Devil’s Alternative

Jatin Gandhi has covered politics and policy for over a decade now for print, TV and the web. He is Deputy Political Editor at Open.
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It’s Indian politics. The more things change, the more choiceless it gets

On 19 January, sycophantic Congressmen went ecstatic over the Congress Working Committee’s declaration in Jaipur that Rahul Gandhi would be the party’s new Vice-President and official No 2. They still can’t stop talking of how Gandhi’s address at the All India Congress Committee (AICC) session the next day tugged at the heart of everyone in the audience. The three-day event, which included a two-day Chintan Shivir (introspection conference) and the AICC meet, was reduced to partymen first demanding a greater role for Gandhi and then lauding the announcement.

Across the political divide, cadres of the Bharatiya Janata Party have started referring to Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi with the same reverence that contemporary Congressmen reserve for the Nehru-Gandhis. And Lutyen’s Delhi saw similar scenes of madness at the principal opposition party’s Ashoka Road office last month when Modi visited. The symbolism at play in the two events is hard to miss. While the 127-year-old party shifted the action to the City of Royals to anoint a Nehru-Gandhi successor to its top leadership (in effect, its PM-in-waiting), Modi made a journey to India’s capital a day after he was sworn in as Gujarat Chief Minister for the fourth time in a row. Though Modi was officially in Delhi to attend a meeting of the National Development Council chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, the highlight of the trip was his reception at the party’s headquarters amid chants of “PM! PM! PM!”

At his victory speech in Gujarat a week before this trip, his followers had similarly shouted for him to make a pitch for the BJP’s PM candidacy. Though he had won the state election, Modi chose to speak in Hindi instead of Gujarati as he usually does within the state. With so many OB vans of various news channels deployed to cover his victory, he chose to address the entire country in his speech rather than only Gujaratis. Modi dramatically paused for those hollering their desire to see him as a contender for prime ministership, and announced, “If it is your will, I will most certainly…(pause)… most certainly… (pause) for a day…head for Delhi.”

A large billboard, put up in the party office for Modi’s visit and still on display serves as a reminder of that day. It has a larger-than-life image of Modi at its centre with a collage of other leaders: Atal Behari Vajpayee’s cutout points towards Modi, while smaller pictures of party leaders Nitin Gadkari, Arun Jaitley, Sushma Swaraj and LK Advani adorn the billboard’s periphery.

Rajnath Singh, who has returned as BJP president, is not part of that collage. If the party’s election of a new BJP president—to replace Gadkari—had taken place before Modi’s reception, Singh would have replaced Gadkari in the collage. That is all that Singh’s assumption of office would have got him.

The din around their PMs-in-waiting pretty much sums up the current situation in the two parties. It is called the TINA factor in politics: There Is No Alternative. It’s Rahul Gandhi for the Congress, Narendra Modi for the BJP. Neither party can afford to pick any other candidate.

In his address at the BJP headquarters on 27 December, Modi proclaimed how he had chided the PM for the Centre’s poor performance and failure to learn from the ‘Gujarat model’. “It seems that there is no urgency or seriousness in tackling economic crises facing the country. There has been a virtual lack of direction in the macro-economic management of the country,” Modi said, attacking the Centre for lowering India’s 12th Plan growth target. “It was not impossible to achieve if we had the political will to do what is necessary… In Gujarat, we are at 11 per cent and moving higher,” he declared. “To do well, to think well, and for the country to progress… is not possible to expect under the current Congress leadership. But Gujarat has promised to continue to progress and go to new heights. We are competing with China in manufacturing. That is the way we think [in Gujarat].”

Modi’s emphasis was clear: if he were to become the PM, things will change. The BJP knows that India is not Gujarat, but it hopes it can somehow fool enough people into believing that the ‘Gujarat model’ can be applied across the country, and that would be its best bet to usher in a regime change at the next general election.

