Toilets over temples: Is Modi stooping to conquer?

Last Updated: Sat, Oct 05, 2013 08:44 hrs

To most people's surprise, Narendra Modi has declared that we should build toilets before temples. Considering that India has one of the worst sanitation records, the double-message is well targeted. 

For saying what he has, however, the Bharatiya Janata Party's (BJP's) candidate for prime minister has been jumped on by Jairam Ramesh and by Pravin Togadia. That may make Mr Modi think that he has placed himself where he wants to be, in the middle ground! 

Mr Ramesh's angst is understandable, since he was pilloried by BJP stalwarts for saying something similar a while back. And Mr Togadia, who has no love lost for Mr Modi, thinks he is letting the side down on the issue that helped the BJP double its share of the national popular vote in the 1989-91 phase of the strident Ram Janmabhoomi campaign.

The important point, though, is something else, which is that Mr Modi may be showing recognition that winning India needs a different game from winning Gujarat. 

The country is simply not communally polarised the way Gujarat is, potential allies do not wish to adopt consciously majoritarian positions, and for all the hype about the Modi bandwagon the fact is that he has a long way to go if he is to win even the popular vote that his party did under Mr Vajpayee (about 25 per cent in 1998, which fell steadily to about 18 per cent in 2009).

Capturing the middle ground is going to be particularly difficult for Mr Modi. He carries far too much baggage - in a long list, what stands out is that he has not nominated a single Muslim candidate during three rounds of state elections in Gujarat, though the state has a nine per cent Muslim population. 

He said recently that he is a Hindu nationalist because he was born a Hindu and is a nationalist. He could just as easily have said that he is an Indian nationalist, because he was born an Indian. Nevertheless, if he is to seek the middle ground, he has to start somewhere, and in a country where the majority don't have proper toilets, that is not a bad place to begin.

The questions about Mr Modi have been whether he breaks the mould of the traditionally centrist Indian politician; whether he will play only to his base, and ignore the reality of a heterogeneous India; and whether, if and when he gets the chance, he will seek to impose an overtly majoritarian ethic and thereby undermine the Constitution's secular core. 

The initial appeal to voters on the basis of his performance as chief minister suggested an attempt to emphasise issues other than Hindutva but, where he comes from, Mr Modi does not need to stress Hindutva; that after all is what he is already identified with. 

The "shauchalya before devalaya" (toilet before temple) comment is interesting because it takes the position a step further; he is de-emphasing the most important Hindutva issue of all.

Is this just stooping to conquer, because (to mix images) a leopard does not change its spots? Or is Mr Modi demonstrating a realist streak that should be welcomed? 

Mr Advani in his time tried to soften a hard-line image, though with greater finesse than Mr Modi's clumsy gambit of asking Muslims to come to his rallies in conspicuously Muslim attire. One could ask, why did he not ask Hindus to come with tilaks on their foreheads? 

The whole point is that politics in a secular country should be religion-neutral. If Mr Modi is indeed striking out in a new direction, he has loads to learn and a lot of ground to cover in six months.

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