Revisiting Gujarat election and Narendra Modi

As my home state of Gujarat prepares for the second and final round of elections for the state legislative assembly tomorrow, it is extraordinary that Chief Minister Narendra Modi remains the central issue. Everything and everyone else seems extraneous.That was the case in 2002 as well in 2007, the previous two elections which he won handily.

For any politician to sustain that duration of personal focus is an extraordinary feat. Whether it is beneficial to democratic discourse is a different matter altogether. A compelling example of how Modi has managed to effect a complete political polar switch was evident during a television show called ‘The Big Fight’ hosted by news anchor Vikram Chandra on NDTV yesterday.

Broadcast from Ahmedabad, the show featured six panelists, three of whom were decidedly anti-Modi and three unambiguously pro-Modi. I was struck by two in particular—Hemant Shah, a professor of economics at the H K College of Arts, and Zafar Sareshwala, a well known local businessman. Somewhere along the way Shah described himself as a “common Hindu” while in response Sareshwala called himself a “common Muslim.”

It would be counterintuitive for someone unaware of Gujarat’s politics to see Professor Shah, a “common Hindu” handing down a stinging denunciation of an avowedly pro-Hindu politician, while Sareshwala, a “common Muslim”, offering a ringing endorsement of the same politician. That’s the political polar switch I am talking about. Admittedly, these two are just two individuals who do not by themselves represent a broader collective thinking but in so much as they made for watchable television they were quite effective.

At the end of the show when Chandra asked the panelists to sum up their views up, Sareshwala said, “What Modi has done, he has delivered on performance.” He even suggested that in the last five years or so there has been a definite movement in favor of justice being done for the victims of the 2002 conflagration that killed an upward of a 1000 Muslims. The conflagration February, 2002, was set off by the brutal killings 58 Hindu pilgrims aboard a train.

In contrast, Professor Shah, who presented a feisty case against Modi, called him “the worst politician in India’s history since independence” and also described him as an autocrat who did not care for the opposite point of view.

It was interesting to see the three academics on the panel, Dr. Darshini Mahadevia, Prof. Shah and Dr. Gaurang Jani demolish the Modi mystique by citing specific human development figures such as high infant mortality, low labor wages, high malnutrition, a skewed sex ratio, poor education and bad health standards. In contrast, the three businessmen on the panel Sunil Alagh, Sareshwala and Sanjay Majumdar bolstered the same Modi mystique by citing great roads, corruption-free industrial clearances, uninterrupted power supply and easy land acquisition in the state.

The two broad themes that emerged were sharp and contradictory. A certain class of Gujarat’s population, namely the urban and semiurban middle class, which also happens to be most vocal in such TV debates, had benefitted a great deal in the last decade, while a vast percentage of rural population had largely languished on the margins amid very poor social indicators. It was almost as if Modi has consciously chosen to be the leader of the former even while beguiling the latter with lofty rhetoric.

The point is he has managed to keep that narrative fired up for over a decade and in the process made him a plausible contender for prime minister when India’s next general election takes place in 2014.

Five years ago almost to the day, just before the last state assembly election, I had written an analysis for the IANS wire which I think is still valid.

By Mayank Chhaya, Indo-Asian News Service

December 9, 2007

Narendra Modi is an extraordinary combination of demagoguery, self-belief and remorselessness. He is a politician who has no stake in the prevailing political order and hence has no problem dismantling it without any compunction. It is hardly surprising that the more traditional political class is looking askance as Modi goes about railroading them at every step.

It should be clear to anyone reasonably discerning that no amount of secular or liberal outrage will stop Modi in his tracks unless his own constituents turn against him. In fact, a stronger secular and liberal outrage will merely enhance his stature among his followers who see him as a figure who compensates for their own sense of emasculation.

One primary reason why Modi has succeeded as an individual rather than a party leader is because he has been able to present neatly formulaic, if deeply flawed, messages to the largely uncritical Gujarati community. He has been able to not just co-opt a large number of people into his cause but also make them complicit in it.

The predominantly mercantile Gujarati community is particularly drawn towards a political philosophy shorn of nuance. And Modi offers that philosophy with devastating effect. Centuries of mercantile culture has conditioned a vast number of Gujarati people to look at life in sharply defined terms. It is no accident that "nafa-nuksan" (profit and loss) is one of the most frequently used expressions in Gujarat. Although Gujarat has a glorious tradition of philanthropy very often led by top businessmen, the motivating instinct is still nafa-nuksan. Modi knows that Gujaratis like and understand an uncluttered, albeit often unsophisticated message rather than intellectually abstruse arguments.

Gujaratis also like singular leaders untroubled by encumbrances of deep and complex political and social reflection. Before Modi, another leader who successfully harnessed this natural antipathy for layered thinking was the late Chiman Patel in the 1970s and 1980s. Modi relishes and thrives on the utter bewilderment that the secular/liberal establishment feels at the way he conducts himself politically.

In many ways, Modi is perhaps the first Indian politician in the past few decades who positions himself as someone who could not care less about the very people he seeks to serve. There is self-assurance bordering on arrogance in his demeanor as well as his conduct that is hard to counter.

All politicians have a degree of self-belief but in Modi it has reached proportions not seen before. In his interviews he comes across as someone who thinks a second opinion is not just incidental but it is inconsequential. People like Modi invest in themselves to the exclusion of anyone or anything. They assume for themselves the role of the ultimate savior against what they perceive to be a great threat or the ultimate champion of a great cause. This assumption is not necessarily rooted in reality but their powerful motivation launches them into a dizzying trajectory that is nearly impossible to stop. Eventually, they burn out but not before causing considerable damage in the process.

A common mistake that a lot of people in India make while dealing with Modi is to hand out strong and abusive denunciation as if he actually judges himself by or cares about those normal standards. One typical example was the Congress party’s reaction that Modi should be tried in the international court for conniving at staged  (2002) killings. Modi would immediately turn that into an advantage by calling it an attack on someone who champions Gujarat’s pride. He is so glib and good at political adlibbing that hardly anyone among his main detractors is able to go toe-to-toe with him.

It is possible that the coming assembly poll in Gujarat may yet deliver Modi his comeuppance but given the way he is he could well treat it as anything but a defeat. He would spin it to say that people did not understand the lofty purpose that propels him.

There are only two ways to deal with a personality like Modi.

One is to create an equally compelling, charismatic and demagogic secular/liberal counter to him or make him irrelevant by not paying any attention to him. Since he is chief minister of an important state who impacts the daily lives of millions, the latter option is not viable.

It is a fact that the Congress party has not been able to create a state level challenge to him. If after committing the prestige of Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh behind the election, the party still loses it will make Modi that much more unassailable with a clear shot at the national leadership.

Of course, despite all the hype and hoopla Modi is still very much a regional satrap who would find it extremely difficult if not altogether impossible to persuade the vast diversity of India’s political, cultural and social opinion.

It would be interesting to see whether the demagogue manages to seduce the people of Gujarat for five more years or confronts the limits of his chicanery.


About chutiumsulfate

South Asians can infer from my name what I am. View all posts by chutiumsulfate

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