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Modi versus Modi

National Interest
Source: Indian Express


Shekhar Gupta

It is not BJP vs the Congress, or Modi vs Soniaben. Narendra Modi’s own voters will decide whether to re-elect or defeat him

Narendra Modi’s supporters — and you still find lots and lots of them in Gujarat — would like you to believe that he is more than just invincible. Invincibility, in any case, is something for mere humans to value. It is not that relevant when you talk of their leader. You talk, instead, of his super-human qualities. He has transformed Gujarat, he has restored not just Gujarati, but even Hindu and, finally, Indian pride. He has brought 24-hour, three-phase power and Narmada water to each home. He is an orator par excellence, a worthy successor to Atalji in that department (though nobody ever accused the grand old man of the BJP of being a rabble rouser). He can hold a crowd — albeit of believers — in thrall. A gaggle of women representing three generations of Gujaratis occupying the row behind mine at his rally in Shihore compete, and ultimately translate his lines for me in chorus as I lean back to understand the nuances of his stunning 70-minute sermon. And as applause greets one of his most loaded — and coded — lines insinuating that it was the Muslims who were mostly responsible for lawlessness (“your women no longer have to fear some Aalia, Maalia, Kamaalia”), one of them chirps in, in a sort of fried in the groundnut oil Gujarati inflexion that stresses the consonants and shortens the vowels: “He is a supperman, himman (superman, he-man).” You hear more of the same from his followers, mainly the young and the women, as you go along. Sure enough, one of his campaign’s latest boasts is about his “56-inch chest”.

But howsoever wide his chest, howsoever broad his shoulders and howsoever confident his gait, does he have it in him to perform the miracle that very few Indian politicians can do in these years, namely, to defy anti-incumbency? And in his case, though it is only the second election for him directly, it is double anti-incumbency because he had taken over in the previous incumbent’s term without facing elections. So if he wins, it will be his third term as chief minister. These days that is a near impossibility, unless, of course, you are a Marxist in Bengal.

Not that it fazes him. In so many years of watching Indian politics, of figuring out that most fascinating character called the Indian politician, of dealing with the demagogues, rabble-rousers, caste craftsmen, unifiers, dividers, visionaries and opportunists, I have never seen someone so confident, audacious and arrogant — and that too while seeking his third term. Mostly, Indian politicians only ooze charm and humility at the time of elections. Arrogance and a ruthless exercise of power then follow the victory. But this one does not fit any type. He does not mention Atalji, Advani (and who is Rajnath?) or even the BJP, except in conclusion when introducing his candidate who, not taking any chances, waves a reasonably freshly plucked lotus flower at the audience. You want Modi back as chief minister after all he has done for you, vote for him, he says. Now, when was the last time you heard any incumbent from a national party announce himself as the next chief minister like that? In the Congress, nobody would dare to do that even in his dream or he might have to spend the next five years in the AICC library, sorting out newspaper clippings. Even in the BJP I have never heard such a claim before. National parties still believe in the final prerogative of a high command, and at least in the pretence of their legislature parties electing their leader. But Modi has sorted that issue out. This election is BJP versus Congress. It is Modi versus Soniaben. Or, more likely, as many of his detractors — and you now find lots and lots of them also in Gujarat — it is Modi versus Modi this time.

While they have to ridicule them in public, in private even Congress leaders admit that Modi has run a pretty efficient government, and that his claims on bijli, sadak, paani, the three key elements that weigh on the modern voter’s mind, are largely true. Why has he still got himself into a bit of a mess where what had looked like a done deal a month back has become a contest too close to call? How has he blown so much of an advantage, such a huge head start? That was the question assailing our minds as we, the usual group of Limousine Liberals, a motley assortment of journalists, psephologists, bankers and corporate leaders that trawls voting zones on key elections, spent an extended weekend searching for the answers in Gujarat’s countryside.

