Is Narendra Modi genuinely BJP?

As politics, as style, as message, Narendra Modi presents an ersatz version of the BJP. There is little that is civilisational about him. Worse still, he creates an artificial Swadeshi, without any sense of Swaraj

April 05, 2014 02:49 am | Updated December 04, 2021 11:37 pm IST

A civilisation is greater than the sum of its individual values and an election is bigger, more poignant than the sum of its candidates. As one watches the drama of the current election, one realises that each candidate represents a Weltanschauung, a world view. Mr. Rahul Gandhi represents the Congress in decline, Mr. Kejriwal, a new politics of possibility dignified as the AAP, and Mr. Narendra Modi plays the BJP. Watching reflectively, one realises that while he is an effective candidate, he is a poor representation of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). I do not see this either as a naive or a Machiavellian statement. Anyone interested in politics should confront this possibility.

Tectonic shifts within the BJP

Let us begin by going down memory lane, watching a Vajpayee as Prime Minister. He is at ease with himself. There is a style, an affability, a grace about him. He recites poetry with a flair. He does not need a Prasoon Joshi or a Piyush Pandey to do it. He can think civilisationally with ease. Then, consider his organisational double, Mr. Lal Krishna Advani. He is a Vajpayee in corsets, stiffer, more ascetic, and intensely serious about life. For him, the BJP is a vocation. He is a Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) exemplar. Vajpayee who is more accessible, represents a less procrustean view of the BJP. Mr. Vajpayee makes the BJP a more inviting and inclusive proposition.

Whether it is Mr. Vajpayee or Mr. Advani, one senses an authenticity to them. They smell, evoke the BJP. The very differences in styles seem to add the realism of difference. Oddly, when I watch Mr. Modi, I miss this authenticity of text and context. Is Mr. Modi, an authentic BJP text as message and performance, and does the BJP as a party, as a community, see him as that? The answer is worryingly ambiguous. If one wants to be generous one can say that he represents not the exemplary values or the leadership qualities of the BJP, but a lowest common denominator of the BJP.

The BJP is a framework of values, an organisational system, a style of politics, and a way of constructing social reality. As a parliamentary party, the BJP is seen as being more open-ended than the Vishwa Hindu Parishad (VHP) or the RSS, and less coercive than the Bajrang Dal. When push comes to shove, the BJP, as a parliamentary, political fragment, seeks wider adjustment, compromise, unlike cadres or pressure groups which might be more ideological. The BJP has to be more discursive as a party, be more conversational politically and sound less like a catechism. Mr. Vajpayee and Mr. Advani captured such a politics with grace and style. Mr. Narendra Modi sees the party as a necessary evil. No leader seems more hostile to his party than Mr. Modi. The party seems uneasy and even wary with him. Recent events indicate that the unease is a deep fault line.

Consider the fate of some of the classic leaders of the BJP, Mr. Jaswant Singh, Mr. Advani or Mr. Joshi. These leaders were almost exemplars of the style of the party. Yet, they also evoked a style of cosmopolitanism. They were literally the voice and the message of the party. Yet, the party dismisses them today, treating them as being irrelevant, like cultural strains to be rejected. When Mr. Jaswant Singh cried, or when Mr. Advani or Mr. Sudheendra Kulkarni talk of wider worlds, they are read as noise. Yet, suddenly, this wider cosmopolitanism seems unnecessary. The BJP as a mentality shrinks to a parochialism to guarantee electoral victory. The BJP seems to be back in some strange uniform. But it is not just strains in the party I am talking about.

A party in crisis

As politics, as style, as message, Mr. Modi presents an ersatz version of the BJP. There is little that is civilisational about him. Worse still, he creates an artificial Swadeshi, without any sense of Swaraj. Mr. Modi’s Swadeshi does not empower locality, it creates a politics of anxiety around security. He evokes paranoia insulting Mrs Sonia Gandhi as foreign and Italian which neither Mr. Advani nor Mr. Vajpayee would do. He is leader of a nukkad not of a nation. He behaves like a Bajrang Dal bully rather than a BJP leader ready for adjustments, coalitions or even a compromise necessary for an Indian idea of unity. The paradox of Mr. Modi is that he might criticise the Congress model of Federalism but adds little to the alchemy of unity and inclusiveness. Mr. Modi represents a reductionist, single strand of leadership which is un-Indian. A Vajpayee can reach out to the Opposition and talk easily to it. Mr. Modi suffers from an arid sibling rivalry which destroys a syncretic style of leadership. Mr. Modi can be diktat but never a conversation.

There is a deeper inadequacy to his politics. As a country, we need leaders who can win more than the next election. Our Prime Minister is not a winnable horse, which corporate or media punters can be happy about. A leadership has to think fifty, hundred, at least five hundred years into the future. Mr. Modi offers little sense of the future, whether it is of craft, knowledge, agriculture or biotechnology. He has not a single significant line on an India of the future. Sadly, Mr. Modi might play a second rate mimic of Vivekananda and talk of the Parliament of religions at Chicago. But, Mr. Modi keeps thinking that his Parliament of Religions is Davos and a subsidiary at that. He might look China in the eye but has no alternative vision to China. The least a Veer Savarkar, a Har Dayal, a Lajpat Rai or a Vivekananda would have done is to provide an alternative to the Chinese idea of autocratic growth. Yet, Mr. Modi becomes through behaviour and style, as a second rate mimicry of China. Worse still, Mr. Modi seems to caricature the BJP. As the BJP declines as a party, as the older generation of visionaries disappears, a party in crisis produces a caricature of itself called Narendra Modi.

Any writer who has a commitment to Parliament and party politics must recognise the importance of parties like the CPI(M), the BJP or even the Congress. We would have to invent them if they did not exist. Each represents a critical part of the history and imagination of Indian Politics. I want to emphasise this because my opposition to Mr. Modi was initially triggered by his authoritarianism and his responsibility for the riots and their cruel aftermath. Electoral politics and sanitised law cannot exonerate him. But by watching him grow in popularity, and listening to his message, I want to argue that Mr. Modi is dangerous to the BJP and its value frames. His narrowness hypothecates the BJP, politics and Indian society to a jingoism of nation-state and development.

There is a cultural backstage to Indian politics where small groups with a mix of ethical and religious perspectives seek to argue and discuss the future of Indian politics. One strain or strand of these groups includes people who would embody a sense of cultural politics. Some, in fact, many of them would be BJP influentials. I wonder how many of them would pick Mr. Modi as an exemplar. I was imagining whether a historian like Dharampal, a shrewd student of politics, would pick a Modi or see him as a straw man, an ersatz model of the BJP at a time where its political poverty cannot produce more than a mediocre leadership. Mr. Modi seems a solution of an RSS desperate for power rather than a BJP rethinking the possibilities of politics. Nagpur has fettered India for decades to come. Let us not confuse contempt for the Congress as approval for the BJP. Mr. Modi’s Neanderthal model of development in the age of sustainable and human development shows that Mr. Modi is an anachronism, dusted up and presented as technocratic model of development. It will not take long to prove that the Gujarat model of development and the Gujarat model of violence are part of one picture.

I wish I was a politically curious fly on the wall listening to BJP leaders and workers thinking out private doubts about the public face of Mr. Modi. A psychoanalysis of the party reveals that there are deep fault lines in the party about Mr. Modi. A desperate RSS cannot paper over it for long by arguing that parliamentary success will erase organic doubts. I wish someone from the BJP would articulate this politics of doubt openly so that India and the BJP can be saved from an excruciating future.

(Shiv Visvanathan is a professor at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy.)

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