A Modi-fied politics

Those worried about him first need to set their own house in order

Indian democracy is governed by cold hard calculation, not hype or mere moralism. It does not offer the comfort of unalloyed virtue or simple ideological shibboleths. It is not swept up in waves where power rolls on unchallenged. Even amidst great triumphs, there are reminders of the fragility of power. Both the BJP and the Congress can draw satisfaction from the results in Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh respectively, but neither should make the mistake of seeing an irrevocable trend. Indian politics will be a story of eternal improvisation. It will subvert fixed assumptions.

Electoral identities are becoming more complicated. Building victories is about more than just caste arithmetic or knee jerk anti-incumbency. Voters are looking at a complex calculus of well being. It is also clear that economic reform, at least, is not a dirty word in mass politics. It would be premature to interpret the Congress victory in Himachal as rubbishing the idea that there is no space for anti-corruption politics. But it suggests that anti-corruption politics will have to be a real alternative on the ground, not just an abstract idea.

There is no question that Narendra Modi's triumph is an emphatic political achievement. He, like a handful of other chief ministers, brilliantly grasped the fact that Indian politics is deeply aspirational. It rewards governance. Each state has a peculiar local texture. But in his victory, there is now a hint of the challenge every political party is facing. He swept urban and fast-growing semi-urban Gujarat, but had a little more of a fight on his hands in rural Gujarat. We can parse this fact in many ways. But it does suggest this: In addition to the usual requirements of politics, local leadership, organisation and political judgement, a sensible party will have to fine tune its message to cater to both a rapidly surging India and those moving ahead less swiftly. Rahul Gandhi, inexplicably, consistently overdoes it in one direction. His rhetoric offers very little that is aspirational. His is a vision of India as permanently dependent upon and confined to welfare. He does not display a trace of self-belief in India's possibilities. Modi may be presumptuous in the other direction, but for his constituents, he speaks to the future.

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