Why the pundits keep getting it wrong on Narendra Modi

by Mar 5, 2013

The near-coronation of Narendra Modi as the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate well ahead of the general elections shows up the poor quality of Indian political punditry. No matter whether you think of Modi as hero or villain, genuine punditry needs dispassionate analysis, not biases couched as insight.

This is why we get electoral and political surprises. The people aren't surprised, only the pundits are.

Everyone predicted that Modi had too many detractors inside the BJP to be made numero uno. In fact, they had forecast huge factional infighting between pro- and anti-Modi factions. But politicians are smarter than columnists: they saw the writing on the wall when they observed how ordinary BJP workers were responding to Modi. Which is why once Modi won in Gujarat, they saw they had a choice: either align with a rising power or be consigned to the sidelines.

This is why the likes of Rajnath Singh, Arun Jaitley and Yashwant Sinha have clearly moved to recognise reality and joined forces with Modi. It is not that they lack ambition; but they know that in politics momentum is everything, and opposing Modi now will damage their careers rather than make it. The history of political parties in India shows that the electorate seldom spares party poopers. And right now, Modi has the tailwind aiding his rise.

Now that the much-ballyhooed infighting has not happened, the next conjecture of clichéd punditry is that Modi will not find secular allies among regional parties.  “A Modi-led BJP continues to be seen as un-coalitionable by many of these players and his continuous and conspicuous silence on the accountability for 2002 means that this is unlikely to change,” writes The Indian Express in an editorial today.

Modi at the BJP conclave. PTI

Modi at the BJP conclave. PTI

Actually, the only thing this editorial shows is that the pundits are mired in the past. When the rest of the country, and even some sections of Muslims, have moved beyond 2002, the year plays out like a stuck record in their minds.

The Wharton School's decision to deny Modi a forum to talk to their students will be seen as further evidence of Modi's unacceptability, but the truth is the opposite: Wharton's decision is a mere reflection of their own biases, not confirmation of their theories on Modi.

The voting patterns of Muslims in Gujarat in December show that many have now come to accept Modi as a reality and are moving towards accommodation and compromise. This might not suit the Congress or some of its favoured columnists who have built a career around Modi-bashing, but the world has moved on.

Consider what former Darul Uloom Deoband Ghulam Muhammad Vastanvi said yesterday on Modi. “If our country makes him (Modi) Prime Minister, there is no reason for us to have any objection (Agar apna mulk unko PM banata hai to hamari taraf se koi inkaar to ho hi nahi sakta).”

This is not to suggest that Muslims are suddenly falling in love with Modi, but they have begun to outgrow the scare-mongering by some sections of the media and politicians. More significantly, this is what Vastanvi said: “For the past 10 years, there is BJP rule in the state. If the BJP government works for Muslims, then Muslims will support it and if it does not, then they will move away.”

This is the real takeout, and this is where our pundits fail to see what has changed. Having won Gujarat convincingly, there is no reason for Modi to play deeply divisive politics any more. In fact, he had abandoned that soon after 2002 itself and reinvented himself as a development icon, but you can’t see this if you don’t want to.

As an intelligent politician, Modi has the advantage of knowing that his hardline image helps with traditional BJP voters; but the same hardline image could allow him to make grand overtures to minorities and still not be seen as appeasing them. Just as it took a Nixon to reach out to China, it is the hardliners who can be soft with perceived rivals. Strength, not weakness, enables compromise.

Look at the small signals emanating from Gujarat itself. According to a Times of India report, Amitabh Bachchan, who is the state tourism brand ambassador, is shooting the next phase of his campaign to talk about Muslim heritage sites in Gujarat.  Says the newspaper: “Bachchan will be shooting his next series of "Khushboo Gujarat Ki" campaign at an Islamic monument, the world heritage site of Champaner-Pavagadh, built by Gujarat sultan Mehmood Begada. Also part of the campaign will be Ahmedabad's heritage walk, which is known as Mandir se Masjid tak”.

