While Narendra Modi’s victory was built on forgetting, he should now address those who have memories

We have entered the “age of forgetting,” said the historian, Tony Judt, in his 2008 book Reappraisals. “ ... we have become stridently insistent — in our economic calculations, our political practices, our international strategies, even our educational priorities — that the past has nothing of interest to teach us ...; on seeking actively to forget rather than to remember ....”

In this age of active forgetting, among the things that people seemed to have cared about less and less in this election are the Emergency, the 1984 riots, the demolition of the Babri Masjid, Gujarat 2002, not to speak of Mahatma Gandhi’s assassination and the freedom struggle. This collective amnesia of the masses is what helped the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) more than the Congress. “Can’t we move forward?” became the constant refrain of Indian voters, particularly, the middle class — and the BJP’s campaign echoed that. Not only that, people seemed to have cared less about Rahul Gandhi’s feeble reminders that it was his father, Rajiv Gandhi, who heralded the information age; even the average GDP growth or job creation by the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) regime faded from memory for most.

Campaign styles and content

What rankled instead were the issues of price rise, a leadership vacuum, scandals and the economic sluggishness of the present. Narendra Modi understood this mass psyche — the propensity to forget, live in the present and think only of the immediate future — not of any distant one or of the generations to come. Not only did Rahul Gandhi not understand this, he also appeared to be like a computer whiz who was writing a code without knowing the operating system. When people tend to forget, what and how leaders remind them becomes crucial, as memories can be manipulated through propaganda. That is where the style and content of Mr. Modi became a huge success, while Mr. Gandhi’s became a colossal failure.

For Mr. Modi, history started only in 2002, after the Gujarat riots had ended. All his campaign was about his achievements since then. He constantly reminded people of his achievements, questionable as they may be, and of the Congress’ follies. He collapsed the history of Gujarat and appropriated its glory. He disconnected Gujarat from its history of mercantilism, its geography of being at the centre of global trade routes and cultural cross-currents through effective propaganda, and managed to place himself at the centre of the State’s material progress. He promised to replicate that progress nationally, and people believed in that campaign.

Mr. Gandhi’s relationship with his own history and of the society has been confused. He tried to invoke the legacy of the dynasty, and then disown it, all at once. He promised little, and whatever he promised was not deliverable in the immediate future. An abstract and distant future of mass empowerment and decentralisation carried little traction. His reading of the aspirations of the people was grossly wrong. For instance, during the Madhya Pradesh Assembly elections in November 2013, he told tribals that material development was not enough and he would give them self-respect. But his own patronising campaign — that “we have given you these schemes” — disregarded the self-respect of the poor. The younger lot among the lower castes understands empowerment differently; they do not have the memories of oppression that their parents had when the likes of the Rashtriya Janata Dal’s Lalu Prasad Yadav and the Samajwadi Party’s Mulayam Singh Yadav addressed them 25 years ago. Mr. Gandhi borrowed Mr. Prasad’s idioms. More fatally, Mr. Gandhi and his advisers — who declared in numerous internal strategy meetings that the “BJP was a regional party of four States” — failed miserably in understanding the changes that were happening under their noses. He made silence a strategy and rarely gave interviews, parroted the same speech at several rallies and kept away from Twitter even as Mr. Modi took the country by storm, calibrating when and what to speak, and setting the social media scene abuzz. At the end of it all, the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty’s derelictions which were amplified by Mr. Modi’s campaign stuck in people’s memory.

The abstract vs. ‘solutions’

Mr. Gandhi confused delegation with abdication of leadership. While all politicians spent the time between the last polling day and the counting day on getting feedback from the ground about how things were faring, Mr. Gandhi was already on a flight abroad, even before polling had ended. He indefensibly gave a miss to the farewell to the Prime Minister, and did not think it necessary to communicate anything about this to the Congressmen who he is supposed to lead. That was the moment a true leader was expected to reassure his demoralised followers; this, Mr. Gandhi could have learnt from Mr. Lalu Prasad. While Mr. Modi claimed a manifest destiny by declaring that god had chosen him to lead the country and Maa Ganga had beckoned him to the sacred town of Varanasi, Mr. Gandhi appeared to be struggling hard to shake off the leadership role that destiny had bestowed upon him. Leadership has nothing to do with the country’s course, it is the people who bring in progress, he declared at a rally in Guwahati during the campaign. “I will lead you to prosperity and pride,” Mr. Modi declared in rallies before the election and after winning it. While Mr. Gandhi sounded abstract, Mr. Modi promised “solutions” for those who cared only about the present.

The future and reaching out

Certain attributes such as his ability to draw in investors and being “decisive” could well equip Mr. Modi to deliver for those who live in the present. He has promised thrust in tourism development, and he may focus on some big-ticket projects such as the Delhi-Mumbai industrial corridor where the impact would be visible soon. Such measures could deliver for those who “actively forget,” and think about the immediate future.

But there is another section — a substantial minority of 13 per cent of the Indian population, the Muslims who have many things from the recent past that they cannot easily forget, the demolition of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots of 2002 being the most prominent among them. “Appeasement of none, justice for all,” is not a reassuring slogan for them, as their wounds fester and their exclusion from Indian public spaces is intensifying. In the November 2013 State Assembly elections that elected 1,589 lawmakers, only eight were Muslims; down from the 20 in the previous term. In the 16th Lok Sabha there are only 22 Muslims, their lowest representation in the last 50 years, according to an analysis in this paper on May 17 (“Fewer Muslims, more women in new House”). Muslims make up only four per cent of parliamentarians though they are 13 per cent of the population. This increasing marginalisation of the Muslims from India’s public spaces cannot be swept under the carpet by a slogan that Mr. Modi considers all Indians equal, because equating the unequals can be severely discriminatory. If they are pushed away from democratic structures, it can have dangerous implications for India. The same holds true for sexual minorities and other marginalised sections.

Mr. Modi is acutely aware of this limitation, and his Sadbhavna campaign in Gujarat in 2011 was an attempt to reach out to Muslims. In the Assembly election campaign of November 2013, his spin masters focussed on the Muslim presence in his rallies. But going by his public pronouncements during the Lok Sabha campaign, Mr. Modi appears to have backtracked on this move. Answering the question why he did not wear a Muslim skullcap, he said: “I respect all customs, but practise only mine.” A Sikh turban and an Arunachal Pradesh tribal headgear were a part of what he considers his.

But addressing Muslim alienation is not the sole responsibility of Mr. Modi. The Congress and all other parties must also take this challenge seriously. Another Congress folly in this campaign was Ms. Sonia Gandhi seeking the Shahi Imam, Syed Ahmed Bukhari’s support. It is amazing that the Congress has hardly a Muslim leader who is rooted in the community — Salman Khurshid lost his deposit in the contest — and is trying to outsource its Muslim outreach to discredited rabble-rousers. The same holds true for the RJD, the SP and the Bahujan Samajwadi Party also, all of which tried to scare the Muslims into voting for them. Building a secular, progressive Muslim leadership is the challenge facing all parties.

For Mr. Modi, increasing the stake of Muslims in his project is an imperative. His victory is built on forgetting. He must now address those who have memories.


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