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The Modi magnifier

This is the first Indian election where a politician is winning by not promising governance, but simply seeking a vote against Musharraf, the Muslims and the Italian church.

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The question in Gujarat is not who will win, or by how much. The first has been a foregone conclusion ever since the massacres. The second doesn’t matter. As long as Narendra Modi wins, which he most likely will, as the opinion polls suggest, this election will mark a decisive turn in our politics. This election will have many interesting firsts. It will be the first election in our history where governance will not be an issue.

Modi, if anything, is telling people that such things do not matter. What matters, on the other hand, is that somehow he, and the collective pride of the Gujarati Hindu, has been challenged by Mian Musharraf. So you figure out whose side you are on. If he’s been unabashed, the Congress is equally befuddled. Its appeal for votes on the old slogan of secular equality and so on sounds like so much blah particularly as it has a former RSS man in the lead.

The only other time you would remember an incumbent sweeping an election by sweeping aside the anti-incumbency factor like this was Laloo Prasad Yadav in 1995 and Rajiv Gandhi in 1984. But then Rajiv Gandhi’s mother had to die such a brutal death to set it all up for him. And he also had the promise of a youthful, clean government and the dream of a 21st century India. Modi is not even promising that. Or rather, he does not even need to bother. He is seeking a vote against Musharraf, the Muslims and the Italian church, in that order.

It seems to be working in Gujarat. What is to stop him, and his supporters within the BJP as well as its scattered ideological members from believing it should work elsewhere as well? This is one reason why this will be such a defining moment in our politics, more significant than the destruction of the Babri Masjid in Ayodhya and more far-reaching and lasting than any rath yatra undertaken by anybody in the past.

Whatever its impact nationally — it is nobody’s case that the rest of the country would also vote along polarised lines similar to the Gujaratis — it would change the politics of the BJP for ever. It will be the first election in the party’s history to be won not by Atal Bihari Vajpayee’s personal popularity or oratory, nor by Lal Krishna Advani’s skills at political management or mastery at alliance arithmetic. It will be a victory for Modi’s personal popularity in a state where he had not even won a panchayat election before this.

Governance isn’t an issue. Modi’s seeking a vote against Musharraf, Muslims and the Italian church. It seems to be working. What’s stopping him, and his party, from believing that it won’t work elsewhere? That’s why this is a defining moment, more significant than the Babri Masjid demolition Also for the entirely new kind of politics he has brought forth. He has dropped all pretence of decency and constitutional centrism that has marked our mainstream politics so far. Until Modi happened, mavericks that broke these rules belonged to fringe, or at best, one-state parties. Language and tactics of this kind was only employed by a Thackeray, a Laloo, a Mulayam, or any one of Haryana’s trinity of Lals. Leaders of mainstream parties (including the BJP) spoke a measured, mainstream language even in election campaigns.

In fact, the one time an impetuous Rajiv Gandhi dared to break that rule by calling his opponents limpets he had to apologise for a long, long time. More recently, even Sonia Gandhi was made to quickly back-track from her description of the Vajpayee government as nikamma (inept) and the charge that the PM had lost his mental balance (mansik santulan). Modi, in comparison, has not only got away with abuse that would make Laloo blush he has even emerged a Hindu middle class (at least Gujarati) hero for it.

This is bound to have lasting impact on how politics will be conducted in future. Within the BJP, all the senior leaders, including Vajpayee, Advani and Murli Manohar Joshi have used fairly clean language in election campaigns besides being scrupulously careful never to project an anti-minority idea or image. Modi’s hum paanch, hamare pachees stands in stark contrast with all that. At its worst, senior leaders of the BJP looked the other way as a Sadhvi Rithambhara cursed the Muslims, but formally disowned her in an exaggerated show of embarrassment.

She was useful as a megaphone, but you got the votes because Vajpayee’s charm combined so effectively with Advani’s guile. This election is likely to be won by the megaphone that won’t need that charm or the guile. In fact, Modi would be quite ok if Vajpayee and Advani do not even come to campaign for him in Gujarat.

How would this play on the already complicated equation within the sangh parivar? There is already no love lost between the leaders of the VHP and the prime minister and those close to him. If anything, they abuse him even more than they abuse the ‘secularists’, particularly the media. In the past few days we have heard the first whimpers of criticism from them for Advani as well.

In the BJP’s history, this is the first election that will be won, if it is won, not by Vajpayee’s personal popularity or oratory, nor by Advani’s guile or skills in alliance arithmetic. In fact, Modi would be quite OK if Vajpayee and Advani do not even come to campaign for him in Gujarat Then, while Vajpayee openly expresses disapproval of the VHP’s methods, its leaders are given pride of place by Modi in his Gujarat campaign. How will they respond after they win? Particularly when they know better than anybody else that this victory would come because of them, because somebody followed the line they have been espousing unsuccessfully for such a long time.

For someone who has been campaigning so relentlessly for a generational change in our geriatric politics, about the need to bring to the fore younger leaders, it is odd for me to complain about this. But are the top leaders of the BJP aware of how quickly this is going to turn things around within their own party? If polarisation works in Gujarat, it will be attempted equally cynically in other forthcoming state elections, particularly in Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh next year.

If it works, it will be said that the Modi line worked. Nobody, then, would look back at a lost opportunity more ruefully than the PM. If only he had removed Modi when his instinct, his heart and mind and demands of constitutional morality dictated him to do so. He would then have ended this innings a statesman, his reputation and stature enhanced. His party would have still won this Gujarat election but he would have ended his political career at a higher note than being forced to applaud from the sidelines, howsoever reluctantly, a victorious Modi.

The younger, impatient elements in his party who held him back at Goa will now not wait to thank him for that act of political ‘foresight.’ Chances are, they will go with the rising sun. If somebody had said in April this year (when Vajpayee visited Gujarat, delivered a brief, stirring speech that brought tears even to the eyes of the riot victims, reminded Modi of his rajdharma but stopped just short of living upto his own) that the 2004 general election could be a contest between Narendra Modi and Sonia Gandhi, he would have been banished to a mental asylum.

Today, can you dismiss that prospect out of hand? This question will dominate post-December 12 politics much more than the margin of any Modi victory.

This article was originally published on 16 November 2002.

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