The aggressive sales pitch around Narendra Modi brooks no dissent and is a threat not just to those in the BJP with different views but also in the wider polity
Last week, L.K. Advani travelled to Keshavkunj, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) office in Delhi. He is believed to have discussed with the RSS pramukh, Mohan Bhagwat, his misgivings about the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)’s new decision-making style. However, it is not known if the man who is now generally described as “the patriarch” mentioned to Mohan Bhagwat the indignity he was subjected to on June 8 this year. That morning, a rowdy group of protesters gathered outside Mr. Advani’s residence on Prithvi Raj Road to denounce him for conspicuously not travelling to Goa to participate in a famous raj tilak. Of course, being the divisive politician that he has been all his life, Mr. Advani is no stranger to the rites of denunciation, but this was perhaps the first time in his long political career that he was subjected to unfriendly fire from his own crowd.
And, just in case Mr. Advani did not get the message, the social media was bubbling with sarcasm and denigration. Self-appointed admirers of the Gujarat Chief Minister were uncharitably calling the BJP’s grand old man a “loser,” “selfish,” and, asking him “to get out of the way.”
Somewhat similar treatment, in fact, was earlier meted out to Mr. Rajnath Singh in the first week of April this year. The BJP president had travelled to Rajasthan to help Ms Vasundhara Raje kick-start her electoral campaign for the 2013 Assembly. At that public meeting, when Mr. Singh got up to make his presidential remarks, he was greeted by chants of “Modi…Modi...” For more than five minutes the BJP president was forced to stand dumbfounded at his own party’s rally till he agreed to acknowledge the Gujarat Chief Minister’s omnipotence and mega-popularity. This must also have been Mr. Rajnath Singh’s first brush with intimidation from his own people. Unlike Mr. Advani who is a substantial political persona, Rajnath Singh is a bit of a lightweight player and quickly fell in line with Mr. Modi’s demands and designs.
When the Bihar Chief Minister, Nitish Kumar, demurred, he too came in for the same rough treatment. But being an authentic political personality, Nitish Kumar had no hesitation in cautioning against the new culture of intolerance.
The quarrel between Mr. Modi and Mr. Advani is the BJP’s internal matter. But what is disquieting for the wider polity is that these essays in organised ugliness are being serenaded as expressions of the nobility of will of the cadres. A manufactured preference of the “rank and file” is deemed to be a new mandate and a new licence.
These little experiments in authorised browbeating are not innocuous happenings. Students of modern history are familiar with the pattern. Similar techniques were employed in the phenomenon known as Stalinism. Under Stalin, it was not enough that the inconvenient political dissenters were branded as the “enemy of the people”; the rest of the society was encouraged to join in the chorus of denunciation. Schools, factories and offices were expected to sign group telegrams or vote unanimous resolutions against the designated enemies. Then, there was the Communist Party of the Soviet Union; now we have the social media, touted as the most authentic expression of democratic energy.
To be fair, personality cults are not new to the BJP. One simply has to recall the 2004 Lok Sabha campaign. The BJP’s electoral strategy was predicated on selling “Brand Vajpayee.” In fact, the campaign was simply named as “Atal Sandesh Yatra.” And, in 2009, the BJP had, once again, opted to swim or sink with “a strong Advani” against a “weak” Manmohan Singh. Mr. Modi is equally entitled to his personality cult. But make no mistake. Mr. Modi is a different personality, not easily amenable to democratic moderation. We should get used to “Rambo” type yarns, as the polity seeks to redefine itself in the next general election.
Tapping three segments
Admittedly, the nearly decade-old United Progressive Alliance (UPA) incumbency has produced its own dissatisfaction; the very stability, once considered a sine qua non of a vibrant Indian state, is now dismissed as neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition. The Modi sales pitch is geared to tap three discontented segments of the population.
First, there is a sizeable section of the political community in India that remains unreconciled to the Nehru-Gandhi family’s continued prominence. More than one generation of leaders, social scientists, non-governmental organisations, journalists, historians, bureaucrats and businessmen has cumulatively resented the family. The very fact that this family has managed to keep intact its hold over the Indian National Congress is galling to very many young people who have no sense of history and who proudly subscribe to the notion of “merit” and to the idea of professional achievement To them, the dominance of one family is inherently at odds with democratic sentiment.
In particular, both the sangh parivar and its political wing, the BJP, find it deeply frustrating that despite their own self-awarded credentials as 22-carat deshbhakts, they have not been able to get the better of Sonia Gandhi. Ten years ago when Mrs Gandhi, as the Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha moved a motion of no-confidence against the Vajpayee government and questioned the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government’s “India Shining” claims, Mr. Advani had shot back: “Do not insult India and the Indians.” And, when Sonia Gandhi had ridiculed the “feel good” campaign, Narendra Modi retorted: “ I can understand that she does not feel the feel-good factor. It can be felt by those who are Indian. If a gold mine was discovered in Italy, obviously I will not feel good about it.” And, to their great chagrin, the people of India voted the Vajpayee government out, despite the stark juxtaposition between “tried and tested” Vajpayee and a “videshi” Sonia Gandhi. The bitterness of that defeat lingers till this day and animates everyone from Jhandewalan to Ashoka Road. Mr. Modi’s cheerful willingness to be abusive towards the family makes him doubly attractive to the sangh parivar bosses.
Second, the upper middle classes have convinced themselves that the UPA government is fraudulently using “their” taxes to satisfy Sonia Gandhi’s insistence to provide for the welfare of the “poor.” The middle classes are deeply resentful of how the Congress Party is making the Manmohan Singh government “waste” “their” hard-earned profits and bonuses on a social agenda. The “corruption” narrative has come in handy to these prosperous Indians in pursuit of their class selfishness. And, these affluent sections see Rahul Gandhi as undereducated and ill-equipped to provide national leadership, especially in contrast to Mr. Modi who is deemed to be a “doer.”
The third element in the Modi constituency — perhaps the most significant and crucial element — is the business community, which has grown tired of Dr. Manmohan Singh, the original reformer and liberaliser. Corporate India simply wants a prime minister who would help it garner business and reap profits, without any qualms and questions.
The Modi project seeks to tap these anti-Congress forces and impulses. This is a legitimate venture. On the other hand, the UPA has the satisfaction of having beaten back the forces of instability and anarchy that were sought to be unleashed in this country in a pattern now familiar from Tahrir Square, to Jantar Mantar, Taksim Square in Istanbul and to São Paulo. Above all, during its nine years the UPA has fumigated the polity of its ugly impulses; the younger voters probably have no idea of the cultivated edginess, tension, confrontation and violence that had come to define the country during the NDA regime. May be the UPA will become a victim of its own success.
However, what should be disquieting is that the Modi experiment seems to have co-opted us in its ugliness and has lulled otherwise liberal voices into a meek acceptance of the presumed authenticity of the Modi sales pitch. Coupled with the inescapable divisiveness of a majoritarian ideology, these ugly impulses can be potentially disruptive of all that we have achieved as a liberal constitutional democracy.
(Harish Khare is a senior journalist and former media adviser to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. He is currently a Jawaharlal Nehru Fellow)