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For BJP, Modi win can be a double-edged sword

CNN-IBN
Dec 24, 2007 at 01:54pm IST

New Delhi: Once again the Moditva wave rules in Gujarat and the voters’ choice is Narendra Modi, who is all set to become the Chief Minister for the third time.

It was a remarkable victory for Modi, a canteen boy from Vadnagar in northern Gujarat, who retained the reins of the state overcoming anti-incumbency, a united opposition onslaught and rebellion against his leadership from within BJP.

In this election when the odds were stacked against him, including the satta bazaar, Modi campaigned alone, he made what many called divisive speeches, he was not given much of a margin by the pollsters, but in the end he won the battle because he had the confidence of the Gujarati voter.

To try and understand how Modi managed to swim against the current and discuss the implications of the Gujarat verdict were an eclectic panel of experts, which included author and economist Lord Meghnad Desai, political scientist Tridip Suhrud, RSS spokesperson Ram Madhav, social activist Juzar S Bandukwala, senior journalist Swapan Dasgupta, Congress Spokesperson Veerappa Moily, Executive Editor of Tehelka magazine Sankarshan Thakur and editor-in-chief of Outlook Group Vinod Mehta.

Return to hardcore Hindutva for the BJP?

Just 90 minutes into the counting of votes on Sunday, Modi's 56-inch chappan ki chati got wider as he geared up to be Chief Minister for another five years. Modi's combination of a development agenda, dumping as many as 40 sitting MLAs, taking on rebels and ignoring potential allies like the RSS and VHP and a burst of shrill emotive polarising rhetoric towards the end of campaigning got him the numbers that beat all expectations, probably even Modi's own.

With the Congress conceding defeat and the party’s star campaigners - Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi - failing to convert crowds into votes, it seems Hindutva is the biggest trump card in Gujarat.

Veerappa Moily said on Sunday that the reason why Modi won and Congress lost is because the party didn’t want to stoop as low as Modi. So, does Congress feel that Modi got his victory by not playing by the rules of democracy?

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“Gujarat is a Gandhian soil, but here means have not justified the end during the polls. Modi did just that, though it is contrary to the Gandhian values of life. We were trying that communal issues are not transferred into Gujarati pride but in the end that is exactly what happened,” Moily reasoned.

The Congress Spokesperson even hinted that the state would soon pay for electing a “dictator.”

“I recently read that Modi had taken the services of an agency to create an image of himself in Gujarat. And incidentally, this is the same agency that boasts of a clientele of dictators. So we will see the consequences soon,” Moily said.

The rhetoric that Modi used is perhaps unconstitutional and stretches the bounds of civility. However, Dasgupta felt that Moily’s reaction is a “case in which Congress is guilty of being a bad loser.”

“What Modi fought was a very conventional election campaign. No better or worse than what we have seen elsewhere in the world. If Moily is talking about Congress and its Gandhian values then how does he explain the party’s alliance with Pravin Togadia. How can the party explain the ads it came out with taking potshots at Modi? Congress itself did not fight a clean campaign. In contrast Modi’s rhetoric may have been robust, which might cause aesthetic disdain to the chattering classes, but in terms of development Modi fought with a straight bat,” Dasgupta argued.

Before the Assembly elections in Gujarat, the nation saw a shocking sting operation conducted by Tehelka magazine on the 2002 riots, but it failed to steer the masses against Modi and his ideology.

Reacting to the statement Thakur said that the sting operation was just a story, “it was not playing out of any ideological constraints.”

“It was just a representation of facts. If you see last week’s edition we said that Modi is going to get a huge victory. I strongly disagree with the foundation on which this victory has been created but politics is not always a game of grace. Sometimes you have to get into the pit and get your hands dirty. And the Congress lost that opportunity this time,” Thakur said.

So, is the Congress then disrespecting the people’s mandate or is it implying that Gujaratis vote for Modi only because he is anti-Muslim.

“I have the highest regard for the people of Gujarat. I am not saying that just because the Germans voted for Hitler, they are bad. It was a negative campaign. On the development plan if he had rightly fought the elections then we would have bowed down, but that was not done,” Moily said.

Meanwhile, Thakur said that his understanding is that this election is a culmination of the surcharge of 2002.

“A lot of what happened in 2002 was sublimated in the populace of Gujarat over the last four or five years. The polity is very divided and there is no element of remorse. The silence of BJP over the 2002 violence not only speaks of a complicity but a total lack of guilt,” he added.

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Has Modi’s victory been the BJP’s loss?

The popular wisdom in political circles is that Modi is winning at the cost of BJP. But will this win disturb the equilibrium within the BJP?

