Why the idea of Modi wins

Narendra Modi's victory in Gujarat elections is a watershed in Indian politics. The fact that a chief minister is re-elected for a third term would have been a feat of monumental significance. But the scale and the context of the victory make it a watershed in Indian politics. This victory subverts every cliché. Incumbents can't win, they said. Modi proved them wrong. Sonia Gandhi has acquired a new aggression, they said. Modi cut her down to size. Caste equations would work against Modi, they said. Modi managed to rise above standard caste politics. India is experiencing a political backlash against growth, they said. Modi has ridiculed that idea. It is impossible to win if a significant section of the party works against you, they said. Modi has proved that the party is dependent on the leader rather than the other way round. You can't cater to both tribals and capitalists, they said. Modi has turned this logic on its head. So-called normal politics would triumph over the politics of polarisation, they said. Modi has made nonsense of this distinction. Modi has created a new paradigm in Indian politics, whose ramifications will be felt for years to come.

Modi's win calls for a serious reflection on the so-called secular/ communal divide. Why does secular politics carry less credibility than it ought to? Why does secularism remain a mere slogan, a straw that bends in every wind? Part of the reason is that the secular/communal divide is not, as the Congress would like to believe, a divide between two species of Indian citizens: one secular and one communal. It is a fissure that runs within most citizens, rather than between them. On the one hand, there is an easy acceptance of diversity, a discomfort with a politics that is too polarising, and an acknowledgment of modern constitutional values. On the other, there is group competition, a sense of incomplete nationhood for which someone must be held responsible, and fear. What gains the upper hand in our psychic economies, is a product of a complex politics. Managing this contradictory psychic complex requires, as Gandhi understood better than anyone else, a subtle therapeutic politics. But such subtlety is beyond the Congress. It too has acquired a deep investment in a politics of competitiveness amongst groups. It has exacerbated a paradigm of citizenship where caste and religion, rather than becoming irrelevant to people's rights and opportunities, become more central to their self-understanding. And it projects opportunism rather than trust.

Secular politics India has become an astonishing combination of imbecility, indecision and indolence. With Modi now becoming a preeminent figure in national politics, the risks of running with the Congress's construal of what constitutes secular politics are even higher. How ironic it is that that arch polariser of Indian politics, Modi, who should be saying that poverty has no religion. And how tragic that the Congress has not learnt the lessons of eighties and cannot rise above a politics of caste and religion that gives aid and succour to the politics of resentment that Modi thrives on. It was famously said of Napoleon that he could represent himself as France, because France consisted of little Napoleons. If Modi has gained some acceptance, it may not be because each citizen in Gujarat is a little Modi, but it is because we do have something of a little Modi in us. When Modi says, jo thare dil me che, woi mahre dil me che, he is tugging at something.

The worrying trend for our democracy is that Modi is yet another symptom of our yearning for a politics that is anti-political. It is not an accident that our strongest leaders at the state level are either those who have completely merged the party into their personalities, or completely sidelined their parties. Most of these leaders cannot sustain their hold for too long; they come to be tainted with the same veniality that made their parties lose credibility. So instead of trusting the messy processes of institutions like parties representing us, we yearn for greater personification; some figure that can stand above veniality. Again, it used to be said of Napoleon that the one thing he was incapable of was pettiness, especially in his crimes. A successful politician has to claim to stand for something big and larger than himself (and sometimes these ideas are dangerous) whether it be the Idea of India, Dalit Emancipation, of Gujarati or Dravidian Pride. It is again not an accident that the Congress and the BJP have no idea they personify, just an endless series of petty compromises and inept second guessings.

The two most politically interesting leaders in India are Modi and Mayawati. One wears the mantle of ideology, the other of a social cause. Congress has neither. We should be under no illusion: what Modi represents by way of ideology still has the capacity to wreck this country; and it will be an astonishing feat if Modi can transform himself into a genuine statesman. But, equally, we should be under no illusion that the Congress provides the fuel that lights Modi's fire. And the blaze now threatens to engulf them.

While most of the media was focused on the intellectually dead-end Hindutva versus Development debate, the real issue in the campaign was Modi's personal attributes: his incorruptibility, his total dedication, his grim reaper-like character calling everyone to account. There is more than a touch of megalomania and narcissism in Modi. But that gives him an advantage. The first is a projection of utter sincerity. He is not a creature shaped by the opinion of others, and every initiative he takes belongs to him. Contrast this with almost every other politician. These politicians seem creatures largely of opinion. Like our prime minister, they disavow their own responsibility at every turn. In politics, if the contest is between sincerity and an utter lack of trustworthiness, the former will always have an advantage even if tied to an unsavoury cause.

Finally, it is sheer nonsense to say that Modi will pose a problem for the BJP more than the Congress. This is the sort of wishful thinking that has led many a pollster to clutch at straws. The BJP will emerge more unified and energised. His victory raises the spectre of a more polarising politics. But as India transforms, the tragedy is that no other politician can understand, "thare dil me kya che?" Most of them are too cowardly to even understand what is in their own hearts. This is why Modi stands out.

The writer is president, Centre for Policy Research


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