Rahul Gandhi, on his part, offers systemic change as a solution to all problems. “Until we start to respect and empower people for their knowledge and understanding, we can’t change anything in this country. All our public systems—administration, justice, education, political systems—are designed to keep people with knowledge out. They are all closed systems,” Gandhi said at Jaipur. Once again, as he has done for several years now, Gandhi offers a generic diagnosis of India’s problems even as people get impatient for solutions. If you change everything for the better, obviously everything will change. But how is the question he does not answer.

Congressmen, it seems, don’t even expect that answer. They are more enamoured of those bits of his speech that refer to his parents crying (on separate occasions), his grandmother’s assassination, and his great grandfather pushing the British out of the country by following the Mahatma’s path of non-violence. After nearly nine years as an MP and more than five years of being the party’s de facto second-in-command, Gandhi still needs to remind us of his dynasty. The only clear change that the Congress offers then, at the end, is a generational shift at the top.

Change has always been an important buzzword in politics. But it seemed to go out of fashion when anti-incumbency stopped delivering the assurance of regime change in governance, whether at the Centre or in the states. Either voters began to choose the least incompetent among those in the fray, even if it meant re-electing the incumbent party or coalition, or parties and politicians who’d mastered the combinations and permutations of electoral arithmetic continued to misgovern and felt no need to offer change. But, about two years ago, ever since politicians on both sides of the secular/non-secular divide mistook Anna Hazare’s antics as a serious call for change and a threat to themselves, they began promising change. The Congress-led UPA Government knelt to Hazare and his followers, and then did the same to Yoga teacher Ramdev once he threatened to spearhead change.

If the Congress knelt before these two, the Bharatiya Janata Party prostrated itself. The BJP’s (now former) President Nitin Gadkari wrote to Hazare to lead the way and then to the PM in support of Ramdev’s call to bring back Indian black money stashed abroad.

That push for change fizzled out soon enough. When Hazare stopped drawing crowds, he and his followers went home. Then a breakaway faction led by Arvind Kejriwal shifted gear, and, instead of chanting ‘Electoral politics is evil’, turned to electoral politics and launched a party. As for Ramdev, ever since he changed into women’s clothes to escape a police lathi charge, no one has taken his promise of ‘change’ seriously, not even the BJP But old hands in the game of politics, the Congress and BJP, have since started swearing by the formula of offering ‘change’, no matter how superficial.

Rahul Gandhi is the Congress’ and Narendra Modi the BJP’s idea of ‘change’. At first glance, a new set of party leaders denotes a shift, but take a closer look and you know that the two leading political parties (with 60 per cent of all Lok Sabha seats between them) have more or less the same political stereotypes to offer.

The BJP is afflicted with a family’s predominance too. It cannot shake off the influence of the Sangh Parivar. Not that it tries to. So a tainted Nitin Gadkari bows out only to make way for Rajnath Singh—second choice of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh leadership.

Till the last moment before the BJP’s presidential election on 23 January, the RSS persisted with its imposition of Gadkari on the BJP for a second term. With Income Tax raids on Gadkari’s companies on the eve of that poll, Singh pipped Gadkari to the post. Ironically, Rajnath Singh is Gadkari’s predecessor as party chief. However, Singh, despite being close to the RSS (he got a year’s extension as president in his first term), couldn’t get the party to amend its constitution to run for a second consecutive term. The former Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister and Union minister was close to the RSS alright, but again, he was not Gadkari—a little-known businessman-politician but significantly also a Maharashtrian Brahmin from Nagpur and a direct associate of RSS Sarsanghchalak Mohan Bhagwat. Till last year, the party constitution did not allow its incumbent president to seek a second term. In May 2012, it was amended on a writ from the RSS to let Gadkari seek a second term. Despite well-publicised corruption charges against him, Gadkari was all set to become the first president of the BJP to get a second consecutive term. While the RSS relented—slowly—on letting Modi be the party’s PM candidate, it will not risk losing its remote control of the BJP’s operational affairs.

