That familiar feeling

Will Campaign 2014 be about re-heated words and labels that have long lost their edge or meaning?

In drawing a parallel between his feelings about the loss of life in the 2002 communal violence in Gujarat and the regret felt by someone in a car that runs over a puppy, Narendra Modi may have, at the very least, cast himself as an observer someone who was saddened about the killings in the state, but felt no greater responsibility. The unfortunate analogy and Modi's self-description as a Hindu nationalist have been seized upon by the Congress, JD(U) and other parties. Modi provided them yet more ammunition in a Pune speech, subsequently, where he accused the Congress of wearing a "burqa of secularism". These remarks are heavy with past baggage. Modi has earlier deployed a similar vocabulary, in references to Pakistan and to India's minority community, in an ostensible bid to rouse his Hindutva base. In the run-up to 2014, Modi's remarks have also raised a question: For all his supposedly formidable PR powers, could he be losing control over his message: is he a development icon, or a Hindutva mascot? Or, is this confusion carefully crafted? The Congress, meanwhile, appears to have decided that its sole strategy will be to attack Modi on the secularism question. In another context, Mayawati has asked for a ban on the RSS and VHP. Taken together, these positions portend a return to an older time, and the language of polarisation that had seemingly been left behind in the 1990s.

In the tempestuous 1990s, as India was riven by large differences over Mandir and Mandal, the struggle for the soul of the republic seemed to be real and urgent. Slowly, over the next decade, those anxieties evaporated. The BJP had a moderating stint in power at the Centre, religious riots were becoming rare, and the several hypocrisies of both sides had been exposed. Despite the violence of 2002, the larger trend was about a turning away from bitter identity politics. States increasingly took the lead with development successes, and incumbent governments were rewarded or punished on their provision of bijli, sadak, paani and padhai in the 2000s, the scales tilted and many more governments were returned to power as compared to earlier decades.

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