The Meaning of Change

All opinion polls and media reports suggest that the Narendra Modi-led BJP could emerge as the single largest party and form the next government

Sanjay Kapoor Delhi 

In april-may last year, an opinion poll by an agency, which was subsequently disgraced in a sting operation, claimed that if the BJP wanted to touch 220 seats in the Lok Sabha polls — a feat it had not accomplished even at the height of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement — it should fight the elections under the leadership of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi. The UPA stood to lose about 60-odd seats if Modi led the charge.

A year later, and after innumerable surveys on TV channels and in newspapers, testing this forecast has become a national pastime. For months now, everyone has an opinion on how many seats the BJP, under Modi, will win. Starting with those who gave not more than 150-160 seats to the BJP, claiming its limited geographical spread, the figures are slowly rising in the circuit of pollsters, political journalists and bettors. Nearly all bets now are on Modi and how he could bring the BJP to power after being in the opposition for the past 10 years. Nearly all of the satta market claims that it will be the NDA that will get 200-odd seats and Modi will head it. In contrast, no one is really offering any bets on Rahul Gandhi and his party save on how low its tally will fall — below or above 100.

So, is the change finally here?

By all reckoning this is a remarkable transformation in the fortunes of the Congress, that had seemed so invincible when it got 200+ seats in the 2009 elections, and of the BJP, racked by self-doubt, which had seemed on the verge of decimation after successive losses.

The BJP’s rapid rise has been attributed to the high-voltage media blitz and the manner in which Modi was presented as the man the country is awaiting to turn around its fortunes. He was declared as the person who could kick-start India’s halted development and provide jobs to a large mass of the youth, facing a bleak future.

In fact, the push and legitimacy for Modi came from the growing bulge of job-seekers who thought that the slow growth had something to do with the weak government at the Centre. It also came from millions who fell for the spin about the Gujarat Model, imagining it to mean growth, governance, 24/7 power supply and, yes, jobs — plenty of them. The appeal of the narrative worked for the ‘aspirational class’ in different cities racked by the slowdown and the collapse of dreams. It also worked for those who lived in small cities in Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan and wanted better roads and urban infrastructure, and a government that provided an environment that could help them self-actualize.

Several reports and studies have proved that most of the assertions about the Gujarat Model are a lot of balderdash. But there is a massive anti-incumbency feeling sweeping the country on the issue of corruption and weak leadership. People don’t want to have anything to do with Manmohan Singh and the Gandhi family anymore. A fierce campaign by the BJP and the Aam Aadmi Party each have de-legitimized Manmohan’s government and laid to waste all its achievements.

Modi and his spin doctors also resorted to half-truths that could not be challenged by an extremely weak Congress leadership, which was mostly trying to play catch-up. The Congress could not protect its gains and defend the core issue of secularism that had brought it to power in 2004 — two years after the Gujarat riots.

In 2004, the media and pollsters were giving 350 seats to the NDA. The Congress seemed weak and lost. The only thing that Sonia Gandhi had done was to stitch a few alliances with the DMK and Lalu Prasad Yadav. The NDA, too, had its share of alliances. What worked for the Congress was the minorities rallying around the party after the 2002 Godhra incident.

There are about 100-odd constituencies where the minorities are major players. Some believe that these numbers, in their own way, go up to about 200. This is a significant number and the BJP in 2004 and 2009 realized it to its mortification. The Congress managed to win 140 seats in 2004 and 200+ in 2009.

Can the minorities, in trepidation over the rise of Modi and his manifest exclusionary politics, help the Congress salvage some honour and pride? The minorities have to ride on a social constituency to be meaningful. In UP, they had a coalition with the dominant Yadavs or Jats in some areas. If this social compact breaks, they lose their influence.

The 2014 polls threaten to differ from the 2004 and 2009 editions as the BJP, helped by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), has gone about threatening the very core of the strategy of the minority communities that used tactical voting to remain relevant. SP leader Mulayam Singh Yadav’s narrow and sectarian ways have allowed the BJP to implement many of its strategies in the socially volatile state of UP. Astutely, they used their cadres to feed the grievance amongst caste Hindus that Mulayam was ignoring their interests to curry favour with the Muslims. Instances of how even FIRs were not filed against Muslim criminals were used to foment hostility. Riots were an outcome, which polarized the Hindus and the Muslims. In western UP, the traditional alliance between the rich agriculturalists, Jats and Muslims collapsed. Lower-caste Dalits were also sought to be weaned away into the Hindu fold. Violence and fear of it have a way of reconfiguring social reality.

