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How secularists played into Modi's hands
M R Venkatesh
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December 24, 2007
An eye for an eye makes the whole world blind
-- Mahatma Gandhi [Images]

The Gujarat election verdict would, without a doubt, leave many in the secular cabal completely flabbergasted. Some would even take this to mean a complete perversion of the Constitution, democracy and nationhood, little realising that this is the verdict of the people of Gujarat.

After all, isn't this the supreme manifestation of the will of the people -- a high watermark for our democracy?

Needless to emphasise, this win for Modi completely alters the landscape of Indian politics comprehensively -- both within the Bharatiya Janata Party and outside. From now on Modi may claim to be 'one' of the tallest leaders within the BJP as he is one of the very few leaders in the party who has achieved spectacular electoral successes consistently -- something that can be rivalled in Indian electoral history only by a Jawaharlal Nehru, a Jyoti Basu or an M G Ramachandran.

And that, for starters, may alter the delicate balance of power between the 'Generation Next' leaders so assiduously nurtured after the bitter acrimony witnessed within the party after their defeat in the 2004 general election.

In fact, some sections of the BJP and, of course, Modi's sympathisers within the party may demand a rethink of the BJP to approach the next general election under L K Advani's leadership. One is sure that as whispers get shriller in the days to come, it may muddy the waters within the BJP further and alter the delicate power equations recently established after years of internal squabbling within the BJP.

To quote Modi, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Isn't it?

But the change in the BJP's intra-party dynamics is the smaller order of the smalls. After all, all that has been stated above is merely speculative and part of media gossip for several months, accentuated in recent weeks by the possibility of Modi's electoral success. And that being an internal matter within the BJP does not warrant any further discussion.

Strategic blunder by the Congress

Yet one feels that Modi did not win this election, as much as the Congress lost it. To understand the full import of the strategic blunder committed by the Congress, one needs to appreciate the fact that Modi sought to duck any debate pertaining to Godhra and the subsequent Gujarat riots in the initial stages of his campaign.

Perhaps he did not want to open old wounds. Perhaps it was far too embarrassing for him to discuss the same. Perhaps that debate did not suit him as he sought to portray an image of a leader who was only keen on development.

Whatever be the provocation it was a moment of sheer strategic blunder and political madness within the Congress think-tank that lead to the scripting of the by now infamous 'merchants of death' speech for their president, Sonia Gandhi [Images]. Surely, the Congress would be ruing this moment and kicking itself.

And that changed the complexion of the electoral battle overnight. It would seem that the party since then was walking barefoot on broken glass. Till such time when the debate was primarily focussed on the development agenda, Modi, despite his reasonable track record of development, seemed on the back foot to an independent observer.

Like all astute strategists, Modi seized the moment with both hands, turned the political debate on its head and with it bludgeoned the hapless Opposition into submission.

Did Modi's machismo prevail ultimately?

I had the opportunity to extensively travel in Gujarat in December 2006 as a part of a team of economists, trying to understand the 'growth story' of the state. The reverence or contempt that the commoner had for Modi was extraordinary, but with a crucial difference. The former opinion outnumbered the latter many times over. Even Jayalalithaa, the former Tamil Nadu chief minister, to my mind, did not attract such extreme reactions from the common man during her first term.

Again without taking sides (which is indeed very difficult when it comes to Modi) one could see that the administration was kept on its toes. For instance, when it came to the floods in Surat in August 2006, locals recalled with gratitude as to how Modi personally stayed in Surat to supervise relief operations.

Similarly, whenever we met any businessman in Gujarat, one could see the sense of relief in handling an administration that was relatively clean by Indian standards.

Surely, it is remarkable that despite an acrimonious campaign, a person like Modi, with so many baiters within his own party, Opposition and the media, did not attract any serious charge of being personally corrupt.

In fact, this, I understand is at the root of local dissidence within the BJP.

Similarly, when we passed through rural Gujarat and sought notes to the Gujarat development story, anecdotal references collected by our team pointed out to some spectacular thrust by the administration on rural infrastructure, water, micro-irrigation, education and power. "Modi's claim of providing 24 hour power to the countryside is a huge sham," a local leader from the Congress would say and add sheepishly "We get power only for 22 hours."

