Polls & portents

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Indian Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Gujarat Indian Chief Minister, Narendra Modi (C) speaks during a political rally in Ahmedabad on December 20, 2012. Controversial Hindu nationalist Modi secured a landslide poll victory in the Indian state of Gujarat, firming up his chances of running for prime minister in 2014. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY Photo: AFP

Indian Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP) Gujarat Indian Chief Minister, Narendra Modi (C) speaks during a political rally in Ahmedabad on December 20, 2012. Controversial Hindu nationalist Modi secured a landslide poll victory in the Indian state of Gujarat, firming up his chances of running for prime minister in 2014. AFP PHOTO / Sam PANTHAKY Photo: AFP

At a rally in Ahmedabad. In the background, portraits of senior BJP leaders Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani and party president Nitin Gadkari. Afile picture. Photo: Ajit Solanki/AP

Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj and Leader of the Opposition in the Rajya Sabha Arun Jaitley at a news conference at the BJP headquarters in New Delhi on October 17. Photo: Shiv Kumar Pushpakar

Show of solidarity by Modi and his Bihar counterpart Nitish Kumar at an NDA rally in Ludhiana. A file picture. Photo: Akhilesh Kumar

BJP Chief Ministers Shivraj Singh Chouhan (Madhya Pradesh) and Raman Singh (Chhattisgarh). Photo: PTI

Narendra Modi’s hat-trick and the clamour for a bigger role for him at the national level have the political energy to bring about a comprehensive generational change in the BJP, trigger a rift in the NDA, and cause social polarisation in the country.

THE series of Assembly elections over the past two years have been perceived by both political players and observers as an extended run-up to the general election in 2014. The outcomes of these have thrown up diverse and unique political trends and situations that are bound to have a significant impact on the national polity. The February-March 2012 elections to the five States of Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Goa and Manipur broadly signified a resurgence of regional parties and their political agendas. This resurgence had an added value since it came along with the emergence of young leaderships in parties such as the Samajwadi Party (S.P.) and the Akali Dal in the form of Akhilesh Yadav and Sukhbir Singh Badal respectively. The recent elections in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh, too, fall in the category of high-impact elections, despite the predictable nature of the results from both the States. Narendra Modi was widely expected to lead the party to a hat-trick of victories and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) Chief Minister did exactly that, albeit with two seats fewer than his earlier tally of 117. Himachal Pradesh, too, kept up the tradition of throwing out the incumbent Ministry, the BJP in this case, and voted its rival, the Congress, to power.

Significantly, the results in both the States did not reflect the larger political debate in the country, marked by accusations of corruption against leaders of the two mainstream parties as well as charges of misgovernance and administrative misdemeanours in the positions of power held by their leaders. The absence of an alternative political formation to counter the mainstream parties was reiterated in these States. While this in itself is significant, considering the manifestations of popular anger against corruption highlighted by civil society groups time and again, the outcome in the geographically and demographically larger State of Gujarat is perceived by a wide cross-section of observers as having a greater impact and import than the results of other elections held in 2012. This is principally because it has thrown up a potential prime ministerial candidate in the form of Narendra Modi.

The reasons for this rating are manifold, and, thematically, range from inner-party affairs to larger national politics and even to the potentially dangerous social polarisation across the country. And in every one of these areas, Modi’s third successive electoral victory is a cause for concern. Inner-party tussles are bound to intensify in the BJP and there are suggestions that its long-standing allies in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), such as the Janata Dal (United), are contemplating leaving the coalition if Modi is elevated. More importantly, Modi’s reputation as the Chief Minister who presided over the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom and his pursuit of an aggressive brand of anti-minority politics throughout his career, particularly during his two terms as Chief Minister, have the potential to trigger communal polarisation across the country.

Despite all this, there is little doubt that Modi’s hat-trick has the political energy to bring about a comprehensive generational change in the leadership of the saffron party. Since the inception of the party in 1980, the core of the BJP’s central leadership has been occupied by Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani, together or individually. Both of them were practitioners of Hindutva politics right from the days of the Jan Sangh, the predecessor of the BJP. All through these years, the party projected either Vajpayee or Advani as its next Prime Minister. Even in the last general election, held in 2009, the BJP as well as the Sangh Parivar, its larger ideological conglomerate, had thought long and hard about projecting a new face, but finally settled for Advani. Modi’s latest victory would certainly advance the case for the generational change more forcefully. The victory has also placed him as the number one choice of the party, at least in the eyes of a large section of its rank and file. Sections of the party have already started clamouring for a bigger role for Modi at the national level. An opinion survey of sorts conducted recently by the Uttar Pradesh unit of the BJP to find out which national leader could be fielded from prominent constituencies in the State, particularly from high-profile seats such as Lucknow and Varanasi, reportedly recorded a huge preference for Modi.

