Monday, February 11, 2013

In a climate of cynicism, hope for the young

By Swapan Dasgupta

Only the most audacious of astrologers would presume to anticipate the course of politics. Even the most discernible of trends can often be overturned by either events or accidents of history. So it is with the run-up to the next general election scheduled for April-May 2014.

A few weeks ago, dispirited Congress loyalists were celebrating Rahul Gandhi’s angry young man act at the Jaipur conclave where he was formally anointed heir-apparent. For nearly a week, the Congress believed that the apparently reluctant Gandhi had finally decided to take the plunge and commit himself to rejuvenating the party. The party’s optimism also stemmed from the belief — by no means unfounded — that the BJP was in the throes of internal disarray, with the heart of the party and the organisation pulling in different directions.

In less than a month, events have conspired to change reality. Rahul is still very much in the reckoning, working assiduously at his long-term plans to build a secure foundation for the party he will inherit from his mother in due course. However, it is now plainly apparent that the Congress and its allies will not be the default choice of the Indian voter. Rahul will be challenged every inch of the way by Gujarat CM Narendra Modi who has been catapulted to the very top of the BJP pile by popular acclaim.

It is the manner of Modi’s rise and rise which makes the political story enthralling. In emerging as the first among equals in the BJP hierarchy, Modi had to overcome many seemingly insurmountable obstacles. There was, first, the vexed issue of the Gujarat riots of 2002, an event that continues to polarize public opinion. Then there was Modi’s assertive leadership style that offended a section of the RSS establishment. And, finally, there was the visceral opposition to Modi from an intellectual establishment that feels Modi is too radical and challenges something called the “idea of India.”

It is not that Modi has overcome all these obstacles . However, what he has successfully done is to expose many of his detractors as paper tigers. Contrary to initial expectations, he hasn’t engaged in frontal combat with the sceptics: he has bypassed them by appealing to an untapped constituency and letting them do the talking on his behalf.

In choosing India’s most well-regarded Commerce college to deliver his first vision statement for the nation, Modi was not merely playing to his strength as the great moderniser. He was also doing what Indian politicians are loath to do: link the future of India to the lives of the best and the brightest students. In other words, rather than use a public platform outside Gujarat to launch into a diatribe against the nine wasted years, he delivered a positive political message: that India will be the land of hope and opportunity as long as we can fix the problems of governance. Amid a climate of cynicism and despondency, Modi proffered a dream for the young.

Modi’s dream will undoubtedly by challenged by what a former US Vice President in the early ’70s called the “nattering nabobs of negativism”. Yet, there is no doubt that in invoking youthful aspirations and positive energy, Modi departed significantly from the caricatured portrayal of him as the proverbial ‘merchant of death.’ This adroit positioning is certain to put his opponents (including those in the loony fringe of the Sangh parivar) in a quandary. This may be a reason why Modibaiters are desperately hoping that the likes of Pravin Togadia continue to deliver hate speeches and derail the aspirational agenda.

Modi cannot hope to disregard the alternative nightmare scenario painted by those who both fear and hate him. Sooner or later he will have to come down hard on those who cannot look beyond hateful identity politics. Modi’s appeal rests on his no-nonsense leadership style and his ability to make the Togadias of India redundant. If these divisive noises from within the Sangh Parivar don’t cease, Modi will have no choice but to flex his muscles and ask his colleagues to choose between him and the Hindu counterparts of Akbaruddin Owaisi.
It’s a battle he can’t lose because he has public opinion on his side. More important, it is a battle that he cannot afford to opt out of. To win India, Modi must also reshape his own ideological family in his own image. Making the likes of Togadia irrelevant may well make Modi’s journey to Race Course Road that much easier. India will have a better idea of what he stands for, something that can hardly be said for his challenger whose appeal rests on privilege and entitlement.

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