Hindutva track: Is Modi going for broke this time?

From the little clues available from here and there, the Narendra Modi campaign theme appears to have shifted to a high-risk, all-or-nothing approach, where Hindutva is a key part of the message.

When Modi’s trusted aide, Amit Shah, went to Ayodhya and talked about wanting to build a Ram Mandir, one could have dismissed it as an aberration, someone talking out of turn. When the “puppy” remark surfaced, one could discount it as a deliberate attempt to create controversies over a statement that could have been interpreted in multiple ways. And so too for the “burkha of securlarism” remark.

But posters are springing up in Mumbai about Modi’s “Hindu nationalist” statement. These could not have come up without Modi’s campaign managers knowing nothing about it.

Narendra Modi. Agencies.

Narendra Modi. Agencies.

More recently, we have heard less about the governance theme or the economy, and more about Modi’s non-secular persona – no doubt through media and Congress orchestration, but we have not seen a spirited attempt to shift the focus back to the economy and governance, either. Why is the BJP not putting the Congress on the backfoot here?

Modi also had long discussions with RSS chief Mohan Bhagwat in Nagpur two days back. According to NDTV, which is no friend of Modi, one of the items on the agenda was how to mix "unapologetic" Hindutva with good governance and development.

While the Congress strategy of keeping the focus on Modi is clear, since the idea is to deflect debate away from its own non-performance, not so clear is why Modi is going along with it. Yashwant Sinha pointed out a few days ago in an Economic Times article that this way the BJP will lose control of the poll agenda.

What could have changed?

Ever since it became crystal clear that Modi would be the party’s mascot, two things have changed.

First, the Ishrat Jahan case appears to be snowballing into a situation where, at some point, Modi himself could be named somewhere in the charge-sheet. The fact that the Congress party is willing to pit the CBI against its own intelligence agency – the primary internal security outfit – must have convinced Modi what is really afoot.

Second, since the Congress strategy of linking Modi to Hindutva and 2002 is now more than apparent, and all its allies are talking the same language, the ability of Modi alone to steer the debate towards the Congress’ non-performance may be in question. Can the BJP on its own decide the agenda in the face of a near universal ganging-up against Modi? This is the question that Modi’s strategists must be asking themselves repeatedly.

Have they come to the conclusion that without the flavour of Hindutva, the BJP cannot hope to make a decisive dent in its vote share in 2014?

The way the Modi strategy is unfolding, it appears that his campaign managers have decided to spice the governance issue with a strong dose of Hindutva generics.

The calculation could be this.

If polarisation is unavoidable, with the non-BJP parties driving the agenda, Modi needs a counter-polarisation strategy of his own.

The second calculation could be that it may not be worth winning, say, 150-160 seats to merely emerge as the single largest party. In this event, it will not be Modi, but some other BJP consensus candidate who will be the potential consensus PM candidate. The Modi partisans would like nothing less than 180-200 seats so that their man gets the top job.

The third calculation could be internal. It is quite clear that Modi has detractors within the BJP. The only way to neutralise this is to get the RSS on your side.

Yet another calculation could be that the real target is not 2014, but two years later. If a third front is inevitable due to regional polarisation, one is likely to get a messy coalition in 2014. One can guess that it won’t last more than two years.

If the idea is to project a powerful man and his party in 2016 or 2017, it makes sense to focus on pushing up the BJP’s voteshare significantly this time so that two or three years later it can make a stronger pitch for power on its own terms.

This is not different from the Congress party’s strategy over UPA-1 and UPA-2, where the party put up weak leaders to run the government when its seat count was not adequate to give the heir-apparent untrammeled power.

Of course, all this is speculation. But one can only speculate when the strategy is still unfolding. We will know for sure only after the next few Modi speeches, especially the one scheduled in Hyderabad next month - where the BJP will be making a pitch for Telengana. As a communally polarised city, Hyderabad will be the speech to watch.

2014 promises to be a no-holds-barred and tough campaign for BJP.