Pressure from grass roots

This pressure from the grass roots signals major intra-organisational problems for the BJP and the Sangh Parivar. It is no secret that many leaders of the BJP, including Advani, party president Nitin Gadkari and Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha Sushma Swaraj, are opposed to a larger role for Modi at the national level. A large number of top leaders of the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS, the organisational fountainhead of the Sangh Parivar), including ‘sarsanghchalak’ Mohanrao Bhagwat, are of the view that Modi will not make a good prime ministerial candidate.

This line of thought has been adopted obliquely on many occasions by these leaders. Obviously, they will have a tough time resisting the pressure from below to endorse Modi’s candidature.

The opposition to Modi’s elevation did get reflected in the reaction of the party spokespersons on the day the election results were announced. There was a definitive attempt to downplay Modi’s role, by all indications, as part of a collective decision. The statement of Arun Jaitley, Leader of Opposition in the Rajya Sabha, considered to be close to Modi, was a clear case in point. “We have won five consecutive elections in Gujarat, three of them under the leadership of Narendra Modi. This is the 2012 election and this settles the issue of 2012. The issues relating to 2014 will be discussed and decided when the situation warrants,” he told reporters as the results were coming in.

Several BJP insiders told Frontline that this downplaying was part of a carefully evolved strategy that sought not to hype Modi’s triumph. A senior leader added that there was also considerable relief that the outcome was not up to the expectations of the close followers of Modi, who had predicted 130-140 seats, way beyond the party’s 2007 tally of 117.

“If that had happened, the clamour for his elevation would have been even bigger. Now, at least, we can make an attempt to put down the clamour, even if slowly,” the leader pointed out. This slow process visualised by the anti-Modi camp also includes propping up Chief Ministers Shivraj Singh Chauhan and Raman Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh respectively as leaders in the same league as Modi because they, too, are expected to win a third term in the Assembly elections scheduled for 2013.

But, it was apparent on the day of the results that Modi would go all out to encourage those who demanded a larger role for him at the national level. In a clear show of political symbolism, he chose to address the meeting to celebrate his victory in Hindi, and not in Gujarati, as is his wont. He characterised his victory as one for the people of India: “For those in Kerala, Jammu and Kashmir, wherever in the country and who want development.” He also asked his supporters to send out Gujarat’s message of development to the rest of the country. “If India is in any kind of want or need, then Gujarat should be able to reach out and provide a solution. I have chosen this path to serve Mother India and through this decision voters in Gujarat have paved the way for me to work for the country. I have often heard that good economics is bad politics. Let everyone from Assam to Kerala to Kashmir know that my voters in Gujarat have proved this wrong. They have embraced development and this has sent a message to the people of India.”

His supporters, too, played along and raised slogans and banners stating that this victory is only a trailer for the 2014 parliamentary election which would catapult Modi to prime ministership. Commenting on these developments, a veteran RSS activist told Frontline that it was clear that the battle lines were drawn in the BJP. “How this will play out is to be seen. We may get an indication of this right at the beginning of the New Year, when Gadkari’s second term will have to be approved formally. Given his backing in the rank and file, Modi may well question this, triggering an all-out tussle,” the swayamsewak said. Technically, Gadkari’s current term was to end on December 20, but party presidents are generally allowed to continue until a formal election is held for the post.

If this is the situation within the BJP, the projection of Modi could trigger an even bigger rift in the NDA. The fact that even as the Gujarat results were coming in, the JD(U), led by Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar, chose to reiterate its argument that a prime ministerial candidate should have secular credentials underscores the possibility of serious instability in the alliance. This position was most forcefully articulated with specific reference to Modi in the June 2010 National Executive of the BJP held in Patna. Some of Modi’s close supporters had planned to use that conclave to endorse Modi as the NDA’s next Prime Minister. Advertisements were placed in several newspapers in Bihar extolling his personal virtues and his skills of governance. The advertisements hailed him as a model administrator whose record in Gujarat was worthy of emulation in Bihar and the rest of the country. This campaign irritated the JD(U), and Nitish Kumar went to the extent of cancelling a dinner he had arranged for the BJP leaders. The JD(U) leadership persisted with its opposition in November 2011 when Modi launched his Sadbhavana rally. Around the same time, Advani had started a Jan Chetna Yatra, and it was well known that the two BJP leaders were vying to enhance their respective claim to prime ministership. Nitish Kumar promptly supported the Advani yatra and even inaugurated it. The JD(U) has repeatedly made clear its preference since then. It is of the firm view that Modi’s elevation would signal the loss of whatever little minority support that the NDA has and that the JD(U) cannot afford to suffer the depletion of its support base. Evidently, the tussle between these positions will amplify in the days to come.

