Yes and No
Writing in the Indian Express, Ashutosh Varshney opines,
Has Modi undergone an ideological transformation from his 2002 days? We don’t have enough evidence to make that claim yet. The choice of Varanasi as a seat continues to throw hints of Hindu nationalism. But such symbolism has not been central to the campaign. We have a clearly recognisable strategic pattern emerging right from the fateful Reuters interview in July 2013, a pattern only briefly interrupted by Muzaffarnagar, whose association with Modi simply cannot be established. Modi appears to have concluded that ideological purity cannot bring him to power. Vajpayee-like ideological moderation and political pragmatism are necessary, at least for now. [link]
The critical question Professor Varshney raises is this: Has Modi undergone an ‘ideological transformation’ or is this merely a tactical manoeuvre as he seeks to navigate the treacherous waters of Indian politics. Three points.
First, it is myopic to view Modi’s journey only from the prism of his prime ministerial ambitions. Modi has relentlessly pursued the halo of a development oriented leader right from aftermath of the Gujarat riots of 2002. He has been clear in his mind that only this metamorphosis could help him escape the ignominy of 2002. Yes, there has been the usual segues in the ‘Miyan Musharraf’ kind of rhetoric but it has never been the major plank of Modi’s electoral pitch. Never to shy away from a fight, Modi has responded to the jab of his ‘secular’ opponents, but his overt political argument has always been a mixture of development with an appeal to Gujarati regional pride. The critics may dismiss this as the magic of public relations or attribute it to solely to the devilish APCO but a politician can hardly be blamed for embellishing his own role in his state’s march towards prosperity. In that sense, Modi’s campaign has been a continuation of his Gujarat politics over the last two election cycles: The primary appeal has been development backed by personal braggadocio. Those who expected his campaign to focus solely on Ayodhya or the usual Hindutva arguments severely underestimate the craftiness and intelligence of Modi the politician. His arguments may not be couched in the flowery language which pleases the permanent inhabitants of the Indian International Center but Modi is clearly one of the most talented politicians of his generation.
Second, Modi enjoys one tremendous advantage over the likes of Advani or his other rivals within the BJP. Among his core supporters, there are no apprehensions about his true ideological beliefs. Modi has little to gain from employing overtly divisive rhetoric because those who would vote for him because he is perceived as the Hindutva icon are already firmly in his camp. And yet, he has been careful not to cross the red lines which may signify a tectonic ideological shift—for instance, he has expressly refused to apologize for the Gujarat riots or admitted the slightest sense of guilt. It is a careful balancing act but the rest test awaits Prime Minister Modi: Managing his more fervid supporters would perhaps be his greatest challenge.
Third, India has changed dramatically since the heydays of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement. The issue of Ram Temple may animate BJP’s core voter but has little appeal for the larger audience. It is hardly surprising that Modi has almost completely ignored this issue. This is not to suggest that the old fault lines of religion have disappeared or have no longer any electoral salience but they have acquired a new connotation. The ‘secular’ politics of the last decade–specifically in the Hindi heartland—with its relentlessness pursuit of the Muslim vote and its vapid symbolism has made Modi’s task much simpler. It may be hard for liberal purists to understand this but the average Hindu in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar feels cornered and implicitly believes that his interests are being ignored by pro-Muslim governments. This is not the natural audience of the Hindutva movement and Modi’s pitch to them reflects that: That he will restore the balance in governance by practicing true secularism. Each citizen would be treated the same—what could be wrong with that argument? The appeal of this pitch in a state run by Akhilesh Yadav should not be underestimated.
And it is here the rubber hits the road: What about Modi and Muslims? Because that is the true test of Modi’s moderation—at least by conventional political logic. If some of his liberal opponents are to be believed, Third Reich is on the anvil with constant invocation of Hitler imagery. It may be too outlandish to suggest that Modi may actively gas Muslims but little else is left to the imagination. In essence, a relentless series of riots in which Muslims would be massacred by a Hitler-like Modi.
Nothing could be further from the truth. If anything, the last thing Modi would want under his watch is a massive Hindu-Muslim riot. As the Prime Minister of the world’s largest democracy—and as someone who carries the baggage of 2002–the eyes of the world would be on him and it would be utterly suicidal on his part to tolerate a major religious conflagration. Modi is too smart a politician to not understand its larger geo-strategic implications.
The argument is far more subtle. The core Modi supporters believe that Muslims are a pampered lot who run amok in the name of secularism and disproportionately influence the political discourse to the detriment of the more numerical but hopelessly divided Hindus. The principal idea here is to make the Muslims realize their place in the society. And once they are cognizant of their diminished influence, there would neither be any need for violence or any display of overt religiosity. In other words: the silence of the graveyard.
Modi would perhaps be the first Prime Minister elected in the express and rabid opposition of Muslims. They are likely to greet his rise with sullen indifference further accentuating the religious cleavages in the Indian society. The sense of being let down by the mainstream ‘secular’ parties would only encourage the rise of Muslim fundamentalism leading to their further isolation from the mainstream of the Indian society. It has dangerous portends for India’s long-term stability but perhaps is an inevitable course correction to the excesses of her ‘secularism.’
It is the greatest indictment of Indian secularism that it has always rested on the bedrock of Hindu caste divisions. Modi with his outreach to hitherto ignored groups within the larger Hindutva project is challenging that. Muslims have thrived politically only because the Hindus have preferred caste divisions to religious appeals except in the most exceptional circumstances. It remains to be seen whether Modi can permanently bridge the caste divisions within the Hindu society but even if he is partially successful, he would fundamentally rewrite the rules of Indian politics. Viewed in that perspective, Modi’s appeal to Ezhavas in Kerala may not have any immediate political traction but has a much more significant meaning. With due respect to Professor Varshney, he fundamentally misdiagnoses the import of his appeal.
So have the exigencies of Indian politics moderated Modi: Yes and no. Viewed superficially, Modi has certainly toned down his rhetoric somewhat as he understands the need to appeal to a larger audience. However, in the broader perspective, Modi has displayed a remarkable consistency of both ideology and political rhetoric and therein lies perhaps the secret of the support he attracts.
It needs to be reiterated: Modi is winning on his terms and conditions. And that is the bottom line.