One of the most pivotal moments in the BJP’s history occurred in 1995 when LK Advani announced that AB Vajpayee was the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate. At the time, this decision took the party faithful by surprise. Vajpayee had been sidelined after the debacle of the 1984 election and had distanced himself from hardline Hindutva and the Ayodhya movement, both of which had revived the BJP’s fortunes.
So, why did Advani, whose rath yatra had heralded the BJP’s resurgence, renounce his claim to the top job and declare that Vajpayee was the BJP’s prime minister in-waiting?
Advani has offered two explanations. On the record, he has stated that he deferred to Vajpayee’s seniority. Off the record, he has been more pragmatic: if the BJP was to win an election, it needed a moderate leader like Vajpayee. Advani’s own image was much too hardline to attract uncommitted voters or potential coalition partners.
The second explanation makes more sense. By the mid 1990s, the BJP had the hardcore Hindu vote all sewn up. Thanks to the ineptitude, paralysis and corruption that characterised the last days of the Narasimha Rao government, the BJP also appealed to the frustrated middle classes. The challenge was to move beyond these two constituencies and to win a larger mandate.
As we know, the strategy worked well. The only elections that the BJP has won have been those where Vajpayee was the prime ministerial candidate.
Over the last few months, Narendra Modi has given the impression that he has learnt from history. His campaign has downplayed the 2002 riots and projected Modi as a champion of governance and integrity. In his own speeches, Modi has not only focused on developmental issues but his speaking style and gestures indicate that he is consciously channeling Vajpayee.
Until a couple of weeks ago, that is.
The first signal that Modi was tiring of pretending to be Vajpayee's heir came in his now-famous Reuters interview. A question about the Gujarat riots gave him an opportunity to break new ground. He could have expressed regret for the events of 2002 (without necessarily admitting any guilt) and talked about the need to heal those wounds. To another question about whether he was a Hindu nationalist, he could have emphasised that he was a nationalist Indian not just a Hindu patriot. Certainly, this is what Vajpayee would have done.
Modi chose to do neither of those things. He gave a wry response to the Hindu nationalist question. ("I was born a Hindu and I am a nationalist.") And as for the riots, he compared himself to a passenger in the backseat of a car when a puppy ("kuttey ka bachcha") was accidentally run over. Not only did he stop well short of any expression of regret, he sparked a controversy about the term "kuttey ka bachcha". Was it intended to be dismissive? To be derogatory? And so on.
A few days later, he did it again. Making an otherwise unexceptional point (you can't keep using secularism as an excuse for bad governance), he used the phrase "secularism ka burqa". He might have got away with it had it not come so soon after the "kuttey ka bachcha" remark. Modi is a skilled communicator. So, was he deliberately using imagery that demeaned Muslims and appealed to Hindu communalists?
Modi's supporters have provided their answer: Yes! Yes! Yes! Last week, huge hoardings came up all over Bombay, referencing the Reuters interview. Large photos of Modi carried such captions as "I am Hindu Nationalist". (The 'a' in that sentence was deleted as it was in other such hoardings as "I am Patriot". Clearly, the Modi camp does not just hate journalists. It also has a problem with articles.) The Hindutva element in Modi's comments has also been welcomed with aggressive enthusiasm by the Parivar's internet storm-troopers.
There is a sense of déjà vu in all this. At the assembly election that followed the riots, Modi offered no healing touch. Instead, he exploited the communal divide with repeated references to "Mian Musharraf", subliminally linking Gujarat's Muslims with Pakistan. More recently, there has been rhetoric about the Sohrabuddin encounter killing. And, of course, there is always the attack on the Delhi 'Sultanate'.
Given how smart Modi and his strategists are, they must have considered the consequences of a shift away from a moderate stance. Clearly they think that a more Hindutva-centric approach will win them more seats, making the BJP the obvious choice to lead a coalition in the next Parliament.
But this approach is fraught with risks. At present, it is hard to see how even a resurgent BJP can win much more than 180 seats. That leaves the party nearly a hundred seats short of a majority. Where will the allies come from? Vajpayee was able to build bridges because of his secular image. But a hardline Hindutva leader will struggle to find any allies beyond the Shiv Sena, the Akalis and the AIADMK.
And, to quote Modi, every action has a reaction. The hardline Hindutva positioning will be met by a consolidation of the Muslim vote, probably in favour of the Congress in many states. Moreover, it will also scare away uncommitted Hindu voters who prefer a more consensual approach.
One possibility is that the Modi campaign will recognise that it has lurched too far towards Hindutva and that there will be a mid-course correction. But it is the other possibility that is truly frightening: an election fought on Hindu-Muslim lines, that polarises India. No matter which party wins, India is certain to lose.
The views expressed by the author are personal