Friday, December 21, 2012

The twin challenges for Modi….and why the Congress will celebrate his victory

After his victory in Gujarat, an attempt is being made to portray as if Modi has overcome the last, most daunting, nearly impossible test set for him by his party. That he has now earned his right to be the party’s PM candidate. This is a cunning exploitation of a favorable political opportunity….for Modi’s victory in the state was a preordained certainty. Gujarat was hardly a challenge, but Modi smartly positioned it as being an “agni pariksha” for him, to use a saffron phrase. He used his journalist-sympathizers like Swapan Dasgupta for this.

By all accounts, Modi’s is an impressive victory, coming as it does for the 3rd time in a row for himself and the 5th for the BJP. But those of us who have lived in Gujarat know exactly the stronghold the BJP has over Gujarat. It sounds clichéd, but the fact is that the state has been totally polarized. By making the minorities his whipping dog, Modi has tapped the most primeval insecurities of the majority community; a community that prefers to do business and leave matters of protecting faith to someone else. That someone else is Modi. Modi’s PR that the people have voted for him because of Gujarat’s economic progress is rubbish. Gujarat was prosperous decades before Modi. Much of his success belongs to others. The reality is that the Gujaratis have voted for him only because he has showed the minorities “their place”. Unless Modi messes up badly, he can win three more times in Gujarat.

That brings me to the twin challenges that Modi faces as he leaps towards Delhi. Those twin challenges ironically are the exact same as the two success factors in Gujarat. First, that the Muslim population is very small in Gujarat; under 9% or so. Second, that the majority population in Gujarat has a strange anger and frustration with the minorities. Anger from past experiences; like the Muslims supporting Pakistan in an India-Pak cricket match. Frustration that they can do nothing about it, since Gujaratis are generally peaceful people.

Take the first challenge. The Muslims haven’t forgiven Modi or the BJP. Historically, the BJP has only fared well in states where the Muslim population is small; in MP (6.4% Muslims), Chhatisgarh (1%), Rajasthan (8.5%) and Punjab (2%) apart from Gujarat (9%). It fares only so-so in states where the Muslim population rises to 12-14%, the national average; states like Jharkhand (14%), Karnataka (12%), Andhra (14%) where the BJP has either never ruled or has had a sketchy record. In states where the  Muslim population is higher; like UP (18.5%), Bihar (16.5%), West Bengal (25%), Assam (31%) or Kerala (25%); the BJP has fared poorly. Remember, Bihar is more Nitish’s success than BJP’s. This Muslim formula also explains why the TN parties and Orissa’s BJD (both in states with Muslim population is less than 5%) are OK to sign up with the BJP when required. Unfortunately for the BJP, the support of these is not enough.

How will Modi handle this challenge? To most Muslims, Modi is anathema. To most regional parties therefore, Modi is anathema. Can Modi suddenly go soft; do a 180 degrees turn on his decades-old image maybe? That’s a trap. If he does that, he’ll become a confused “brand” (personality). If he doesn’t, he will wont even make a start. It’s a challenge that cannot be overcome by the usual political ideas. It can only be overcome by a huge dose of personal charisma, a readiness to stoop to conquer, a willingness to accept mistakes with a promise to correct them, a genuine concern for the “six crore Gujaratis”. Vajpayee had these qualities. Does Modi have them? I doubt.

The second challenge for Modi is that the majority community in the rest of the country simply isn’t like it is in Gujarat. It is much less insecure; and much better organized politically. Regional parties have carved out homogeneous caste-based fiefdoms within the majority community. As far as the dalits are concerned, the rest of the Hindus are as pariah as the Muslims are, and Mayawati is their proven savior. The tribals have been treated like outcasts by the Hindus, and hence are being lured by other religions. They don’t care for the Hindus, nor the BJP. On paper, all these are Hindus, but in political terms, they are not. The BJP has never been able to unite them, except during the Babri movement, when it temporarily managed to polarize the entire country. Can any party repeat such an act in today’s world where there are eagle-eyes all over keeping a watch? Can a Godhra or Ayodhya ever be repeated? Look at what happened in Assam. The media built so much pressure that the government there was forced to act at double speed. Could Gogoi have turned a blind eye for three days like Modi did in Godhra? Impossible.

For Modi, this is a bigger challenge. He can become softer on religion and adopt “Hindutva”, the fig leaf the BJP uses to cover its aggressive Hindu strategy. But what about uniting the different castes? Will the mantra of economic growth be enough? Let’s not forget. Economic growth is strong in Gujarat because its people are industrious, not because of Modi. The rest of the country are not like that. The economic growth story is difficult to replicate in the Hindi heartland.

This is what gets me worried. Modi will try something new; but whatever it is, it will be incendiary. He will reopen old wounds; resurface buried differences. He may do something silly on Kashmir for example to stoke nationalistic fervour. He may even wage a war against our neighbors – the biggest two of whom are Muslim nations – and hit two birds with one stone. Look at the BJP’s track record so far. The BJP government exploded the nuclear bombs (Pokhram II) in 1998; a purely jingoistic act. They were “lucky” that Pakistan inflicted the Kargil war on us. The Indian Army would have won the war in any case, but the BJP just happened to be ruling at the Center. That won them the next election. More recently, Modi stirred the Sir Creek controversy – as a fail-safe back-up to any second thoughts the Hindus might develop against him. This is what I am really worried of. The BJP is a party that pulls at nationalism every other day. Not out of worship for the nation, but as a route to keep itself in public memory. What the country needs is pragmatism. Navigating the choppy waters of international relations. Securing the best deal for India by befriending people of all hues and colors, and faith and belief. Seeking out preferential deals with unusual partners. And very importantly, strategically keeping mum (even if it means offending your core voters) about things like Kashmir, Arunachal, and Afzal Guru. The BJP hasn’t been able to do this ever. And Modi is not going to change that.

In addition to these, Modi faces enormous challenges from within his own party. But I will leave that for another post.

The real truth is that the Congress will be actually be deligted with Modi leading the BJP in 2014. That will make its task of shutting it out easier. Just like polarization of voters works in Modi’s favor in Gujarat, it will work against him in the rest of the country. The Congress’s biggest nightmare would be a moderate leader from the BJP. It would really fear a Nitish Kumar or an Arun Jaitley. There are very few such leaders in the BJP. Which is why it has managed to keep itself small. Modi’s ascension will ensure it becomes even smaller.

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