Modi the Moderate

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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.

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