To the extent that it is possible in India, the 2014 parliamentary elections will be perhaps its most ideologically defined affair.
With the anointment of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the main opposition Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) prime ministerial candidate the country now has its first truly right wing option. He contrasts sharply with whichever candidate the current ruling Congress Party might choose to field. The tossup is between Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and party vice president Rahul Gandhi. Dr. Singh may not temperamentally be left wing but his political circumstance ensures that he remains so. Gandhi, on the other hand, is unapologetically left wing.
As Jairam Ramesh, India’s rural development minister and one of the sharpest minds in the Congress Party, rightly called it the elections this time will be a contest between the Congress ideology, such as it is, and the one espoused by the BJP’s sternly regimental parent, the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS). I think Jairam is on to something when he says that the RSS should give up all its pretense of being a “cultural” organization and declare it to be a political party. In India everyone and everything is political until proven otherwise.
For the purposes of easy identification it may be reasonable to call Modi an RSS candidate but as I have been saying for years now he is a singular figure whose image of the self may or may not be complex but it is certainly grand. Jairam makes a valid point that since the RSS is so integrally involved in all the political decision-making in the BJP, it is just as well that its leaders emerge from the cultural closet and position themselves politically like other politicians. They will never do so because the cultural cloak fortifies them against the vagaries of politics which may rudely make them aware of the limits of their certitudes.
Coming back to Modi and his own image of the self, I have always thought that in his private mind he stopped considering himself as an extension of any ideology a long time ago. If there ever was a singular figure in India’s politics other than Indira Gandhi, it is Narendra Modi. In a 2007 analysis I had described him as “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.”
In that analysis for the IANS wire before the last Gujarat state elections which he handily won, I had also said this, “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.”
For reasons of political expediency Modi may yet choose to guard the core interests of his ideological parent, the RSS, even as he goes about putting together an awkwardly plural mix to appeal to India’s great diversity. But make no mistake, he will remain a singular figure in his own mind on whose shoulders may fall the responsibility of running the country.
It suits the Congress Party to cast the elections in ideological terms rather than in personality terms simply because they do not have an equally compelling, charismatic and demagogic secular/liberal counter to Modi. The party may even argue with some justification that they are about overall political philosophy and not some political gladiator. However, the world history is littered with examples of precisely such gladiators rising to the very top. There is surely an appetite for a strong plural ideology in India but it seems, simultaneously, there is also a significant quest for someone more singular. In the end, of course, India’s fractured and fractious political realities will produce a highly moderated outcome of the kind even Narendra Modi, should he win, will not be able to ride roughshod over.
I am sure even he knows that being a chief minister in no way prepares a politician to govern a civilizational entity of India’s enormous complexity and competing pulls and strains.