If Modi can walk from Mandir to Masjid in his home state, one wonders why he should find it so difficult to reach out in the coming months to the minorities.

The other myth that 2014 could bust is the one which holds that Modi is unelectable on a national scale due to his alleged inability to compromise. The truth is Modi may not be liked by his detractors, but he has not shown himself unwilling to do deals with his critics. This is why his partnership with Rajnath Singh – they parted on bad terms when Singh was BJP chief  till 2009 – is showing signs of maturing.

Will 2014 be a year of victory for Modi? PTI

Will 2014 be a year of victory for Modi? PTI

Another thing the pundits miss is this: making new allies is the result not of their own biases, but electoral numbers. Everyone, from Chandrababu Naidu to Naveen Patnaik to Mamata Banerjee to Nitish Kumar, has aligned with the BJP when it had the numbers under Vajpayee. They did so even when they knew that LK Advani held the keys to the party and was one of the key players in the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. Nitish Kumar, despite his alleged antipathy to Modi, aligns with another Modi – Sushil Modi – in his home state. He is even said to be very close to Advani, despite the latter’s Babri connection. He surely knows that the BJP partnership has worked and it does not make sense to break it without good reason.

The most important thing some pundits have failed to notice is this: the Indian electorate has changed. It is no longer taken in by mere political posturing. It is demanding governance, and is now willing to give those who deliver a longer stint in power, never mind what the media thinks about them. This is why Modi won thrice, and why the CPI(M) in Tripura won five times.

As MJ Akbar wrote in a recent Times of India column: “Despite the multiple identities of an Indian electorate, voters are no longer disparate. They now vote decisively. Whoever wins, does so by a comfortable distance.”

This is the meaning of the votes in the north-east, Tripura, Gujarat, Bengal, Uttar Pradesh and Tamil Nadu last year and this year.

Thus, while everyone was predicting hung assemblies or messy scenarios, the electorate gave a clear verdict. In fact, this was true even in the 2009 general elections, where the BJP got trounced, and the Congress got an improved mandate. Both Congress and BJP wrongly concluded that the 2009 win was about freebies, but that may not be the case at all.

The farm loan waivers and NREGA spends may at best have been the icing on the cake for voters, not the cake itself. They saw high growth rates and income improvements, and saw no reason to rock the boat.

But 2014 is different, and the electorate may want a shift away from Congress due to its persistent economic mismanagement.

The Congress is probably calculating that the arrival of Modi may polarise minority votes in its direction, but the problem here is that it is stuck in traditional thinking. The Congress has not evolved beyond vote-bank politics, but the minorities may have moved on.

Pradeep Chhibber and Rahul Verma of the University of California and Berkeley suggest in The Indian Express ("Established fake political facts") the our elections have become unpredictable not because the voter does not know her mind, but because the pundits and political parties choose not to see what may be happening on the ground – especially on caste and communal identities.

“The only explanation for why Indian politicians lose so often is that their calculations of the caste arithmetic are wrong. Why would politicians lose elections if their victory is tied to a particular caste or religious arithmetic in a constituency, and they and the analysts were sure of that arithmetic before the election? Despite this, it is repeatedly asserted that an appropriate caste and religion arithmetic are all that is needed to win an election. This faulty assumption is repeatedly asserted as knowledge and is by now accepted as fact.”

Before the elections, Modi was said to be losing the bulk of the Patel vote in Saurashtra, but the elections proved the pundits wrong.

Chhibber and Verma have this to say: “Many politicians, instead of reaching voters directly, rely on a set of middlemen or brokers to approach their constituents. These concentric circles of middlemen are the source of local knowledge for a politician and party. It is not in the interest of these middlemen to let politicians and parties have direct access to voters and voters' opinion as that direct knowledge will undermine their position. As a result, Indian politics still relies on the politics of stitching together coalitions based on caste, religion and region without any evidential basis of the value of such arithmetic.”

2014 may surprise us all on what the voters really think of Modi and his brand of politics. Whatever happens, one thing is certain: most pundits are likely to be wrong.

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