3 years

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An Indian Revolutionary

Swapan Dasgupta is India's foremost conservative writer and columnist
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What is it about the Modi mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?
The excruciatingly long election campaign was bonanza time for speculators, brokers and the media. By contrast, counting day on 16 May, which had promised to be the grand finale for the merchants of uncertainty, turned out to be a roaring anti-climax. Exactly 63 minutes after the first Electronic Voting Machine poured out its data to the tellers, TV channels were in competition to declare that Narendra Modi would be the next Prime Minister of India with a clear majority for the National Democratic Alliance. It took just another hour or so for the even more dramatic announcement: that for the first time since the 1984 electoral verdict, the Indian voter had given a single party a clear majority of seats.

The arithmetic of the 2014 poll proved unexpectedly easy to compute. What the assembled ranks of the punditry found more daunting was to figure out the meaning of the historic mandate. What does Modi’s emphatic victory mean?

That the process of making sense of the mandate has proved to be a long-drawn work-in-progress isn’t entirely surprising. Comprehending the scale and magnitude of Modi’s victory first involved the arduous job of clearing the landscape of its intellectual debris. For the past three years or so, ever since the possibility of projecting the Gujarat Chief Minister as the BJP’s national face first began to be seriously discussed, the presiding deities of academia and media were near-unanimous on one count: the idea of Prime Minister Modi was a laughable absurdity.

Nor did Modi’s conclusive victory in the Gujarat Assembly elections in December 2012 prompt a measure of intellectual contrition. On the contrary, the India hands of the West, the social scientists at home and the English-language editorialists feverishly fed each other’s visceral hatred of the Modi Project. Beginning from the non-negotiable contention that centrist politics is imperative for any all-India appeal to the more recondite dissections of Modi’s incompatibility with the ‘idea of India’, the artillery assault on the perceived icon of the ‘Hindu Right’ was relentless.

First, it was presumed that Modi would find no takers outside Gujarat. Second, it was believed that an alliance of the Nagpur Brahmins and LK Advani would ensure that the BJP kept Modi away from Delhi. Third, it was broadcast that Modi wouldn’t secure RSS backing to be projected as BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. Fourth, it was felt that the presence of Modi at the helm would repel existing allies and deter future allies. Fifth, the conviction that the newly-formed Aam Aadmi Party would emerge as a roadblock to both the Congress and BJP became conventional wisdom among editorialists and academics. Finally, the estimated number of MPs it would take Modi to form a half-viable coalition kept climbing upwards—from a BJP tally of 180 (‘Surely he can’t better Vajpayee’s record’) to 240 (a target thought impossible). There were self-serving reports of a ‘160 Club’ in the BJP with a clear anyone-but-Modi agenda.

What is particularly remarkable is that the more Modi cleared each successive hurdle, the more the Modi-haters went into denial. In the final stages of the campaign, when it became apparent that neither a disoriented Congress nor an over-stretched AAP was capable of halting a Modi who had occupied the centrestage of popular discourse, the punditry fell back on the Muslim and caste vote. A dissection of the ground analysis in the final stages of the campaign will reveal that the entire focus was on the creation of a Muslim human shield against Modi. Rather than asking how voters would behave, the thrust was on Muslim tactical voting. The staggering crowds Modi was drawing to his public meetings across India were dismissed as ‘manufactured hype’, the creation of corporate money and a slick publicity machine. The tell- tale signs of a spectacular Modi surge were all there. Yet, the punditry chose to look elsewhere.

The 2014 election was a resounding defeat for the Congress, AAP and the caste-based regional parties. Equally, the outcome amounted to a clear rebuff of those who had assumed for themselves the intellectual monopoly of interpreting India. On 16 May, garbage collectors accumulated a rich haul of tattered reputations and stereotypes of political India.

Just as a ‘wave’ is invariably discovered in hindsight, the future course of events will determine whether the 2014 election was a landmark event when old assumptions are discarded and new orthodoxies established. Rather than concede they misread India, Modi’s liberal and Left critics appear to be still in denial. The BJP victory is being attributed to a low 32 per cent popular vote and the vagaries of the country’s first-past-the-post system that exaggerates majorities. The overwhelming majority of India—an expedient combination of those who didn’t vote for the BJP/NDA and those who didn’t vote at all—it is being pompously asserted by some, haven’t endorsed Modi at all.

This attempt to deflate the euphoria surrounding Modi’s victory stems mainly from the churlish outrage at having been proved wrong. However, there is a deeper meaning. The fraternity of the vanquished are essentially suggesting that there is no mandate for change and that India would prefer to remain undisturbed by an individual who is desperate to carve out an alternative. The statistical jugglery is essentially a plea for the status quo to prevail. Modi, they have in effect implied, should settle down to a routine term at 7 Race Course Road, attend the annual UNGA meetings, inaugurate a few good works and then retire to Ahmedabad at the end of five years—in good time for the country’s natural rulers to resume where they left off. The ripples from a Modi victory, the grandees have pronounced, must leave the depths unmoved.

What is it about the mandate that provokes such fear of fundamental change?

The first is the style of Modi. Unlike the top leaders of the past, his approach is blunt and in-your-face. He may choose the august surroundings of the Central Hall of Parliament to deliver a speech that leaves lumps in the throats of party activists who have persevered since the Jan Sangh days when losing deposits was the norm. But when it comes to the hustings, and when the fire from opposition guns is directed at him, Modi is a pugilist who gives as good as he gets, and more often with compound interest.

Throughout the six month-long campaign he undertook from 15 September 2013 to the final rally in Ballia on 10 May 2014, Modi sought to devastate the opposition. Having restored the importance of the mass rally, Modi sought to inspire the hundreds of thousands who turned up to cheer him, a message that was both inspirational and fiercely combative. To him, parliamentary niceties were best kept for Parliament.

