The ascent of Narendra Modi and the shoddy treatment of L.K. Advani signal the advent of a new politics that India will have to confront
There is poignancy to politics which lies in the multiple levels of drama. The recent events in the Bharatiya Janata Party can be seen crassly as an anointing, a crowning and an elevation of Narendra Modi as campaign manager for the BJP for 2014. Such a statement misses the sheer ecology of dramas around the event. What one is witnessing is a struggle for power, an agony of decision-making, a battle of generations where the new seems less welcoming than the old. Straddling it all is a man dubbed the Nestor or Bhishma Pitamah of the BJP, L.K. Advani.
Shrewd & generous
Mr. Advani is more than a wise man, he is a man who could have been king. He was the strategic genius of the BJP and it was he who managed its electoral fortunes. He had both the shrewdness and the generosity to realise that when the BJP came to power earlier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee would be a more uniting factor than he himself was. Magnanimously, Mr. Advani stood aside. Now decades later he realises Mr. Modi is not a Vajpayee and stands worried. He faces a party whose cadres are tom-toming for the Gujarat Chief Minister and he realises things are more complex. He senses that the Modi juggernaut is a pre-emptive politics and it might damage the party. Mr. Advani stands as a man who faces the irony that his swansong may be an act of tempered refusal. The BJP may have anointed Mr. Modi in Goa, but for Mr. Advani the ritual appears premature. He refused to put his imprimatur on the act by refusing to attend the final days of the meeting. The slapstick protest by Mr. Modi’s younger supporters against Mr. Advani’s decision captured the final irony of his career, that a man who fought for unity is condemned as divisive.
Mr. Advani’s resignation from all party posts came like a bombshell. It was an act of closure, a message to Mr. Modi and his ilk that the norms of respect, statesmanship cannot be wished away. His statement was a message that the BJP cannot be held to ransom by one man; a BJP proud of its processes of consultation and consensus finds its reputation in a shambles. The fate of Mr. Advani represents the deeper crisis of the BJP. It has been trounced in Karnataka; it also realises that while the Congress might be invertebrate and supine, the BJP also appears listless. Given the crisis, Rajnath Singh and Arun Jaitley might think that Mr. Modi supplies the right dose of adrenalin. But Mr. Advani, Sushma Swaraj and others fear Mr. Modi might completely fragment a party in crisis instead of being a galvanic force propelling the BJP into the future. It is not just a question of internal dynamics of a party, its decisional rituals, its ideologies, the contending ambitions within it; it is also the question of coalitions. It is clear the future of all parties lies temporarily in coalitions. Coalitions demand consensus, adjustments, the fine art of political management and statesmanship. It is clear that Mr. Modi is not a carrier of such values.
Nitish Kumar factor
This became clear in Nitish Kumar’s response to Mr. Modi. The Bihar Chief Minister felt that Mr. Modi might be adequate for Gujarat but he could hardly lead the nation. One must admit Nitish has nursed such ambitions. The media battle between the Gujarat and Bihar model of development served as a surrogate battle between the national claims of the two men. There was, however, a deeper issue. Nitish was pointing to the fact that national level politics was a consensual affair, a way of life that carried others along. He claimed that Mr. Modi threatened the secular sense of the nation. Nitish’s electoral losses in the recent elections however dulled the sheen around his comments.
One needed a scrap of pictures to understand the body language of the events that followed. While Mr. Advani played Achilles in his tent, the BJP appointed Mr. Modi BJP campaign manager in Goa. The act of acclamation was no longer unanimous. Ms Swaraj’s body language showed that the seeds of doubt had already been sown. The sense of disquiet was obvious despite the best efforts of the party’s media managers to paper it over.
Meanwhile, the man at the centre of the storm appeared triumphant. The tentative edges to Mr. Modi’s behaviour dissolved quickly and in addressing the party he was at his imperial best. He lashed out at the Congress contending it had violated the norms and rules of federalism, had prevented any non-Congress State from succeeding economically. He claimed that the Congress encouraged terror through its ambivalent attitude to Naxalism. His diatribes were predictable and reasonably effective, but criticising the Congress party, which is a pincushion of errors, is child’s play today. Yet Mr. Advani’s absence was already haunting the eloquence of the Modi script. Backstage would not let go of front-stage and even in his moment of victory, Mr. Modi was a man surrounded by caveats.
The question that confronts the expert and the spectator is: how does one read a scene like this? One has to also ask what all this means for the future of politics, elections and democracy. The overt drama at Goa fades away before the historical and futuristic questions it raises.
There is a bombast to the event that one has to deflate. Mr. Modi is not yet king, he is far away from being king. A party bereft of ideas sees him as saviour. One must admit that he has won three rounds of elections in Gujarat. His reign has been so complete that a younger generation has almost no memories of Congress rule. The rise of Narendra Modi has to be seen as a deeper fable about the fate of Indian politics. He is not just a persona, he becomes a collection of collective symptoms.
A Narendra Modi can only rise in an India bereft of ideas, a country content to play with old clichés like development, governance, security as if they were freshly minted currency. Mr. Modi is a hybrid created out of an updated swadeshi rhetoric which now manifests itself as a technocratic and corporate, and a loose World Bank vocabulary we call governance.
As an administrator, he has been more than competent, placing Gujarat high on the vector of growth but mixed on human development. Mr. Modi appeals to the middle class, to the dream of development, to the idea of a strong middle class-driven India. Yet, he carries the taint of the 2002 riots and an almost visceral hate for the Muslim. He also represents a new BJP where the old pracharak has modernised as a technocrat. Deep down he is an authoritarian man ill at ease with dissent or coalitions. Yet he lacks the charisma to carry India. He does not quite represent Mr. India because he does not embody all the values of our Constitution.
Race for aspirations
Narendra Modi represents new forces we need to comprehend. He represents a new, aspirational India, two-thirds of which is below the age of 35. He appeals to the upwardly mobile in search of efficiency, who are tired of corruption and also tired of the Congress, either as a stale Socialist Party or because of its dynastic model playing Hamlet intermittently. Such an India is both swadeshi and diasporic, more hawk-like in its attitudes internally and externally. It seeks an image of toughness and a sense of recognition. Mr. Modi seems to guarantee these deliverables in a way no other party can. It is a question of perception and he seems to be winning this race for aspirations.
Fortunately, India is multi-generational in its memory and for many groups he does not quite fit the virtues of tolerance, the slowness of politics. Even those opposed to the BJP were surprised by the shoddy treatment meted out to Mr. Advani. It is also clear that the BJP is a graceless party.
Beyond the internal schism, Mr. Modi raises important issues. In returning a halo to ‘development’ as something individual and collective, aspirational and nationalist, he is promising a speeded up India that the other parties have not dreamt of. In this, he is triggering a new politics which India has to confront. Narendra Modi is the change that we have to decide whether we want to be.
(Shiv Visvanathan is Research Fellow, The Compost Heap)