Tuesday, July 23, 2013

2014 Poll unique for one reason: MODI

By Swapan Dasgupta

There was a flurry of excitement in a small patch of Lutyens’ Delhi—faithfully repeated in the media—over the composition of the umpteen committees set up by the BJP for the management of the forthcoming general election. Meaning was read into who was in which committee and who had been left out.

As the foremost challenger to the Congress-led UPA, it was only natural that political buffs scrutinised the committees and attempted to discover a pattern which would help them understand the balance of forces in the BJP in the aftermath of Narendra Modi’s appointment as the head of the campaign committee. More to the point, the conventional wisdom was that the choice of strategists would help answering the question the media has thought fit to raise: will the BJP offer something different or will it return to identity politics?

For the casual newspaper reader or news channel watcher, the question isn’t entirely irrelevant. Those who heard the full speech of Modi at Delhi’s Sri Ram College of Commerce and Pune’s Ferguson College may have come away with the impression that the man from Gujarat is focussed on economic development, youth aspirations and decisive leadership. Yet, those who followed the consequent reportage of his Reuters interview and images of the gigantic hoardings that suddenly appeared in Mumbai may well have concluded that Modi’s ‘real’ agenda is a throwback to the aggressive assertion of Hindu nationalism of the 1990s. Was this, they may well be tempted to ask, deliberate doublespeak? Or, are journalists merely moulding Modi according to their pre-conceived versions of what are his real priorities?  The minute dissection of the various committees and sub-committees that happened after Friday afternoon’s announcements was an attempt to get a little more clarity.

The endeavour may be undeniably sincere but the importance attached to committees and organisational preparedness is based on an assumption: that elections are won when they are well managed. This is not entirely fallacious. Without a modicum of organisation, political parties aren’t able to realise their full potential. This is one major reason why well-meaning and seemingly popular Independent candidates fail to get elected: they just don’t have the foot soldiers to translate goodwill into votes.

However, as those who have studied elections will tell you, no two elections are exactly alike. Organisation and alliances played a paramount role in almost all the elections since 1996, just as raw emotionalism was the dominant factor in the elections from 1967 to 1991, However, settled patterns have a habit of breaking down abruptly. In West Bengal, for example, the sheer organisational rigour of the CPI(M) saw the Left Front prevailing for more than three decades, But that pattern was decisively broken in 2011 when Mamata Banerjee created a spontaneous upsurge against Left rule. Likewise in the US, President Obama won conclusively in 2008 on the strength of a desperate yearning for change. Yet, in 2012, his victory can be attributed to meticulous targeting of specific communities and demographic clusters.

To my mind, India’s 2014 general election will be different because of one man: Modi. The BJP may not have anointed him the Prime Ministerial candidate but in the eyes of the voters, he is the issue. Opinion polls, conducted with uneven degrees of methodological rigour, have all identified two clear trends. First, that the popularity of the UPA has ebbed considerably since 2009 and that its great white hope, Rahul Gandhi, is not too highly regarded as a potential PM. Secondly, the polls also indicate that Modi has a personal popularity that is far in excess of the support for the BJP and its allies. In other words, the projection of Modi will allow the NDA to secure a greater vote share than would have been the case if the BJP went into battle on the strength of its symbol and corporate identity.

For the more conservative elements in the BJP, accustomed to seeing the party as bigger than any individual, this poses a real dilemma. Accustomed as it is to what has been described as a ‘sangathanist’ approach, it is uneasy with the idea of a presidential-type contest. Some individuals may well have a more devious reason for underplaying an individual-centric approach. But even if we assume their intentions are noble, there is a natural problem of a car picking up speed if the driver has the handbrake on.

Elections are contested to win, not to settle abstruse philosophical points. If the BJP has any intention of securing a decisive mandate in its favour, it has to think a little differently and look beyond committees whose main objective (like a Hindu marriage) is to give a role and accord importance to everybody from the bride and groom to the second cousin and the neighbour’s son. The importance of carrying the entire parivar is no doubt important but Modi’s strength lies in his connect with voters who believe in him but have little time for the BJP. To reconcile the two impulses in a parliamentary, as opposed to a presidential election, is a formidable challenge.

As I see it, the enthusiastic participation of the BJP is only one piece of the jigsaw puzzle. What is far more important is the creation of loose and sometimes autonomous bodies of Modi enthusiasts who are uneasy with a formal identification with the BJP. The harnessing of the raw (and sometimes wild) and unstructured enthusiasm for Modi is absolutely imperative if the BJP is to fully capitalise on the goodwill of its de-facto leader.

Committees are important but they are not a substitute for an inspired burst of political imagination. 

Sunday Pioneer, July 21, 2013

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