The only area where we felt Gujarat was lacking behind was in rural health -- a fact that Modi seems to be quite conscious of.

When I asked Modi what the goals for the next few years were I distinctly recall his deep breath, a short pause and typical swagger when he said, "From now on the benchmark for Gujarat is no more any other state of the Indian Union. Rather, it would be south-east Asia."

Despite all this talk of development it is indeed a sad state of affairs that the political debate during the Gujarat election centred over the unfortunate events five years back rather than what could happen five years hence.

And when the coordinates of the political discourse were drawn midway during the campaign, it was Modi's machismo and not his development agenda that mattered. And that to me is a colossal tragedy for Indian politics.

Will this win alter the collective psyche of voters in India?

What is crucial is the manner in which this win could alter the collective psyche of the majority community vis-a-vis the minority communities and as a natural sequel alter the political discourse within the country.

To understand the implications, at the outset, one needs to understand the psyche of an average Indian. Talk to any Indian, one would instantly find his desire for a 'strong, assertive and effective' leader. This requires some explanation.

Secularists, with their firm belief that the concept of this nation could be built from a clean slate without any reference to her past, are oblivious of this set of voters and their psyche. Remember, we are a nation with a historical baggage of defeats in the past thousand years or so. Much as the secularists may deny, our collective psyche has a subconscious yet powerful relationship with our history, especially this unpleasant history.

That would mean that an average Indian is ready to tolerate a leader who could be by and large accused of being dictatorial, undemocratic or even fascist by some. In fact, an average Indian would never understand the import of these words.

On the other hand, an average Indian understands, assumes and expects his leader to have a dash of idiosyncrasies.

It is a perfectly acceptable trade-off in the Indian context -- a leader who is 'dictatorial' and yet addresses the collective consciousness, fears and apprehensions of the voters.

While this may be incomprehensible to the secular mind, this understanding of the mind of his voters facilitates Modi to even ensure transfer of any personal abuse into the abuse of his voters, every political debate into 'us' versus 'them.'

Naturally, this approach becomes all the more potent in a nation that has seen rapes, plunders and murders over the millennia. And our collective understanding is that all this happened because we Indians were never politically conscious of defending ourselves.

Crucially, we did not have strong leaders to defend the nation from such predators. And that would substantially, if not wholly, explain our romantic fixation with Chhatrapati Shivaji and his ilk.

It also explains as to why reactions to events like Partition remain highly provocative even after six decades. In contemporary politics that would mean there is a captive voter, should someone articulate these concerns effectively. And Modi fits the bill perfectly.

Call it by whatever name -- Hindutva or Moditva -- Modi is a master at voicing this concern of his voter in the contemporary setting. It is not merely the bijli, sadak and paani (power, roads and water) issues -- it is much more and includes national security, terrorism, regional pride and, of course, a clean administration as a vehicle for growth.

Further, by talking about development simultaneously, Modi represents the temporal link between the past, the present and the future.

And if the Gujarat election results were any indication, it is very clear that the secularists and some within the media (who carry a pathological hatred for him) would play into his hands in the future too. Naturally as they get shriller, it would suit Modi more. In fact, that would mean, the secularists would do the job of polarising the voters for him and not the other way round.

Given these arguments, Modi's win would in all probability alter the psyche of some section of the voters as they could become more assertive. That could mean increased communal tensions and social friction. As Indian society gets divided on these lines, it could well lead to the revival of militant Hinduism -- leading to shriller retaliation from the secularists leading to a vicious spiral of polarisation of the polity, voters and society. And in such a surcharged atmosphere it is Modi who would probably emerge as a winner.


The Gujarat election results definitely mark a return to Hindutva by the Indian polity. The return has been facilitated well and truly by 'secular fundamentalism.' This has been the fear of genuine secularists as fundamentalism of any kind is unacceptable and unworkable in a country like India.

Secular fundamentalism would give rise to Hindu fundamentalism, which would in turn trigger Islamic fundamentalism. Would the secularists, both within the media and the polity, introspect this issue in greater depth at least now?

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