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.

On such a Hindu majoritarian platform, the BJP could rise, but could not come to power on its own in Delhi. It needed a multi-party alliance, but such an alliance could not be built if Advani was at the helm.

Atal Bihari Vajpayee solved this conundrum for the BJP. In an interview to Dharmyug (January 16, 1993), a Hindi magazine now defunct, Vajpayee, whose thoughts were most clearly expressed in Hindi, argued: "Advaniji and mere matbhed to hain (I have disagreements with Mr Advani)." Further, he said that koi vichardhara itni mahatvapurn nahin hoti ki uske liye desh ka vinaash kiyaa jaaye (no ideology is so important that one should accept the destruction of the nation for its sake).

That is how ideological moderation is classically defined in politics: commitment to an ideology is not absolute, and the commitment, at least its intensity, should be revised, especially in light of consequences. With a moderate Vajpayee placed ahead of Advani, the BJP eventually became acceptable to as many as 20-22 non-Congress parties, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) was born, and the NDA came to power in Delhi in 1998.

This foray into India's recent political history should help us analyse the BJP's emerging impasse. Modi can now legitimately claim that his achievement is second only, if not equal, to Advani's, a claim that his party cannot easily deny. But is there a Vajpayee available any more?

Why this question is critical should be obvious to any long-time observer of Indian politics. For Modi, the taint of the 2002 anti-Muslim pogrom is almost Shakespearean. All the perfumes of Arabia will not sweeten this bloodstained hand, said Lady Macbeth. What will take away Modi's association, perceived or real, with the 2002 riots?

Until the courts can alter our judgement, this question is primarily political, not legal. Only the courts can determine the legal responsibility of individuals; the intellectuals cannot. We can only assess the political significance of how leaders act. And that is where Modi fumbles. He cannot rest with the claim that the courts have not been able to establish his complicity in riots. The point is infinitely simpler. More than a 1000 Muslims were massacred under his administration. If he wishes to take credit for Gujarat's Guangdong-like economic development, should he also not take responsibility for the bloodletting under his administration?

This question is not simply ideological or ethical. Nor is it about how other parties might have behaved. In and of itself, the question has great pragmatic implications.

Until recently, Muslims constituted more than 20 per cent of the electorate in an estimated 81 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, and 10-20 per cent in 126 constituencies. In short, in 207 out of 543 Lok Sabha seats, Muslims can play a decisive or significant role. Even after the redrawing of constituencies in 2009, these numbers could not have significantly changed.

If contests are bipolar, small communities can be ignored. That is what happened in Gujarat. About 13.4 per cent of India, Muslims are only about 10 per cent of Gujarat. The fight was effectively between the BJP and Congress. (Keshubhai Patel's Gujarat Parivartan Party was a small political player.) This situation clearly holds in only two larger states of India: Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan. One can also add to this list those "larger" states where the Muslim population is minuscule: Tamil Nadu, Haryana, Punjab, Chhattisgarh.

In most other states, the contest is either multipolar, and/or the proportion of Muslims in the electorate is significantly high. Once electoral contests are multipolar, small communities begin to matter. Even 5-10 per cent of the vote can be decisive. Muslims are only 2.2 per cent of Odisha, but the party system is vigorously tripolar, making a minuscule percentage relevant to the larger political calculus. Approximately 9 per cent Muslim, Andhra Pradesh has the same proportion of Muslims as Gujarat, but a multipolar contest in Andhra has made Muslims consequential to electoral outcomes. The bipolar logic of Gujarat simply cannot be extended to multipolar states. States where Muslims can electorally count, either because of their numbers or due to the multipolarity of the party system, provide over 300 out of 543 seats to the Lok Sabha. Can a party seeking power in Delhi afford to ignore such a fundamental reality of Indian politics?

To be sure, Modi is aware of this logic. He has come quite far from 2002. On several occasions, he has inched close to an apology. The victory speech of December 20 was the most recent. He said "agar muhjse koi galati hui hai, to 6 crore Gujarati bhaiyon aur behno, mujhe maaf kar do" (if I have made a mistake, I seek the forgiveness of 60 million Gujaratis). But the apology was to be offered to Muslims, not to all Gujaratis. In her book, The Politics of Official Apologies, MIT political scientist Melissa Nobles shows how apologies are about redefining the terms and meanings of national membership; they are a way of dealing with the embarrassments of history. Modi is not the first political leader to face the question, nor will he be the last. The US, Canada, Australia have all encountered the experience.

Can a formidable record of economic development neutralise the need for an apology? That is an important question, and an emerging trope of Modi supporters. But economic growth, though highly desirable, has always had a limited electoral base in India. It undoubtedly excites India's urban middle class. But 68 per cent of India is still rural, and given the lower rates of urban middle class voting, the weight of villages may be closer to 75 per cent in electoral terms. Modi, an emerging hero of the urban middle class, cannot claim the national mantle until India is primarily urban, a moment at least 15 years away.

Finally, another complexity is worthy of note. No discussion of the BJP's leadership, or its prime ministerial candidate, is complete unless we ascertain the wishes of the RSS. How does the RSS evaluate Modi?

Whatever the answer to that question, Modi needs a Vajpayee. Or, he must become one. Is that national political challenge acceptable to him?

The writer is Sol Goldman Professor of International Studies and the Social Sciences at Brown University, where he also directs the India Initiative at the Watson Institute. He is a contributing editor at 'The Indian Express'

Please read our terms of use before posting comments
TERMS OF USE: The views expressed in comments published on are those of the comment writer's alone. They do not represent the views or opinions of The Indian Express Group or its staff. Comments are automatically posted live; however, reserves the right to take it down at any time. We also reserve the right not to publish comments that are abusive, obscene, inflammatory, derogatory or defamatory.