In this age of instant punditry, it’s often easier to arrive at conclusions without even attempting an analysis. When the person in question is Narendra Modi, then it becomes even more difficult to have a dispassionate debate.
In the ‘them’ versus ‘us’ syndrome that now increasingly marks the country’s public discourse, you are almost expected to either lionise or demonise the individual, depending on your ideological predilections.
Which is why most comments after Modi’s remarkable election triumph in Gujarat have either been marked by euphoria or consternation. Maybe, it’s time to examine some of the myths that have been manufactured to explain the Modi phenomenon by both sides of the ideological divide.
For the secular intelligentsia, Modi won in Gujarat because he was able to successfully polarise the electorate on communal lines. Part of this myth-making is Sonia Gandhi’s ‘maut ka saudagar’ statement, which presented Modi an opportunity to raise the emotional pitch of the campaign, and thereby transformed a ‘normal’ election into a communally-surcharged mandate, one in which there could be only one winner.
The fact though is that the BJP did better in phase one of the election, ie before the controversy took off, than it did after the war of words over terrorism and Sohrabuddin.
For those who will see Gujarat only through the prism of the 2002 violence, the fact is that the BJP did much better in the non-riot-affected areas of Kutch, Saurashtra and south Gujarat than it did five years ago. If anything, the Congress staged a comeback of sorts in riot-scarred central Gujarat, where the seats and percentage of votes that the party got is significantly higher than the rest of the state.
That many areas in and around Godhra, the town central to the collective imagination of 2002, voted for the Congress is perhaps the clearest sign that at the local level the religious and political divisions are much less sharper than they were five years ago.
There are other sobering realities. The BJP won 12 of the 13 scheduled caste reserved seats, the party performed impressively in the tribal belt of south Gujarat, and while its tally went down in Ahmedabad city, it performed strongly across rural Gujarat, including those districts which conventional wisdom suggests have been left out of the vibrant Gujarat platform.
In effect, the so-called rural-urban divide that marked most Gujarat analysis turned out to be one of the biggest myths of this election.
The year 2007 is not 2002, and to see Modi’s victory as a continuum of an emotionally-driven election five years ago would be a complete misreading of the mandate. This election needs to be seen at two levels. At one level, it marks yet another milestone in a period of sustained dominance by the BJP over Gujarat, a consolidation of support that first erupted in the early 1990s.
In each of the last four assembly elections, the BJP’s support has kept increasing, from 42 per cent in 1995 to 50 per cent now, which, in a two-party state, ensures comfortable majorities. With the exception of the 2004 Lok Sabha election, the BJP has dominated every election in the state over the last 12 years, including at the panchayat level. This suggests the emergence of a saffron bastion, not too dissimilar to the Left Front in West Bengal.
At another level, this election must be seen in the context of the carefully manufactured Modi personality cult, now being projected as brand Moditva. There is little doubt that Modi has been successful in merging muscular Hindutva and Gujarati asmita (self-respect) with a commitment to good governance. The ‘chhappan kee chhati’ (56-inch chest) that Modi trumpeted gleefully through the campaign was symbolic of his persona: an authoritarian, politically incorrect leader, defiant in the face of criticism, unapologetic about his strident rhetoric, flaunting the badge of Gujarati pride and promising a corruption-free administration. Bigoted tyrant for his critics, but macho warrior for his admirers, the polarisation that Modi achieved in the mind of the average voter was less ideological, and more personality-driven, almost reminiscent of the NTR-MGR star appeal.
The darker side of this personality cult had been seen in 2002, when Modi converted a terrible human tragedy into a personal ‘gaurav’ yatra. He was then the ‘tough-on-minority-terror’ Hindu Hriday Samrat. In 2007, the propaganda was designed to build Modi’s appeal as a more inclusive ‘vikas purush’, a hard-working cm responsible for pushing Gujarat on the fast-track to development, someone at ease in both corporate gatherings and political rallies.
Contrast his obvious charisma with his opponents: a Congress party, unsure about its ideological identity in the Hindu-ised environment of Gujarat and unwilling to truly empower its local leadership; an octogenarian Keshubhai Patel, a forlorn, tired-looking leader; and a discredited former Modi friend-turned-foe Gordhan Zadaphia. Pitched against a rag-tag army, Modi appeared an impressive, media-savvy general, someone who didn’t even need the RSS-VHP soldiers this time to do the job for him.
But if the secularists have misread the Modi phenomenon, so too have his cheerleaders. To project him as a future pm-in-waiting is equally mistaken. The claim that Modi represents a new India, yearning to break free from feudal snobbery and liberal hypocrisies, is to confuse a state election verdict with a national mandate. With its double-digit growth that is spread more evenly than in other states, industrious workforce, strong congregational folk Hinduism, large NRI presence and rapid urbanisation, Gujarat is ideal Moditva territory, a bit like an extended sect in which everyone talks a similar language and for who Modi has become a regional folk hero. India is far more complex and heterogeneous, with each state presenting its own set of socio-political challenges, and every state election throwing up distinctive trends.
Interestingly, only six months ago, after her sweeping win in Uttar Pradesh, Mayawati was being projected as the next Empress of India. However, as the Gujarat elections confirmed, Mayawati with her distinctive Bahujan Samaj identity still finds it difficult to make a real impact outside the caste cauldron of UP. Modi, too, may find that not every state electorate will embrace him with the readiness that Gujarat and the blogosphere has.
Ironically, Modi’s position today is not too different from the original Hindutva posterboy LK Advani a decade ago. Then, it was Advani who was being showcased as the ideological mascot of a new India, as a leader who would finally rid the country of its soft underbelly, a politician who would challenge the old Nehruvian order. And yet, when it came to the crunch, it was the BJP’s saffron Nehruvian, AB Vajpayee, who was the most acceptable prime ministerial candidate to the ruling coalition.
Quite clearly, Advani’s national ambitions have remained trapped for years under the debris of the Babri masjid demolition, just as Modi has been haunted by the ghosts of post-Godhra. It has required Advani to virtually re-invent himself as a less ideological, and more consensual politician before he could be formally anointed as a potential prime ministerial candidate of a national alliance.
Modi, too, will need to re-invent himself if he is to be seen as more than just a Gujarat regional satrap. The challenge is to do so without losing his iconic Moditva branding that is his original USP. Modi’s predicament was revealed when in a recent TV debate, the BJP’s Shahnawaz Hussain was asked if he would now invite Modi to campaign for him in Bihar.
Desperately trying to avoid a response, Hussain finally sheepishly said, “We may not need Narendrabhai, when we have our own Modi, (Sushil Modi) in the state!” Narendrabhai may have captured the mind of Gujarat; winning the soul of India is a different matter altogether.