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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Can Modi Make It?

In the pursuit of power, history favours the originals. India's most popular politician is an Indian original with a rare talent for turning adversity into opportunity, and he wears his ambition on his custom-tailored shirt sleeve in a country where renunciation is seen as a moral virtue.
In his campaign for India, which began more than a decade ago when a train burned in the Godhra station of Gujarat, he is the scriptwriter as well as the choreographer, and his most explosive soundbites are delivered in chaste, modulated Gujarati. So when Narendra Modi borrows from the Book of Obama for a final stump flourish, it is not the Modi you know. Still, for every debutant in a democracy, Obama circa 2008 is an inspiring story of how the most passionate in politics can turn his biography into destiny, of how the restrictive rules of hierarchy are swept aside by the velocity of change.
Modi 2013 in style is very presidential, and so daringly unIndian in declaring what he wants even before the official start of the race; most strikingly, what he sells best, as the freshman senator from Illinois did in the transformative America of 2008, is an idea that is spelt in his own name. Modi's "Yes We Can" at another blockbuster rally is not entirely out of place, if not in its optimism but certainly in its spirit.
Forget the "We", unless the monarch of Gandhinagar is talking in royal third person; the question that emerges from India Today Group-CVoter Mood of the Nation Survey is: Can he? Can he bring an end to his party's life in wilderness-almost a decade lost in defeatism? Can he, the chosen redeemer and the possible ruler, regain the still vacant space of the Right in an India where the stagnation of BJP and Congress is directly proportional to the rise of regional parties? Can he be the harvester of disillusion as the Manmohan Singh regime is all set to become one of the most corrupt and discredited governments of our time? The poll shows that Modi is still the people's first choice for prime minister, and no one in the Parivar is anywhere near him in popularity. He has energised the base and widened the BJP's influence in the heartland, but the Cult of the Doer has not yet turned into votes: NDA's Lok Sabha tally stands at an unenviable 155, just 18 seats above the consistently sinking UPA-a visible fall after a steady ascendancy in the last three years.
Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi
Rahul Gandhi and Narendra Modi
Though NDA has increased its vote share since the last General Elections in 2009, the alliance, in spite of Modi, has failed to maintain the 200-mark of our January poll. The beneficiaries are regional parties waiting for the post-poll bidding season; the gaggle of parties not affiliated to either NDA or UPA has amassed 251 seats, a major chunk of them obviously coming from the Congress' near decimation in its historical citadels in the cow belt and the rise of Mamata Banerjee in the East. Are we missing the political balkanisation of India as the satrapies flourish at the expense of the Big Two?
That could be because the absence of a leader who can unify his own party and recapture the lost base from the regionalists has never been felt as acutely as it is in India today. Modi has a future to sell and his sales pitch dominates the airwaves and front pages but, more often than not, he seems to be in the wrong party. Usually, whenever there is a strong leader, he is the party-and the message. Not in BJP. He may be the first among equals, but the collective contribution of the "equals"-truly an embarrassment of riches in leadership-only makes the House of Saffron a leaning tower of Babel.
The Chief Minister of Gujarat is not the only stellar performer in the Parivar; his counterparts in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh too have impressive progress cards. Development and growth index alone can't win the national mind space for a politician. Modi, for so long a loner in the family, made himself inevitable by the sheer force of his personality-and hard work. He has never been tentative in playing out his ambition even as it hurt his peers in the party.
Every Assembly election he fought and won in Gujarat for him was a national battle; his stump theme was always India, its security, its self-esteem, its growth. In a house of medievalists and scavengers of mythology, he packaged himself as a moderniser even as those who suspected his secularism continued to caricature him as a man-eater. And it worked; the anti-hero of Gujarat 2002 is a ticketed event in the unlikeliest of places in India. Modi owes his bestselling status only to himself. Still the House can bring him down.
Out there, in various stages of disgruntlement, the "overlooked" others are waiting for the usurper's comeuppance. The tallest of them has all the credentials to be the patron saint of the Parivar but he chooses to be an eternal sulk, as if it is sin not to reward senescence and seniority. Most of the Modiites in BJP are not there out of choice; they just want to be on the winner's side even if the winner is too much of an individualist to be a team leader.
