To declare or not to declare, that is the question facing the BJP and the sangh parivar. Declare Modi as the prime ministerial candidate and storm into the 2014 general elections on Moditva? Or not declare a Prime Ministerial candidate at all and leave the field open for a less overpowering, more consensus-building leader?
There’s trouble in the parivar.
An up-from-the-shakha pracharak-turned-domineering One Man Show leader is seeking to overpower the very same Nagpur patriarchs who once nurtured him.
A personality cult threatens to overturn the sangh’s prized principle of "collective leadership". No wonder LK Advani's recent remarks caused a flutter. The lauh purush openly declared that MP Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan deserved credit for the development surge in Madhya Pradesh, because the latter was a Bimaru state when he took over, unlike Gujarat which has always been developed. Advani also said that Chouhan's 'lack of arrogance' was evocative of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
It is somewhat of an irony that Advani, who once fell foul of the sangh parivar after his remarks on the secularism of Jinnah and even had to resign as party president due to sangh pressure, is now openly backing one of the sangh’s favourite sons, Shivraj Singh Chouhan.
That Advani --someone instinctively far closer to a Modi than a Chouhan, someone who has been instrumental in Modi’s rise-- has now come out as part of the “anti-Modi camp” is another irony. Perhaps Advani hopes that uncertainty over leadership would result in the candidature coming his way once again.
Or perhaps Advani feels a trifle miffed that while the sangh does not fight shy of backing Modi who has publicly given up hardline hindutva for development, it did not support Advani when he too attempted to moderate his own hardline image by his 'Jinnah is secular' remark. The difference between Modi and Advani of course is that Modi has won three elections and Advani has lost two, and the sangh has, since the time of Vajpayee, always been forced to recognize an election winner.
Lets pursue Advani’s suggestion of a possible Chouhan vs Modi leadership contest.
The contrast between Modi and Chouhan is indeed an interesting one. Modi rules a business friendly state through his bureaucrats and has marginalized his party in Gujarat’s Single Window Clearance model. In Gujarat a number of sangh parivar activists are in jail, convicted in the 2002 riot cases. Modi woos corporate India through ad campaigns, social media campaigns, even wearing a cowboy hat on occasion and sometimes seen in a sharp suit.
After 2002, Modi has tried day and night to live down his “tainted by communal riots” image, pushing only the development line. He has even undertaken almost a 3 month long Sadbhavna Yatra to win over Gujarat's Muslims. Modi represents a wholehearted embrace of pro-business politics, an open espousal of corporate India and the small state and business friendly approach of the economic rightwing across the world.
The more soft- spoken, unassuming Shivraj Singh Chouhan, once an acolyte of the Walmart-hating Uma Bharti has remained, in contrast to Modi, a sangh parivar chief minister through and through. He has shepherded the Cow Slaughter Bill in MP, introduced surya namaskar in schools and encouraged the singing of vande mataram in government offices. Within the BJP, if Modi is India then Chouhan is decidedly Bharat.
No wonder Chouhan suits the RSS perfectly. He upholds sangh ideology, he is self-effacing and humble, he does not project himself as a hero and yet works quietly for a government scheme- oriented development model as opposed to a private enterprise- oriented one.
Chouhan is the shy boy next door from Madhya Pradesh, his politics rooted in the RSS. But although Chouhan is a sangh favourite and although Advani may have shrewdly put the sangh in a dharam sankat by posing Chouhan as the rival to Modi, Chouhan, given his rustic style would probably never win the hearts of the “neo middle class" or sections of urban youth as Modi has been able to do.
Chouhan does not project himself in social media, or through rock concerts, or at FICCI, but is far more ostensibly committed to sangh ideology than Modi declares himself to be.
Yet ideologues don’t win elections. Ideological extremism whether of Right or Left simply do not carry voters. Mayawati won her most impressive victory in 2007 when she moderated the shrill cry of bahujan samaj to the more moderate all-inclusive slogan of sarvajan samaj.
Buddhadeb Bhattacharyya won his impressive victory of 2006 when he moderated Left ideology with Buddha-economics. Jayalalithaa has long given up on polarizing issues like the Anti- Conversion Bill and focused squarely on administrative efficiency. The two victories of the UPA in 2004 and 2009 were a result of moderating of Congress-style socialism with a healthy dose of Manmohan-economics, never mind if those hopes were later betrayed.
