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. Understandably, Modi’s victory had alarm bells ringing in the Muslim community that feared the extension of militant Hindu nationalism beyond the boundaries of Gujarat. With Vajpayee thwarted in his bid to check the rise of Modi, the 2004 general election witnessed a silent but spectacular Muslim consolidation all over India against the NDA. Whereas the BJP was loath to undertake any countervailing mobilization on identity issues, believing that its development record and the leadership of Vajpayee would do the trick, it failed to detect the grim determination of the Muslim community to take political revenge for the Gujarat riots.

 

The defeat of the NDA and the return of the Gandhi dynasty to the centre-stage injected a new set of certitudes into politics. First, it was believed that the rise of the BJP after 1991 and the simultaneous decline of the Congress were born of special circumstances: the rise of Hindu nationalism and the alienation of the Muslims from the Congress. With both these ‘special’ factors yielding way to ‘normal’ politics, it was felt that the Congress would set the terms for the middle ground of politics. The BJP would still be relevant but more as regional outfits. As the NDA unravelled after the 2004 defeat, with more and more regional parties going their own way, the centrality of the Congress became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Second, as far as Modi was concerned, established punditry arrived at certain conclusions based on their visceral hatred of the man. It was believed that Modi’s appeal was based almost entirely on the espousal of hardline Hindutva. This conclusion, which stemmed from the disproportionate importance attached to the activities of human rights groups seeking punishment for the perpetrators of the 2002 riots, was woefully selective. It failed to note that after the 2002 victory Modi had switched gear and was focusing on improved governance and promoting entrepreneurship in a state that was naturally inclined towards trade and industry.

The energetic moves by the Gujarat government to upgrade infrastructure, improve the delivery of services and attract new investment were well publicized. Unfortunately, the intellectual establishment perceived these as window dressing and preferred to focus on issues such as the US denial of a visa to Modi. Therefore, they missed the fact that Modi fought and won the 2007 assembly election on a very conventional development agenda. The rhetorical flourishes over Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ accusation provided merely the icing on the cake. It was a bid to energize the BJP workers into combat mode. Modi had changed but that change had gone unnoticed by his opponents who preferred to see him frozen in the 2002 mould.

 

The failure to detect the reality of a changed Modi also owed considerably to the practice of political untouchability. From 2004 onwards it became customary, indeed obligatory, for the establishment to treat Gujarat as an enemy country. The Centre did its utmost, for example, to dissuade industrialists and public sector managers from participating in the Vibrant Gujarat summits. Indian missions overseas were loath to cooperate with state government delegations that scoured the markets for fresh investments. The US visa issue also led to the European Union missions desisting from any formal contact with the Gujarat administration and Modi. Indeed, it would be fair to say that the endeavour of the administration in Gandhinagar was to bust the undeclared sanctions against Modi. That the attempt failed owed mainly to countries such as Japan and Singapore, and the fact that the Gujarati diaspora stood solidly with Modi. It also meant that the Gujarat government had to perform that much more imaginatively and efficiently to overcome the hurdles.

 

For Gujarat, the most spectacular outcome of many years of unrelenting work was the decision of Tata Motors to shift its Nano car plant from West Bengal to Gujarat. This one move proved a game changer. More than anything else, it established Modi as the foremost proponent of rapid growth. The intelligentsia, as is its wont, may have been loath to factor in private sector investments in their calculations, but in corporate circles all over India, Modi’s ability to take quick decisions and follow these through administratively became a talking point.

Modi’s dynamism wasn’t seen in isolation. After 2009, as India’s soaring growth rate began to falter and the UPA government experienced a vicious bout of inter-ministerial conflict that paralyzed decision-making, the Gujarat model began to be spoken of as an alternative. Predictably, the establishment intelligentsia, still predominantly ‘socialist’ in orientation, debunked the achievements as hype and evidence of a corporate-sponsored right wing conspiracy.

Modi’s second term win in 2007 was significant for the shifts it triggered within the BJP – and which remained undetected for very long. The 2004 election defeat came as a huge shock for the BJP which had taken its victory entirely for granted. That Vajpayee would retire and pass the baton on to his deputy L.K. Advani was known and the decision was accepted in the BJP with an air of inevitability. However, in trying to shed his own hardline image and make himself more acceptable to his ‘secular’ critics, Advani shot himself in the foot in the summer of 2005. His over-the-top tribute to Mohammed Ali Jinnah during his visit to Pakistan went against every natural impulse of the party. The resulting turbulence led to the RSS reassuming direct control of the party.

Although Advani was rehabilitated and made the NDA’s prime ministerial candidate in 2009, he was now damaged goods. The BJP didn’t expect to win the election; it rested its hopes on denying the Congress another term. The electorate foiled such plans and although Advani manoeuvred his way into remaining Leader of Opposition, the BJP began the process of looking for a new leader who could re-energize a fractious and listless party.

