Modi needs a Vajpayee

Or, he must become one, if he wants to take national centrestage

Although expected, Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat is a veritable political earthquake. It not only challenges the so-called idea of India, but it also leaves the party of the victor reeling. Exhilaration and befuddlement have come together in the BJP's moment of joy. The BJP has won Gujarat, but has it already lost India in 2014? This question now moves to the centre of India's political arithmetic and strategic calculus.

To compare Modi to other chief ministers, who have won three times in a row, is to make an awful mistake about political meanings. All triple victories thus far were regional, and no other winner faced such a barrage of criticism from intellectual quarters. Modi's victory has unquestionable national significance.

Indeed, Modi's achievement, as also the political dilemmas he poses, could be termed analytically similar to the meteoric rise of L.K. Advani in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The BJP could not have come to national prominence without Advani's leadership of the Ayodhya movement. He took the BJP's Lok Sabha tally from two seats in 1984 to 120 in 1991. But that success had a paradox built into it, a paradox that will now begin to haunt Modi and the BJP.

Let us recall what problems attended Advani's success in the 1990s. Following the standard RSS trope, Advani argued that India was a Hindu nation, and the minorities had to abandon their distinctiveness to show their loyalty to India. He even suggested that Muslims should call themselves "Muslim Hindus", for the term Hindu was a description of the nation, not of a religion (Sunday magazine, July 22, 1990).

Given the contingencies of the time, this argument galvanised a large part of the electorate, but it also polarised India, making Advani unacceptable to most non-Congress parties. It was an attack on the idea of India, nurtured with assiduous care by the freedom movement under Gandhi and Nehru, and legitimated by India's Constitution. That idea refuses to yield to Hindu majoritarianism, accords special protections to minorities, seeks to convince them that India is their home, and says that being a Muslim and being an Indian are not contradictory.

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