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Prisoners of the past

india Updated: Dec 08, 2007 03:59 IST
Barkha Dutt

For journalists chasing the Gujarat story, it’s time, once again, to confront that discomfiting, inescapable truth. In an election that has become a referendum on just one man a man, both reviled and revered we are entirely irrelevant.

We may watch in paralysed horror, as Narendra Modi exhorts an adoring crowd to violence, like a ruthless commander leading his troops to war against an enemy that must be eliminated. Except in Gujarat that enemy is us the liberal “secular” media obsessively clinging to a past that Modi’s supporters have already left far behind. As the controversial but irrefutably charismatic Chief Minister shifts effortlessly between the rhetoric of hate and the promise of economic well-being, outrage feels like a stale, ineffectual response.

Modi’s masterstroke has always been to blur the battlelines and construct an artificial enemy one that plays into primal instincts of pride and insecurity. As he did in 2002, this time too, the fight has been pitched as one between Gujarat and the rest of India, with Modi playing the guardian at the gates.

On the campaign trail, the Modi masks are chillingly emblematic of the megalomania that marks both the man and his politics. Over-eager acoly-tes happily hide behind plastic, smiley look-alike masks of the CM, so that at any given point there’s a sea of Modi faces gazing adoringly at the real-life version on stage. It feels like a masquerade party where every one showed up in the same costume. (Or should we call it the Monster’s Ball?)

There are no pictures or cut-outs of anyone else no Vajpayee, no Advani, no Rajnath; even the party symbol, the lotus, appears to have wilted and faded away. Desperate for an electoral win, the BJP may officially eulogise the power of his personality, but several party leaders confide that they have lost all control over Modi. Rarely, if ever, has an election been so little about a political party and so centred around a single individual. At his rallies, the man himself rises God-like from his mechanised rath with the dictatorial air of someone who believes he was always zborn to rule. Unlike the shiny-happy Modi masks, he is grim-faced till it is performance time. Then the charismatic orator in him takes charge: by turn playful, by turn combative, daring his opponents to do their worst.

Under the Election Commission’s scrutiny for justifying the staged killing of Sohrabuddin Sheikh, Modi may have been forced to restrain himself temporarily. But, contrary to his government’s spin doctors, it’s obvious that even in ‘Vibrant Gujarat’, development and governance are not really at the heart of his political campaign. Instead, whenever he needs to, Modi moves smoothly from economics to emotion. While some of his speeches are studiedly innocuous rambles on bijli, sadak, pani, the religious card is always the ace up his sleeve. As a senior BJP leader put it, “Only two issues can lift our campaign above caste arithmetic and the perils of anti-incumbency — Moditva and Hindutva.”

The strategy may well deliver the 2007 election to the BJP. But the party needs to pause and assess whether it is trading a short-term political benefit for long-term self-destruction. For a party that has always vacillated uncertainly between playing hardline Hindu politics and re-inventing itself as a responsible neo-right entity, a Modi victory will leave it no choice. The BJP brand of Hindutva was originally rooted in middle-class disenchantment with secular hypocrisies; Modi’s version is defined simply by hard-edged hatred. His extremism has even pushed loony Right groups, like the VHP and the Bajrang Dal, into political irrelevance, ironically creating enemies of ideologues who should have been his natural allies.

A Gujarat victory can only push the BJP into becoming an extreme caricature of itself forcing it to vacate the moderate space. Imagine a party that once described itself as a natural ally of the United States saddled with a leader America won’t even give a visa to.

Modi’s politics have pushed the Congress into an identity crisis as well. Politically correct commentators may slam the Congress for hesitating to dwell on the 2002 carnage, for not even mentioning the anti-Muslim violence in its manifesto and for looking more defensive than aggressive. But an otherwise ossified and leaderless state unit probably knows the ugly reality of its own polarised society better than armchair activists. First, the state Congress knew that it had no leader with the flamboyance and audacity of Modi.

Even today, the party cannot offer the electorate a chief ministerial candidate. But more important, local leaders understood intuitively that in a ghettoised state where religion has divided people down the middle, any fight between “secularism and Moditva,” would be one the Congress could only lose. Instead, they gambled on crafting a low-decibel campaign that would not provide Modi an opportunity to raise the emotional pitch. They hoped to play by the old fashioned rules of electoral politics: caste configurations, rebel candidates and exploiting anti-incumbency. The approach may not have been strictly “secular”, but it was probably smarter. Early polls even suggested a race down to the wire and Modi had begun to look just a little nervous.

So, the Congress probably made a fatal error when Sonia Gandhi branded Modi a “merchant of death” and Digvijay Singh took it one step further to lament the ugliness of “Hindu terrorists”. The rhetoric may have been powerful and self-confident but it has set the stage for a full-blown slugfest. And, as any journalist who has ever interviewed Modi can testify, when his gloves are off, the game is no longer played by any rules.

This is the tragic irony of today’s Gujarat. A Modi-centric attack that dwells on the state-sponsored violence of 2002 only seems to rally public opinion around him. It’s the reason the Tehelka sting on the riots barely finds mention in the Congress campaign. The English media today is seen by the ordinary Gujarati as an elite conspirator who is out to tarnish his state. Big battles sometimes need quiet and low-key solutions. For there to be any dramatic change in Gujarat, the paradigm of public debate just has to move away from the riots of 2002. To ensure the future of Gujarat, we can no longer remain prisoners of the past.

(Barkha Dutt is Managing Editor, NDTV 24X7)