If the entirety of what Narendra Modi represents is a challenge to India, he too faces the difficult challenge of making himself acceptable to India.
For the faithful, there is no truth bigger than Narendra Modi’s ‘destined’ future as Prime Minister. His critics protest that the elevation will not happen, worry that it might happen, and agonise over what will happen when that happens.
The Gujarat Chief Minister is admittedly a challenge the like of which India has never seen before. There have been elements of NaMo in other Prime Ministers but the differences have comprehensively outweighed the commonalities. Indira Gandhi was both abrasive and hugely popular. But her mass base was formed by the very poor and the voiceless. Atal Bihari Vajpayee was from the Hindutva stable and was the first to articulate ‘India Shining.’ But he was impeccably mannered and sometimes so deliberately self-effacing that he managed to come across as the ‘right man in the wrong party.’ The BJP under Atalji was an industry favourite but not in the way Mr. Modi is.
Combination of attributes
The BJP’s new campaign committee chief is one part hard Hindutva, one part authoritarian figure, and one part business model-cum-corporate mascot. Add to this his cult status among the middle and upper classes, people with the loudest voice yet heard in the country, and the parts mesh into a whole beyond our existing imagination. Is a Prime Minister with this combination of attributes conceivable in a country with a 70 per cent rural population, around 40 per cent below the poverty line, and Muslims forming the largest minority at 13 per cent? A coalition can arguably facilitate ‘Prime Minister NaMo’ but for the coalition itself to fructify — at least before 2014 — the attributes have to be different.
So if Mr. Modi is a challenge to this country, surely his own biggest challenge is to alter the perception that his acceptability is confined to a small, if deafeningly vocal, section of voters. However, this is a project beset with problems and contradictions. Because the Hindutva-corporate baggage he carries is self-limiting. If he divests even a part of this equity, he could end up damaging his core competence. For example, the Gujarat Chief Minister needs to reach out to Muslims if not as an end in itself but at least to chip away at the ‘secular’ resistance to his larger aspirations. But he is also in debt to the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh for installing him in his new role. There is a similar conflict between appeasing the corporate sector, which has made him what he is today, and meeting welfare demands which have grown exponentially under the United Progressive Alliance government.
It doesn’t help Mr. Modi that just when he has embarked on a programme of Muslim outreach, attention has returned to the Gujarat government’s indefensible record with respect to the community. Ishrat Jahan’s murder in cold blood is currently in focus, but there are other ghosts from the past waiting to be resurrected, among them a string of encounter killings and the 2002 anti-Muslim violence, all of which are in various stages of investigation and trial.
Over the past fortnight, Mr. Modi has had to confront another bitter reality: the destructive potential of his own key strength, his screaming, stampeding support base. The Uttarakhand fiasco is an example of what can happen when frenzied loyalists lose all sense of perspective and believe that there are no practical limitations to what their anointed hero can deliver. To be fair to Mr. Modi, he himself made no exaggerated claims. Indeed, the tweets he sent out during the crisis pretty much capture the story of how he organised relief for Gujarati pilgrims stranded in the hill State. In his own words, he opened relief camps, arranged return passage from Dehradun, wrote to the Railway Minister seeking special trains, and deputed his best officers to fine-tune the logistics. And he himself made an aerial survey of the flood-hit regions. No more, no less.
The matter should have rested there because other Chief Ministers had been involved in similar relief efforts. On June 23, 2013, rediff.com carried an account of rescue and relief in Uttarakhand whose details matched those tweeted by Mr. Modi, the aerial survey included. But the State concerned was Maharashtra and the interview was with Chief Minister Prithviraj Chavan.
The twist in the tale came in the form of an absurd claim made in a national daily that Mr. Modi had, Rambo-like, rescued 15,000 Gujarati pilgrims. Even the almighty would have likely balked at pulling this off but for Mr. Modi’s admirers, the derring-do was proof, if any were needed, of the superhuman qualities of India’s next Prime Minister. One comment on the paper’s website applauded Mr. Modi for putting his life in danger. Rohit Singh (New Jersey) tweeted: “n 2 days, 15000 Gujaratis were identified, airlifted out of the jungle and taken back to Gujarat. What was our army doing then? Shameful if our whole army could not do this and Modi could get it done in 2 days ... learn from Narendra Modi.”