Apart from warring egos within, BJP has not acquired a distinctive voice of its own in all these years out of power. Ideologically, it still does not have an identity independent of cultural exceptionalism and cowdung capitalism; and when in doubt, it has the bad habit of invoking Ram. In today's politics, what matters most is not ideology but ideas, and BJP has none that captures the imagination of the youth-except Modi. In the morality test also, the party could not take on the defenceless UPA with a clear conscience: it has lost its only state in the south as the tainted B.S. Yeddyurappa rebelled, and lost face as Nitin Gadkari tried to strike a balance between his political and business interest. In its economics, BJP is not Right enough to be the natural alternative to Congress.
Not that the party doesn't have the right context; what it lacks is a text in tune with the zeitgeist. As the poll shows, Congress' slide towards an inglorious exit looks irreversible despite the UPA Government's desperate measures in tokenism, be it the Food Security Act or the sporadic gestures in reforms. The evolutionary story of Dr Manmohan Singh in power-more aptly in office-today evokes nothing but political bathos. An accidental prime minister unsullied by the dark arts of realpolitik, he began as a moderniser, and at the end of UPA's first term, he had already become a conviction politician who could outwit the Marxist anti-imperialists. He was the slogan that won General Elections 2009 for Congress; he would lose India in his second term. Manmohan Singh of the last five years watched in stony indifference as India broke records in corruption scandals; it was as if he was not part of the government that looted the state.When the country needed reassurance and accountability from its ministers, the head of the government retreated into a shell of silence. For 45 per cent of the voters, he is a non-performer; almost half of the voters think he should have resigned in the wake of the coal mines allocation scam; and 60 per cent doesn't want to see him again as prime minister. This kind of infamy should not be what a "honest" man deserves. Manmohan Singh has earned it, and in the political history of independent India, no good man has fallen so badly, so irredeemably. The asset of 2009 has become an expensive embarrassment on the eve of another General Election.
He has accumulated such a heap of scams and scandals that the best intentions of the Crown Prince of Congress, the Great Hope of one the world's most enduring political dynasties, are likely to be undone by them. For Congress too, the battle is within: Between Manmohan Singh's legacy and Rahul Gandhi's future. The legacy is one of wastage and brazenness; the future is tentative and reluctant. Set against Modi, India's most popular Congressman is truly Gandhian, much to the despair of his party and to the puzzlement of India: Power for him is not about office; it is about discoveries and revelations. The wonderment that is India is still unfolding before him and he is in no hurry to conquer it, no matter he is officially the campaign face of the party. His campaign, though, is less action and more reflection. Like his mother, Rahul too believes the power of a leader is not measured by his visibility, audibility or accessibility. He is the Congress prime minister India wants (44 per cent and way ahead of the commoners), and the party badly needs the sheltering shadow of a fourth generation Gandhi; but the Gandhi is elsewhere, beyond their grasp, playing out his ancestral script on his own terms, as if he is too immersed in his existential crisis to realise the life-threatening erosion of the party base in states like Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan.
So Modi has his job cut out for him. As the campaigner-in-chief, his first challenge is to make the best of Congress' retreat in Uttar Pradesh, the proverbial state that decides. If the Modi magic can be translated into 50 or so seats in the state, which means breaking the reigning Mulayam-Maya bipolarity, the BJP tally is bound to cross the 200-mark-and it will have even the luxury of choosing its ally. If Modi can take the BJP vote share closer to 30 per cent in the state, BJP's national tally may go beyond 200. If that ever happens, Modi's conquest of India and the party will be complete. Modi's battle is essentially in the north, and even in Bihar, as the poll reveals, Nitish Kumar's secularism wall is cracking. The second challenge is about winning friends. The conventional wisdom is that Modi is such a polarising figure that hardcore secularists-well, those who desperately need the Muslim vote to sustain their secularism-won't touch him. The cohabitation history of Indian politics tells a different story: No secularist has ever put principle over power. In the coalition bazaar, it is not just a Jayalalithaa or a Naveen Patnaik that Modi may find available if the BJP tally crosses 200.
The greater challenge is about whether he can be the unifier, within his own party and outside. In a party where every aspirant is a wannabe Atal Bihari Vajpayee but without the original's charisma, Modi is aware of his status as the most popular leader after the BJP's first prime minister; but he evokes more admiration than affection, and his flamboyance threatens everyone around him.An equal amount of tact will earn him more friends within BJP. To get more friends outside, he has to formulate a convincing explanation on Gujarat 2002.India, as the poll shows, expects him to say sorry, but he continues to mistake apology for mea culpa. Great leaders say sorry for the crimes of others; a leader in the race for greatness too can afford that.
To make his Yes We Can more resonant, Narendra Modi needs to show that he won't let his past blur the future he promises to build. Conscience too is a constituency worth nurturing in politics.

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