The name Narendra Modi evokes extreme reactions from the media if not the public. You either admire him or dislike him. This makes him an easy candidate for Prime Minister, which is why the BJP should project him as its leader. More importantly, strategically, it is the best option even if he is not liked within. Let us see why this should be so.
Voting for parties is based on either the following of a ‘family’ or an ‘ideology’. The Congress has carried the name of the Nehru family all through and no one will disagree that Manmohan Singh as PM is only a face. This is so because people identify often with the name rather than a party. In the case of the BJP, Atal Behari Vajpayee worked. Perhaps LK Advani could also have struck the right chord, but age is not on his side, and the relatively low profile maintained in this interim period after 2009 means he does not have anything going for him.
The BJP’s assumed stance, despite all attempts to confuse the issue, leans towards a sharp Hindu ideology which is, at best, tolerant of other communities, particularly Muslims. The Graham Staines case keeps even Christians under some threat as this community has often been targeted by different factions of Hindutva groups for proselytising. The party brings in a lot of mythology to appeal to the masses, and the name of Rama is taken to buttress faith.
The BJP is schizophrenic when it comes to liberalism. It has motley groups which speak of tradition, and some of them could be interpreted as being regressive when it comes to women’s rights and modernity. Some of the more absurd statements in the aftermath of the infamous Delhi rape case emanated from these groups members. Being a northern-based party, it has a pro-Hindi proclivity, which has kept it alienated from the southern population – till recently. It is not too sure of economic liberalisation, though it would not be averse to persevering with reforms. There is some bit of ambivalence towards Babri Masjid, where the party is generally proud of its past actions, but has also been apologetic at times.
This worked as long as it had a figure like Vajpayee or Advani to represent this stance or when the party was out of power. But today, when it has to go to the electorate and look for a face, there are various names being put forward – but none have a national stature to make a difference. Today, the other names would not be acceptable to the public because they do not stand as icons who can be relied upon. It is here that Narendra Modi scores over the others.
First, Modi has the image of a ruler who runs a clean government – and this appeals to the middle class. Some may argue that there is more hype than substance in this image, but nobody can prove the contrary and hence this badge sticks well. Those who would like to vote for a clean name such as Anna Hazare and his kind will find this name more acceptable as the sustenance of Anna’s brand of politics is questionable.
Second, Modi is pro-industry and progress and has taken efficiency and governance to some heights in Gujarat, notwithstanding the fact that there are detractors who disparage this achievement. However, his actions speak louder than words. After the Godhra incident, India Inc was hesitant to associate with him. Now, from the Tatas down to the smallest businessman, Modi has turned the tables. It is hard to come across an industrialist who does not eulogise Modi, the Gujarat government and governance levels – and these are the people who are putting their money in the state. More importantly, things get done fast, which is what matters. Quite clearly the chambers of commerce would be pleased if the Gujarat model is scalable and can be replicated elsewhere.
Third, foreign investors would also be looking forward for an industry and investment-friendly regime. Modi can easily prove what his Vibrant Gujarat expos have achieved as a lot of domestic and NRI interest has been engendered here. The recent change of stance in the US is noteworthy. As everywhere, finally what works is economics. When the world economy is down, any window of business opportunity is explored despite past images. The logical corollary will be to see foreign investment channels receiving a similar welcome.
In terms of ground realities, if the NDA comes to power, we might yet see the Congress opposing reforms in parliament. This has been a part of realpolitic where parties oppose Bills when in the opposition which they strive to pass when in power. But the right chord would be struck with the name of Modi.
Fourth, Modi has shown that he is all for modernisation, and has shown a proclivity towards speaking in English. Though symbolic in nature, his drive to encourage Gujaratis to learn English shows a strong bias towards modernity which is not normally associated with the BJP. Add to this the fact that he is not from the cow-belt and the combination of his background and eagerness to anglicise will appeal to south India, which hitherto has been a bridge too far for the party – with Karnataka being the exception, and which may still slip out of the party’s grasp next month.
Fifth, for the die-hard Hindu, he does not mince words when he talks of Hindutva. There is no equivocation when he takes a strong stance on being pro-Hindu and even anti-Muslim. Therefore, the fanatic will find him appealing. His stance that Muslims have never been safer than ever after the Godhra incident may not be convincing, but is a fact. This will strike the right chord with those with extreme Hindu views. And given that the religious minorities are anyway not fans of the BJP, Modi or no Modi, the scales will not really change with the projection of his name as PM.
Given the current state of the BJP, and the fact that it does not have any leader of national stature, Narendra Modi is the best, if not the only option, the BJP has. He may be disagreeable to the other potential candidates, who fancy their chances, but none can strike the right note like his name does. He has the potential to appeal to those who are looking for an honest, clean, modern, pro-business and pro-investment leader who can also appeal (and rein in) the extreme elements from the extreme Right of the Hindutva brigade. As someone who has been pilloried for the post-Godhra riots, Modi has the highest stake in ensuring an India free from communal riots.
More importantly, he can appeal to the corporate and middle classes, which gives him an edge. Therefore, even if one does not like him, he is the only bet for the BJP to try and regain power.
The author is Chief Economist, Care Ratings. Views are personal