His appeal is undiminished — but only to the faithful. At some point, it is obvious, he got so carried way with it, he forgot some basic principles of Indian politics. One, the voters expect their leader to approach them with humility. They do not appreciate someone starting by proclaiming that the election is already in his pocket. No voter likes to be told his vote is a mere formality. What he wants to hear is, please come out on polling day and vote for me, my life depends on that one act of your generosity. What he is hearing from Modi, on the other hand, is something like: if you are grateful for all I have done for you — as you better be — you better come out and vote for me because you need me in the next term too. It works with the absolutely faithful. But often, in a polarised voter population, that is not enough. You still need that few per cent more. You want some of the fence-sitters to swing your way. But that is not Modi’s way. “Are you Hindu? Can Hindus be terrorists as the Congress says?” he asks his cheering audiences. Not for him the pretence, or at least the hypocrisy, of even appealing to the minorities, of even suggesting any non-Hindus could be among his crowds, his likely voters. This kind of exclusivist politics has its limitations, particularly when you seek your third term and more so when you have already encashed the anti-Muslim (anti-Mian Musharraf and all and thereby the insinuation of Indian Muslims being pro-Pakistan) once. One thing you do not expect to hear from Modi on the election trail is that he wants all 5.5 crore Gujaratis (including the minorities) to vote for him. He would also do nothing to reach out to them, to heal, to patch up, to win them back. No such ‘hypocrisy’ for him and, as he would tell you with a candour you wouldn’t get even from any RSS sarsanghchaalak, he will never do anything towards the Muslims even by way of affirmative action that sounds like ‘appeasement’.

But Gujarat’s voters are not about to start getting nostalgic about their secular, tolerant, pre-1990s past and if some of them who voted for Modi the last time now turn on him, it is not because they have suddenly re-discovered any love for their Muslim neighbours. It will be because in his confidence bordering on arrogance, in his pursuit of a testosterone- laden personality cult of the kind never seen in India, not certainly from a regional leader of a national party, he forgot the very essential need to lace tough governance with smart politics. He either forgot he might have to face elections again, or perhaps his judgment got so overwhelmed by his larger-than- life self-image that he didn’t realise there would be another reckoning in ’07. So the truth now is, in spite of his popularity, his many visible successes on governance, he is now struggling. The truth, also, is that he is struggling partly because of his ego and arrogance, and partly for the wrong reasons, like making people pay for the water and power he has brought to their homes and factories.

In the small town of Vallabhipur in Bhavnagar district, where once a traditional diamond-cutting industry thrived and died because of power cuts, you’d have expected only gratitude for Modi for bringing them 24-hour, three-phase power. But crowds we draw on the “high street” are almost evenly divided, or even a little bit weighted against Modi. Why? “Three-phase power is okay,” says one shopkeeper, “but what use is it if he brought you a jail sentence as well?” The reference is to Modi’s brutal assault on power theft. His government filed 2.8 lakh cases for power theft, something he boasts about in his speeches. But do people really appreciate it? In a more perfect world, they might have. But this is the real world, warts and all. The Congress, on the other hand, promises the return of power subsidies, freebies and withdrawal of cases. The local chemist vends to customers from a dark shop. “Don’t you have power,” one of us asks him, presuming we have finally found evidence that Modi’s 24-hour power claim is a mere boast. “Power is there,” says the chemist somewhat disdainfully, and flicks the switch to turn on the tubelight for just a second. But why is he then working in the dark? “Who will pay the bill? You?” he asks. In the old days, he says, power came only for eight hours. But you could steal it, or simply not pay your bills.

Given his headstart, and the strong loyalty of a critical mass of voters, who knows, Modi may yet scrape through with a narrow margin of victory. But if he introspects — if he can do such a thing — he may realise that while his governance was pretty solid, he forgot the political compact that a leader must build and preserve with his voters. The 2002 vote was on an issue, and the issue was fear and loathing. Today, he is seeking votes on his report card and that is a much tougher challenge.

He has also broken the political compact with his own party and ideological support base. You meet dozens of RSS boys, saffron supporters on the way who will tell you they are simply not prepared to accept his kind of personality cult. It has turned two of his predecessors, particularly Keshubhai Patel, into rebels. He hosts us over a generous breakfast, a lonely, sad lion in a very desolate winter. “I am sulking. I am sitting home,” he says with a candour you’d not usually expect from a politician. But behind the scenes, he has sent out word to his clansmen, the powerful Leva Patels of Saurashtra, to punish Modi for his humiliation. It just so happens that a large number of power theft cases have also been registered against the Patels since Modi started his power reform. In a more normal election, a Modi could have re-united through religion and personal appeal a vote bank broken up by caste. But caste, economics and anger at the arrogance of a leader you loved make for a far bigger challenge. It is for that reason that this election is, indeed, not BJP versus Congress, Modi versus Sonia and certainly not communalism versus secularism. It is Modi versus Modi, where Modi’s own voters will decide whether to vote to re-elect, or to defeat him.

sg@expressindia. com

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