On January 1, 2000, it was claimed, computer glitches would have aeroplanes fall out of the sky, and even freeze elevators in the chute. It was the closest the world was to have a glimpse of, to quote singer Bob Dylan, time out of mind. Ultimately, though, nothing really catastrophic happened.
In 2013, a year before the general election, Modi has spawned passions and fears reminiscent of the countdown to the end of 1999. Modi’s supporters believe his charisma can sweep aside class, caste, regional, linguistic, even religious, divides to bring the BJP to power. His opponents, however, perceive in his rise a veritable pulverising of the idea of India.
These contradictory responses betray the Y2K syndrome, which had stemmed from a seemingly sound assumption: since digital memory was designed to store years in double-digits — 1999 as 99, 1998 as 98, and so on — it was feared the computer would recognise the year 2000 as 00 or 1900 and, therefore, go haywire. Similarly, Modi’s supporters hope his charisma would neutralise the pull of identity politics and inspire the voter to behave in unforeseen ways, just as computers afflicted with the Y2K bug were supposed to have.
Back in 1999, there were doubts about the number of electronic applications the Y2K would impact. Rectification efforts were taken only for those systems absolutely certain to get affected. However, most electronic applications simply ignored the anomaly arising from software programmes storing years in double-digits. No doubt, BJP cadres and the middle class find Modi mesmerising. But they are just a subset of the Indian electorate. The BJP hasn’t even acquired a critical mass in, say, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, or Andhra Pradesh, for it to gain from the advantage of a Modi-led election campaign. In the recent Karnataka assembly election, he articulated the Hindutva ideology during his campaign in Mangalore, yet the city elected Congress candidates, two Muslims and a Christian.
More significantly, every social group perceives its own leader as the most charismatic. For instance, Mayawati is to the Dalits of Uttar Pradesh what Modi is to a section of the middle class. It’s unlikely he can wean away the Dalits from her. Further, charisma is just one of the many factors the voter takes into account at the time of casting his or her ballot, just as most computer systems weren’t dependent on the change of century, from 1999 to 2000, to function efficiently.
Modi’s supporters say his appeal is based on his proven record of governance. It is the reason, they say, the corporate world believes he can rescue the economy. Not to support Modi is depicted as voting for economic stagnation. Don’t forget, in 1999 too, software experts fanned the Y2K fear to bag lucrative contracts. In Modi, the middle class sees a leader who can preserve and promote their interests.
Again, the Y2K fear was fuelled because of our propensity to want a predictable, smooth life. Similarly, Modi’s supporters know his appointment as the BJP’s campaign chief will have his opponents harp on the dangers he poses to secularism. This could polarise the voters, and help him garner the ‘Hindu vote’, in much the same way as our fear of a chaotic world helped inflate the profits of software firms in 1999.
The BJP believes Modi has it in him to enable it to win seats close to majority mark, thereby rendering redundant the support of several allies. This was why the objection of Nitish Kumar to Modi’s appointment was swept aside. The veracity of its belief can be checked only through the 2014 election. You can’t but sit out the next 12 months to get proof of Modi’s vote-catching ability countrywide, as we did through 1999 to know what awaited us on January 1, 2000. It gives time to Modi’s opponents to bolster their forces, just as those computer systems, deemed absolutely vulnerable, were rectified of time-error in 1999.
In 2014, therefore, our world won’t go topsy-turvy, just as it didn’t in 2000.
Ajaz Ashraf is a Delhi-based journalist
The views expressed by the author are personal