Wednesday, 29 June, 2022
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If Modi wins on Sunday

He may be an icon of Hindutva, but is the first BJP leader to defy the moral & political authority of the RSS. If Modi wins, the stage will be set for an ultimate Modi versus Sonia battle for national power.

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On the eve of the 2002 Gujarat elections, I had stuck my neck out to predict, somewhat audaciously, that if Modi wins, it would alter the character of national politics and that the next general election could be a Sonia versus Modi contest. There were some curious murmurs and questions from the usual suspects of the Congress that Saturday morning. But, surprise of surprises, the only protest came from Pramod Mahajan.

He called early that morning and, for once, was not his usual sugar-coated self. “What’s this, boss, what kind of nonsense are you writing?” he said. Why should it have upset Pramod if I was predicting his party’s victory in Gujarat? That foxed me at that moment and, in any case, six thirty in the morning is not exactly when I am at my brightest. Pramod apologised for calling early and we agreed to meet for lunch that afternoon.

Frankly, I had banked that lunch away for my memoirs, not so much for what we discussed, but because of some interesting sidelights. Like Mahajan asking a startled steward at the Oberoi’s very proper Belvedere for a whole, large onion — “don’t peel it,” he specified. I thought, for a moment, that Mahajan, always a great showman, wanted to use the onion to make a political point about the BJP. He, instead, plonked it on the table, crushed it under his ample palm and plucked out the flesh for himself and me to munch with our lunch. Even in a seven-star environment, the BJP’s most flamboyant star wanted to be his rustic self.

Also read:Don’t absolve Modi by saying he doesn’t have the right team to bring in economic reforms

Then he came to the point. “What do you mean by saying Sonia versus Modi in the next general elections? Have we all disappeared? Do we all wear bangles? You think we have spent decades in politics to now hand it all over to somebody who walks in through the backdoor?”

I tell this story because, while the advanced 2004 poll distorted the emerging political scenario then, it is incredible how it is promising to play out exactly the same way now. If Modi wins on Sunday, the stage will be set for an ultimate Modi versus Sonia battle for national power, even if Advani continues to be the BJP’s shadow prime minister. Modi will then be the key campaigner, his kind of politics, his style of campaigning, his lexicon of cryptographic saffronism and even his short-sleeved kurtas will then define the BJP campaign in the next general election. In the long run, too, he will emerge as Rahul Gandhi’s main challenger. He will unite the parties that need the Muslim votes, thereby strengthening any Congress-led coalition. He will put under great strain the members of any BJP-led coalition, particularly those that still value Muslim votes. Nitish Kumar is a key example. But even his worst critics won’t deny that if he wins on Sunday, he will pretty much define the agenda for national politics in the near future.

It is also for this very reason that his re-election will worry many of his party’s national leaders exactly the same way his rise had worried Mahajan in 2002. It is not just because he will then make an immediate bid for the national leadership. On the contrary, chances are that he will let Advani be the prime-ministerial candidate for the next round. But his style and persona will cast a larger than life shadow, not just on the BJP, but on the entire universe of saffron politics. Two important factors that have marked the BJP’s national politics so far will then change. One is the fact that whatever their commitment to RSS ideology and classical Hindutva, most senior leaders of the BJP have risen from the parliamentary system of the fifties and the sixties. They have, therefore, conducted their politics within the broader parameters of constitutionalism and parliamentary sobriety. Vajpayee has sparred with Nehru, and Advani was on talking terms with Indira Gandhi and Rajiv, even after she jailed him and his entire party leadership during the Emergency. Also, whatever their private views, you have never heard any senior leader say nasty things about Muslims in any public discourse. The second factor to have defined the BJP’s politics, so far, is the political leadership’s remarkable servility to the kingmaker of Nagpur, the leadership of the RSS. So strong has that hold been that even at the peak of Vajpayee’s power most key decisions, even privatisation of PSUs, had to be cleared with Nagpur.

If Modi were to win tomorrow, both will change. He may not call Muslims names in public but he leaves very little to chance. Not for him the “lily-liveredness” of the old-fashioned BJP politicians. He will never even nod to a suggestion to reach out to Muslims especially, as he does not believe in “appeasement”. He is not shy of using the expression “Aalia, Malia, Kamalia” to refer to goondas on the streets of Gujarat. And when asked if he isn’t actually suggesting — in code language — that the bad guys are all Muslim, asks with a straight face: So what would you have said in English, Tom, Dick and Harry… Would that have made the bad guys all Christian?

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Modi’s rise will completely change the form, style, substance and essence of the BJP’s politics. In the nineties with Ayodhya, Advani had given his party a certain direction. Modi’s rise will now mean that the use-by date on that politics is over. Most interestingly, he will change the second factor too. He may be an icon of aggressive Hindutva, but Modi has emerged as the first BJP leader ever to defy the moral and political authority of the RSS. He has not deferred to them. He has, in fact, defied them. He has even prevented RSS boys and sympathisers the power of making money on the side, something they consider their right in BJP states. The RSS is now returning the compliment by boycotting his campaign. So if Modi wins, he will also be the first BJP leader ever to win in defiance of, and despite, the RSS.

And if he loses, which, though unlikely, is not an impossibility, it will also have far-reaching consequences, most of all for the BJP, as its old leadership and the RSS — already sharpening their knives — turn on him.

So come Sunday, you will see the rise of a new politics, one way or the other.

PS: I have a sneaking feeling that this time, too, my phone may ring (hopefully, not at 6.30 am) and someone from the BJP will call to say, “What nonsense are you writing?”

Also read: Why Modi doesn’t feature in a list of India’s reformist prime ministers


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