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.

Modi's prospects now depend on how much more our politics hurtles towards bankruptcy. One reflection of this bankruptcy is that attacks on him have a self-incriminating quality. Think of the charges. Modi has a cult of personality. In most political parties except for the Left, the individual leader looms larger than the party. Modi is a propagandist, a master of hype. True enough. But is this charge credible when, for decades, one family has used state power at the national level to stamp its name on every scheme, every space it can find? Modi's development achievements are exaggerated. Of course, Gujarat's development record is not what Modi claims it is. But the attribution of causality in development is always complex. If the Central government had been subject to the kind of scrutiny Gujarat has been subject to, our economic history would have been entirely different. It is an achievement that at least he shifted the debate to every tortured statistic one could find. He has no commitment to free expression. But how many others would pass the test of liberalism? Gujarat is an environmental disaster, we declaim. Compared to which other state?

Modi cannot be exonerated of marginalising minorities or worse. But consider this. The secular-communal divide in India, except at the extremes, is not so much a divide between two different species of citizens as a fissure running through most of them. This divide is activated by circumstances. It is not a structural fact. Second, we hope that the law will take its course and deliver justice. But Gujarat has, at least, been subject to serious court scrutiny, direct SIT investigations and so on. Even if they technically exonerate Modi, the political culpability remains. It is a political handicap he still needs to overcome. You can look at the convictions of Modi's cabinet colleagues and point to those as proxy proof of his culpability. You can also look at them and wonder why so many Congress cabinet ministers still have not been made to answer for 1984. The point is not to use 1984 to politically exonerate Modi. The point is that it is hard to attack evil when we so widely condone it in other contexts. Third, the social and political isolation of Muslims is a large, complex phenomenon, in part a product of the tyranny of the compulsory identities the Congress has produced. It is also exacerbated by the fact that friends of minorities like the Samajwadi Party are running no more than protection rackets for them, depending on a permanent tutelage. Unfortunately, attacking Modi has become a way of disguising our larger complicities. It is more about assuaging our guilty conscience than setting things right. No wonder the attacks lose their sheen.

Modi is now the preeminent face of the BJP. Some fear that what the BJP might gain by internal coherence under his leadership, it loses in its ability to attract partners. I suspect this is also a shifting game. The BJP has other accomplished chief ministers. Modi is not so much a three dimensional character as an idea. He represents a longing for centralisation in an age of dispersion, decisiveness in a milieu of indecision, growth amidst a fear of stagnation and government in the face of raucous democracy. He is not adorned with elevated liberal values, or a deep concern for democratic diversity. But he may still prove a rallying point against a decaying plutocracy.

But Modi's path to a greater national role is still fraught. No chief minister has been able to make an easy transition to national politics. No one can hope to govern India if they are incapable of a statesman-like synthesising capacity. No one can govern India for long if they make minorities feel insecure. And popular acclaim notwithstanding, it has to be said that Modi has not yet given evidence that he can make the transition to a genuine statesman. What gestures will it take to send a credible signal in that direction? Will his reinvention run up against the wall of his own personality? Or perhaps, more than these questions, his acceptability will turn on a different judgement. Do you trust the logic of Indian democracy to, in the end, soften the most congenital of prejudices? Or do you fear that democracy will give them free rein? But those worried about Modi need to set their own house in order.

The writer, president of the Centre for Policy Research, is contributing editor, 'The Indian Express'


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