‘Modi’-fying India 17 September 2013
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has selected Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the forthcoming Indian elections. Should the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), in which the BJP is the major and most popular party, win the most number of seats in the 2014 Indian elections, then the BJP has proposed that Mr Modi become prime minister of India.
(The term of the current Lok Sabha (lower house) ends on 31 May 2014. The Election Commission of India, which conducts the Indian election over 3-4 weeks in order to accommodate the large number of Indian voters, has yet to announce actual election dates. The current prime minister, Dr Manmohan Singh, may choose to go to the polls earlier.)
Narendra Modi is a polarising figure. Many Indians, particularly middle class ones, hold him in high regard because, as chief minister of Gujarat since 2002, Modi has boosted the Gujarat economy, encouraged and enabled development, and delivered 24-hour access to electricity throughout the state. He also is a Hindu, a strong Indian nationalist and an advocate and supporter of ‘Hindutva’, which term, according to the Indian Supreme Court, is ‘a synonym of Indianisation, i.e., development of uniform culture by obliterating the differences between all the cultures co-existing in the country’. For Modi, the Indian Army represents an organisation with a ‘uniform culture’.
Thus, Modi favours equality for all Indians, not the ‘appeasement’ which he considers that the Indian National Congress, the major party in the ruling United Progressive Alliance (UPA) and the BJP’s main political rival, of practising. For Congress, all Indians are equal, but some disadvantaged Indian minorities need assistance, support or to be positively discriminated in favour of. These Indians include Dalits (Untouchables), Adivasis (aborigines), Other Backward Classes (OBCs), and minorities, including Muslims. Similarly, Modi does not favour parties lobbying ‘vote banks’, such as Muslims, Untouchables or Brahmins, etc., in the way that Congress traditionally has done. He seeks to appeal to Indians regardless of their location, religion, caste, class, creed, etc. While seemingly a nice ideal, the Indian electoral system does not yet work this way. No longer are there any truly national parties in the way that Congress once was. Instead, apart from the BJP and Congress, regional parties now also are very important political forces. Indian political parties also must appeal to as many sectors of the diverse Indian society as they can.
Conversely, Modi is unpopular with some Indians, particularly ‘secularists’ and Muslims. This is because of his mishandling and condoning of serious Hindu-Muslim violence in Gujarat in 2002 that saw 790 Muslims and 254 Hindus killed, 223 people go missing, and a further 2,500 people injured—not to mention economic upheaval and dislocation amongst the affected. Modi also is unpopular with some senior Indian politicians, in particular Bihar’s chief minister, Nitish Kumar, who considers the Gujarati disrespectful and divisive. Kumar’s party, the Janata Dal (United), was an NDA member until 16 June, when it withdrew after Modi was appointed chairman of the BJP’s election campaign committee. This is significant as the JU (D), which is the fifth largest party in the Lok Sabha, has been an NDA stalwart, while Bihar itself has 40 (of 545) Lok Sabha constituencies. (Gujarat has 24.) To enhance his popularity among northern Indians, Modi may stand from Uttar Pradesh, India’s most populous state, with 80 Lok Sabha constituencies.
Seemingly, a senior BJP stalwart, L.K. Advani, also does not respect Modi, although the two men may have been somewhat reconciled in recent days. Modi’s nomination as prospective prime minister represents a generational change in the BJP, with Advani (85 years old) being ‘encouraged’ by other party members to relinquish leadership to the younger Modi (63 years old). Modi’s relative youthfulness gives him a significant advantage against his incumbent Congress rivals, particularly Prime Minister Singh (81 years old) and President Mukherjee (78 years old). Whether Congress likes it or not, it soon also will go through an enforced generational change. Equally, Modi has another advantage in relation to Rahul Gandhi (43 years old), who Congress may anoint as its prime ministerial candidate: Modi has had considerable experience in politics and administration, including electioneering. Conversely, Gandhi has no direct administrative experience, he lacks charisma, while his political campaigning to date has not been terribly effective. Equally, however, Gandhi has one significant factor in his favour: the mystique of the Nehru-Gandhi lineage and name. This is worth many (incalculable) votes. Another factor is an interest, seemingly genuine, in India’s poor.
According to some analysts, Modi’s selection could result in the NDA obtaining a five per cent increase in electoral support at the elections. Although it is hard to evaluate this premise, in a first-past-the-post voting system, such a boost could prove to be significant. Equally, while Modi is popular with middle class Indians, many of whom reside in urban areas, almost 70 per cent of Indians still live in rural or village India, where the results of all Indian elections are still ultimately decided. In such areas, the Gujarati’s popularity is less certain. Indeed, Modi should keep in mind the cocky BJP’s slogan for the 2004 elections of ‘India Shining’, which resonated with urban, middle class Indians, but not with rural or lower class Indians. Consequently, the BJP, to its astonishment, lost this election.
The 2014 election is by no means a foregone conclusion, with some early opinion polls suggesting a three-way split of seats between UPA, NDA and regional parties—making the only certainty another coalition government of some sort. Modi will be a political force for the UPA and for regional parties, particularly, to reckon with. Equally, however, he needs to transform himself from a regional politician to a national leader—and to be as inclusive and non-discordant as possible while doing so. This will be Modi’s biggest challenge.
(For a short interview on Radio Australia by the author about Narendra Modi, see http://www.radioaustralia.net.au/international/radio/program/asia-pacific/controversial-bjp-figure-annointed-as-candidate-for-indian-pm/1191059)
17 September 2013