How will the BJP square the circle?
The Bharatiya Janata Party is barking up the wrong tree in making an ostentatious effort to woo Muslims. It might offer free skull caps and burqas to augment the minority components of gatherings listening to Narendra Modi’s public speeches.
But no Muslim, or indeed member of other minority communities, will be fooled by such gestures. Most Muslims will pocket the freebies and vote according to their conscience.
The first and only BJP Prime Minister of the country thus far, Atal Behari Vajpayee, was the acceptable face of the party because of his catholic outlook and ability to surmount his political upbringing in the ranks of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh. In a sense, he had outgrown his political apprenticeship to present himself as an Indian.
In Mr Modi’s case, on the other hand, the attraction people have for his way of governing is his decisiveness, his unabashed adherence to the Hindutva creed and his impatience with any form of dissent. These very qualities make him anathema not only to minorities but also to liberals. The articulate public at large might be tired of the dual leadership of the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government Mark II, but the arbitrary ways of the Gujarat chief minister would be equally unacceptable to a large section of the electorate.
Here lies the dilemma for Mr Modi and the BJP. The largest minority, Muslims, with a key role in determining the outcome of the elections in large parts of the country, are instinctively antithetical to what the Gujarat chief minister represents. His party might sport token Muslims as a gesture, but the new tactic of going to great lengths to suggest that large section of Muslims love him is merely to emphasise the obvious: token gestures do not win votes.
In a sense, the Modi candidacy for the post of Prime Minister highlights the almost insoluble riddle of how to promote the Hindutva creed with the diverse composition of the country. Hindutva, as it has come to be evolved in the RSS rule book, represents one definition of being a Hindu overlaid with dollops of mythology essentially of the street variety. Perhaps, the RSS leadership felt cheated by Mr Vajpayee’s stint of six years at the Centre because although he paid lip service to the RSS ideology on occasions, his policies reflected a more liberal outlook, conscious as he was of the complexities of ruling India.
The RSS’ insistence on the BJP naming Mr Modi as Prime Minister-in-waiting was its belief in his capacity to gather votes and in his ability to enthuse the organisation’s foot soldiers, people who will work at the grassroots to get loyal voters. Mr Modi also has an appeal to the aspirational urban voters who are tired of the seeming indecisiveness of the present UPA dispensation in which the ultimate authority vests in the party president rather than the Prime Minister.
How to square the circle is the most formidable of the BJP’s tasks. Of the two remaining constituents of the National Democratic Alliance, the Shiv Sena is, of course, a perfect fit and the interest of Punjab’s Akali Dal in supporting the BJP candidate is that it is the only way it can ward off the threat of the Congress to embrace the BJP.
For Mr Modi personally the problem is how to round the rough edges of his rhetoric sufficiently to induce the minorities and for others to suggest that he is not quite the Hindutva fanatic that he might appear while retaining his fanatical appeal to his acolytes who love him for his Hindu propagation and his blunt talk, such as describing the former military ruler of Pakistan as “Mian Musharraf”.
It would indeed appear that tactically Mr Modi has started his campaign after his coronation as the party candidate on the wrong foot. His party’s pretence of its love for Muslims will lead him nowhere. Rather, he should give up his attempt to be what he is not. His package of economic development and good governance comes with a big helping of Hindutva and, given his new status, many are examining the chinks in his model of development in Gujarat with a microscope. It is, for instance, generally recognised that human indicators in his state are far from impressive.
There is, of course, time for Mr Modi and his party to change course in an election campaign that has just begun. Since most of the votes Mr Modi will collect will be from the majority community, his problem will be to fine-tune his attributes without overtly antagonising minorities. The Gujarat chief minister is a great believer in the efficacy of public relations, and he is in the habit of employing the best in the field — usually of American provenance — to spread his message.
It is, therefore, doubly perplexing how he has goofed up on his message in the initial phase of what promises to be a bitter propaganda battle. Economic development is always a safe but somewhat unspectacular talking point. And as his performance at the Haryana rally showed, he has had to tone down his anti-Pakistan rhetoric — always a crowd-pleaser — to remain a credible candidate for the top job.
Congress-bashing is all very well and is to be expected as staple fare, but its repetition ad nauseam becomes tiring. Granted that the UPA-2 has proved incompetent in the BJP’s view, what does Mr Modi have to offer beyond the Gujarat development model, which is not necessarily suited to all parts of the country? We have not had an answer from the Gujarat chief minister thus far.
Expectedly, Mr Modi is laying much emphasis on propagating his message through social media. But as every politician knows, such media reaches only segments of the people; the vast majority of the population is not Internet-savvy or connected. And the adulatory mail Mr Modi receives is limited in its impact to sway the majority. In many instances, he is preaching to the converted.
Mr Modi’s coup has been in convincing some high-profile analysts and commentators that his time has come, that he is the one-man answer to all of India’s problems.