Was the ‘crudeness’ of Modi, therefore, the issue? Was the fear he generated among the la-di-da crowd in the metros and among the intelligentsia that flocked to sign petitions warning against his rise, purely a matter of aesthetics?

Alternatively, was there a subliminal class bias to the fears he aroused? Mani Shankar Aiyar may have overstated the case and scored an avoidable self-goal when he invited Modi to be content with selling tea at the AICC premises. But The Doon School, St Stephen’s and Cambridge alumnus was mirroring a prejudice of the metropolitan elite towards a man who spoke English with a pronounced Gujarati accent. A durbar that had been nurtured on the Anglicised pronunciation of ‘Jawaharlal’ and the old-style RP (Received Pronunciation) of Indira Gandhi, Rajiv Gandhi and now Rahul baba, couldn’t countenance the idea of India being governed by a man with an unmistakably desi accent. In their mind, he was, as a fiercely anti- Modi columnist put it uninhibitedly, going to be India’s first ‘uneducated’ Prime Minister.

To Modi’s credit, he took this show of snobbery head on. The aesthetes may well have exercised control over intellectual capital, but this was a battle that was going to be settled by the numbers game. And in this, Modi’s vernacular populism proved unbeatable. In speech after speech, the BJP leader taunted the repugnance of the durbar towards a chaiwala, the son of a man whose father was not even the head of a panchayat and who, to top it all, came from a ‘backward caste’.

The effect of Modi turning class disadvantage on its head was absolutely electrifying. At one stroke, he got ‘backward caste’ voters, Dalit voters and those who resented the sense of entitlement of the Gandhi parivar to pay him heed. He broke the back of the three caste-based parties of the Hindi heartland and got people to transcend identity politics, even if only for one national election. They were presented with a moral choice: to vote or reject one of their very own. Modi brought to the political table the moral authority of the self-made individual. It will now be very difficult for his detractors to counter him with snobbery and social disdain.

What compounds the problem for Modi’s elitist detractors is their belated realisation that the sharpness, aggression and phenomenal energy of the Modi campaign had a definite social sanction. Part of it stemmed, quite naturally, from the sheer scale of anger directed at the UPA Government for its relative non-performance and mismanagement of the economy. But anti-incumbency cannot explain the scale of the positive vote for Modi.

Throughout the campaign, Congress stalwarts recoiled in horror at the sheer intensity of Modi’s attacks on the UPA Government. They mistakenly concluded that a traditionally placid country like India would be averse to ‘lowering’ the tone and tenor of an election campaign to that of a T20 encounter. They failed to take into account that the principal appeal of Modi was to the 100-125 million first-time voters and the 35 per cent or so share of the electorate that was below the age of 35. In his post-election speeches, Modi repeatedly emphasised the fact that for the first time India would have a Prime Minister who was born after Independence. What he could have added is that his victory owed primarily to those who were born after the Emergency, voters for whom Jawaharlal Nehru is a distant historical figure.

The complete breakdown of the Nehruvian consensus in the 2014 election is something the pundits never anticipated. The Congress believed that dollops of State- sponsored welfare schemes and a direct cash transfer arrangement would be the magic wand that would transform political disadvantage into triumph. In reposing their entire faith in monetised paternalism, the Gandhis and their National Advisory Council advisors completely misread the mood. In repeating that “Gujarat isn’t India” to the point of exasperation, the Congress presumed that the neo-middle-class impulses that motivated Gujaratis to support Modi for three consecutive Assembly elections would somehow deter the rest of India, particularly the so-called BIMARU states.

Whether Modi’s faith in the politics of aspiration stemmed from political instinct or was a consequence of focus group surveys is best left to the chroniclers. What is important is that he never wavered from his belief that the key to electoral success lay in selling a dream of a better future.

There were different perceptions of Modi among different social and political groups. For some he was a modern- day Chhatrapati Shivaji who would finally make Hindus come into their own; to others he was the poor boy next door who had made it big in the ugly and cruel world of Delhi, and to still yet others he was the great liberator of the economy from sloth and socialist incompetence. What united these divergent strands was the belief that his victory would usher in the proverbial happy days.

Those who needlessly internalised the great conspiracy theory of a corporate-communalist alliance to capture India were taken aback when Modi told the BJP Parliamentary Party meeting on 20 May that his would be a government for the poor. They assumed that commitment to serving the poor was at odds with the professed commitment to deregulation and entrepreneurship.

In the election campaign, Modi proceeded from a different understanding. To him, what motivated youth voters cutting across classes, castes and region were education (particularly skills), opportunity and the removal of glass ceilings. Add to this his complete and unequivocal endorsement of technology. In these respects, Modi differed significantly from traditional RSS thinking, which tends to be neo-Gandhian.

Indeed, comparisons with Margaret Thatcher are appropriate. Thatcher too sought to effect a social revolution through the creation of an opportunity society. And Thatcher too broke new political ground by securing the endorsement of a large section of those who were earlier associated with the gradualist socialism of the Labour Party. Tony Blair, in fact, had to reinvent the Labour Party completely and embrace the newly-forged Thatcherite consensus to regain support for Labour.

In time to come, it is entirely possible that India’s 2014 General Election will be regarded as a political watershed. If Modi is able to complement his electoral success with a government that unleashes India’s full potential, he will have forged a new Modi consensus that is more in tune with the 21st century. The BJP has not reached saturation point: there are large geographical tracts left to conquer. However, this conquest will only be possible if the BJP is itself reinvented to fit the goals of what may well be described by future historians as the Modi Revolution.

For India, the next decade may turn out to be momentous. And all because one leader dared to challenge orthodoxy, conventional wisdom and social assumptions.