When it comes to Narendra Modi, one finds an alarming duplicity of views. Broadly speaking, if you like the man, you tend to praise everything about him; if you don’t, you quibble on everything he claims as his achievement. Even if you are somewhere in the middle – neither a Modi-baiter nor a backer – you have to make mandatory comments about the 2002 riots to balance the nice things you may have said about him.
Thus, if you don’t like Modi, even his economic successes must be painted like failures. If you like him, everything about him smells of perfume.
This writer got a ringside view of this yesterday when one Modi-hater suddenly got angry with a panelist on a CNN-IBN show who seemed to suggest that Modi’s reign wasn’t all anti-Muslim. Zafar Sareshwala, a Gujarati Muslim businessman, said that Muslims in Gujarat were beginning to benefit from Modi’s development. They had also noted that Modi had managed to control the more lumpen elements of the Sangh Parivar and some peace was at hand. But this assessment apparently got the secularist’s goat, who just rejected this view and claimed Sareshwala did not represent the views of real Muslims.
Sure, Sareshwala may represent one kind of Muslim reassessment, that of a businessman, but does this mean his views are irrelevant?
Today’s newspapers carry a huge number of articles on Modi’s thumping win in Gujarat. They broadly follow the trend above, with some notable exceptions.
The first exception, and someone who truly seeks to rise above it all, is Pratap Bhanu Mehta in The Indian Express. Mehta makes the telling point that all the charges Modi’s critics level against him may be equally true of them – the cult of personality, uneven development, marginalisation of minorities, etc.
He contrasts Modi’s grasp of the fact that “Indian politics is deeply aspirational” and rewards governance with Rahul Gandhi’s rhetoric. “His (Rahul’s) is a vision of India as permanently dependent upon and confined to welfare. He does not display a trace of self-belief in India’s possibilities. Modi may be presumptuous in the other direction, but for his constituents, he speaks to the future.”
Similarly, on Modi’s marginalisation of minorities, Mehta acknowledges that the Gujarat CM has to overcome this perception and political hurdle before he can be seen as truly inclusive. But he points out that the Congress and the Samajwadi Parties are not exemplars of secularism either. He writes: “The social and political isolation of Muslims is a large, complex phenomenon, in part a product of the tyranny of the compulsory identities the Congress has produced. It is also exacerbated by the fact that friends of minorities like the Samajwadi Party are running no more than protection rackets for them, depending on a permanent tutelage.”
Yogendra Yadav, appearing on various TV channels, went on to claim at various TV channels yesterday that the victory brought up “the dark side of democracy” and was a challenge to the “idea of India.” Yadav, now a member of Arvind Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party, wrote as much in an article in The Economic Times today. “Modi's inevitable and now unstoppable rise to national leadership of his party invites us to think if what is popular is always democratic. Is Moditva compatible with the idea of a democratic and diverse India?”
Two questions arise: if the people in a democracy should only elect those whom the pundits consider “democratic”, doesn’t it change the meaning of democracy itself? Second, the point of Modi negating the “idea of India” needs expansion.
Sure, nobody can or should believe that what happened in 2002 is compatible with the “idea of India.” But it is easier to define what ought not to be the idea of India than what should be. For example, one can ask: were the 1975 internal emergency, the Nandigram massacres by CP(M) cadres, the 1984 anti-Sikh, Congress-organised pogrom, the recent Delhi gangrape, or the more recent nine or 10 communal violence incidents in UP, which killed more than 30 people, and which happened under the watch of the “secular” Samajwadi Party, compatible with the “idea of India.”
There is also a larger point to be made “the idea of India”. Though there has been a lot of talk about it by intellectuals, it is not something only the elite can lay a claim to. There can be several ideas of India, and the idea that there can be only one idea of India militates against the very idea of pluralism and diversity – which must really be the core idea about India.