Modi realized early on in his Dilli chalo campaign that hardline Hindutva alone would not carry urban India nor the electorate at large. To broaden his appeal and live down the continuing drag of the 2002 riots, Modi has necessarily had to dilute or at least underemphasize his publicly hard hindutva ideology. An endorsement of Modi as Prime Ministerial candidate would have to see the sangh swallow it’s “parivar” culture of collective leadership and accept the principle of individualism and a larger than life leader. An endorsement of Modi would also mean that the sangh swallow its ideological commitments on hindutva, for more innocuous slogans of “development”, “nationalist progress” and secularism defined as "India first."
Underlying the BJP’s leadership tussles is the tension that exists in every political party between ideology and the need to grow politically. Many English speaking members of the BJP like a Jaswant Singh or a Arun Jaitley or a Smriti Irani would probably not endorse the moral crusade against mannequins started by Mumbai BJP corporator Ritu Tawde. Yet they cannot oppose such campaigns in public for fear of how the cadres will react.
The BJP opposed FDI in retail for political considerations, yet gets a massive amount of support from expat Indians based in the US. The BJP opposed the Indo-US Nuclear Deal even when its core middle class voters are decidedly pro America. The BJP’s guiding light remains the sangh parivar and its swadeshi view of the world, yet it was the BJP which created the Shining India campaign that became a byword for Five Star hotel India. Forces loosely allied to the sangh have engaged in moral policing actions against women visiting bars in coastal Karnataka. Yet national leaders of the BJP are hardly wary of fashionable Page Three parties.
The massive ideological range that exists within the saffron family between the swadeshi –inclined, “Hindu CPM” of the Govindacharya variety and the corporate friendly, sharp suited Jaitley and Jaswant type, necessarily means that finding a consensus figure to lead this force is that much more difficult. In the Congress where choice of the top job is outsourced, undemocratically to the dynasty, in the BJP the choice of the top job is outsourced to the Sangh. The Family opts invariably for loyalty. But today the sangh is being forced to decide between electoral winnability and ideological purity.
An aspiring India where a staggering 110 million young people are set to enter the workforce by 2020, has little time for ideological purity. Attacks on art exhibitions, banning books, attacking “secular” historians, moral crusades against Walmart, Valentine’s day, fashion shows and mannequins are out of place in these fast changing times. There may be a surge in neo-traditionalism and bharatiyata. A return-to-roots nostalgia might occasionally grip 21st century mall rats. But by and large, an urbanizing India wants to live and let live.
Even after the Ram Janmabhoomi movement of 1992 the BJP was not able to get a parliamentary majority and was wiped out forever in Uttar Pradesh subsequently. It was the moderate, all- things- to- all- people Vajpayee who won elections in 1998 and 1999, election victories that may have been hard for the sangh to stomach but which it was forced to accept.
The sangh may be ideologically committed to hailing the execution of Afzal Guru or hailing the execution of Kasab, or attacking the “pseudo secularist” English speaking media or calling for a “strong answer” to Pakistan on every issue from Sarabjeet to LoC violations and constantly relaying the subliminal message of Muslims as "Babur ki aulad” , but it is by no means clear that this rhetoric has any takers in a new generation inclined to vote for those promising better quality of life, than those promising a hard line on Muslims.
Pre-occupied with fighting short term battles with the government, the BJP has not created its own positive agenda towards minorities, distinct from the "appeasement” mindset of the Congress. In fact, it is the undertow of the sangh that has prevented the BJP from developing a modern approach to Muslims, away from the ghisa pita Mahmud of Ghazni-Aurangzeb-Pakistan paradigm.
Thus, the ideology and the style of leadership that the sangh prefers is inversely proportional to electoral winnability in an urbanizing India. The sangh is confronting its own irrelevance.
As elections become more and more like presidential contests with personalities playing a key role in attracting voters, it is unlikely that a new generation will easily empathise with the “collective leadership” principle beloved of Nagpur.
As Indians become more aware of their own individual spaces, it is unlikely that bans on books, paintings and fashion shows will get popular endorsement. Just as Indira Gandhi tamed the Congress to rise as Supreme Leader, Modi rise’s too will inevitably mean a taming and a subordination of the sangh. That’s why Modi is more like Indira Gandhi than any other Indian politician and that’s why there is so much turmoil in the saffron parivar on whether to declare him as PM candidate.