Modi Rise

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Modi’s triumph lays bare the electoral irrelevancy of his liberal opponents

Purely as a dispassionate observer of politics, it is amusing to watch the liberal implosion in Indian politics. Initially, the liberal hopes rested in L. K Advani. Yes, the same Advani who spawned a thousand riots with his leadership of the Ram Janmabhoomi movement and can genuinely claim credit for making ‘Hindutva’ a mainstream political doctrine. If BJP is considered one pole of India’s polity—the credit must go to Advani who challenged and in manifest ways defeated the prevailing wisdom of Indian politics. Well, that didn’t really work out as Modi brushed aside Advani’s feeble challenge and has established himself not only as BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate but as the predominant and unchallenged leader of his party. Then the hopes were vested in Arvind Kejriwal who has mounted a quixotic bid to defeat the electoral logic by sheer showmanship and magnetic energy. However, politics is a brutal sport: Despite  Kejriwal’s best efforts, he is unlikely to provide much of a challenge to  Modi and is destined to amount to little more than a footnote in the 2014 elections. Now, the desperation is to the extent where even someone like Murli Manohar Joshi—the man who attempted with some success to ruin higher education in India—is seen as a sympathetic figure merely because it offers an opportunity to slight Modi. This desperate clutching at the straws is an indirect acknowledgment that all that stands between Modi and the Delhi throne is BJP’s internal politics.

Amusing as this sport is, it is deeply worrying to those who genuinely believe that Modi’s rise represents a threat to India’s pluralistic traditions. Well, that is not exactly true. The Sikhs are happily in Modi’s camp and the Christians are too few to matter electorally and in some instances have made their peace with BJP. So what it really amounts to saying is that Modi is deeply antagonistic towards India’s Muslims—a vast majority of whom are utterly fearful of a Modifi-ed polity. Indeed, it would be fair to say that more than Modi, they are scared of his merry band of followers who often appear to harbor deeply held prejudices against India’s largest minority. Some of this stems from the memories of the Gujarat riots and perhaps even more importantly, Modi’s singular failure to acknowledge the enormity of 2002.

Well, here’s the hard truth: 2002 is passé and much to the annoyance of Modi opponents, it appears to have no significant impact on the electoral landscape. The Indian voter—with the exception of her Muslims—has moved on and is no longer interested in re-litigating the Gujarat riots. If Modi is at all defeated in 2014, it would be due to the cold logic of politics—-caste coalitions; unsavory alliances, and BJP’s geographical limitations—-and not because of a vote against Modi’s stewardship during the Gujarat riots. In summary, Modi has destroyed the liberal argument and if he triumphs, it would represent a victory enacted on his terms and conditions. Plain and simple.

So where does that leave the liberal argument? Two points.

First, Modi has disarmed his liberal critics because he has refused to fight on their terms. As Ashutosh Varshney has argued, the Modi campaign has been remarkably free of anti-Muslim rhetoric and has instead emphasized the core issues of governance and development. And even in instances where Modi has stumbled—the puppy remarks for instance—he has been wise not repeat the same mistakes. At this point, we are faced with a remarkable reversal of roles.

Many of his flummoxed liberal opponents would rather prefer that Modi who openly spews anti-Muslim rhetoric. They would rather juxtapose their political arguments against the Modi who cynically exploits alleged Jihadi terrorists to position himself as the defender of Hindu faith. Faced with his latest iteration—-the one who refuses to play the game according to their terms—his critics are faced with a peculiar choice. Do they acknowledge that they have triumphed by forcing Modi to moderate his views or they finely parse his speeches to find the arguments they had hoped to hear? Much of the liberal confusion can be explained right here.

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