What parties such as the JD(U) are apparently worried about is the social polarisation that Modi’s elevation would cause in various parts of the country. Speaking on condition of anonymity, a senior JD(U) leader told Frontline that the party feared greater assertion of Hindutva ideology under Modi’s leadership, leading to small and big communal riots in different parts of the country. “This in turn could lead to a migration of minority votes to the Congress, despite the popular anger at the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government’s track record at the Centre. In short, Modi’s elevation could well mean political harakiri for the NDA,” the leader said. Moreover, the Akali Dal, an NDA constituent, as well as potential allies such as the Trinamool Congress are apprehensive about the emergence of such a situation.

A number of Modi’s supporters in the BJP and in the State administration, who interacted with Frontline during the campaign and after the results, averred that their leader was well aware of these fears and that he would initiate steps to allay them. According to a senior BJP activist in Gujarat, Modi has already started moves on this front. The broad apology that he tendered in his victory speech, for whatever mistakes he may have committed, was a step in this direction, the leader said. Modi’s supporters also said that the Chief Minister had started an aggressive media pitch with editors of top publications and television channels. “If he sets a goal for himself, he would start working on it relentlessly until it was achieved,” said a Modi supporter in the bureaucracy.

Notwithstanding this confidence exuded by his supporters, the fact remains that Modi’s political expeditions have not evoked the kind of positive response that the leader would want. A recent case in point is his forays into the Himachal Pradesh election campaign. Modi campaigned aggressively and strategically in the hill State, promising a repeat victory to the saffron party. As the results bear out, this promise remained undelivered. There is a larger, unambiguous political message in this for Modi. It is one thing to reap successive electoral victories from the large segments of the faithful and the devoted in a uniquely polarised State like Gujarat, but reaching out to the non-faithful and the not-so-devoted in other parts of the country would certainly not be that easy.

Modi’s supporters believe that his reach and acceptance among sections of the socially and economically advanced, who are active in social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook, could be exploited to take his message to a larger audience. But observers such as the Patna-based political analyst Surendra Kishore point out that “this inclination to rely on the better-off sections of society is in itself problematic and will work against the larger interests of the country”.

“Since the advent of policies of globalisation and liberalisation these sections have been getting more and more vocal to protect their own narrow interests and at the same time deny the rights of crores of the poor and the marginalised. The tough talking, fast-moving ‘development personality’ projected by Modi and his supporters could very well fit in with these skewed aspirations of this section of the population. In other words, these aspirations are also pregnant with such huge social dangers, including the rise of fascism through electoral means. After all, history has shown that Hitler too came to power through the ballot,” Surendra Kishore said.

OPPORTUNITY FOR THE CONGRESS

These apprehensions, several leaders of the Congress told Frontline, have certainly opened a window of opportunity for the Congress in the medium term. One of them mentioned, in jest, that there was even a theory doing the rounds in Gujarat that the Congress was not putting up a spirited fight against Modi because it foresaw the national situation, particularly the fissures in the NDA once the demand for Modi’s elevation got shriller in the BJP.

According to the leader, the party is happy with the Himachal Pradesh results because even the higher echelons of the Congress were doubtful about a victory, especially on account of the reach of the anti-corruption campaign against the UPA and the Congress as also the animated popular reaction to decisions such as the reduction in the number of subsidised gas cylinders for domestic consumption. “That we got over all that in Himachal Pradesh is extremely reassuring,” the senior leader said. There is also the view in the Congress that the political situation as it is developing after the Gujarat-Himachal Pradesh elections will turn in favour of the party and the UPA, especially in the context of the new schemes such as direct cash transfer to the beneficiaries of social welfare programmes planned by the Union government. The Congress also hopes that these programmes will help the party win votes in the 2013 Assembly elections in Delhi, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Whatever the political trajectory, there is little doubt that the 2012 Assembly elections have given rise to new social and political situations and have advanced diverse nuances. New leaderships have emerged both at the State and national levels. As noted by observers such as Surendra Kishore, these developments also carry portents of dramatic political upheavals that could plunge the national polity into chaos and give rise to fascist tendencies.

If such dangerous possibilities are kept at bay, the next general election could lead to a much wider and stronger affirmation of federal politics, with smaller power groups emerging not only in States such as Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, but also in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, traditional strongholds of mainstream parties. Leaders such as Jagan Mohan Reddy of the YSR Congress and B.S. Yeddyurappa of the Karnataka Janata Party could be the drivers of such a spread of smaller power groups. This, too, holds the potential of fissiparous politics at the Centre, but may well be a lesser evil than the communal upheaval and social polarisation that the Modi kind of leadership holds out.

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