Narendra Modi’s economic philosophy appeals to the urban middle classes fed up with the Congress style of social democratic politics and welfare policies

For several months Mr. Narendra Modi’s campaign speeches sound as if governance and development are the overarching ideas of his political agenda. His speeches are replete with references to development and no overt references to Hindu nationalism. This might suggest that the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime minister-in-waiting has undergone an ideological transformation from his 2002 days. For many observers of Indian democracy, this is not surprising because they believe Indian politics has a proclivity towards centrism and the BJP cannot escape it; like other parties it will face the same pulls and pressures and will have to take everyone along. This mistaken reading assumes that extremist parties moderate their ideology when they become part of a plural party system and this process is more or less linear. It is true that taking part in electoral competition often encourages political parties to adopt an inclusive agenda but this is not evident from the BJP’s trajectory and certainly not from the 2014 campaign which is marked by doublespeak, innuendo and insinuation. As always, the BJP speaks in two voices: moderation and polarisation.

Mobilisation by polarisation

The BJP released its manifesto on April 8 after voting had begun for the first round of the nine-phase election inviting charges of violation of the code of conduct. The much delayed manifesto is full of rhetoric on economic development, reforms, good governance and jobs and so on to satisfy India’s privileged classes as well as appeal to the changing aspirations of the emergent middle class. At the same time, it recommits the party to three core Hindutva issues: a Ram temple at Ayodhya, scrapping of Article 370 which guarantees special status of Jammu and Kashmir, and the demand for a uniform civil code — issues which can polarise the nation.

To be sure, the double focus will not please everyone. Anyone who has followed Mr. Modi’s campaign trail cannot miss the larger strategy which is attempting to polarise the electorate. The manifest ideology and the oral tradition communicated through speeches delivered by him and the word of mouth propaganda by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) are more important than the manifesto. Mr. Modi might avoid the Hindutva language for which he is known, but through signals, expressions, and symbols he has kept intact his image as the mascot of the Hindu right. At a rally in Ghaziabad he accused the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government of promoting cow slaughter and promoting meat export adding further that the number of slaughterhouses is increasing, and incidents of cattle being stolen from villages are also on a rise. He said: “when the country was waiting for another green revolution, the Congress was planning for a ‘pink revolution (meat export)’.” While there is no overt display of Hindutva here, the undercurrent cannot be missed as the same political message is being conveyed in a subterranean fashion.

The BJP’s campaign in Uttar Pradesh unmistakably exposes the doublespeak. It is not restricted to economic growth, price rise and corruption and the Gujarat model of development as the panacea to the country’s despair with sliding economic growth; rather, it focusses on both development and division. Mr. Modi talks about development but allows other leaders of his party and the Sangh to raise communal issues. After Mr. Modi’s close aide, Mr. Amit Shah (former Home Minister of Gujarat) took charge of the party’s U.P. campaign, it took a decisive turn toward Hindutva which has since become the main plank in the election. Thereafter, the Sangh intensified its “save cow” campaign and “love jihad” propaganda. While Mr. Modi proclaims that he is interested only in economic development, Mr. Shah is telling Hindus in western U.P., not surprisingly in by-lanes and not public speeches, that this election was an opportunity to seek “revenge” for the “insult” inflicted during the communal violence in Muzaffarnagar, and “that they must not vote for those who give compensation to those who killed Jats.” Mr. Shah’s vitriolic talk is a reminder that polarisation remains the principal instrument of mobilisation. It is the focal point of the U.P. campaign which is central to the BJP’s game plan. Mr. Modi’s decision to contest from Varanasi further underlines U.P.’s importance to the BJP’s national strategy and the keenness of both the BJP and the RSS to signal that Hindutva will underpin its campaign in this crucial State.

Backing of corporate-financial elite

Periodically, the BJP makes an effort to distinguish itself from its parent organisation, the RSS and the Sangh Parivar. But this time there is nothing separating the BJP from the RSS. More than 30 years ago, the Janata Party government fell over the question of “dual membership” of a political party and the RSS. In the decades since, the RSS seems to have become more palatable. Today, the RSS is running the BJP campaign and there are no qualms about it. Mr. Amit Shah has picked RSS men as poll coordinators in U.P. These coordinators have been given charge of campaigning and other election-related activities.

The BJP’s political success since the early 1990s has much to do with the communalisation of Indian politics through changing the discourse on secularism. There has been a concerted attempt to debunk the secular narrative on the ground that it has been used by the Congress to build and win minority vote banks. However, communal politics is not central to the rise of Mr. Modi because this is not a new development. The new element is the explicit backing of the corporate-financial elite of the country for Mr. Modi. It is the support of this powerful group that has catapulted him to the top, and not his well-known espousal of Hindutva politics. The possibility that his ascent to power signals a move to the right has brought flocks of neo-liberals and free-market champions to join his campaign signifying his readiness to accommodate the demands of capital to expand whichever way it wants. The corporate sector and the mass media have been hard selling the pro-business Modi and have played the most crucial role in building the hype surrounding him. In return the economic elite would surely want the next government to cut rights-based welfare policies and further reduce the role of government in business. Sure enough, social inequalities, rights, equity or justice do not figure in his campaign.

Mr. Modi’s economic philosophy appeals to the urban middle classes fed up with the Congress style of social democratic politics and welfare policies. According to the NDTV opinion poll telecast on April 3-4, his support comes largely from the middle classes, especially male, upper caste and the young. For these groups, Mr. Modi’s muscular style is a direct antidote to the Congress which they perceive as incompetent and feckless. But given that he is still seen as a polarising politician who had failed to control mass violence in 2002 there is a lurking concern about the resumption of communal violence. These fears have been deftly put to rest by promoting the idea that the solution to India’s myriad problems lies in Mr. Modi’s decisive leadership. This is where the “Gujarat model of development” has proved very useful. Big business is so taken with the Gujarat model that Mr. Anand Mahindra of Mahindra and Mahindra proclaimed during the inauguration of the 2013 Vibrant Gujarat summit that “the day is not far when people will talk about Gujarat model of growth in China.” It didn’t take too long for this to happen: Mr. Modi in a recent “interview/monologue” to ETV Rajasthan purportedly spoke of “how the Chinese had come to admire the Gujarat model.”

Never before in post-independence India has such a formidable alliance of corporate capital and communal politics made such a strong bid for power. The fears of a right-wing takeover in the event Mr. Modi succeeds in his mission to become prime minister are very real. In the past, the BJP has oscillated between a sectarian strategy of religious mobilisation and a more moderate one of abiding by democratic processes and liberal norms. During the six years of BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) rule at the Centre, it struggled to achieve what political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot called a “division of labour,” with Mr. Atal Bihari Vajpayee, perceived as more moderate, on one side, and the RSS and other elements of the Sangh which continued to pursue a Hindu nationalist agenda, on the other. Whether the BJP opts for the path of extremism or that of moderation chiefly depends on its relationship with the RSS from which it has not been able to sever its links. What we can say with some certainty at this moment is that the option of moderation seems doubly unlikely because the RSS has thrown its lot with the corporate-financial elite and policies it promotes.

(Zoya Hasan is ICSSR National Fellow and formerly Professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University.)

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