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Modi and democracy

September 21, 2013

THE Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) nomination on Sept 13 of Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as its prime ministerial candidate for the 2014 general elections caused little surprise.

The sole dissenter was L.K. Advani who was embittered by the party’s defeat in two successive elections in 2004 and 2009 which proved a fatal blow to his own long nursed prime ministerial ambitions.

In 1984, the BJP won a humiliating two seats in the Lok Sabha. In 1989 it bagged 85. Advani, having succeeded Atal Behari Vajpayee as BJP president in 1986, persuaded the party in 1989 to make Babri Masjid an issue in the election. His campaign culminated in the demolition of the mosque in 1992.

Advani moulded the political climate by espousing the ideology of Hindutva. He knew that he would not be accepted as prime minister and yielded the palm to Vajpayee in 1995. When his chance came in 2004 the people snubbed him. All his supporters deserted him and rushed to support Modi’s anointment. They had no choice. They all dread the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh’s (RSS) wrath. Its cadres run the organisation and its supremo, Mohan Bhagwat, lays down the law on crucial issues.

Narendra Modi is quintessentially an RSS man having joined it when he was in his teens. The least educated among the BJP leaders, Modi formally joined the RSS in 1971 where he soon made a mark for his exceptional skills as an organiser. He was an Advani favourite and it was Advani who saved his bacon after the massacre of Muslims in Ahmedabad in 2002 when Vajpayee was for sacking Modi as chief minister of Gujarat at the time.

Modi has never looked back. He spread the myth of ‘development in Gujarat’, won the support of India’s big business and industrialists, and acquired a reputation as a ‘strongman’. Within the state, he decimated all rivals and demoralised the civil service and the police.

There are some, even within the RSS, who look askance at his highly personalised style of politics; ruthlessness; intolerance of dissent; and proneness to shoot from the hip. But he is a first-rate campaigner and an ardent champion of the RSS’ Hindutva ideology in its most extreme form.

His image was not improved when the Supreme Court transferred some of the more important riot cases out of the state with an unflattering but highly significant mention of Nero. There have been scores of ‘encounters’ by the state police and charges galore of complicity by some in the government.

Some in the BJP will rue the day they extended their support to him. He is certain to personalise the election campaign. He will wage the campaign with no holds barred, presenting himself as Hindutva’s mascot defending the country against its enemies within and without.

On Sept 15, a mere two days after his coronation, Modi addressed a massive gathering of ex-servicemen. A former army chief, retired Gen V. K. Singh was present on the dais. “We need to change the government in Delhi as the solution lies in the hands of the centre. We need a strong, patriotic government to ensure the safety of our soldiers and sovereignty of our nation.” With these remarks, Modi let loose a tirade against Pakistan.

He will be tested next November when elections are held to the assemblies of four states — Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Delhi and Chhattisgarh. Madhya Pradesh has a BJP ministry headed by the mild-mannered Shivraj Singh Chouhan whom Advani had sought to build up as an alternative to Modi. Chouhan was among the last to switch loyalty to Modi. In all probability he will return to power; the only question is the size of the majority he acquires.

Rajasthan has a Congress ministry which a strong BJP opposition is trying to remove. Modi is certain to pitch in here with all his skills and ferocity. Chhattisgarh is not that important but Delhi, the capital, is. Chief Minister Sheila Dixit faces a serious challenge.

These polls will provide a trailer for the general elections next year. But of far greater consequence is the future of India’s democracy and its credo of secularism when a major opposition party is led by a figure as divisive as Modi.

Advani once foresaw the effect of a narrow ideology on the electorate. In an interview ironically to the RSS organ Panchjanya, in late 1980, he said: “In India a party based on ideology can at the most come to power in a small area. It cannot win the confidence of the entire country — neither the Communist Party nor the Jan Sangh in its original form. The Jan Sangh was initially built as a party based on ideology but slowly it departed from that course. The appeal increased to the extent the ideology got diluted. Wherever the ideology was strong, its appeal diminished.”

But a decade later, he championed the ideology of Hindutva and succeeded in propelling the BJP to power. If Modi follows suit, how far will he succeed?

There is another aspect to this. A democracy rests on a national consensus. It was bad enough that from 1980 onwards the BJP went as far as it did in wrecking the consensus.

Balfour wisely warned against this danger: “Let the political parties be reduced to two (admittedly the most convenient number for cabinet government), but let the chasm dividing them be so profound that a change of administration would in fact be a revolution disguised under a constitutional procedure”.

That would be enough to wreck parliamentary democracy. The peril acquires added menace if the challenge to the system is posed by a political party wedded to the cult of hate.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.