Happenings in western UP have an impact not just in the rest of the state but elsewhere too. After the riots, the communal elements were emboldened, seeing in the Modi phenomenon a chance to correct misplaced social and historical grievances. Reverberations of this mood were felt from the North-east to Kashmir. The rise in atavism would not yield normal election results and it is here the Election Commission failed. For example, it could have held the polling in western UP last rather than first. It would have allowed more time to lapse after the riots, making people get comfortable with the electoral process. Normal elections in other parts of the state would have dampened communal elements. The net result of the rise in communalism is that those who swear by secularism, like the Congress or the SP and BSP, could find themselves shorn of the support of some of their Hindu supporters who have been communalized. It is due to this that a repetition of 2004 seems remote.

If Modi and the BJP ride to power on the twin issues of development and religious nationalism, what will it mean for the country? We need to draw lessons from Gujarat to know how Modi  will conduct himself as PM. His fame is based on creating a robust and peaceful industrial climate in Gujarat, where trade unions, bureaucratic delays and social instability do not really trouble fat cats. That means that the Tatas, Ambani, Adani and hundreds of other business houses are not weighed down by endless bureaucratic harassment. The BJP’s manifesto, in some ways, promises to end harassment of business houses.

More worrying would be Modi’s social policies and how he deals with the issue of minorities. In this the country will have to comprehend the change it has voted for. It will have exercised its franchise for replication of the Gujarat model in treatment of minorities.

The Gujarat model endeavours to make the minority vote  totally irrelevant as it tries to socially engineer the caste Hindus as a distinct Hindu voting bloc

Gujarat is perhaps the first state that is part of the Hindu Rashtra. Till some years ago, there were villages that welcomed visitors by declaiming they had been purged of Muslims. Ahmedabad’s Muslim ghetto, Juhapura, has been described by political scientist Christophe Jaffrelot as the first “Muslim city” in India. Most of the 4.5 lakh rich or poor Muslims live in it without having access to public transport or even piped water. One side of this area, staring at Hindu colonies, is fenced, which is called ‘border’. Worse, in democratic India, these people have lost their power and influence as, after delimitation, this habitation has been carved into two parts. In short, they cannot even vote together to get a candidate of their choice elected. In Gujarat, after the Congress’s Ahmed Patel there has been no Muslim MP.

The Gujarat model endeavours to make the minority vote or the “secular vote” totally irrelevant as it tries to socially engineer the caste Hindus as a distinct Hindu voting bloc. In the 2014 election, the BJP strategists hoped to upset the tactical voting by Muslims by getting more Hindus out. They were helped by the relentless campaign by the Election Commission, beseeching people to step out and vote.

The vote that was a guarantor of Muslim protection and preserved Constitution-based secularism as it helped the existing political orthodoxies to power, may become a slow casualty.

These changes could in certain ways shake the secular foundations of a country where minorities have been accommodated and given dignity by the Constitution. If this critical balance is rudely shaken, there will be riots, instability and the kind of violence that is not shown on TV. The proximity of Afghanistan and mercenaries and jihadis stalking the ungoverned spaces could bomb out the best-laid plans for providing quality governance. After all, India is not Gujarat and we live in a very hostile neighbourhood where no one loves anyone.

Being an outsider in Delhi, Modi may either get overwhelmed by the power and influence the city wields over the national discourse or he may try to consciously diminish its influence. His early speeches, in which he derided Delhi’s secular intelligentsia, could be a sign of his irritation at them. At the same time, the rapidity with which the intelligentsia and the media are adjusting themselves to the new reality is noticeable.

Last, Modi may decentralize more financial powers to the states and give them greater freedom to attract FDI and clear their own projects, as happens in China.

India will be a very different place if the BJP forms the government on its own. What voters will come to know later is whether it is really the government they wanted.

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: MAY 2014