National Interest: Modi versus his party

The Indian Express

National Interest: Modi versus his party
Shekhar Gupta : Sat Jun 15 2013, 01:51 hrs

That's the first battle — given how far the BJP has drifted since Vajpayee's exit, 2004 loss

The noise over Narendra Modi's elevation has drowned out some important questions. What does the BJP stand for now? How does its ideology, policy and politics compare with the Vajpayee-Advani years? How much distance has it travelled since then, and in which direction: left, right, forward or backwards?

Or maybe, instead of the judgemental backward or forward, let's just call them the shifts since 2004, when the BJP lost power and, equally importantly, Vajpayee lost his voice politically and also, sadly, physically. Before we start assessing the impact of Modi's rise for the BJP, we have to see the consequences of Vajpayee's fading. Advani's grand strategy brought the NDA to power. But from then on, he decided to go along with the new, more inclusive paradigm that Vajpayee set, making the party either depart from, or nuance its view on all four crucial areas of governance and politics: economics, society, foreign policy in general, and Pakistan specifically. On all of these, the BJP became softer, more modern and inclusive. So inclusive, in fact, that even Farooq Abdullah could join the NDA. But the loss of power, an angry inability to accept it, and the sudden absence of Vajpayee, followed by the penance forced on Advani after his statement on Jinnah, changed much of this.

THE first shift was on Pakistan. A party that led such a muscular peace process, resulting in the Lahore and Islamabad Declarations and an LoC ceasefire that has now held for a decade, made a quick about-turn. The near political execution of Advani by the RSS for the "crime" of saying a few nice things about Jinnah has to be contrasted with Vajpayee going to Lahore's Minar-e-Pakistan in February 1999 and stating that a stable and prosperous Pakistan was in India's interest. Nobody in the RSS dared to attack him. Only their Pakistani counterparts, the Islamic clergy, organised a "cleansing" of the steps Vajpayee had climbed at the monument to Pakistan's founding. In India, voters only rewarded the BJP with an even bigger mandate in an election that followed later that year, in spite of the betrayal of Kargil in the short interregnum. This was the first successful policy the BJP reversed as soon as it lost power. In the heyday of power, Advani got away with stating in public a remarkable new idea, that for his party to become more acceptable to India's Muslims, it had to somehow change the notion of Pakistan being a permanent enemy. That is why he supported all the peace initiatives, leading, in fact, the move to invite Pervez Musharraf to Agra. Nobody punished him then, least of all the voters. The party's turnaround on another one of its old, central foreign policy beliefs, that America was a natural strategic ally, was even more spectacular. It was highlighted by the opposition to the nuclear deal. It totally confused its urban voters and devastated its candidates in all the major cities.

On the economy, the party of reform and free markets lapsed into a kind of default Left. It has stalled the raising of insurance FDI from 26 to 49 per cent when it had itself opened the sector up to FDI, persuading the Congress to pass the original amendment. It has also blocked (through last-minute nitpicking) the pension bill it had itself brought in as an ordinance in its last months. It now threatens to reverse FDI in retail, after having promised it in its manifesto in 2004. Its chairmen in parliamentary committees block anything even vaguely reformist. Only one of its state finance ministers (Madhya Pradesh) has been allowed to stall the GST. In so many areas, the party's economics harks back to the Congress of Indira Gandhi. The only exception is the state of Gujarat. But we will come to that later.

Even socially, the party lost no time in ridding itself of the relative liberalism of its six years in power, and tactically, it became a one-trick pony: just block Parliament and then thrash the comedians the Congress party sends to the TV studios in the evening.

Politically, the most significant post-2004 change is the return of the RSS to centrestage. Many of the shifts we talk about here are because the original ideological philosopher and master is back in control. For six years, Vajpayee had kept it at bay and Advani had quietly acquiesced — or there is no way the NDA would have been able to sell so many PSUs. Now, it is back. Its firing of Advani (after his Jinnah speech) being its first victory shot. Today, having had its candidates as two successive party presidents, it is shaping decisions, causing disputes, and then settling them. Given where the BJP had reached by 2004, this is a big, big shift.

NARENDRA MODI arrives at the top in this setting. His elevation itself marks a change in the BJP's style. For a party that eschewed the personality cult, and where the senior-most leaders were seen as generous, benevolent old men and addressed as "poojniya (venerable)", state leader Modi's projection as an almighty conquistador is remarkable. Next, his economics is the opposite of what the Nagpur Gurukul of Swadeshi, Xenophobia and Frugalism preaches. In the BJP today, he is the only leader willing to say anything modern or entrepreneurial: less government and more governance is now his slogan, and refreshing, even if Reagan's legatees might claim copyright on it. But you will see the mismatch soon enough as his party quietly goes along to pass the food security bill, which will work totally contrary to this idea. Modi's first challenge, once the old-guard challenge is out of the way, would be to find some common ground there. A lot of urban middle class and entrepreneurial India adores him because of his Gujarat model of economics. That hasn't been his party's larger view lately.

His political challenge is not simple either. His rise has charged up the faithful, but whatever your passion, in a real-life election you can have only one vote, unlike Twitter, where you can have a hundred accounts, even each one with a display picture, in the name of our many gods. He has to reach out to the fence-sitters and the doubters while keeping the faithful in check. Modi is too smart not to see the degree of difficulty his personality creates: his rise has divided his friends and united his enemies. He has to deal with this.

To move forward, he will need to bring both his party and himself back to where Vajpayee had left them. Before it becomes Modi versus Rahul, therefore, the battles of Modi versus BJP and Modi versus Modi will need to be won. Narendrabhai has his work cut out. The only thing we can predict, meanwhile, is a year-long political thriller.