In reality, however, things are not so simple. The BJP is much more ambivalent than you would expect. Within Gujarat, Narendra Modi has so completely alienated the party hierarchy that many leaders have defected and insiders are hoping that the BJP actually loses. At the Centre, a Modi victory is perceived as a threat to the existing order and a dangerous portent for the succession. The RSS, which, a simplistic assessment would suggest, should back a Hindu right-wing policy, has no enthusiasm for Modi and many of its frontal organisations are working against him.
For liberals, the choice should also be simple. There are two ways of characterising Modi’s behaviour. You can believe, as I do, that he is a mass murderer whose administration sponsored the pogrom against Muslims in 2002. Or, you can take the more charitable view and say that while it is true that Muslims were massacred in the riots, there is no conclusive evidence to prove that Modi ordered the killings. But even if you take that view, you still cannot deny that he fought the election that followed those riots on a communal agenda and by seeking to link every Indian Muslim with Pakistan.
Either way, it’s hard to see how any liberal can support a man who, at best, exploited communal conflicts and, at worst, is a mass murderer.
Except that many liberals are taking a somewhat more ambiguous line. They say that Modi has been an efficient chief minister and that development in Gujarat has progressed at an impressive pace. It may be true, they concede, that he spread communal hatred, but the way forward is to forgive the past and to focus on the future. It may suit us, sophisticated, urban liberals, to call Modi names. But the best hope for Gujarat lies in forgetting the divisions of 2002 and in building a more unified — and certainly, more prosperous — society.
Even the Congress’s position is not as simple as one would expect. The Congress claims to be a liberal, secular party that stands for the protection of minorities. So, surely, the way ahead is to fight Modi on a secular agenda?
Not quite. The Congress’s Gujarat unit has actually played down the massacres of 2002 in its campaign and is unwilling to confront Modi on the communal issue. The state unit believes that to fight the election on the basis of Hindu-Muslim tensions is to play into Modi’s hands. Once the communal issue is raised, Hindus will unite behind Modi.
Having ditched secularism as an election plank, the Congress’s state unit has fallen back on the time-honoured ploys of Indian politics. It has played the caste card and has sought to encourage rebellion within the BJP. It does not care that many of those it has welcomed into its ranks and whose cause it has advanced were Hindutva hardliners in the pre-Modi era when Gujarat was regarded as the RSS’s laboratory of Hindutva. As far as the Congress is concerned, all that matters is to defeat Modi at any cost.
To these paradoxes, add some more. The conventional view of Modi is that he is a Hindutva hero. It is true that he represents an aggressive brand of Hindu politics, but it’s very different from the kind of Hindutva that the likes of LK Advani have espoused since the mid-1980s.
Advani’s view of Hindus is that they are tolerant, mild-mannered people, who have been driven to anger by the favours shown to Muslims by vote-hungry politicians. At almost every forum, Advani re-emphasises that he has nothing against Muslims and repudiates the notion that they have pro-Pakistani sympathies.
In Advani’s Hindutva, the target is not the average Muslim, but the pseudo-secular establishment whose pursuit of vote-bank politics has left Hindus feeling like second-class citizens in their own country. If you need a visual representation of this brand of Hindutva, then Advani, the walking-talking embodiment of RK Laxman’s Common Man is the best symbol: a patient man who believes in tolerance but whose patience is at an end because of the tricks that politicians have played on Hindus.
That’s not Modi’s position. His brand of Hindutva is angry, vituperative, aggressive and overly macho. Advani is the elderly, cultured uncle who tells you that enough is enough. But Modi is the brash demagogue shouting questions at the crowd and waiting to hear the roar that emanates in response.
Nor is there any subtlety to his politics. Like all crypto-fascists throughout history, his style is to isolate an easily identifiable group and to then portray it as the enemy. Adolf Hitler used this strategy to turn Germans against the Jews. Modi uses a variation to sow mistrust of Muslims. Almost everything he says (when he is not bragging about his developmental skills) has a subliminal anti-Muslim agenda. When he refers to the Congress at the Centre, he calls it the Delhi sultanate. When he attacks the Congress for its soft line on terrorism, he chooses the example of a Muslim (Afzal Guru) who Delhi is unwilling to kill. When he defends encounters, he carefully selects the example of Sohrabuddin, a Muslim gangster, and asks the crowd what should be done with such people. (“Kill them,” the crowd shouts back on cue.)
It is all too reminiscent of the last election where he pretended that Pervez Musharraf was his real opponent and claimed that the person who would be happiest with the defeat of the BJP was ‘Mian Musharraf’. (Not General Musharraf, but Mian Musharraf — the communal image was entirely deliberate.)
Even if you take away the BJP leadership’s fears about Modi’s personal style — from all accounts, he is a solitary and isolated megalomaniac — there are still the more significant concerns about his brand of Hindu communalism. He has neither the Brahminical Hindutva favoured by the RSS (and represented by such people as Murli Manohar Joshi and the early AB Vajpayee) and nor does he have the apologetic, patience-at-an-end kind of Hindutva of LK Advani.
Modi’s brand of Hindutva has more in common with classic fascist demagogues than it does with the Sangh Parivar tradition. The BJP realises that it cannot afford to subscribe to this philosophy. It is embarrassed enough that the United States refuses to give Modi a visa and it recognises that were the Modi brand of Hindutva to take over, it would go from being regarded as a conservative party to being characterised as a fascist outfit. The respectability it has finally achieved would forever be lost.
So, that’s the ultimate paradox: the BJP finally has a leader who can deliver an entire state but it simply cannot afford to let him rise any further.
As for the Congress, here’s yet another paradox. Even as the state unit has carefully played down its opposition to Modi’s anti-Muslim agenda, Sonia Gandhi has toured the state calling the chief minister a ‘merchant of death’ and reawakening memories of the 2002 riots.
The political pundits are outraged. She has played into Modi’s hands, they say. She has given him the very issue that he most wanted. Perhaps, she has lost Gujarat for the Congress.
I haven’t visited Gujarat during the campaign, so I don’t know if Sonia’s speeches have made a Modi victory easier, though my guess is that he would have won anyway.
But here’s what I do know: the way to fight a mass murderer who espouses a particularly dangerous breed of fascism is not to play down his role in the massacres or to ignore his communal agenda or even to welcome other communalists who have fallen out with him.
The only way to fight hatred and communal poison is to look them in the eye and to call a spade a spade — or a merchant of death a merchant of death.
Even if this costs the Congress the election, it is a price worth paying. Who would respect the Congress if it defeated Modi but adopted his policies and took the help of his former partymen? If the Congress betrays the values that it represents, then it will become a party that stands for nothing except for a lust for power.
Better for the Congress to lose an election than to lose its soul.