Column : Modi magic vs BJP dilemma

Written by MK VENU | M.K. Venu | Updated: Dec 26 2012, 09:37am hrs
Political observers have been looking for objective reasons to explain the stupendous electoral success of the BJP under Narendra Modi in Gujarat. This will automatically help us understand whether Modi will be a success when he moves to the Centre. Many political analysts put Modis success down to his development agenda and the ability to market himself as one who can give agency to the aspirations of the young, especially in urban areas. Of course, there is also the contrary view, empirically true, that Gujarat was always among the top five developed states even before Modi arrived on the scene. Data for 20 years, from 1990 to 2010, shows that Gujarat consistently remained among the top five states on the growth and development index.

Overall, if one takes per capita income and other human development indices, Gujarat still ranks lower than Haryana and Tamil Nadu.

So, what explains Modis huge political cache among the Gujaratis. One saw the manner in which he is able to generate near hysteria among the masses when he addresses public meetings in Gujarat. He seems to have a special chemistry with the Gujarati people, which can only come when you operate at an emotional rather than a purely rational level. In public meetings, he virtually holds a cosy conversation with his audience which has both men and women wearing the Modi mask.

The nature of the interaction between Modi and his audiences suggests the chemistry does not flow from something as instrumental a factor as development. In a sense, Modi doesnt derive his core popularity from his development agenda. It is about a deeper emotional connect that Modi has established with the Gujarati psyche. This connect normally transcends material factors such as development and delivery of bijli and paani. No wonder, Modi hardly talks about his achievements in the state when addressing the people. He confidently tells the people, You need someone to not only look after you but also your children and grand children.

In other words, he is simply telling the people, Main hoon na (I am there for you).

Of course, development is a small part of this package. This political vocabulary is very personalised, and it seems to work even when he addresses a large gathering. It is often a two-way dialogue with the audience, marked by a short question which is followed by a quick answer from the crowd.

Interestingly, such a personality-based chemistry is known to have been generated typically by regional mass leaders or leaders who ran their politics around a language or caste grouping. For instance, the late NT Rama Rao had a great connect with his people which was based on the Telugu pride. Some of this chemistry seemed to have been revived by the late YSR Reddy who had used his mass popularity to beat anti-incumbency in Andhra Pradesh in spite of a somewhat patchy record on the development front. The late MG Ramachandran made his audiences go hysterical in public meetings in Tamil Nadu. His legacy is still being reaped by his understudy Jayalalitha.

The late Chaudhary Charan Singh had such an unflinching emotional hold over the Jat farmers of western UP that they would cry whenever Charan Singh himself choked emotionally in public meetings, which the Jat leader was prone to doing. The stalwart Biju Patnaik, too, had a similar hold over the people of Orissa which Naveen Patnaik is harnessing. Of course, Mayawati has a connect with her people simply by the virtue of her dalit empowerment politics, and so does Mulayam Singh Yadav, post the caste-based fragmentation of Indias electorate caused by Mandal Commission. It must also be conceded that the Muslims of Uttar Pradesh have felt very safe with the Samajwadi Party. Mulayam has partially reaped the main hoon na factor with Muslims which, in some sense, transcends the development agenda. Nitish Kumar has also succeeded in generating some of the main hoon na sentiment in Bihar by constantly talking about the inherent glory and potential of Biharis. What Bihar does tomorrow will determine Indias fate, is a recurring theme of Nitishs communication with his people. After a long time, Biharis, cutting across castes, actually feel they have got a true, empathetic leader in Nitish.

The interesting thing is almost all the current crop of leaders who enjoy the main hoon na connect with their people at the regional level are prime ministerial aspirants in 2014. Everyone is positioning himself or herself in subtle ways already. Narendra Modi is no different in this context as his appeal is based on a cocktail of Hindutva and Gujarati Asmita. However, historically, there is no example yet of a strong regional leaderenjoying immense popularity based on either caste or language groupinghaving made it to the Prime Ministers post, except in some accidental manner as in the case of Deve Gowda. Even the BJP does not have a system whereby regional leaders with massive popularity gain ascendance in its central leadership and then become candidates for prime ministership. For instance, Atal Bihari Vajpayee and LK Advani were always positioned as national leaders. That is the reason why there is resistance within the BJP to Modis ascendance to New Delhi.

As against a Nitish Kumar or a Mulayam Singh Yadav, both prime ministerial aspirants based on strong regional support, Modis advantage is that he belongs to a national party. But this advantage gets circumscribed by the fact that the BJP itself is seen as a party not seen as subscribing to an idea of India based truly on cultural pluralism. The Sangh Parivar passionately subscribes to the tenet of one nation, one culture which clearly does not correspond with reality on the ground. Besides, the demolition of Babri Masjid itself has created a glass ceiling of about 160 to 170 seats which the BJP has never been able to cross in the Lok Sabha polls. Add to it the unresolved, and indeed unreconciled, issue of the 2002 Gujarat riots; Modi will have to contend with multiple glass ceilings at the national level. In a coalition arrangement, Modi will need the support of regional leaders from Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal which have sizeable Muslim populations. Top BJP leaders admit this privately but at the same time cannot deny Modis immense popularity among the party cadres. 2014 will indeed pose multiple dilemmas to the BJP.

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