One more round of elections is over and we can future-gaze. Let’s begin with a question we raised in a National Interest exactly three months after Narendra Modi had been sworn in as prime minister in 2014: Have you ever seen a political leader who resembles his mask as much as Modi does?
It wasn’t just a rhetorical question. On the other hand, it made a substantive argument about his politics and ideology: That the man you see is the man you get. We had seen ideological leaders, or those representing various ideologies, in power in the past. They talked about their ideological beliefs with passion when in opposition, but once in the establishment, they moderated their views.
Once in power, your own political beliefs were to be carried lightly on your sleeve. It applied to Vajpayee and Advani on the Right, George Fernandes on the Lohiaite Left and the CPI’s Indrajit Gupta and Chaturanan Mishra (in H.D. Deve Gowda’s cabinet) on the hard Left. The Constitution, institutions, and inclusivity in public office were all justifications for an ideological vacation. Narendra Modi broke this convention in his first few weeks.
He might have demonstrated this earlier, in 2011, when he refused to wear that Muslim prayer cap, making a substantive political point.
Once he came to power, we saw it play out in ways that were central to his style of governance. Even the token Muslims or Christians in his cabinet, in constitutional positions, or even among his party’s MPs in both Houses faded away. The customary iftars at the prime minister’s house vanished.
His ministers and party leaders were quick to take the cue. The man was true to his ideology, would live by it, even flaunt it.
Except, he would rarely say anything rude about the minorities in general. That rule has been broken in specific circumstances, usually election campaigns. Especially in states where Hindu-Muslim polarisation is a possibility.
Since this latest round of election results gives us a good resting point to gaze into our politics over the next 16 months, it is important to assess if this approach has worked for Modi. Is he likely to persist with it? And if not, will he soften this approach, or double down on it?
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So spectacularly successful has Modi’s electoral politics been so far that you risk being called foolhardy for raising questions about it. In the greatest humility, however, we must raise some questions.
There are two aspects to the BJP-RSS ideology: Nationalism and Hindutva. On the electoral efficacy of the first, there is less debate. We have seen how dramatically Pulwama-Balakot turned the 2019 election, and how severely. Those raising questions over these were punished by the voters. But that was a national election. We can’t be so sure if Hindutva worked so decisively in any of the national elections. Or, that either nationalism or Hindutva work in the state elections.
To begin with the latest bit of evidence, they did not work in Himachal Pradesh, which is mostly Hindu, with lots of families having military ties and deep BJP/RSS roots. The party still failed to defy anti-incumbency even against a much-weakened national rival.
If the loss had been to a well-entrenched regional party such as, say, the TMC in West Bengal, it would have been different. But in fact, this broke the BJP’s post-2018 success rate of 92 per cent when up against the Congress. Modi wasn’t on the ticket, nationalism and Hindutva couldn’t become the issues. So it became a normal election.
For the Municipal Corporation of Delhi, his party began with a record of shambolic and corrupt performance. It tried to fight a rampant AAP by using the agencies and building a story of mega corruption, but it didn’t work. Modi’s name alone couldn’t swing the issue and ideology did not matter. This enabled AAP to make the issue purely local, the garbage mountains of Bhalswa and Ghazipur becoming its focal point.
This has played out in state after state, right since Modi’s big win in 2014. When the issues on which the election is fought become regional or local, the BJP has a challenge. This challenge has become more serious as years have passed and his own party’s regional leaders have become weaker.
This is what will worry him now going into 2023. Can he and his party turn Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and then Telangana into campaigns fought on national issues? If Rahul is still mostly going to be out, it is going to be that much tougher to make it a vote for Modi as well. The absence of a Modi-versus-Rahul binary is a big disadvantage. What does he do next then? Rev up ‘Hindutva plus plus’ of some kind? Somehow revive hyper-nationalism again?
How to de-localise politics will be Modi’s big challenge in the coming year. The usual tropes are fading. Double engine ki sarkar (two-engine train, hauled by the same party in the Centre and the state) isn’t working. Think, what are the chances it will work in Karnataka? Can Modi really seek votes there based on Bommai’s performance?
The use-by date on the other trope, a vote against the opposition’s “70-year misrule”, has also arrived, it seems. It cannot keep working nine years after you came into power. On Hindutva, your biggest missions, Article 370 and the Ram Temple, are over. The Uniform Civil Code is all there is to talk about, and the BJP leaders are making a big deal of it. But we can’t be sure it has the same oomph as the temple and the status of Kashmir. In any case, triple talaq is done. This leaves hyper-nationalism.
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The altered global and regional realities have brought in new constraints on reviving a new nationalist fervour. Pakistan is in a freeze partly because of its own internal disarray, military and economic vulnerabilities, its abandonment by the West and stalwart ally China’s distractedness because of Russia and Ukraine.
You can still ratchet up a crisis with Pakistan by flicking your fingers. But do you really want to do that when the Chinese are sitting in Ladakh?
There is a nationalist challenge from China but such is the wariness on it that only the external affairs and defence ministers may sometimes talk about it, in the most diplomatically mature and restrained manner. The prime minister does not even mention China as a culprit for anything. If anything, he went out of his way to resume conversation with Xi Jinping in Bali.
China is no Pakistan. You cannot start something, anything, with China and have half a chance of ending it by claiming victory. Not even like the Pulwama-Balakot episode where both sides could claim victory before domestic constituencies and be done with it.
Which brings us back to the questions we began with. Narendra Modi and his ideology. Eight years have taught him that what wins him elections is his personality, his face. There isn’t one other leader in his party whose mask its voters would wear today with the exception of Yogi Adityanath who may be getting there. And nobody votes for the RSS.
For 2024, he’s well positioned because the vote will be for him. These latest elections reaffirm that Modi the man and the name, have overtaken his party and its mentor, the RSS. An almighty personality cult is dwarfing an ideology 100 years in the making, if only for its vote-catching appeal.
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