Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Modi Magic

By Swapan Dasgupta

The detractors of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi have repeatedly asserted that he runs a personalised administration and is unmindful of both advice and criticism. These attributes, it is often said, may work in a state but is singularly inappropriate for running the Government of India where there are far more conflicting pressures that involve sensitive handling.

Those more familiar with his style of working disagree vehemently with the suggestion of imperiousness. Modi, they argue, has been unfairly portrayed for three reasons. First, because he has confined the role of MLAs to that of watchdogs of government-run programmes and prevented their involvement in the executive; secondly, he has sharply reduced the discretionary powers of the government and made decision-making more transparent in matters such as the transfers and postings of officials; and, finally, Modi as a man is firmly resistant to both corporate and political pressure and, having taken a decision, he sticks to it.

My experience of covering Gujarat politics for over a decade tells me that the Chief Minister is unpopular among two sections. There are, of course, those who loath him because he apparently contests their “idea of India”, a euphemism for not have grovelled for his administrative shortcomings during the 2002 sectarian riots. But equally, Modi is viewed with considerable wariness by the political classes, cutting across party lines. This is almost entirely because he loathes the idea of an administration being derailed by localised ‘dadagiri’—a problem that is rampant in most parts of India.

Modi’s approach, it may well be argued is well-intentioned. But equally well-intentioned politicians in the BJP have faltered politically for pursuing a similar model—the names of Babulal Marandi of Jharkhand and B.C. Khanduri of Uttarakhand come to mind. Where Modi has succeeded where the others have tripped up is on three counts.

First, his ability to reach the people over the heads of political intermediaries has meant that he alone can deliver the incremental votes for his party. It is significant that in the past decade the BJP has always performed better in the Assembly elections of Gujarat than in the Lok Sabha polls where he is not the main factor.

Secondly, Modi’s administration has paid inordinate attention to public communications and ensured that the news of its good works reaches the people. That Gujarat has progressed significantly under Modi is acknowledged, both grudgingly and enthusiastically. However, what is politically important is that the electorate of the state is constantly reminded of the progress the state has made. This in turn has nurtured a strong sense of regional pride that is easily offended when its real achievements are rubbished by ‘intellectuals’. Even the state Congress grasped this reality in last year’s Assembly election and concentrated on invoking caste identities and highlighting mohulla-level issues.

Finally, thanks to the barrage of criticism that Modi has faced since 2002, his role as a doughty fighter has been implanted in the public imagination. Just as the adulation for Indira Gandhi increased with the visceral attacks on her by the opposition, Modi’s reputation as a decisive, no-nonsense and development-oriented politician has grown in direct proportion to the attacks on him. At one time the phenomenon was confined to Gujarat but today it is acquiring all-India dimensions, including in states where the BJP has only a token presence.

In 1996, when he became Prime Minister of the 13-day government, Atal Behari Vajpayee was an inspirational figure in only northern and western India, areas where the BJP had a presence. However, after his dramatic resignation speech in the Lok Sabha (the first occasion that a parliamentary debate apart from the Budget speech was televised), he became an all-India figure. I recall my utter surprise when I found the Vajpayee factor coming into play in areas such as Telengana and Orissa during the 1998 election—a reason why, immediately after the election, N. Chandrababu Naidu switched sides. Today, with the penetration of TV having become far more intense, three of Modi’s speeches—his victory speech in Ahmedabad in December 2012, his address to the Sri Ram College students in February and his inspired oratory at the BJP National Council last week—have transformed him into an all-India politician and, possibly, the Prime Minister-in-waiting. Over the past 18 months, opinion polls have shown Modi’s national popularity rising. I would hazard the guess that after this month, his ratings will register a steeper jump.

The BJP leadership have been sensing this groundswell since Modi’s third consecutive election victory last December. There has been a creeping realisation that the incremental, positive vote in favour of Modi will considerably replenish the anti-incumbency vote against the UPA-2. The message is simple: by itself and with uncertainty over who is the leader, the NDA will probably be the largest formation in a fractured 16th Lok Sabha. However, a presidential-style election with Modi at the helm could enable the NDA to aim for outright victory. More important, the growing importance of Modi could add to the number of parties willing to associate with the NDA, especially if the Gujarat leader sticks to the promise of making India ‘great’.

Last week, Modi offered an olive leaf to the BJP and emphasised the importance of working as a team. This is precisely the assurance the waverers needed. By acclaim the party nominated him to the chair vacated by Vajpayee in 2004. We now await the Congress response. 

Asian Age/ Deccan Chronicle, March 8, 2013

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