Home > News > Columnists > Swapan Dasgupta
The issue is not Modi
June 23, 2004
For the past week, India's premier opposition party has conveyed all the impressions of being a headless chicken. The impression has persisted despite unconvincing reports of good cameraderies being restored at the meeting of the
Parliamentary Board last Sunday.
Following the unexpected remarks of former prime minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in Manali, the Bharatiya Janata Party has flapped about aimlessly, generating lots of noise and hurtling from one direction to another. The impact of the party's grandstanding in Parliament on the appointment of tainted ministers has been overwhelmed by a deep internal crisis centred on the question: what is the road ahead?
Let it be said at the outset that the issue is not Narendra Modi's future. Regardless of the disappointment felt in BJP circles over the slide in Gujarat, the party still won a majority of Lok Sabha seats from the state and its popular vote touched 48 per cent. Modi's style of leadership did certainly generate a degree of resentment, particularly his handling of the
farmers' agitation against power tariff hikes.
However, on the substantive issue of pushing ahead with power reforms, Modi's policies were completely in line with the National Democratic Alliance. Punishing him for being a reformer would be akin to impaling Arun Shourie because he combined his zeal for disinvestment with a remarkable intolerance of his critics. It is ironic that those who demanded Modi's removal, made Shourie's renomination to the Rajya Sabha a prestige issue.
Nor does it make sense to belatedly crucify Modi for the riots that happened more than two years ago. If Modi was a liability for the BJP, as has been vociferously argued by the English-language media, he should have been removed before the 2002 assembly poll. It is worth recalling that the Gujarat chief minister had offered his resignation at the BJP national executive in Goa and that it was turned down, not least because it would have a debilitating effect on the Hindu vote. That decision was vindicated by the BJP's impressive victory in the state assembly polls. To reverse that decision now would not only be unprincipled, it would also suggest a deep contempt for the voters of Gujarat. I have little doubt that the BJP would find it difficult to recover from such an amazing U-turn.
It has been suggested that the issue is not what the people of Gujarat think but the Modi effect on the 2004 general election. With retrospective wisdom it has dawned on the BJP that the much-hoped-for support from Muslims was an pipedream sold by some clever minority leaders. Except in a handful of constituencies, Muslims, it would seem, voted as a bloc against NDA candidates. A subterranean campaign by the Congress and Left centred on the Gujarat riots is being blamed for this anti-NDA, Muslim consolidation.
Consequently, Modi's removal is being sought to rectify this so-called anti-secular image.
The BJP's desire to forge the broadest social coalition for the NDA is understandable. Yet, there is more than a tinge of dishonesty in the contention that Vajpayee failed to be prime minister again because the Muslims weren't enthused by the BJP. According to the exhaustive exit polls of the CSDS, the NDA's share of the Muslim vote fell from 14 per cent in 1999 to 11 per cent in 2004.
In social terms, the decline in Muslim support was not more marked than the fall in NDA support among upper caste Hindus and the middle classes. Looking at Uttar Pradesh, where the party won more than 50 seats in 1991, 1996 and 1998, when Muslim support for the BJP was almost zero, can it not be said that real failure was in the inability to secure Hindu votes? Were the overdoses of contrived secularism, such as flaunting images of President Pervez Musharraf on campaign buses, counter-productive? Did the BJP benefit from ridiculous campaign advertisements on Urdu channels showing happy Muslims
praying and the Shahi Imam of Delhi's Jama Masjid tangentially endorsing the BJP? I remember seeing one of these advertisements during the campaign and telling a senior BJP leader that it could well have been a Muslim League
The entire fuss over Gujarat is an expedient red herring. Like Mao Zedong who once mounted an attack on Beethoven as a cover for an assault on Liu Shaoqui, the BJP stalwarts seem intent on using Modi to settle a debate on more fundamental issues.
The first question is: should the BJP and NDA sit in opposition for the foreseeable future or should it use the existing Lok Sabha to forge a realignment that would upstage the Congress? Modi's departure would be a powerful signal that the BJP is eyeing the treasury benches before another Lok Sabha election. This would be opportunistic, short-cut politics at its sordid
best. It would be tantamount to repudiating the verdict of the people. Such coalitional adventurism will cost the BJP dearly in future.
Linked to this is the second issue. Who will call the shots in the party? If Modi is shown the door, it will open the floodgates for a bout of internal reorganisation of the BJP in which the main casualty could well be the party president M Venkiah Naidu. Indeed, Naidu seems to be the immediate target of those who feel that the principle of collective responsibility is not
The issue, I repeat, is not Modi. The Gujarat Chief Minister has become the symbol of a larger battle over the future of the BJP. This is a battle that will persist long after the national executive concludes in Mumbai.