Modi's success can deepen BJP's divisive image

Last Updated: Thu, Dec 20, 2012 13:43 hrs

The three-dimensional images of himself which Narendra Modi projected simultaneously in several cities during the election campaign in Gujarat have been further boosted by the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP) success in crossing the firewall of 117 seats which it won five years ago.

It is clear that Gujarat ka sher, the phrase which resonated at his rallies, is by far the tallest leader in the state. From a high point of 127 seats in 2002, the BJP's tally fell to 117 in 2007 but it has now risen to 123.

The increase has to be measured, however, against the absence of a credible opposition. The political emasculation of the Congress is evident from its helpless dependence on leaders from Delhi to present its case to the voters. From 1995, since when the Congress has lost five successive elections, it has been unable to put up a single leader who can be a match for Modi.

This inability is all the more strange since the Congress' vote share is not inconsiderable. It was 39.2 percent in 2002, 39.6 in 2007. Though well below the BJP's 49.8 percent (2002) and 49.1 (2007), the increase in the Congress vote share in the parliamentary election is noteworthy. It secured 43.8 percent in 2004 and 43.3 percent in 2009 against BJP's 47.3 (2004) and 46.3 (2009).

What this means is that it may have been possible to boost the Congress' tally if the party had been clear-sighted about its approach. However, it has been unable to make up its mind as to the best way to counter Modi. Having been unable to withstand the communal surge in the BJP's favour in 2002, it chose to return to the issue five years later with the "maut ka saudagar" (merchant of death) taunt against Modi in 2007 although it was well aware how craftily the BJP could project the accusation as a well-worn "secular" ploy to woo the Muslims.

Even then, the Congress tally rose from 51 seats in 2002 to 59 in 2007. But a party will have to remain content with such minor shifts in voter preference unless it can forcefully articulate its policies. Instead, it hastily dropped the earlier jibe and chose to maintain a deafening silence on what his Modi's weakest point - the countrywide perception of his divisive image.

The Congress hope was that the judiciary would do its job for it by highlighting Modi's communal image. But the judicial and political processes usually run a parallel course without the one having a major impact on the other except over a considerable period of time.

That Modi himself is acutely conscious of his unsavoury reputation is evident from his strenuous efforts in the last five years to divert attention from the 2002 riots to his role in developing the state's industries and infrastructure. However, it was for his opponents to ask whether a leopard could change its spots.

Considering that the bulk of the support which Modi receives - as is evident from the cyberworld - is for his muscular, anti-minority stance and not for development, it may have been possible for the Congress to underline the curious difference in perception about Modi between his main base of support - the communal-minded Hindu - and his own, mainly secular projections of his outlook.

Credit has to be given to Modi for the success with which he has been able to sustain this dualism. But a more politically savvy Congress should have been able to exploit this dichotomy. It was afraid to do so, however, lest any reference to Modi's communalism is interpreted as a slur on all Gujarati Hindus. Like the emphasis on development, this virtual equation of himself with the state was another of Modi's successful ploys to which the Congress had no answer.

So, it tried either to downplay the development aspect or to claim that he was only building on the foundation laid by the Congress earlier, which, in turn, was the result of the state's innate entrepreneurial talent. But politics is a matter of here and now - and not something in the distant past as was seen in Rahul Gandhi's reference to an episode concerning Mahatma Gandhi, Motilal Nehru and Jawaharlal Nehru which must have meant little to today's audience.

It is too early to speculate on the significance of the rise in the BJP's tally. But it is clear that by winning more seats than what it did five years ago, Modi's prime ministerial claims have been considerably strengthened. However, the roar of Gujarat ka sher can be troubling for even some in the BJP, not least because it can deepen the perception of the party as a whole as divisive.

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