Leafing through a bundle of yellowed newspaper clippings of the 1984 general election, I was struck by the remarkable extent to which the editorial class failed to read the clear writing on the wall. Those were the days before the public was inundated with opinion polls and, consequently, were over-dependant on journalistic assessments. But in fixing their gaze on caste equations, factional rivalries and local grievances, they failed to gauge a simple fact: that a people traumatized by Indira Gandhi’s assassination had chosen to vote as a nation.
The next general election is unlikely to be held under such fearful circumstances. But whatever is the mental state of India on voting day either later this year or in 2014, one thing is certain: the editorial classes are unlikely to capture the big picture. The media as a whole has shown a marked disinclination to distinguish between noise and music.
A recent event will illustrate the point vividly. Last week, the BJP president nominated Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi to the party’s parliamentary board, its highest decision-making body. The appointment was the clearest signal that Modi had been assigned a national role and had been raised to the status of first among equals. For all practical purposes, he is likely to be the face of the BJP campaign in the general election.
Regardless of whether he is formally anointed the shadow PM, in the public perception he will be viewed as such.
Ever since Modi won the Gujarat Assembly election for the third consecutive occasion in December, there was a certain inevitability about the elevation. Anyone with an ear to the ground would have detected the growing clamour for Modi, not merely among the committed BJP activists and voters but among a larger section of the electorate. There was a fierce groundswell from below which forced the hands of the BJP leadership. And yet, despite the sheer logic of the unstructured democratic process, there was a disproportionate media focus on those who tried to wage a losing battle.
The details of this futile rearguard action are well known to those who are tuned to the political grapevine. First, it was suggested that a Patel revolt would put an end to Modi’s re-election bid in Gujarat. Secondly, it was authoritatively stated that the RSS would veto any attempt to project an individual over the ‘cause’. Thirdly, it was suggested that the BJP couldn’t afford to disregard Nitish Kumar’s public disavowal of Modi. And, finally, it was put out that LK Advani’s opposition to Project Modi would eventually prevail.
The hurdles in the path of Modi’s journey into national politics weren’t all concocted. In normal times, these would have been formidable obstacles. In an election year, however, their importance was nominal, particularly since Modi was being propelled by an outburst of sentiment. In a democracy, the biggest attribute of a politician is popularity, and in the primary rounds Modi had that going for him.
This is not to suggest that the road to Modi’s entry into the house on Race Course Road is pre-determined . Although an ‘outsider’ enjoys a natural advantage at a time when the Delhi Establishment stands exposed as inept and venal, he still faces many real challenges.
The foremost of these is his ability to reconcile his personal popularity with the increasingly jaded reputation of his party. Trends since 1996 suggest that Lok Sabha elections are an aggregate of local, national and leadership contests. If Modi is unable to break this mould, he will find himself in a position similar to that of Atal Behari Vajpayee in 1996: the leader of the largest party in a hung Parliament but unable to cross the 272-seat hump. Since the BJP’s footprint doesn’t extend throughout India, the only realistic course for Modi is to emulate what Indira Gandhi did in 1980: convert a parliamentary poll into a presidential election. The electorate has to be convinced that it is electing a Modi sarkar.
Political messaging holds the key to a Modi campaign. There has to be a dominant theme that touches voters in every corner of India and overrides regional and sectional considerations. Modi has to both sell a dream and simultaneously invoke the fear of India turning into a land of shrinking opportunities. A nuanced campaign that appeals in part to aspirational India, in part to Hindu nationalism and in part to caste will be a disastrous cocktail.
The personality of Modi and the national yearning for a strong leader demands an in-your-face approach with a strong positive message. A goody-goody Modi won’t sell. He is not a Vajpayee.
Of course, it will be a gamble and will offend those who believe that India’s future lies in muddling through. But no wars are won without audacity and determination.
Sunday Times of India, April 7, 2013