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Dhaka Tribune

Keeping up with the Modi wave

Update : 28 Mar 2017, 11:53 PM

The recent elections in India ended with some interesting outcomes. Provincial election took place in five states, among which Uttar Pradesh (UP) is by far the largest province in India in terms of population and political clout as it has the most seats in a single state (about 15%) out of India’s 29 states.

It’s also the second largest economy amongst Indian states and it’s adjacent to the federal capital Delhi. Elections were also held in two medium-sized states, Punjab and Uttarkhand, and in two smaller states, Manipur and Goa.

The BJP won the biggest prize -- Uttar Pradesh -- with a majority. It has stormed into power in UP after 15 long years and it appears that it did so by riding on the Narendra Modi wave. Mr Modi was actively involved in the campaign and addressed huge numbers of rallies. He became the face of the campaign for the party in UP, despite being the country’s prime minister.

However, for the grand old Congress party, it wasn’t all doom and gloom this time. They won back Punjab decisively from the regional Sikh Akali Dal-led alliance where the BJP is a junior partner. They are also the single largest party in Manipur and Goa.

The supposed new political force, the Aam Admi Party (AAP), was projected to do well in Punjab and Goa, but it under-performed; although it was able to become the main opposition in Punjab despite running for the first time.

Politics in India is extremely complex as it is fraught with many factors such as caste, communalism, linguistic ethnicity, leadership, reservations, and of course, current developmental issues. Often it’s not easy to precisely predict which factor would become predominant in which election.  Mr Modi had some developmental success in Gujarat where he was the chief minister for more than a decade. With that, he craftily re-branded himself  from a dubious Hindutva leader, in the context of Gujarat riot of 2002, to a developmental messiah.

A strong personality, possessing effective oratory skills, Modi communicates much better with people than his challenger -- the polished Rahul Gandhi.

In India, political capital of a charismatic leader normally lasts for two terms or a decade in one go. Sonia Gandhi attained charisma by guiding the Congress alliance to victory in 2004, and rose to high stature by refusing to take up coveted premiership, as some of the defeated BJP leaders raised her Italian origin issue, which she could easily have ignored.

The success was repeated in 2009 with the help of the knowledgeable and modest Manmohan Singh, prompting a change in the old guards of BJP high command in 2014. As the Congress-led alliance lived its life span, and development slowed down, the stage was set for the development messiah in the form of Modi. Modi did well to gradually phase out the Advani-led old guards, co-opted some intelligent ones like Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, and took  his chances in the 2014 general election with the assistance of loyal strategist Amit Shah.

While his RSS back ground and post 2002 credentials ensured his implicit Hindutva image, he did what he needed to do -- talk again and again about development with his very effective articulations. This is the genesis of the famous and much talked about Modi wave, comprising explicit development and implicit Hindutva.

Despite their initial open Hindutva agendas like Ram Mandir, BJP has demonstrated some flexibility and responsibility while in power in the past. It’s a large party and there are various streams and sub-streams within it.

There are raw hinduntavadis like Yogi Adityanath, moderates like Shivraj Sing Chauhan, and also polished educated gentleman like Arun Jaitley. While some radical youths are prone to persecuting minorities and Dalits, the moderates try to hold them back; for example, Modi openly renounced cow vigilantes a few months back. Many moderates ride the saffron bandwagon but ultimately work to make it moderate. If a right wing force accepts moderation, that’s a good thing for the society and polity, and the party will deserve some commendation in such cases.

This is the genesis of the famous and much talked about Modi wave, comprising explicit development and implicit Hindutva

BJP, though, nominated Yogi Adintyanath as UP’s chief minister with two moderate deputies after the election. It also has a masked caste calculation like its allocation of tickets for the assembly election. It’s to be seen now, how Adityanath, a raw populist in Hindutva constituency, fits into Modi’s development schemes.

Can Adityanath moderate himself as already expected by BJP’s commands?

It’s clear that BJP wont deviate much from the current mixture of development and some bit of Hindutva, a winning formula in recent years. It has been a debacle for the traditional secular parties in UP, this election. Despite the phenomenal numbers in terms of seats, BJP received about 40% of votes while the fragmented seculars received more than 50%.

A secular unity like the one in 1993 of the two major parties the SP and the BSP could have prevented the Modi wave as a similar collaboration did in Bihar last year. But in UP, that alliance didn’t happen.

One key observation is that, many Indian secularist politicians, media, and intelligentsia sometimes overplay their hand, especially when it comes to secularism and minorities. Amit Shah and his strategist read that perfectly. While SP and BSP were overtly fighting for Muslim minority votes alongside their caste bases, BJP propaganda reduced these parties to mere minority-based parties and consolidated the bulk of majority votes across the caste cleavage in favour of them.

The secularist ideologues and politicians need to understand the Muslim minority, and that too a fragmented one, can’t win the election.

The decline of Congress and lack of leadership of Rahul Ghandhi is quite noticeable. Its lack of dynamic leadership in major provinces due to its over dependence on the Gandhi family is another issue. One exception was Punjab, due the presence of likeable and visionary Amrinder Singh. Congress won it fair and square. The Gandhis keep the Congress united, yet they should take a back seat for some time and allow some other and more people-connected leaders to grow.

It’s neither the end of secularist parties, including the Congress, nor is the Modi wave perennial. The latter will get few more years’ time to deliver something remarkable. An average or below average performance will allow others to reclaim the political space. Overall, in India, politics still operates within some kind of workable democratic order under a modern constitution. Keeping it going is the most important thing.

Sarwar Jahan Chowdhury is an freelance commentator on politics, society and international relations. He currently works at BRAC Institute of Governance and Development (BIGD).

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