The Congress's Modi

Written by Shekhar Gupta | Updated: Sep 9 2013, 16:27pm hrs
Nobody doubts that Narendra Modi will be the NDAs candidate for prime minister for 2014. The only question left is the timing of that announcement.

The remaining question, therefore, is: who will be the UPAs, or rather the Congress partys, candidate It seems extremely unlikely that it will be Rahul Gandhi. Only in the event howsoever unlikely of the Congress crossing the 200-mark again will Rahul step up and swallow that poison called power. You can speculate on a half dozen other names. But you can be dead sure that no one will be indicated or suggested before the election results.

So what happens if I make a claim that I know who the Congress candidate for 2014 is And what if I said it is none other than Narendra Modi Do I need to get my head examined then I perhaps do, for many reasons, but not this. And here is why.

The BJP has chosen Modi as its candidate because of his widening and deepening personal appeal in its traditional catchment areas, his growth-oriented governance and, even more importantly, his campaigning ability and relative youth by the standards of Indian politics. But in choosing a figure as divisive and polarising as Modi, it has also made him the Congress partys candidate. So just as the BJP (NDA) goes to the polls seeking a vote for Modi, the Congress is going out canvassing for a vote against him. That is why we say that Modi is as much a candidate of the Congress as the BJP: it is just that one is trying to make him win, and the other to make him lose.

This is not unprecedented. In the 1971 national election, following the Congress split of 1969, the Congress (R) went to the polls seeking a fresh mandate for Indira Gandhi on the slogan of garibi hatao. The mostly united (non-Communist) opposition, or the grand alliance, incapable of projecting a prime ministerial candidate for the obvious reason that it didnt have one, only sought a vote against Indira Gandhi. It walked straight into a strategic minefield. The Congress (R) came up with a simple formulation: woh kehte hain Indira hatao, Indiraji kehti hain garibi hatao. It devastated her mighty challengers and won her her first landslide. Today, the chappal is on the other foot. If the BJP is smart, all it has to do is draw a lesson from the defeat of its parent Jan Sangh, which was part of the grand alliance, and now return with something like, woh kehte hain Modi ko harao, Narendrabhai kehte hain desh ko pragati ki disha mein waapas lao, or something like that. The tables could then be turned.

But we havent seen much evidence as yet that the BJP is likely to be as simply smart as this. It is, on the other hand, playing into its adversaries hands by letting this become a vote on Modis more distant past, a past he has often though with limited success yet tried to leave behind. Limited success, because he is neither willing to make amends for it, nor express real contrition. He has only tried to distance himself from it, with some success, youd admit, by focusing on his record of industrialisation and development. But one tactical blunder, like the elevation of Amit Shah in the party, and then putting him in charge of Uttar Pradesh, puts paid to even that. Just what is the BJP trying to achieve by assigning Shah to Uttar Pradesh It enables the Congress, SP and other traditional secular parties to set the clock back by a decade and bring the focus back on Modi 2002-04. The BJP spokesmens and ideologues claim, that Shah is just a low key but hard-driving apparatchik, who has been sent to Uttar Pradesh because of some incredible knowledge of electoral equations and processes, and because of his psephological genius, is a joke. Because if such things were to win you elections, then the Aam Aadmi Party should sweep the Hindi heartland, if not all of India, because nobody understands it electorally or psephologically as much as Yogendra Yadav does.

The appointment of Amit Shah to Uttar Pradesh, therefore, is the BJPs (or rather Modis) first big blunder, and that too so early in this campaign. At best, Shah, with his track record as a political hatchet man (I repeat political anything else the courts will rule on in the course of time), can further organise the faithful, draw more of them out on polling day, and bring whatever incremental change the engineering of the campaign process can do. His very presence will scare the minorities even further, but that, as we know, the BJP does not worry about for now. But will it attract any voters other than the committed ones

That is where Modi and the BJP are getting it wrong, carried away by the noisy cheers of the faithful, the euphoria within their own loyal constituency and among the internets mostly non-voting classes. That cannot win them a national election. In a polarised election like this one, they and the Congress can be sure of three things. One, that none of the BJPs old voters is going to cross the trenches and vote against it. Two, that minorities, Muslims and even Christians now, will consolidate more strongly and strategically to defeat Modi. And three, that the fate of this election will be decided by members of the majority community sitting on the fence or, possibly, a larger catchment, the vast middle ground: voters who do not fear or dislike the Muslims and other minorities and are uncomfortable with traditional Hindutva politics, but at the same time are also tired of the Congress. If Modi wants to win, he needs a large number of these to swing to his side. He cannot achieve that by putting Amit Shah in front. Because that will not merely scare the minorities, it will even convince this Hindu middle ground that nothing has changed with him. In the India of 2014, there is a voter waiting to be won for positive change, growth and a radical shift in the larger national discourse. But that vote will not be for beating up any community.

That is precisely how the Congress would like to set this election up. It is today confident of only one thing: that it will emerge as the second largest party. So its first priority is to keep the gap between the BJP and itself as small as possible, and definitely less than 50. It can only achieve that by what we had earlier described as the political equivalent of the military strategy of terrain denial (Lose-Lose, National Interest, IE, July 13, goo.gl/RMoiF). It is working on the proven belief that in a diverse democracy, the sum of all insecure minorities is always greater than a divided majority. Thats why the Congress thinks that Modi is their mascot, because he frightens the minorities and worries the middle ground. And that is why we say Modi is the Congress partys candidate as much as the BJPs for 2014.

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