The gushing turned into anger against the newspaper once analysts pointed out the implausibility of the rescue plot. The alleged source of the story sent the paper a legal notice that comically underscored the irony of the initial euphoria turning into outrage. The rescue of 15,000 people was a “scurrilous” claim that “slandered” his reputation, the alleged source bemoaned, not realising that he was equating hagiographic praise of ‘dear leader’ with slander and calumny.
Clearly, those who live by their fan following must be prepared to be brought down by it. Unfortunately for Mr. Modi, his fans have turned into a Frankenstein’s Monster beyond even his control. And the image they have created of Mr. Modi is of a macho man out to defend ‘Bharat’ from its enemies, for which read Pakistan and Muslims.
A Google search for ‘NaMo for PM’ will throw up hundreds of fan clubs and discussion forums, all with the same vision: Finish Pakistan, teach a lesson to Muslims and dispatch Sonia Gandhi to Italy. One fan club, which calls itself ‘Modi-Fying India’, recently held a rock concert in Delhi in aid of ‘Prime Minister NaMo.’ The centre-piece of the show was a composition called Shiv tandav — Shiv stuti sung to heavy stomping of feet and shouts of “Har, Har, Mahadev” and “come on, everybody”. Unsurprisingly, the event’s theme slogan eulogised NaMo’s manliness: Jaane kis din Lal Kile mein mardangi bhasha bolenge (when will we hear masculine language spoken from the Red Fort?). Equally unsurprisingly, the organisers feted a Muslim invitee as a nationalist different from his community.
How does Mr. Modi get out of this image trap? Post his elevation, Mr. Modi has consciously toned down on the hardline talk and the authoritarian manner. There is today none of the chhappan chhati rhetoric (his own bullish take on his 56-inch chest) that once formed the Modi staple. But this outward change is not going to lessen his problems because NaMo as a ra-ra nationalist is a demand both of his voters and the wider Sangh Parivar on whom he has become critically dependent. Viewing Muslims as the ‘other’ is part of the narrative that makes up NaMo. His supporters may exult over the ‘development man’ but it is the hawk in him that they really worship.
Even should Mr. Modi want to break out of the mould, it would be difficult because, as Zafar Mahmood, formerly Officer-on-Special Duty with the Sachar Committee, pointed out in a recent presentation made to Mr. Modi, opposition to Muslims forms the ideological core of the BJP. Mr. Mahmood asked Mr. Modi to prove by action, including supporting the passage of a long list of pro-Muslim laws, that he is no longer inimical to the community. If Mr. Modi even attempts this, he would be wishing death on himself.
Therefore, the standing media ovation for Mr. Modi’s Muslim outreach efforts notwithstanding, he can only appear to be reaching out. If he goes beyond that, he will incur the wrath of his own support base and the RSS. On the other hand, merely pretending to be a do-gooder will only further alienate a community hurt beyond endurance by his government and whose memories have been refreshed by the renewed focus on Ishrat Jahan and more.
The BJP currently has only two major allies, and there is no indication as yet of a significant political shift towards it. But even assuming NaMo crosses the hurdles and gets to South Block, his problems will have only just begun. The RSS will push for overt Hindutva, the corporate sector will demand cuts in welfare, the coalition partners will drive their own bargains and Lal Krishna Advani will become an irritant and the focal point for internal dissidence.
Besides, there is Mr. Modi’s own troubling vision of development. Speaking at India Today’s annual conclave, Mr. Modi suggested that India’s rights-based job guarantee scheme be renamed ‘Mahatma Gandhi Development Guarantee Scheme.’ This means that a poor worker who has been denied a job under MGNREGA will now go to court asking for development to be guaranteed and not his own livelihood. Welcome to the land of ‘Prime Minister NaMo.’