Till the party’s poor performance in the UP Assembly election last year, the RSS was backing Gadkari, who had entrusted the management of the election to Modi’s bête noire Sanjay Joshi. Despite Modi’s differences with Joshi, Gadkari kept backing Joshi. After the UP results, Modi struck back, and hard. At the same national executive meet in Mumbai that almost paved the way for Gadkari’s second term, he rubbed the party’s nose in the ground and managed to emerge as the party’s all-towering leader. Joshi was forced to quit the national executive under a threat from the party’s Gujarat unit that it would boycott the meet unless he resigned.

By the middle of last year, the RSS too realised it would have no option but to back Modi for the top post in the next Lok Sabha election. Even though the going has not been easy for the RSS in Gujarat—among its first Hindutva laboratories in the country—since Modi took over in 2001, given the CM’s assertion of independence from it, his hardline image after the riots of 2002 fits its ideology of a Hindu Rashtra.

Modi’s Hindutva appeal is undeniably potent. But the BJP also appears to have slowly painted itself into a saffron corner, with Modi now its only option. Recall the infighting and differences among the BJP’s top leadership in Delhi. The differences that arose after the party’s 2004 defeat to the UPA still haunt the party every now and then. “The party went into 2009 without resolving these differences and paid a heavy price. This time if we go without Narendra Modi as our leader, we might not cross the 100-seat mark,” says a leader in Delhi close to Modi. Such calculations explain why, as polls approach, the inevitability of pitching Modi as its PM candidate stares the BJP in the face.

“The party cannot make major gains if it does not go into the election with a strong candidate projected as Prime Minister. The BJP needs a quantum jump and that is how it can be achieved,” says GVL Narasimha Rao, a psephologist who conducts the party’s internal pre-election surveys.

Two of Rao’s articles published in the RSS publication The Organiser over the past year unabashedly pitch for Narendra Modi as PM. ‘The BJP’s inability to counter the polarisation of Muslims against it was another important factor in the defeat of the party in the last two parliamentary elections. Many analysts and party bigwigs believe, though naively, that tactical voting of Muslims can be averted in national elections by diluting or tweaking the party’s ideology. Take it from me, whatever the BJP does and whomsoever it projects as its face at the national level, Muslim polarisation will happen once again in the 2014 polls (or whenever general elections are held) in favour of the Congress Party led by the community’s new poster boy Rahul Gandhi,’ Rao writes, arguing against the party’s fear that Modi’s projection as its Prime Minister-in-waiting would ensure Muslim support for candidates of any other party placed well to defeat it.

The arguments in favour of Modi heard in other quarters within the BJP are similar. “Right now,” admits a leader close to Rajnath Singh, “Modi is the No 1 leader in the party.” However, he cautions the BJP against a pro-Congress consolidation; Muslim votes in major states are usually not won by the Congress but by regional outfits, so if the party projects Modi, those votes could go the Congress way. “In such a scenario, if the BJP is then unable to cash in on middle-class anti-Congress sentiment and a larger number of Hindu votes in its favour, we will not stand a chance against the Congress.” Besides, Modi’s projection will see the end of the party’s alliance with the Janata Dal-United. Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar has made it clear that his party will split with the BJP if it does not project a secular leader. “Nitish Kumar has issued this threat too many times,” a Bihar BJP MP tells Open, “he will be forced to walk out.”

The BJP is hoping that Modi’s projection as its PM candidate will lead to a quantum jump in its Lok Sabha tally—to about 200 seats. That would take care of its problem of finding allies. Rao, in another article in The Organiser, talks about why the BJP should not bother about ‘skittish allies’. He reasons that anti-Modi rhetoric unleashed by the Congress would cause a pro-Modi polarisation of the Hindu vote. If that doesn’t happen, there will always be another election to look forward to. After all, Rao’s survey in 2009 had given the BJP an edge over the Congress.