New Delhi: A tweet from the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)'s prime ministerial candidate, Narendra Modi, wishes the "tall leader from Uttar Pradesh Pandit Govind Ballabh Pant (the late Congress leader) on his punya tithi (death anniversary)". Another tweet addresses voters as "Bharat Bhagya Vidhata" and requests them to vote in large numbers. Yet another defines secularism as a way to "take every section of society together, not leave the impoverished and keep them as a vote bank for petty political gains".
Modi's tweets talk about the celebration of democracy and also puts emphasis on the education of girls. And, one of his recent speeches underlines the need for integrating "the people to make it (development) a mass movement." Elsewhere, he says "trade is a great way to integrate people." He has named a grand statue he is building in the memory of Vallabhbhai Patel as a statue of unity. He has started invoking Mahatma Gandhi and his model of trusteeship when it comes to managing the economy. And, his official website is available, among others, in Hindi, English, Gujarati, Marathi, Tamil, Telugu and Bengali.
Does this invocation of a new set of leaders and eagerness to reach out to a wider audience through greetings and by breaking the language barrier suggest an evolution in Modi's political journey? His past speeches used to have frequent references to "Mian Musharraf" or similar phrases seen to be offensive. "What is noticeable now is his willingness to accept differences. He is definitely trying to be more inclusive," observes Sanjay Kumar, fellow at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS).
Not only is he trying to be more inclusive; Modi is also focused on establishing a connect with a wider audience. Chai Pe Charcha (discussion over a cup of tea) is one of several such programmes intended to take people's feedback. Modi's BJP has recruited several volunteers , mostly professionals, as a direct interface with the people. These volunteers drive the party's election campaign, collect feedback on a range of issues and help the party in selecting candidates, say party leaders. "If something works during wartime, why can it not continue during peace?" says P Murlidhar Rao, BJP general secretary, indicating the continuation of Chai Pe Charcha beyond the elections.
But some commentators point to gaps in Modi's inclusive agenda. "Modi has mastered the art of speaking in multiple languages, suited to the audience he is addressing. He speaks the soft secular language to please the middle class and balances that with anti-Muslim and anti-Bangladesh utterances in other places. If he is willing to embrace an inclusive agenda, he should speak one language and subscribe to a meaning of India that is at variance with what he currently subscribes to," observes Badri Narayan, professor at the Allahabad-based GB Pant Social Science Institute.
Commentators also point out that the transition will be incomplete without a public apology for what happened in Gujarat in 2002. "The BJP under Modi is running a presidential campaign that is trying to play down the militant aspect of Hindutva," says Kamal Mitra Chenoy, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University who has recently joined the Aam Aadmi Party. He adds with liberal funding from big corporate houses, the media acting as "cheerleaders", and an electoral strategy decided by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, Modi's campaign is made out to be different from what it is.
The question is: Will Modi's strategy work? The explanation partly lies in the BJP's falling vote share among its core constituencies of upper- and middle class voters since 1996. Support from these groups ensured handsome electoral gains for the party in the 1996, 1998 and 1999 Lok Sabha elections. A study done by Sanjay Kumar of CSDS says the BJP got 38 per cent of the rich people's votes and 28 per cent of the middle class votes in 1996. The party could manage only 25 per cent votes of the affluent group and only 22 per cent of the middle class votes in 2009. There has been a marginal change in the proportion of votes the BJP has got from the poor and lower middle class over these years.
Former director of CSDS D L Sheth had told this newspaper some time ago that "there is an influential group of middle class Hindus who don't like instability and conflict. They were favourably inclined to the BJP but left it in the 2004 Lok Sabha elections, following the 2002 riots". His argument is that Modi's electoral strategy is to establish the "hegemony of the Hindu majority" that can be translated into a political majority. And that can be effectively established only with consensus and not through conflict and violence, he adds.
Kumar's study shows Modi's consensual approach seems to be working among middle class voters. He refers to a CSDS tracker poll done in July 2013 that suggests the popularity of the BJP is at an all-time high among the rich and middle class voters. And the party is getting support from, what Modi refers to as the "neo-middle class", otherwise bracketed as the lower middle class.
The reason: a combination of factors like anti-incumbency and a spate of scams are hurting the Congress. This provides an ideal backdrop to project the image of decisive leadership by Modi, Kumar argues.