Whether Narendra Modi wins or loses the grand electoral battle of the 2014 general elections, what demands attention is his attempt to trigger a major paradigm shift in Indian politics.
The Gujarat chief minister and BJP’s Chief Poll Campaigner for the 2014 elections is not just attempting to decisively win over non-Muslim voters but go beyond into hitherto uncharted waters. Given the RSS-BJP blood flowing through his veins, seeking to unite and consolidate Hindu votes is a given. That was something that even the BJP patriarch LK Advani attempted with the Rath Yatra in 1990. What Modi is attempting today is to focus on redefining secularism in India as it has been preached and practised for decades in Indian politics.
If you closely examine all of his utterances including the “puppy remark” that provoked a backlash, this highly polarizing leader is sending across a central message: That while being a nationalist (accidentally, a Hindu one at that), he does not believe in compartmentalising this country into Hindus and non-Hindus but wants to instead, carry everyone together in the same boat.
This, according to Modi is the true definition of secularism, where politics means development and progress for all, and favouritism towards none. This is the underlying message in practically everything that Modi has said or done in recent years.
After having failed to nail him for complicity in the 2002 post-Godhra riots, all of Modi’s critics and opponents have been clamouring for just one thing from him: "The least that we want Modi to do is express remorse over the killing of Muslims in the riots", is their cry.
Any sensible person would think that is a fair expectation. Modi could not have missed out on the fact that he had an extraordinary opportunity to finally reach out to the Muslims- and silence his critics- through the recent Reuters interview that grabbed the headlines.
A veteran politician like Modi could not have been blind to the opportunity that this interview afforded. He would have clearly anticipated the familiar questions that would be put forth on the post-Godhra riots, his view on Muslims and his definition of nationalism and secularism. The thrust of his replies would have been framed and ready in his mind during the interview. Even the Reuters reporters Ross Colvin and Satarupa Bhattacharjya say as much in their interview: “At times, Modi appeared tense, though not defensive. He chose his words carefully, especially when talking about his role in the 2002 riots (italics for emphasis).”
Thus, one can well imagine that the “puppy remark” was not a spur-of-the-moment response but intentional. In spite of being interviewed on a neutral, credible and international platform like Reuters, Modi refused to express remorse- or apologise- for the loss of Muslim lives during the riots, as was expected of him.
What he implied with his controversial remark was that when even the death of a puppy under a car’s wheels brings grief, imagine the distress that any person would feel by the loss of human lives in the 2002 riots. Modi stuck to his “one nation – one people” theme and did not mention any particular community that had been traumatized by the episode. This seems to be the key to Modi’s Muslim conundrum: No matter how much criticism is heaped on him, Modi will not express regret for the loss of members of any particular community.
The Sadbhavana yatras (mission of goodwill and harmony) that he undertook with one-day fasts in 36 districts of Gujarat during 2011-12, a decade after the Godhra incidents, was the closest that he came to addressing the wounds of 2002. Once again, he chose to reach out to all Gujaratis, including Muslims, through this yatra.
In his speeches at these events, Modi repeatedly described his approach as ‘collective efforts' and 'inclusive growth'.
His refusal to wear the Muslim skull cap offered by a cleric during one such rally sparked a controversy; although at the same event, he had accepted a green coloured shawl with Islamic verses on it. If Narendra Modi wore a skull cap as is routinely done by Rahul Gandhi and other leaders, especially during the Iftar gatherings at Eid, how would he be able to differentiate himself and his brand of secularism from that of the Congress?
As a part of his strategy, Modi has been trying to reach out to the young generation with considerable success. As was the case with his address to students at the SRCC College, Delhi in February, 2013, his public rally in Pune was attended by a largely young audience as also his speech at the Fergusson College.
This was followed by his address at a youth rally in Hyderabad on Tuesday. A well-planned phase-1 of Modi’s poll strategy seems to have rolled out while Rahul Gandhi’s young brigade seems to be missing in action.
There is a common thread flowing through Modi’s speeches, echoing what he said at the Sadbhavana rallies in Gujarat in 2011-12: He attacks the Congress and her allies for what he calls “divide and rule secularism” based on appeasing castes and religions.
His approach, in contrast, says Modi, is to promote inclusive growth through economic development that benefits all irrespective of their caste or religion. Modi then cites his successes in Gujarat, while not forgetting to attack the UPA for its string of corruption scams.
On the other hand, the Congress and the UPA have focused their attack on Modi as anti-Muslim, anti-secular and as the kingpin of the post-Godhra riots in 2002. He is now being blamed for the Ishrat Jahan and other encounter killings by the Gujarat police.
So who is falling in whose trap?
Is Modi falling into the Congress’s trap by allowing the Congress to reinforce his anti-Muslim, anti-secular image? Or is the Congress falling into Modi’s trap by giving him the benefit of headlines day after day and by allowing him to point out that the Congress has no choice but to appease minority vote banks?
Modi, by virtue of image and association with the Sangh parivar, has no claims to Muslim votes although he has been trying to convey that he means no harm. A master strategist who has already embarked on the first round of his campaign trail, Modi has a platter of offerings for all: This includes the Ram Janmabhoomi agenda for hardcore RSS-BJP followers; good governance, inclusive development and economic growth for urban and rural audiences, and talk of modernisation versus westernisation to the youth.
Amidst all this, his central message is that of equality for all and appeasement of none in Indian politics.
This is the paradigm shift that Modi is attempting and this is the quicksand that the Congress and her allies are likely to walk into.
There are many claimants for the Muslim vote across India and as the elections approach, political parties will try and outdo one another in reaching out to the general electorate and especially the minorities. As Bihar chief minister Nitish Kumar’s adviser, author and ex-diplomat Pavan K Varma pointed out in a recent article, “One-fourth of Kerala is Muslim; 30% of West Bengal is Muslim; every fourth person in Assam is Muslim; 30 million Muslims live in UP; some 15 million in Bihar; every ninth resident of Karnataka is Muslim.”
Every time the Congress, her allies and the other parties bend backwards to win these votes by offering sops to demonstrate their secular credentials, Modi will have a point to score.
The time has come to shift Indian politics from caste and religion and deliver good governance, development and economic growth that will benefit the smallest man on the street, irrespective of his caste and religion. Ironically, it is Narendra Modi who is found speaking this language.