Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Saffron Topdog Takes Gujarat

I woke up this morning with a distinct sense of deja vu. Earlier in the year I had written about Behen Mayawati's electoral trouncing of rivals in the UP elections. This morning, once again, I felt a mixture of irritation (don't like BMW and don't particularly like Modi) and awe at the increasingly sophistication of the Indian voter.

Yes, I know that international press is already screaming in shrill tones about "Hindu nationalism" and Modi's "fundamentalism." The thoroughly whipped Congress is calling it the victory of communal and divisive politics, while a section of the local media is gleefully predicting that the rise of Modi shall also mean the demise of BJP's party-not-individual-based politics.

Now the caveats: the foreign media loves to demonise anyone from a non-western country who doesn't speak with an Oxbridge accent or at least pretend to have clear western leanings and influences. Meanwhile, a large section of the English-langauge press - led by scions of the old English-educated elite - in India has an uneasy relationship with the plain-speaking (and often outright crass) Modi. They would prefer a Rahul Gandhi with his "international"/urban/dynastic credentials or a Jyotiraditya Scindia with a moth-eaten royal lineage.

Not surprisingly, a large section of the Indian media had gleefully written off Modi and the BJP in the state. An episode of NDTV's The Big Fight was immensely revealing of a general anti-Modi bias amongst sections of the media, as the host Rajdeep Sardesai admonished a primarily Gujarati crowd that "middle class audiences didn't make for election victories." Wonder whether he is tempted to eat those particular words today?

But let's go back to the basics of Modi's success which are surprisingly similar to the UP elections in May. Mayawati campaigned on the "Brahma, Vishnu, Mahesh" inclusivity platform that had signalled the demise of old caste-based politics and indicated a new inclusivity. Modi's "Jeetega Gujarat" did the same - signalling (hopefully) the end of hypocritical secular-vs-Hindutva divisions in the Indian polity. Perhaps this election - barring some Congress-led mudslinging - can herald an era beyond creed-based politics in the country and a move towards elections won and lost on issues of governance.

As in UP, the Gujarat voter too signalled his/her ability to look beyond the campaign hyperbole. When Congress alleged corruption and lack of development, the voters could actually see the difference of transparent governance and economic growth. When the Centre (led by the PM Manmohan Singh, and Congress's favourite if inept campaigners of the Gandhi family) alleged that Muslims were marginalised in Gujarat, the voters noted that Gujarati Muslims still posted higher literacy rates and well being indicators in the state than other parts of the country.

More importantly, the Modi-led BJP campaign was focussed on economic growth and development platform backed with evidence of good governance. The allegedly "aggressive Hindutva" was only brought out in response to Sonia Gandhi's ill-judged "traders of death" (maut ke saudagar) remark. Even then, it was not the crude Ayodhya-brand but of the sophisticated "terrorism" and national security variety. Most voters found the "secular" credentials falling flat as abuse of power and vote-bank politics by so-called "secular" parties stood in stark light with issues of Afzal Guru/Sohrabuddin, Taslima, Nandigram etc.

In the days before mass media, 24-hour news channels, and Indian-style hyper-aggressive television journalism, Gujarat voters could have ignored the hypocrisy evident in statements by Congress/Left leaders, or remained dangerously unaware of it. This is no longer possible, and Modi/BJP used it to their best advantage.

There is a final aspect that needs mentioning. Like Mayawati, Modi also hails from modest origins, beginning life as a tea-seller on a small railway station. He has progressed through the traditional school of Indian politics, acquiring "grassroots" experience as an RSS pracharak, and then as an ABVP leader at university. Like Mayawati, he is one of the post-independence generation that have made ambition acceptable for Indians(watch this space as Modi slowly moves to the centre-stage in time for the next general elections). He - like Mayawati - represents an India that is no longer satisfied to live at subsistence levels while watching their leaders live lifestyles of the maharajahs. Not only do we want a piece of that pie, but we are increasingly unwilling to let our political leaders keep us away from the table.

With no elite pedigree, massive inheritance or foreign education, Modi - like APJ Abdul Kalam, Shahrukh Khan and Dhirubhai Ambani - symbolizes an increasingly impatient, aggressive, India where it is not only possible but also desireable to make it to the top of the heap by sheer force of will.

Compare then, how in contrast, the Congress dutifully trotted out the usual Sonia and Rahul Gandhis who increasingly seem anachronistic in a country where fortunes may be won by hard work and enterprise, and not by dint of inheritance. The duo seemed hopelessly out of touch with the daily realities of the land. The situation was not helped by the Prime Minister - another with little experience of electoral politics - who managed to score ample self-goals.

Of course, there is no denying that the Congress Signora was the star self-goal scorer. Not only did she introduce personal mudslinging into a campaign that appeared to be focussed on real issues of economics, security, development, but most of her remarks were ruinous in political terms. When Sonia spoke of the "merchants of death," most voters were reminded of her "martyr" husband's dismissal of the Congress-organised 1984 riots as reverbarations of "a great tree falling." The Gandhis ignored an essential rule of electoral politics, to their own detriment: never draw attention to one's own sins.

In May, I had wondered why the BJP - apparently the "party with a difference" had forgotten the very premises that had brought it to national significance and turned itself into a copy of the Congress. With the Gujarat elections, it seems that it is taking the lessons taught by BMW and finding its own path again. Unfortunately, as in case of BMW, Modi too shall be a leading light on this trail.