Vinod Mehta believes that this victory is a double-edged sword. “I have maintained that the more successful Modi is in Gujarat, the less acceptable he is in the rest of India. Now what remains to be seen is how soon he will jump from state politics to national politics.”

“In the impending general elections, there will be many allies. There are many states that do not wish Modi to even campaign in their state. So how the BJP handles this issues will be worth watching. The Rajnath Singh press conference was the most ungracious press conference ever. He very casually acknowledged Modi’s contributions to the elections. He even praised the party workers first and then very uncomfortably spoke about Modi,” Mehta said.

One of the problems in Gujarat is that it does not have a regional party. It was more of play between the Congress and BJP. Does Modi’s victory signal the emergence of a Gujarati regional force under the Chief Minister?

Desai reasoned, “People want to say everything bad about Modi because of the Godhra carnage. We have to see that this man has won two elections in a row. So, he will be a big player at the national level. Then how can he weaken the BJP? I would predict that after Advani, Modi will be the leader of the BJP. And he is very likely to be the PM of India. I am sorry people will not like this but Indians will have to grow up with these frightening facts.”

Bandukwala, who had recently written a letter to a newspaper saying Gujarat must forget the incidents of 2002, said that the only thing he had been hoping for was Modi to say one word - sorry.

“I would like Modi to move beyond 2002. But I have been hoping that Modi just uses the word sorry and if he would treat Muslims with equal respect and dignity. But unfortunately for the past six years Muslims have been completely cut off from governance. And even during the election we had observed that development issues would not draw up a crowd response, but Sohrabuddin or Afzal Guru would,” Bandukwala said.

But is this victory a forecast of where Gujarat is going? The Gujarati vote illustrates a microcosm of modern India where growth, liberalisation and industrialisation is taking place along with an educated middle-class which is looking for a strong leadership.

Agreeing Suhrud said, “This future that we are trying to build comes with a certain kind of a cost. What I would like to see is hold Mr Modi accountable for two things that he has spoken today.

He spoke two words - vivek and namrata, which is a sense of rectitude and humility. So, if we can create a society, which is based on justice and compassion, then Gujarat could become a future for India.”

Meanwhile, Dasgupta said that remorse is not required in the present times. “There is no point fixating an idea on securing an apology. Let us move on. Look ahead, forget about 2002 and concentrate on the development agenda,” he said

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Reacting sharply to Dasgupta’s statement, Thakur said, “What he (Dasgupta) means is to remain second-class citizens and yet move on.”

As the debate gathered steam, Mehta said that the problem lies in the anti-Modi industry that has been created.

“If you accept Modi then development is just one component. You have to accept the full baggage. Moditva has many components, including the communal factor. So the full package has to be accepted, but it is dangerous for the BJP.” Mehta said.

Is the Congress, the BJP's B-team in Gujarat?

It seems as if the Congress has simply failed to get its act together. It was routed on Sunday in the 2007 Assembly elections. The manner in which the Congress was defeated, is the party ready to concede that in Narendra Modi it has not just someone who is a BJP leader but also someone who may be replicating the South Indian cine-star in politics syndrome aka NT Rama Rao?

To this, Veerappa Moily said that there was no question of Congress thinking of Modi like that. "I know no other leader has masks dedicated to them like Modi does, but he has to take off the mask that he is wearing and become a more humane, natural person who can look after everybody, more like what NTR was. If he can care for the state, his friends and his enemies, if he can create that kind of a personality for himself, then yes, we welcome him."

He said that the Congress and the anti-Modi brigade was not imprisoned in a typical world-view of Modi.

Swapan Dasgupta jumped into the fray here and said, "The problem is that Modi's opponents look at him with blinkers on. You have to understand that Modi's greatest asset is his image and that is the image which people like Mr Moily find repulsive. And one of the greatest attributes of that image is absolute integrity. He has absolutely no blemish on his character."

However, Vinod Mehta contradicted by saying that the image was something which Modi had only inside Gujarat.

"The same image for him is going to be extremely counter-productive outside Gujarat. At this point and time, Narendra Modi is a great leader of BJP inside Gujarat. He is not a great leader pan-India. And that's the biggest problem because once he gets outside Gujarat, then he will try and re-invent himself. And that re-invention is not going to be easy because whenever Mr Modi is in trouble, he falls back on very tried and tested cards."

"I feel that in this election, even if Sonia Gandhi had not used the 'Maut Ka Saudagar' (merchant of death) phrase, Modi would have still managed to re-script the election to the theme that he wanted it to be. so Sonia Gandhi was just a handy excuse. If she had not said this, the Modi would have found some other way to bring in the Sohrabuddin factor in his speech," he added.

