Modi’s attempt to woo new supporters with promises of clean governance is bang on target, but the extreme fringe is undermining this more than the Congress or the AAP

The only thing the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has to fear in this election is itself. As voting is underway, pollsters give the party a commanding lead over the Congress, even showing it expanding into states such as Tamil Nadu. Yet, the delay and details of the BJP’s manifesto reveal the marked differences in the tone and issues emanating from the new BJP led by Narendra Modi, and the party’s extreme fringe and what I call the “whiners wing.”

If the BJP really has a “160 Club” (that could limit the party’s success to that many number of seats) it is these extremists and whiners.

Where Mr. Modi is the man rallying a nation to reach for the stars and ensuring a manifesto that mentions the word “technology” 58 times and the words “Hindu” and “Muslim” just once, these groups are stuck honking at the potholes in the road. By insisting on inserting the mandir issue into the BJP’s manifesto, these groups want to cling to the cultural revivalism, militant nationalism and social restructuring that never got the party more than 34 per cent of the vote share or won it more than 182 seats.

To get 200-225 seats this time, Mr. Modi knows he needs to turn supporters of other parties into first-time BJP voters. He also knows he cannot win new supporters using every old trick in the BJP’s book. So his attempt to woo them with promises of clean, effective governance is bang on target.

Spewing hatred

But the extreme fringe is undermining this more than the Congress or the AAP. Beyond its insistence on the mandir issue, hatred spewed by saffron trolls on the internet is alarming many of India’s 150 million first-time voters that Mr. Modi wants to reach.

Rancid, unprintable posts from these online warriors spouting misread history, twisted logic and frenetic aggression routinely flood Twitter and Facebook and leaves people wondering if this is the real face of the BJP.

The “whining wing” is less poisonous but nurses deep a persecution complex that make it equally out-of-step with Mr. Modi’s upbeat new BJP.

Steeped in a “deny everything, attack everyone” propaganda model, the whiners fixatedly complain about the people and parties they oppose instead of evangelising the BJP’s ideas for housing, infrastructure and business.

Their 1980s predilection to prefix “pseudo” to any opposing idea makes the BJP look dated and petty at a time when it is all-important for Mr. Modi to appear prime ministerial and progressive.

Worse, while Mr. Modi’s own stance towards the world is open and assured, the whiners’ paranoid fear mongering about how half the world is out to destroy Hinduism thrusts a minority complex upon a majority community eager for self-confidence.

This is partly because the BJP has historically been a party nursing grudges. It was born out of a sense of cultural emasculation, reared on a diet of political and social isolation and grew to adulthood in anger that was carefully cultivated and directed by L.K. Advani.

This deadly cocktail was deftly contained by Atal Bihari Vajpayee whose half saffron-half Nehruvian nature turned him into a vital transition figure for a politically evolving India.

Now the BJP is struggling to come into its own as a positive party committed to delivery and development and fronted by leaders such as Narendra Modi, Arun Jaitley and Vasundhara Raje.

This new BJP wants to represent the aspirations of millions of Indians beyond the party’s traditional voter base. Yet, or perhaps because of this, it stands threatened by old leaders clinging to old habits that need to die hard.

Party insiders say Mr. Modi, Mr. Jaitley and others are trying to rein in these groups and are setting the tone for the new BJP through personal example. They point to Mr. Jaitley’s running of a positive campaign despite his opponent Amarinder Singh’s petty jibes and the exemplary manner in which Mr. Modi kept the crowd at his Bihar rally cool after bombs were set off. “Ask yourself if you want to fight each other or poverty,” is how he sent people home peacefully in one of the most remarkable public performances of any Indian politician.

Yet, while Mr. Modi is rightly pilloried for the riots in Gujarat he is unjustly not praised enough for averting one in Bihar. This is because the extreme fringe and whiners wing still cast doubt over Mr. Modi and the BJP.

Critics accuse the party of simply trying to speak in two voices — using Mr. Modi, Mr. Jaitley, Ms Raje, Mr. Chouhan etc. to speak of development and attract one set of voters, while using the extremists and whiners to stir Luddites with the mandir and other issues.

But such dual messaging isn’t viable. As we saw, what Amit Shah says in Uttar Pradesh’s further corners becomes a national headline and one tweet from a fanatic can turn-off a thousand middle-ground voters. Put together, the extreme fringe and whiners wing could cut 20-25 seats from the party’s final tally. For the BJP to truly Modify itself it will have to do more to silence or sideline these groups.

It is now quite clear that there are more votes to be won by talking of building India than can be got by demolishing mosques and building mandirs. This is where India’s heart is. If in the next few weeks the BJP takes a few more steps in its new direction it could win a much wider place in it.

(Jehangir S. Pocha is the editor-in-chief of NewsX and a former editor of Businessworld.)

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