An interesting piece comes from Santosh Desai, also in The Economic Times, who muses that Brand Modi may be too strong for his own good. His sees Brand Modi as having three core values: his Hindutva ideology, his development story and his strong persona which embodies the qualities of clarity and authority.
Desai reckons that some parts of his brand may work for him (the last two especially) in the current milieu, but the Hindutva part of his brand, even though it may not be a problem within the BJP, may hold out problems for the BJP’s allies, who do need the Muslim vote.
Desai concludes: “He (Modi) is what he is; he attracts people not by changing his message to suit them but by appealing to those who believe in his way. He just might be able to persuade a reasonable section of voters that he has the answers, but the problem is that while he is the BJP's best bet at the elections, when it comes to heading a viable government in the present scenario, he is at his weakest. And being the kind of brand he is, it is unlikely that he can do much to change that. And that might just be the ultimate irony - Brand Modi's weakness may lie in its strength.”
Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar says as much, though in a different way. While accepting that his methods work in Gujarat, Aiyar believes that the brand may not work elsewhere. “By winning for a third time…Modi has proved he is among the tallest of regional leaders. But his prime ministerial ambitions depend on his impact in other states.”
Aiyar, however, uses the fact that Modi recently campaigned in Himachal, which BJP lost, as proof that his magic may not work outside Gujarat. But the evidence for this is thin, since Modi did not exactly expect to turn the Himachal situation around with his campaigning. The BJP lost Himachal for local reasons, and Modi is someone who understands local issues – and evidence of this is available from Gujarat itself. Realising that he will lose votes among Leuva Patels, Modi campaigned harder for the Kshatriya and Koli votes, notes Yogendra Yadav.
So, when Modi bids for the national stage, he is going to factor in local issues and conditions. He will not expect to win on the basis of his personal charisma – which helped him so much in Gujarat.
Ashok Malik, writing in The Times of India, presents the rosier view of Modi. He calls this victory of Modi’s different from the previous two, since he “fought the election without recourse to emotive instinct and without a 'with us or against us' umbrella theme.”
Malik may have missed the minor references to Ahmed Mian Patel, but Modi did not dwell too much on this. So he is surely more right than wrong in his assessment that this time Modi “did it without turning to religious mobilisation or identity politics, with sections of his party and the Sangh Parivar out to sabotage him, and without compromising on fiscal prudence and the rejection of extravagant populism. Those final two have been hallmarks of his administration.”
Economist Bibek Debroy, who has written a book on Modi’s Gujarat, would tend to agree, and would like the BJP under Modi to pitch its tent based on economic ideology. But he doubts this will happen too soon. As he sees it, the Congress is broadly left of centre and the BJP right of centre, but the latter is yet to see itself as that as yet. He asks rhetorically: “Will BJP accept a right of centre economic agenda, with a focus on development/governance? Is that Gujarat model capable of being replicated elsewhere, UP and Bihar included? Is it a model that can bring electoral dividends in state-level elections universally? I suspect these answers are rhetorical, in the sense that in immediate short-term, the answers are negative.”
In short, even though Debroy thinks Modi is closer his own idea of the right economic model for India, he wonders if Modi can deliver it even if he were to become the BJP’s PM candidate.
Vir Sanghvi, writing in Hindustan Times, suspects that even if Modi rises to the national stage, decision on who should be PM would be made by the RSS. He says: "Ultimately it won’t be the BJP that will pick its prime ministerial candidate. It will be the RSS. And so far at least, the evidence suggests that the wily old men of Nagpur want a prime minister who defers to them, not one who is used to getting his own way."
One wonders if he can be right. The RSS may want someone pliable, but anyone who is pliable ever rule India? The RSS has already failed once by anointing Nitin Gadkari as party President. It could not control Atal Behari Vajpayee's economic policies once he was installed. And even in Gujarat, Modi has managed to sideline many rabid Sangh elements, without losing the RSS's blessings.
The relationship between Modi and the Sangh is unlikely to be a one-sided power equation.