Congress has to find its voice

One of the campaign slogans of the Congress was that Modi was engaging in 'Shining Gujarat'. It was an urban, big ticket growth and the have nots were left out as was the rural population.

But that does not seem to have been borne out by the election results. It seems as if the Congress mis-calculated that there was a huge urban-rural divide.

To this Tridip Suhrud said, "I think this was not the only thing that the Congress mis-calculated. There were other things too like one cannot start fighting an election just in the last few months. The organisation and preparation has to be done on a much longer term. The problem with Congress is that it has forgotten what it's swadharma (true character) is."

"This was a campaign that they handed over to the BJP rebels, all of whom are deeply implicated in the 2002 tragedy and all of whom even today swear by the RSS ideology. So if the Congress is ready to handover and negotiates its core principles, then this is what the party must expect," Suhrud added.

Sankarshan Thakur agreed with Suhrud saying that as long as the secular forces kept their campaign against Modi pegged to the Muslim population in Gujarat, then they are going to keep on getting defeated in the state. They have to multi-layer it and go into the economics of it."

Is a cult personality good for democracy?

Modi's personality is becoming to be something like a cult. His towering figure, which evokes a frenzied loyalty may not be very good for a democratic set up like India.

Lord Meghnand Desai came into the debate here and said that though a cult personality was extremely detrimental to a democracy, he added that did not think Modi had won on the basis of his personality, but that he had won on the basis of his performance.

"People now really ought to stop hating Modi and start looking at what he has done for the state. People simply wish that he would be a bad man, but the reality is that he is a very efficient, un-corrupt administrator. Okay, if people feel that the Godhra riots were bad then punish Modi for it."

People simply have to stop hating Narendra Modi he added.

Implications of Modi's victory on national politics

Now that Modi has won the Gujarat Assembly elections for the third time in a row, what will this win mean for Modi's own career and what will it mean for the way in which people perceive justice delivery for people who are being blamed as being a part of a riot?

There is a comparison that is drawn by many people between the 1984 anti-Sikh riots and the 2002 Godhra riots. In 1984, 3,000 people died and in 2002 according to official estimates, just a little under 2,000 people died.

In 1984, Rajiv Gandhi had made a statement saying: "When a big tree falls, the whole earth shakes". In 2002, Narendra Modi made a statement saying: "For every action, there is a reaction".

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Moily brushed this argument aside saying that there was no comparison between 1984 and 2002. "People have already apologised for whatever happened in 1984, action has been taken against the guilty and the course of action was not obstructed. Whereas in 2002, the course of action was obstructed, there was no rule of law and because he was the Chief Minister he was just allowed to get away and he allowed the people responsible to just get away. The riots continued to take place throughout the state."

Vinod Mehta said that there was no question of a catharsis post the electoral win. "Modi is a man who feels absolutely no remorse for what happened in 2002. He simply says that nothing wrong happened in 2002. He says that he tried to prevent what happened, but things got out of hand. This is Modi's line and he will not change it, because if he does, he is in deep political trouble domestically."

Concluding remarks

Sankarshan Thakur in his final remarks said that he thought that though it was a remarkable victory for Modi, he was very alarmed by the foundations on which the this victory had been got.

"I lament the lack of challenge to Modi's villainous genius," he said.

Swapan Dasgupta said that Modi's win was nothing short of a famous victory against spectacular odds, against the challenge of the well-entrenched establishment.

Verappa Moily said that though his party accepted the verdict of the people of Gujarat, but added that mere electoral success does not make a man virtuous.

Vinod Mehta said that he as a viewer was bored to death of watching the coverage of the Gujarat elections on television and was simply glad that the election had come to an end. "Congratulations to Mr Modi and let him rule Gujarat well over the next five years," he said.

Juzar S Bandukwala said, "The Muslim elite at the national level will have to become much more alert and more conscious of what is happening in Gujarat, simply because Narendra Modi is eyeing the prime ministership of India. In a situation like this, India's 150 million strong Muslim population will have to ponder what will be their fate if Modi's dream comes true. The only way out of this is to educate each and every Muslim child in the country."

Tridip Suhrud simply said that he wanted to live in a society that was tolerant to dissenters and which had a government that was both just and compassionate.

Lord Meghnad Desai concluded the debate saying, "Congress lost the 2007 Gujarat elections, it will lose the 2008 or 2009 national elections and Narendra Modi will become the prime minister of India after L K Advani retires.

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