 

That Modi was best placed to make the transition from the state to the Centre should have been apparent to anyone familiar with the internal dynamics of the BJP. For a start, he was clearly the most popular party leader and a darling of the BJP workers all over the country. At all the public rallies that accompanied the BJP National Executive and National Council meetings, the biggest cheers were invariably reserved for Modi. Had the BJP evolved a system of primaries to select the leader, Modi would have secured a 70 per cent or more endorsement of those already committed to the party.

Second, Modi had carefully built up a network of loyal supporters throughout the country without stepping outside Gujarat. An otherwise busy chief minister, he had made it a point to meet every visiting BJP worker. As part of a larger programme of political education, visiting groups of party MLAs, sympathizers or even interested students were often taken around Gujarat and shown examples of innovative governance.

Third, despite the fact that Modi was at loggerheads with the Gujarat leadership of the RSS, he remained the darling of the average swayamsevak in the shakhas. Each election involving Modi would witness large delegations of BJP and RSS supporters arriving in Gujarat to give a helping hand to the campaign. Much before the Aam Aadmi Party discovered the virtues of unpaid ‘volunteers’, Modi had used his goodwill to motivate individuals to spend time in political work.

 

Finally, in putting the internet and social media to optimum political use, Modi was a pioneer. Much before the others had discovered Facebook, twitter and Google hangouts, Modi and his social media team were at work with a campaign of targeted messaging that involved both the political and the social. For Modi, the social media proved a force multiplier. He was not only able to reach out to the youth, he has created the nucleus of a support base that will certainly come into play in 2014, in urban India. If there are recurrent complaints by beleaguered liberals, used to being intellectually uncontested, of ‘Modi trolls’, it suggests that Modi has become a trendsetter.

Despite these clear indications, there was a general disinclination to accept the sheer inevitability of Modi’s emergence as the successor to Vajpayee and Advani in the BJP. Partly this owed to Advani’s overall reluctance to relinquish the top berth. However, despite the dogged resistance of the veteran leader to make way, Advani was hamstrung by the fact that his own popular appeal had diminished alarmingly. Throughout the first half of 2013, when it seemed that an unresolved leadership tangle would cripple the BJP, the feeling in the party ranks was near-unequivocal. It was this unrelenting pressure from below that finally persuaded the RSS that it had to intervene to settle the matter once and for all. The rapidity of Modi’s rise as chairman of the Campaign Committee at the Goa session of the National Executive in July 2013, to his formal anointment as the prime ministerial candidate on 13 September may have unsettled political calculations, but it was a clear indication that Modi was irresistible within the BJP.

 

Initially the BJP’s opponents were convinced that Modi’s elevation would lead to a BJP-versus-the-rest polarization and lead to the Gujarat leader becoming an Indian variant of Barry Goldwater – a man who galvanized the faithful but failed to impress the larger electorate. The expression that ‘Gujarat isn’t India’ was on the lips of many an intellectual who believed that Modi’s appeal would remain limited to small urban clusters. That belief was shattered as Modi’s public meetings in the less advanced states of India began attracting spectacular crowds, including people who were willing to pay a token sum to attend. The attendance at the Patna rally unnerved Nitish Kumar and the turnout at Bahraich went beyond anything even the BJP expected.

A curious feature about the rising attraction of Modi is the fact that he is being perceived in different hues. For a large section of his urban supporters, Modi represents the aspirations of a restless generation and the impatience with India underperforming its potential. Here, the appeal is for Modi the decisive leader who has his eye firmly on India’s economic growth. In Bihar and parts of Uttar Pradesh, the Modi that is being merchandized is the backward class and the former tea seller who is on the cusp of becoming prime minister. At the same time, in parts of western and central Uttar Pradesh that has witnessed rising communal tensions, Modi is being cast in the role of the great Hindu hridaysamrat who will put an end to the reckless ‘minorityism’ of the Samajwadi Party.

Simultaneously, Modi also generates a feeling of fear in the establishment. Unlike Vajpayee, who was a familiar figure in national politics since 1957, Modi is almost entirely an outsider to the charmed world of Lutyens’ Delhi. Yes, he has links with the corporate world and may even have been championed by a small cluster of English speaking right wing intellectuals who were never given full membership of the establishment. But overall, Modi is the great unknown who comes without baggage.

In the past, most outsiders who arrived unexpectedly in Delhi in positions of importance were courted, flattered and eventually co-opted. There is a lurking fear that Modi may not be an easy candidate for the same process. For a start he is a natural loner. Second, while he is forever open to suggestions, he is the one that invariably takes the final call and is rarely moved by pressure. A RSS veteran once complained to me that Modi does not take orders willingly; he is naturally argumentative and has to be convinced in his mind that the decision is the right one. Unlike other leaders, Modi is not prone to passing the buck or firing from the shoulders of others. His leadership style, unlike that of Vajpayee, isn’t couched in Brahmanical ambiguity.

Modi may or not become prime minister in June 2014. The remaining six months can either reinforce an existing trend in his favour or derail it unexpectedly. But for the moment, the sight of the Gujarati outlander closing in on the imperial capital is giving many sleepless nights to those who imagined that the party would never end. The threat of Modi is a fear of a change that is more than merely cosmetic.

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