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All hail the party-pooper

While regional parties can get away with personality-based politics, this Modi-centric approach is a high-risk strategy for a national party like the BJP, writes Rajdeep Sardesai.

columns Updated: Apr 23, 2008 15:26 IST

Dev Kant Barooah’s singular contribution to Indian democracy was his coronation of Indira Gandhi as the Empress of India with his infamous remark: “India is Indira, and Indira is India”. Barooah was a product of the Emergency years when political sycophancy touched an all-time low, but his ghost continues to haunt Indian politics. The latest reincarnation is a certain Purshottam Rupala, the Gujarat BJP president who when asked recently what his party stood for in this election, boasted, “We have Narendra Modi, he is the symbol of Gujarati asmita and he is our mascot. When you have a leader like Modiji, why do you need anything else?”

Why, indeed. If Barooah anointed Mrs Gandhi as a virtual monarch, the BJP has taken the same route with Modi in Gujarat. Modi not just dominates the BJP’s campaign in Gujarat; he is almost a one-man show. Even A.B. Vajpayee, despite being projected as the “man India awaits”, had to share a stage with L.K. Advani. But Election 2007 in Gujarat is a referendum on the personality and performance of one individual with the voter being asked to either reject or endorse his leadership. Moreover, every small and big decision in this campaign — from the distribution of tickets to the media blitz — has been planned by Modi. In effect, there is no national party called the BJP in this election in Gujarat; instead, there is a regional outfit styled in the persona of the Cm; call it BJP (NM)). That several BJP candidates are dressing up like the CM and even wearing Modi masks is perhaps a sign of just how much the party has identified itself with a single individual.

It is ironical that the first full-time pracharak of the RSS to have become a CM, should become such a larger-than-life figure. The RSS, after all, has always prided itself on its faceless leadership, on its so-called political asceticism and collective identity. But Modi has turned conventional sangh wisdom on its head by making the parivar subservient to his personality: bigoted and authoritarian, but also dynamic and charismatic. In the process, he has almost decimated the very parivar of which he is a creation. The RSS is sulking, the VHP and its Gujarat-based leader Praveen Togadia are angry, and almost every senior BJP leader in Gujarat is a real or potential rebel.

But while Gujarat’s saffron surge appears to be losing its sheen after 12 years in power and the Hindutva joint family is splintered, brand Modi seems to be actually getting stronger, a paradoxical situation which has made this election so difficult to predict. As a BJP leader privately admits, “Modi has done a Mukesh Ambani on us. If Ambani has cut out the kirana shopowner from his retail chain and is dealing directly with the farmer, Modi has cut out the political middlemen and is dealing directly with the voter.”

The method of approaching the voter is interesting. While on the face of it, Modi claims to be the “vikas purush” appealing for votes in the name of development, the sub-text is increasingly apparent: the man the secular establishment loves to hate is still being projected as a ‘Hindu Hriday Samrat’ by his loyalists, a leader who will defend the Gujarati Hindu against terrorists from the minority community. The more he is branded as the villain of Godhra, the greater the feeling among his constituency that Modi is a victim of an elitist conspiracy. This, perhaps, also explains why the ‘secular’ Congress has been restrained from attacking Modi for his obvious failure to provide any healing touch to the victims of the 2002 violence. After all, in this Gujarat election, the 10 per cent Muslim vote almost seems irrelevant in the midst of the competition to attract the majority community’s support. This also explains why Modi still does not hesitate in campaign speeches from raking the ghost of Sohrabuddin and targeting his opponents for being allegedly soft on terror.

Will this personality-based campaign work in Gujarat? In this media age, where charismatic leaders are able to exploit every opportunity to connect with large audiences and where election manifestoes have little to offer, a powerful leader can always sway the voter. More so in a state like Gujarat, where the best minds seem to gravitate towards business and where political machismo has always been a scarce commodity. There is little doubt that Modi has natural oratorical skills, is a great performer before a crowd, and his seemingly strong leadership — almost CEO-like — appears to have struck a chord with a substantial section of the state. Contrast a Modi, for example, with an octogenarian rebel leader Keshubhai Patel. While a Keshubhai mumbles a few words on television, Modi comes across as a forceful speaker, each sound bite designed to echo across his audience. The Congress, too, seems to lack an effective local leader to combat Modi, its ossified party organisation still dependent on a Sonia Gandhi as the star campaigner.

Modi though, is not the first politician attempting to run a poll campaign like a one-man army. In almost every state, we are witnessing the emergence of the ‘Supreme Leader’ model, in which the party organisation appears to matter less and less, and in which a US presidential-style campaign focuses relentlessly on the individual and not on the party. The Congress is effectively a Sonia Gandhi roadshow, the BSP dare not look beyond Mayawati, while regional bosses like a Jayalalithaa, Karunanidhi, Chandrababu Naidu, Naveen Patnaik and Lalu Prasad are all leading political outfits that are hostage to the cult of personality. The sole exception is the left which has resisted attempts by their leaders at image-building.

But while family-run regional parties can get away with personality-based politics, this Modi-centric approach is a high-risk strategy for a national party like the BJP. After all, if the BJP endorses the Modi-style of functioning, it is effectively jettisoning its claim to be a ‘responsible’ national party. Gujarat may be a two-party fight, but the bigger battle at the centre is for stitching together allies from across the country. How can the BJP square its Modi-centric Gujarat election, with the fact that its CM cannot campaign in Bihar because its ally Nitish Kumar doesn’t want him there for fear of losing out on minority support? How does the BJP reach out to new allies while continuing to press ahead with the shrill rhetoric of militant Moditva? And, how does it project itself as a party of the future when its star cm is denied a visa by the United States, the one country the BJP has always had a natural affinity for?

Caught in the present, and desperate for electoral success in its original Hindutva laboratory state, maybe the BJP doesn’t want to think of the larger national picture for now. And yet, the Moditva brand of politics could be subject to diminishing returns. While it may sustain the aura of invincibility among a leader’s fierce loyalists, it can also put off those who are denied growth opportunities. When an entire system is designed to serve the needs of just one individual, those left out will always be itching to strike back. Mrs Indira Gandhi was forced to confront this reality after the lifting of the Emergency. Modi too may face a similar predicament one day. For now, it’s the BJP which faces a real dilemma: even if its Gujarat posterboy wins, the party may well be the loser.